Free Library Find: Cicero

Cicero at the Free Library

Little Free Libraries are little boxes of bookish surprises scattered around the world, like a real-life Pokemon Go, but for readers.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician was a serendipitous find, a biography I was interested in, but then forgot, until I saw it in the Little Free Library on N St.

The last defender of democracy, Cicero used his oratory and wits in a face off against Caesar and the forces of dictatorship. While he ultimately failed, his true legacy was that, in the words of Voltaire, “He taught us how to think.”

With its marble-columned temples and soaring public spaces, Washington is a Roman city, one that Cicero would instantly recognize and feel at home in. He argued cases in the courts, led marches against the government and gave passionate speeches before the Senate. Our three branches of government, with its checks and balances, would be familiar to him, for they stem from Roman antecedents, our founding fathers inspired by Cicero’s failure to create something more resilient.

An aspiring dictator like Donald Trump would not surprise him. Cicero famously uncovered the Cataline Conspiracy, a plot by a bankrupt aristocrat to overthrow the government and burn Rome to the ground. He said:

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

He had the traitor executed.

Democracy in Rome, as limited as it was, could not manage a rapidly expanding empire beset by financial problems and a military quagmire in the Mideast. Our troubles in the region would be depressingly familiar to Cicero. After uncovering the Cataline conspiracy, he was appointed governor of Cilicia, where he suppressed rebellious tribes in Syria.

Ultimately, however, Cicero was just an orator. As Rome slid toward autocracy, first through the self-dealing Triumvirate and then the rule of Julius Caesar, he was warned to stay out of politics,  a tale told in the interesting novel Dictator.

But Cicero couldn’t stay out of the Senatorial limelight. While not part of the plot against Caesar, it was he who Brutus hailed as the dictator bled to death. Once Caesar was gone, Cicero tried to unify the Senate against Mark Antony and the Julian faction.

A bloody civil war took place across the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, from Spain to Cleopatra’s Egypt.

When it was done, Rome had an emperor: Augustus.

A list was drawn up of enemies of the state. If you were proscribed, you could be put to death and your properties seized. Cicero was hunted across Italy. When soldiers caught him, he bared his throat so they could slash it properly, the gesture of a gladiator who meets his end nobly in the arena.

Democracy was dead but Cicero’s legacy lived on. Much of what we know from the Roman world comes from the voluminous letters of the orator, many of which survived. He also was a key transmitter of Greek and Roman ideas and philosophy, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance.

From him, we have the concept of natural law, the belief that there is a moral order beyond the rules enacted by governments. As he said,

For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions.

Our Founding Fathers were inspired by his life and writing.  John Adams said, “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”

And weighing the lessons of Cicero, they produced the republic of checks and balances that we have today. Thanks to the ancient Roman orator, we have the means to resist a dictator.

Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Three books about tyranny provide lessons for Americans about overcoming dark times.

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick up another book about tyranny. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, and books about tyranny, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.