The Life and Times

Of Rome's Greatest Politician

By Anthony Everitt

Random House. 359 pp. $25.95

With the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is the central figure of Western civilization. Cicero's republican political theory influenced both the American and French revolutionaries -- and through them, contemporary democracies everywhere -- far more than Greek democratic thought or practice. As a moral thinker, Cicero bequeathed the idea of natural law to both Christian theologians and secular philosophers. His influence on the ideal of liberal education is equally profound; he popularized, if he did not coin, the Latin words rendered by our terms "the humanities" and "liberal arts." The list of the cardinal virtues -- wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance -- comes from his De Officiis (On Duties), probably the most-read secular essay on ethics in Western history.

No great mind in Western history -- not even Socrates, Plato or Aristotle -- has influenced so many other great minds. Ciceronian eloquence was incorporated into Christianity by St. Augustine and St. Jerome, who dreamed that God condemned him, saying, "You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian." Petrarch wrote letters to his long-dead hero, and some of his contemporaries indulged in the fad of writing Latin using only words that Cicero himself had used. Machiavelli sought to revive the republican political tradition of Cicero and Livy (59 B.C.-17 A.D.), while the essayistic tradition of Montaigne shows the influence of Cicero's correspondence on the Renaissance revival of the familiar letter.

The United States -- more than even France -- is a Ciceronian republic. The American founders rejected aspects of Roman republicanism such as aristocracy and militarism. Still, it was from Cicero that the major Founders learned that a republic needed a senate -- aristocratic in Rome, democratic in America -- to check popular passions. From Cicero, too, Americans learned to dread unchecked executive power based on armed force and populist demagogy -- "Caesarism." The honorific bestowed on George Washington, Father of his Country, was a translation of Pater Patriae, bestowed on Cicero by Cato. According to Carl J. Richard in The Founders and the Classics, Chief Justice John Marshall patterned the portrayal of George Washington, in his famous five-volume biography of the general, after Cicero, and told his grandsons that De Officiis was a salutary discourse on the duties and qualities proper to a republican gentleman. Marshall McLuhan wrote that "Thomas Jefferson is Ciceronian in all respects." Franklin quoted Cicero in Poor Richard's Almanac, and Rufus Choate, a great early American jurist, told lawyers: "Soak your mind with Cicero." Allen Tate wrote, "I can think of no better image for what the South was before 1860, and what it largely still was until about 1914, than that of the old gentleman in Kentucky who sat every afternoon in his front yard under an old sugar tree, reading Cicero's Letters to Atticus" -- in the original Latin, of course.

Until a few generations ago, the experience of reading Cicero in Latin was part of the education experience of the elite in societies as different as Imperial Rome, Renaissance Florence, 18th-century Britain and 19th-century Germany. In the past century, however, two trends -- the collapse of classical education and the rise in reputation of Greek thinkers at the expense of Roman authors -- have nearly obliterated the Ciceronian tradition. The danger that a "republic" will turn into an "empire" remains a cliche{acute} of old-fashioned punditry -- and of popular culture like the Star Wars movies and "Gladiator." But the contemporary American image of ancient Rome is the nightmare of American Protestant fundamentalists -- a godless, decadent empire where Christians are fed to the lions -- rather than the idealized pre-Christian republic that inspired the American Founders.

Anthony Everitt's fine biography of Cicero turns the marble statue back into a man. More accessible than Thomas N. Mitchell's multivolume biography of a decade ago, Everitt's life of Cicero weaves descriptions of Roman life and politics and accounts of Cicero's thought and writings into the story of a life so dramatic that one wonders why playwrights and screenwriters have passed over Cicero in favor of Caesars and gladiators. Everitt takes advantage of the survival of much of Cicero's lifelong correspondence with his friend Atticus to make his subject -- brilliant, vain, principled, opportunistic and courageous -- come to life after two millennia. After the dictator Caesar showed up at Cicero's villa with 2,000 soldiers and expected to be entertained, Cicero wrote Atticus: "In a word, I showed I knew how to do things. But my guest was not the sort of person to whom one says, 'Do come again when you are next in the neighborhood.' "

No typical Roman leader, Cicero was a self-made "new man" in a republic dominated by patricians, and a civilian statesman among warlords. (Cicero was fond of quoting his own line: Cedant arma togae -- let the soldier yield to the civilian.) "During his childhood and youth Cicero had watched with horror as Rome set about dismantling itself," Everitt writes. "If he had a mission as an adult, it was to recall the Republic to order." Cicero had two opportunities to rescue the republic -- in 63, when as consul he defeated Catiline's attempted coup, and following the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44. Although Brutus had kept his fellow senator out of the plot, he called out Cicero's name as he stood over Caesar's body. In the months that followed, Cicero -- who had often vacillated during earlier civil wars -- emerged as a leader in the campaign to restore the republic and defeat Mark Antony's bid for power. When Caesar's nephew Octavian -- in whom Cicero had placed great hope -- joined with Antony and Lepidus to form a triumvirate, Cicero was assassinated by a death squad. Cicero's head and hands were brought to the Forum, where Antony's wife, Fulvia, reportedly used her hairpins to pierce the tongue that had denounced her husband.

Of Cicero, John Adams wrote that "all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united in the same character." But the greatest tributes may be those of his enemies. "Sometime towards the end of his life," Everitt writes, "Caesar remarked that Cicero had won greater laurels than those worn by a general in his Triumph, for it meant more to have extended the frontiers of Roman genius than of its empire." In his old age, Octavian -- now the Emperor Augustus -- confiscated a book of Cicero that he found in the hands of his grandson. According to Everitt, "He stood for a long time reading the entire text. He handed it back with the words: 'An eloquent man, my child, an eloquent man, and a patriot.' " *

Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, with Ted Halstead, of "The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics."

Bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero