My introduction to Cicero came in a Classics class my freshman year at the University of Oregon. We read Against Verres I, an early case prosecuted by Cicero against the former governor of Sicily, and the Second Philippic Against Antony, a speech written in the days following the assassination of Caesar. Cicero is an odd figure among those ancients still read today. He wasn’t a historian, or a philosopher, or a playwright, although he dabbled in the first two. Cicero’s surviving work is mostly about the practical diffculty of being a politician in Rome at the end of the Republic. Whereas you can read Plato or Thucydides without caring overmuch about local Athenian politics, Cicero is ALL politics, and an interest in Cicero depends, to some degree, on an interest in his times.
That said, Cicero’s life gives us one of the clearest possible windows into the political life of ancient Rome. Cicero was one of the four or five most important men in Rome during the civil wars, and the contours of his life are particular important to an understanding of that conflict. Although much of his work has been lost, many of his most important speeches survive, and we have a lifetime of correspondence between he and his friend Atticus. We know Cicero better than any but his closest friends. As with any political memoir, we are susceptible to Cicero’s deception, but only to the same extent that he deceived himself; the Cicero that comes down to us is not the writer of a self-serving memoir.
The existence of Cicero as a fully realized historical individual is one of the things that attracted me to his writings. Another is an amateur interest in his time and place. Probably most important, I liked Cicero as a politician. Although driven to save the Republic, he was also motivated by a powerful sense of the practical and the possible. In this sense he reminds me most of Edmund Burke, although his purpose leaned more to the institutional than to the social. The revolution in Rome was small potatoes compared to the French Revolution.
Cicero’s experience also demonstrates the inadequacy of a Burkean program. By Cicero’s day, the constitution of the Republic was simply not up to the management of an Empire and its consequent enormous urban capitol. Cautious reform is not a helpful program when one major faction is so entrenched that it resist any meaningful change, and the other is so radical that it rejects basic common ground. Cicero knew this on some level, which is why he was so reluctant to throw his support (and the support of the Senate) behind Pompey in the 50s or behind Octavian in the wake of Caesar’s assassination. The victory of Pompey over Caesar, Antony over Octavian, or even Brutus and Cassius over the Second Triumvarate might have altered the contours of the new Roman state, but would never have saved the Republic as it existed. The fall of the Republic serves to remind that simply because there MUST be a solution does not mean that their WILL be a solution.
Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, by Anthony Everett, is a solidly enjoyable account of Cicero’s life. It’s not the most exhaustive nor the most accurate biography, but it is very readable. Everett is clear about the evidence that we don’t have, but still makes sensible decisions about filling in Cicero’s life with what we know of the typical existence of an upper-class Roman citizen.
It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Anthony Everett’s account of Cicero has been used by the writers and producers of Rome. The depiction of the death of Caesar was very close to Everett’s account, and the book came out not long before the series was contemplated. One episode that Everett relates might be fun to depict in the series; although Brutus seems like a stand up guy and all, he once ordered his men to lock the senate of a small town in its building until several of the senators starved. “Nice guy” was a relative term in ancient Rome.