Monday, October 19, 2009

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

The end of the Roman Republic was shaped by the actions of men such as the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian...even more "minor" figures (e.g. Cato the Younger, Clodius) added their own brand of outrageousness to the events of the day.  It strikes me that there have been very few times in history where the lives of so many larger-than-life personages have intersected one another during a relatively short period.

My most recent read was a biography of one of Rome's most influential figures during the first century BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero.  While the story centers around Cicero, Everitt's book is also a great introduction to the events and personalities that eventually led to the fall of the Roman Republic.  The book is clearly written with a relatively vigorous pace that does not dwell on any one event in too much detail.  While attention is also given to Cicero's contributions to philosophy and oration, the majority of the account centers around Cicero's struggle to save the Republic he so dearly loved.

I didn't know that Cicero was actually offered a place in the Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey.  I wonder what might have happened if he had set aside his misgivings about going against the Roman constitution and chosen to join his colleagues in their unofficial power-sharing scheme.  Cicero is a rather unique Roman politician in that he had little military experience--nor did he have any desire to lead an army.  As a result, Caesar and Pompey would certainly still have dominated the alliance from the head of their armies.  But from this position, might have Cicero brokered a more stable solution to the problems that developed out of Caesar's assassination?  Perhaps, at the very least, he might have curried enough favor with Mark Antony and Octavian to avoid the proscription that claimed his life the following year.

It is actually quite amazing that the Roman Republic lasted as long as it did once it slipped the tracks when Sulla marched on Rome (87 BC).  It is hard to conceive today of a political system that relied almost solely on personal accomplishments/relationships/decisions to steer a vast central government.  This kind of system almost begs for an ambitious person (or a whole series of ambitious people) to exploit it.

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