The point has been made that when reading Cicero’s correspondence, you might get the sense that the man was a cold fish. No warmth. No passion. And perhaps too much ego.
Was it true?
The reality is that Cicero lived in dangerous times. They were even more dangerous for him, for he believed in so called “republican values” at a time when they were under assault by Caesar, and then Caesar’s political heirs. This led Cicero to a bad end.
Following Julius Caesar’s death, Cicero became an enemy of Mark Antony in the ensuing power struggle, attacking him in a series of speeches. He was proscribed as an enemy of the state by the Second Triumvirate and consequently executed by soldiers operating on their behalf in 43 BC after having been intercepted during an attempted flight from the Italian peninsula. His severed hands and head were then, as a final revenge of Mark Antony, displayed on The Rostra.
Yes, that was the Mark Antony who, many, many years later would be portrayed by Richard Burton in the ill starred film, Cleopatra. The real Mark Antony was, in fact, a bit of a brute. His wife Fulvia seems to have had anger management issues as well
Fulvia took Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in final revenge against Cicero’s power of speech
Ironically, we get a different view of Mark Antony from Shakespeare in his amazing play, “Julius Caesar”. From Shakespeare’s imagination, we get an eloquent Mark Antony, who was later played by Marlon Brando. Here he is! Enjoy!
Sounds great! But … of course, one should be wary of Shakespeare as historian. The reality is that Cicero was the great master of rhetoric, not Mark Antony.. And the great speech? It was born from Shakespeare’s own imagination, which was truly remarkable.
So what about Cicero? He found his inspiration from the Greeks
Cicero was … educated in the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers, poets and historians; as he obtained much of his understanding of the theory and practice of rhetoric from the Greek poet Archias and from the Greek rhetorician Apollonius. Cicero used his knowledge of Greek to translate many of the theoretical concepts of Greek philosophy into Latin, thus translating Greek philosophical works for a larger audience. It was precisely his broad education that tied him to the traditional Roman elite.
Above all, Cicero believed in the power of thought tied to words (rhetoric) to better society. And he achieved great rhetorical skills as evidenced by his career as a lawyer. Julius Caesar said this
“it is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit (ingenium) than the frontiers of the Roman empire”
And how about this praise from Machail
“Cicero’s unique and imperishable glory is that he created the language of the civilized world, and used that language to create a style which nineteen centuries have not replaced, and in some respects have hardly altered.”
Cicero was not just a clever talker. He re-invented the Roman language. He expanded it from its functional and material basis to enable discussion of abstract thoughts and ideals. Not just that, while his letters might appear to be rather cold, the dude was loved.
Cicero was one of the most viciously and doggedly hunted (by Mark Antony’s goons). (But) he was viewed with sympathy by a large segment of the public and many people refused to report that they had seen him. He was caught 7 December 43 BC leaving his villa in Formiae in a litter going to the seaside where he hoped to embark on a ship destined for Macedonia. When his killers – Herennius (a centurion) and Popilius (a tribune) – arrived, Cicero’s own slaves said they had not seen him, but he was given away by Philologus, a freedman of his brother Quintus Cicero.
To get the full flavor of this event, consider these stories, relating to Popilius (one of the two killers) and Philologus (the man who betrayed Cicero)
Proud of his role in the murder, Popilius, the military tribune who had been sent to kill the man who once had defended him in court, set up a statue of himself wearing a wreath, sitting beside the severed head of Cicero, a gesture that so pleased Antony that he added a bonus to his award (Dio, XLVII.11.2). Perversely, Antony then handed over (Philologus) the man who had betrayed Cicero to the tribune. Philologus had been educated by Cicero and was a freedman of Quintus, Cicero’s brother. He was given up to Pomponia, who, even though she and Quintus were divorced, forced the man to cut off his own flesh bit by bit, roast the pieces, and eat them (Plutarch, Life of Cicero, XLIX).
Hmmm … dangerous times indeed. You have to wonder that a society that nurtured such violence could also produce a Cicero. But it did.
And how did we come to receive Cicero’s ideas? It was because a dude by the name of Petrarch — who lived more than 1,000 after Cicero’s murder — re-discovered Cicero’s letters. Petrarch did not see Cicero as a cold fish. To the contrary, he loved what he saw. It enhanced his view of how society should work. IPetrarch’s re-discovery of Cicero was an inspiration for a movement that we call the renaissance. These ideas are at the root of the enlightenment. And today, we call this approach “humanism”.
From Cicero to Petrarch to us. If you are a humanist — and I would call myself one — you must be grateful for the gifts that we have received, even though their sources have largely been forgotten
And was the man who gave us this language a “col fish”? I would guess not. His letters are reserved. and cautious, as one might expect from a man living in dangerous times. But his heart was set on finding a way to build a better world.
A Quick Follow – It might seem odd that Julius Caesar would have praised Cicero (see above). Cicero saw Caesar as a grave threat to the old republic and Caesar knew it. Caesar’s good will to Cicero brings out an odd aspect of Caesar’s character. He was ruthless. And he was from the old order, believing in solidarity with other Romans. Thus, while he fought against and defeated Pompey at Pharsalus, he did not seek retribution against those he defeated (including Cicero). He pardoned them, hoping that the fabric of relationships could be repaired. Cato the younger (who had done more than anyone to bring about the civil war) probably killed himself to avoid being pardoned by Caesar. As you can see from the above, three years later, Mark Antony took a different view of things. Was that because of Caesar’s murder? Or was Mark Antony just a different sort of person?
In either case, you can see how the first civil war, murder of Julius Caesar, and then second civil war (in which Mark Antony would perish at Actium), had affected Roman civil society at the highest levels. At that stage, perhaps Octavian needed to become “Augustus Caesar”, if nothing more, just to put a lid on things. Unfortunately, that would open the door to all sorts of other issues. Soon the Romans would get Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, leading eventually to Commodus. Yikes!
Of course, Cicero was naive in thinking that he could bring back the republic. The reality was that Rome had not really been a republic at all, let alone a democracy. It was a kleptocracy. Julius Caesar understood that. And Trollope wondered in his “Life of Cicero” how a man as intelligent as Cicero did no see the futility of his efforts.