Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003|
Reviewed by DAVID TRUMBULL.
This well-researched and written one-volume biography presents Cicero as an active
politician, seeking the votes and alliances needed to advance specific policies.
It is an excellent guide for anyone who wants to understand the motivations and methods
of one of the most influential thinkers on philosophical and political problems in the
history of the West.
Heavy reliance on Cicero's frank private correspondence with his friend Atticus and brother
Quintus shows us the private workings of Cicero's mind in a way seldom available for
a figure of the ancient world. The author also makes good use of Cicero's public writings
and the ancient biographies, including Plutarch's charming Life of Cicero.
The great orator's rhetoric and philosophical and political writings are treated, as
they were by Cicero himself, as tools for furthering his aim of restoring the
traditional constitution of the Roman republic. The author's argument that Cicero --through
his attempts both to direct the extra-legal genius and energy of Caesar and Octavian
to the service, rather than destruction of the republic and to move the reactionary
senate to recognize the need for at least some reforms in the face of the urban
mob, soldiers more loyal to their commanders than to the idea of Rome, and the violence
that was making dictatorship look like a good alternative to a republic that could no
longer enforce the rule of law-- saw better than his contemporaries both the state's illness
and its cure is not entirely convincing. After all, Cicero failed of his goal of restoration
and reformation of the republic. And even if we concede, as Everitt, argues, that he
lacked colleagues who understood and were prepared to risk their lives for his vision
and because he simply had the bad luck to lose to death some of few who might have
aided him, the argument falls short, for the successful forming
of alliances in order to advance one's policy must be regarded as essential for a great,
or even good, politician, and Cicero, who, admittedly tried, ultimately failed.
The author notes Cicero's influence on later generations from early Christian through
the middle ages and Renaissance and to the age of enlightenment, when Cicero's
political theories so greatly influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution and the
formation of the other western democracies. It might be more accurate to title the book
"Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Political Theorist." And for most
readers today, the interest in Cicero is not his failed attempts at restoring the
ancient Roman republic, but his influence on the formation of modern republics and
his example of the right use of rhetoric to advance a moral vision. For that purpose
Anthony Everitt has proposed a more than serviceable volume.