Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Marcus Tullius Cicero

I just completed the biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero by Jonathon Everett. History, especially of Western Civilization is a threatened species today, since to actually admit that it is Western Civilization that has brought us the Renaissance, Shakespeare, Science, Art, Music, and what we generally know as civilization today, is politically incorrect. Yes, it is well known that it was the Muslims who protected the knowledge of Western Civilization during the Dark Ages, but then the Muslims never progressed beyond that role and actively repudiate all modernity today. Yes, it is also well known that the Chinese invented virtually everything but it is less well known that they were an insular society with no drive to move outside of their own society leaving the foundation they laid to be exploited by the West. So, due to multi-culturalism and the general antagonistic attitude toward Western Civilization it is unlikely that this book or any detailed knowledge of Cicero would be taught today. But Cicero was not just a fascinating man, he gives us a very clear view of his society and he was a towering figure in his day. He was a childhood friend of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Cassius, and Brutus. More importantly he unknowingly played a pivotal role in the foundation of the Roman Empire and helped sow the seeds of its ultimate destruction.

Cicero was a brilliant orator, a Senator, a Roman Consul and above all a politician. He also was an idealist, a constitutionalist, and a person not unlike many of our contemporary politicians, long on words but short on decisions, actions, and courage. He dominated Roman politics for 40 years solely on the basis of his character. People respected and admired him because he was (rightfully) viewed as incorruptible. He was a world famous lawyer, brilliant speaker, prominent politician and a statesman, but even though he dutifully performed his military obligation, he was really not a soldier nor a man of great physical courage but he was a man of great moral courage with a firm determination to follow the laws. Unfortunately, the Roman Republic was tottering due to corruption as well as some inherent instability. What Rome needed was a man of action, a pragmatist, not an idealist and they found that man in Caius Julius Caesar, a brilliant soldier with a keen mind and high ambition – not just for himself but for Rome. He recognized that something needed to be done and felt he was just the man to do it. To some extent Cicero agreed with this assessment but he simply couldn’t bring himself to break the law or change the constitution to allow for a more centralized government.

The amazing thing about this book is that Caesar comes across looking more like a failed George Washington than a MacBeth. Caesar alone recognized that the Republic was failing through its inherent structural weakness and systemic corruption, a realization that he used very effectively in gaining power. Even without Caesar the Republic would have failed and had Cicero joined the first Triumvirate as he was asked to do, years of civil war could have been avoided, and the Roman Empire might have never undergone the instability that characterized it throughout its existence. The First Triumvirate was merely an expedient stopgap for Caesar in his drive to create a central government with himself as the head. Because of the opposition of the “Constitutionalists” like Cicero Caesar’s drive for power was thwarted and no one was ever able to establish any alternative process to the Consuls as the legal head of state. Consequently, Rome was always a pseudo-monarchy headed by the strongest or most devious person. The government always had pretensions of being a Republic and the Roman Senate existed until the end, but the reality was that after Caesar, it was never a Republic but a pseudo-monarchy without any real right of succession, which made the government inherently very unstable.

Instead of supporting Caesar whom he knew to be right, Cicero chose to oppose the pragmatic Caesar and to support the inherently weak Senate and Constitution. This was the legal and moral thing to do since Caesar wished to abandon the current government and replace it with something more efficient, something with him as the head of state. The Romans had replaced the original monarchy with the Republic so they were viscerally opposed to monarchy; Caesar knew this as did Cicero. Caesar was maneuvering to remake the government and become the head of state, which was interpreted as an attempt to become King. However, because of the fundamental aversion of Romans to monarchy, Cicero foresaw that Caesar’s reforms would have been the equivalent of the Russian Revolution of 1917 with the same purges and violence as Caesar consolidated his position and eliminated any potential opposition. Consequently Cicero opted to “reform” the government through legal means, but he was never able to specify precisely what process he advocated as a means for reform because he could never muster enough support from the corrupted Senate to make any change. This was a situation that Caesar foresaw and attempted in vain to get Cicero to realize this.

At the time Caesar was a successful and well known General but not overly popular within the upper class. He was very politically astute and he could see the Republic was tottering. He fully intended to seize power (ala Napoleon in 1794) and he needed allies to do this. He needed Cicero’s prestige and begged him to join him as he formed what became known as the first Triumvirate. These discussions dragged on and on as Cicero vacillated between what he knew needed to be done and his love of the law and the Republic. Eventually his idealism won out, he refused Caesar and became one of Caesar’s principal opponents. His lack of support energized Caesar’s opponents and opposition which culminated in Caesar’s assassination. But it cost the Empire and history very dearly since it plunged Rome into a series of Civil Wars and left it to the mercy of corrupt politicians and a systemically weak government.

It becomes obvious in this book that the Constitutional government established by Rome worked OK (never great) for a city state but was unworkable for an empire. The head of state was a duality -- the Consuls -- who only had terms of one year and could not be re-elected. This made for quick decisions with little foresight and much internal bickering. The Consuls were rarely in office long enough to see or feel the long term effects of their decisions. They made laws and the Senate ratified them but the Tribunes could (and did) veto them for any reason, with no appeal. Worse even laws that were passed could be revoked by the incoming Consuls with senate approval, which could be bought. The result was an elected government but a highly unstable one. Overall the government was failing and Caesar saw it as did Cicero. Caesar wanted to destroy the existing Republic and remake it while Cicero wanted to fix it. Both were men of honor acting in what they felt was the best interest of the state. Admittedly, Caesar went outside of the law while Cicero attempted to work within the law when even he knew the law was unworkable and for sale.

A truly fascinating book and I highly recommend it.

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