Everybody has heard of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Generations of school- children failed to find anything more in his elegant Latin sentences than hard work and the chance of a ruler-slap on the palm. In earlier years, one spoke familiarly of, for instance, "Tully's Offices" (his De Officiis or On Duties). But who was this master of style, the most famous writer and orator of his day? Even after reading Anthony Everitt's book, I am only partially enlightened.
Plutarch of Chaeronea, the best biographer of the ancient world, distinguished between history, as concerned with events, and biography, as concerned with character. In these terms, the problem with Everitt's book is that it is more historical than biographical.
The narrative is gripping, but it is a narrative of events. Cicero's life coincided with the end of the Roman Republic - he was born in 106BCE and died in 43CE . As these 60 or so years saw more bloodshed and turmoil than almost any comparable period in European history, the events are bound to make good copy.
Cicero owed his fame, considerable fortune, and political success to his speeches. In this domain, he was a true master. A number of his forensic speeches have just been published by Oxford World's Classics, well translated by DH Berry, as Defence Speeches. But Everitt's book is not a literary biography; he does not analyse Cicero's style, or the views of his later philosophical works. He admits that he is an enthusiast rather than a professional scholar. So, again, we find him relying on external historical events, especially as reflected in Cicero's voluminous correspondence.
Cicero's rise to the consulship in 63BCE was followed fairly rapidly by a fall after he got on the wrong side of the thuggish powers that be. He returned from a brief exile in Greece, but his teeth were pulled, and he focused for a long while more on idealistic political writing than on action.
In the power-play between Pompey and Julius Caesar that came to dominate Roman political life in the 50s, Cicero wanted a compromise. This was so unrealistic that it actually constituted dithering. Cicero's lifelong ideal was what he called concordia ordinum - harmony between the rich and the poor, and their political champions.
There was a unique occasion when he had the opportunity to turn this slogan into reality: he was invited to join Pompey, Caesar and Crassus in running the country. But he found that at heart he was too conservative to take up the offer, and so the slogan remained an empty watchword.
This is my view, not Everitt's, and I had better come clean. I am not an admirer of Cicero, and never have been. If you read between the lines of Everitt's book, perhaps you will see what I mean.
Cicero's much-vaunted principles were often so flexible as to make him seem self-serving; he went on and on (to the derision of some of his contemporaries) about how during his consulship he had saved Rome from the threat of the unscrupulous radical Catilina; he comes across as conceited and complacent, despite the fact that he was prepared to defend patent rogues in court and change political allegiance; he was gullible and open to flattery. …