This chapter in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is brilliant. If you only ever read one chapter of this book, it should be chapter 10. Syme has already shown a kind of ambivalence toward Cicero. He supported the established order without a strong loyalty to any particular party. “No politician could compete with Cicero for versatility…” Syme paints Cicero as a tragic hero in an age that required someone greater and less flawed. It is hard to avoid the feeling that this speaks directly to our contemporary political culture where opportunities for determined actions abound, but the individuals capable of seizing the moments and making significant stand against injustice are lacking. The real context for this chapter is more chilling. Syme isn’t speaking to our generation, but to his.
Cicero sided with Pompey during the Civil War, but in a lukewarm fashion, commanding a body of troops in Campania and staying well away from the main fields of action. Syme describes Cicero’s position in typically Laconic fashion: “Cicero came close to being a neutral in the Civil War. Returning from his province of Cilicia, he made what efforts he could to avert hostilities. He showed both judgement and impartiality. It was too late. He had few illusions about Pompeius, little sympathy with his allies.”
He accepted Caesar’s clemency and remained on the sidelines after his assassination despite his claims to the contrary. As tensions between Antonius and Octavianus grew, he tried to flee to Greece, reversed course, and, to Syme, sealed his ultimate fate. His return to Rome marked the start of an overt rivalry with Antonius and suggested a warming of his relationship to Octavianus.
“The political alliance between Octavianus and Cicero was not merely the plot of a crafty and unscrupulous youth… Cicero was possessed by an overweening opinion of his own sagacity: it had ever been his hope to act as political mentor to one of the generals of the Republic.”
Syme’s description of Cicero’s plan offers some critique for our contemporary situation:
“It was Cato’s fatal plan all over again — the doom of Antonius would warn the young man [Octavianus] against aspiring to military despotism and would reveal the strength which the Commonwealth could still muster.”
He praised Octavianus — omnis habeo cognitos sensus adulescentis. nihil est illi re publica canus, nihil vestra auctontate gravius, nihil bonorum virorum iudicio optatius, nihil vera gloria dulcius. (Phil. 5.50) — but: “it may be doubted whether at any time he felt that he could trust Octavianus. Neither was the dupe.”
As tensions rose between Octavianus and Antonius, Syme unpacks Cicero’s motivation in a brilliant passage that deserves to be quoted in full:
Now came the last and heroic hour, in the long and varied public life of Cicero. Summoning all his oratory and all his energies for the struggle against Antonius, eager for war and implacable, he would hear no word of peace or compromise: he confronted Antonius with the choice between capitulation and destruction. Seven years before, the same policy precipitated war between the government and a proconsul.
Fanatic intensity seems foreign to the character of Cicero, absent from his earlier career: there precisely lies the explanation. Cicero was spurred to desperate action by the memory of all the humiliations of the past exile, a fatal miscalculation in politics under the predominance of Pompeius and the compulsory speeches in defence of the tools of despotism, Balbus, Vatinius and Gabinius, by the Dictatorship of Caesar and the guilty knowledge of his own inadequacy. He knew how little he had achieved for the Republic despite his talent and his professions, how shamefully he had deserted his post after March 17th when concord and ordered government might still have been achieved.
Now, at last, a chance had come to redeem all, to assert leadership, to free the State again or go down with it in ruin. Once he had written about the ideal statesman. Political failure, driving him back upon himself, had then sought and created consolations in literature and in theory: the ideal derived its shape from his own disappointments.”
The evidence for this comes from Cicero’s own writing after Caesar’s assassination in De officiis and De gloria. In another purple passage, Syme describes Cicero’s mindset. Atticus encouraged Cicero to seek shelter from the growing storm: “he urged his friend to turn to the writing of history. Cicero was obdurate; he hopes to make history. Duty and glory inspired the veteran statesman in his last and courageous battle for what he believed to be the Republic, liberty and the laws against the forces of anarchy or despotism. He would stand as firm as Cato had stood…”
At the same time, Syme reminds us that Cicero: “did not exhibit the measure of loyalty and constancy, of Roman virtus and aristocratic magnitudo animi that would have justified the exorbitant claims of his personal ambition.” His partiality and political ambitions haunted his actions and as a tragic figure, even when the greatest opportunity for personal courage and meaningful action presented itself, Cicero failed. In one of the most famous passages in a chapter that, to my mind, is the jewel of the first part of The Roman Revolution, Syme observes: “It is presumptuous to hold judgement over the dead at all, improper to adduce any standards other than those of a man’s time, class, and station. Yet it was precisely in the eyes of contemporaries that Cicero was found wanting…”
He concludes this brilliant chapter on a somber note as armies massed and political invective raged. “Winter held up warfare in the north… at Rome the struggle was prosecuted, in secret intrigue and open debate, veiled under the name of legality, of justice, of country.”
The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.