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Soul Searching

Nicholas von Hoffman is the author of "We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against," "Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business From Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang" and "Citizen Cohn."

If you were to ask 99 out of 100 people on the streets of any American city what the word “Cicero” conveys to them, they would answer a town in Illinois, chiefly famous for once having been Al Capone’s headquarters. Nevertheless, before Cicero, sometimes pronounced Kickero, was a suburb of Chicago, there was Marcus Tullius Cicero, who flourished, as they used to say, between 106 and 43 BC.

Time was when every American boy who attended an academic high school (few girls went to such places) knew the name and something of the life and works of this dead Roman. In the last half-century, Cicero, the man whom the Enlightenment and the patres patriae (read Founding Fathers) of the United States regarded as the defender of republican government, liberty and constitutionalism in the ancient world, has all but evaporated for the citizens of the American democracy which he, at least in some small degree, inspired.

But now comes Anthony Everitt to resurrect Cicero by writing a modern biography of this unmodern man. It is no easy job he’s taken on. His work will be compared to that of earlier biographers who didn’t have the burden of attempting to sketch out the interior/psychological life of the subject, as we like to do these days and as Everitt takes some valiant stabs at. At the distance of more than two millenniums, finding a soul is quite a job, even though Cicero, in his philosophical works, devoted no little space to the soul. But his soul was not that of modern psychology but of classical stoicism, a very different soul indeed.

Fiction may be a better medium for such long-distance soul-searching. Robert Graves in “I, Claudius,” and Thornton Wilder in “The Ides of March” are vividly successful in depicting the souls of two imperial Romans, but as novelists they don’t have to play by the rules that historian Everitt is obliged to obey. Those rules leave him with just eight ancient authors as sources. Biographers of the more recently departed sometimes find heretofore undiscovered letters, diaries or papers. They may interview people previous biographers have missed, but Everitt is stuck with using the same old eight and reworking them for our contemporary sensibilities. Given the handicaps, you have to say he does a decent job of it. By the book’s end, he’s managed to put enough flesh on Cicero’s old bones that you care when the agents of his implacable enemy, Mark Antony, kill him by chopping off his head and then cutting out his tongue.

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Cicero is the only figure in classical antiquity who might be considered a subject for contemporary biographical treatment. Of all the famous figures from that marbled age, his is the only personal correspondence to come down to us. It is not complete, and there are maddening gaps at critical moments, but there are still hundreds of letters, many of which were written to Cicero’s best friend, Atticus. The letters are personal and contain Cicero’s whiny complaints and less than noble petty eccentricities.

As if the lack of sources were not enough, Everitt has another huge obstacle to surmount: the readers’ ignorance of the world in which Cicero lived. One might hazard that more than a few, even among those who know Cicero was a person and not a suburb, don’t know that there was a Roman Republic. Wasn’t it an empire with Nero and the gladiators and people giving the stiff-armed salute to the emperor and then leaping into a chariot and galloping off to feed a Christian to the lions?

Everitt says of his book that he will be happy “if I have succeeded in showing, first how unrecognizably different the Roman Republic was from ours ... the fact that the Romans ran a sophisticated and complex state with practically none of the public institutions we take for granted (a civil service, a police force and so forth) and the impact of religious ritual on the conduct of public affairs make ancient Rome a very strange place to modern eyes.”

Strange hardly encompasses it. To a present-day American, a republic with two presidents serving simultaneously and three legislative chambers is bordering on the weird. The danger Everitt has to work his way around is making his biography a rather static text, sketching the outlines of 1st century BC Roman society, if he can only draw his reader into the book before he feeds them the dull stuff.

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Thus, Everitt begins his book with a lively and dramatic account of the assassination of Julius Caesar as it was seen by Cicero, who was in the senate house that famous day but was not part of the conspiracy. After that, Everitt has no choice but to serve the dull stuff, which readers must know if they are to make sense of this man’s life stories.

It needs putting in the plural because there is Cicero, the belletrist, the essayist and the populizer of Greek thought, and there is Cicero, the lawyer, the politician and the public speaker, the orator whose rhythms, whose periodic sentences, whose rolling waves of language and staccato changes of pace were the models for the preachers and politicians of the Western world from his own time to that of Winston Churchill’s, after which no public existed for utterances longer than a few curt minutes.

Everitt manfully struggles to do justice to Cicero, the writer and orator, but it’s heavy going with a readership who cannot be presumed to have knowledge of the subject. Whatever the aspect of Cicero’s life, his poor biographer must always start at square one.

Yet with all the difficulties, a story worth reading grows out of the book. We are shown a picture of a country riven with problems, an ancient democracy at loggerheads with itself, unable to use its political processes to cure what ails it. We see a crowd of politicians who, in the greedy confusions of the moment, as precedent, tradition and decorum fall away, are increasingly prone to illegalities and using force to have their way. We see gangs of ruffians running and ruling the streets of the capital, judicial murders and unconstitutional half measures which fail and invite yet more indefensible illegalities.

As Everitt tells it, the future of Rome comes down to two men, Julius Caesar and Cicero. Caesar is the nonpareil of the age, victorious in battle and nearly as unconquerable in the political arena, an eloquent speaker in his own right whose ambitions exceed the simple desire for power and extend to extinguishing the old, failing political system and instituting a new, effective imperial one in its place.

Against him and the times stands Cicero, by his own estimation a physical coward in a martial society and in a time of civil war. Cicero is the constitutionalist, the traditionalist, a politician who thinks that Caesar is wrong, that there is nothing wrong with the underlying system which good magistrates and a few sensible changes in the laws cannot repair.

In this version of Cicero’s life, his zigzags, his deals, his flip-flops are taken to be his maneuvers to fend off Caesar and keep him from power. Other authors have looked at those years and seen a cowardly Cicero, unable to commit to any faction lest it be the wrong faction and he be put to death for joining it. The different interpretations probably can’t be settled, but that’s a dispute for professional historians.

What all agree on is that in the last months of his life, after Caesar’s assassination, something happened to Cicero. The artful dodging stopped, the switching sides and the double-talking ended and another man stepped onto the stage. This was a determined, commanding Cicero, one heedless of his own safety, the classic senator in his toga, an unyieldingly eloquent defender of the old Roman liberties and of the Republic.

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This was the final Cicero, the one taken up by Voltaire’s generation in its struggle to destroy the divine right of kings, the statesman venerated by the American patriots, the heroic Cicero, the inspirational Cicero.

At this point he comes off the pages, and one more time calls down through the ages to us, exhorting us not to give way, but to stand again with him for liberty.


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