Cicero by Anthony Everitt

July 31, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): He squared off against Caesar and was friends with young Brutus. He advised the legendary Pompey on his somewhat botched transition from military hero to politician. He lambasted Mark Antony and was master of the smear campaign, as feared for his wit as he was for exposing his opponents’ sexual peccadilloes. Brilliant, voluble, cranky, a genius of political manipulation but also a true patriot and idealist, Cicero was Rome’s most feared politician, one of the greatest lawyers and statesmen of all times. Machiavelli, Queen Elizabeth, John Adams and Winston Churchill all studied his example. No man has loomed larger in the political history of mankind.

In this dynamic and engaging biography, Anthony Everitt plunges us into the fascinating, scandal-ridden world of ancient Rome in its most glorious heyday. Accessible to us through his legendary speeches but also through an unrivaled collection of unguarded letters to his close friend Atticus, Cicero comes to life in these pages as a witty and cunning political operator.

Cicero leapt onto the public stage at twenty-six, came of age during Spartacus’ famous revolt of the gladiators and presided over Roman law and politics for almost half a century. He foiled the legendary Catiline conspiracy, advised Pompey, the victorious general who brought the Middle East under Roman rule, and fought to mobilize the Senate against Caesar. He witnessed the conquest of Gaul, the civil war that followed and Caesar’s dictatorship and assassination. Cicero was a legendary defender of freedom and a model, later, to French and American revolutionaries who saw themselves as following in his footsteps in their resistance to tyranny.

Anthony Everitt’s biography paints a caustic picture of Roman politics—where Senators were endlessly filibustering legislation, walking out, rigging the calendar and exposing one another’s sexual escapades, real or imagined, to discredit their opponents. This was a time before slander and libel laws, and the stories—about dubious pardons, campaign finance scandals, widespread corruption, buying and rigging votes, wife-swapping, and so on—make the Lewinsky affair and the U.S. Congress seem chaste.

Cicero was a wily political operator. As a lawyer, he knew no equal. Boastful, often incapable of making up his mind, emotional enough to wander through the woods weeping when his beloved daughter died in childbirth, he emerges in these pages as intensely human, yet he was also the most eloquent and astute witness to the last days of Republican Rome.

Liked:

  • Everitt’s biography of Cicero is very readable. It’s not one of those stuffy, overly-academic tomes that will make your eyes glaze over or put you to sleep.
  • Much of the information in the book comes from Cicero’s own letters. This obviously lends great authority to the tale being told, and leaves me amazed that such works have survived from antiquity to the present day.
  • The most interesting parts to me were the glimpses at Cicero’s private life. His first marriage was an odd one, and his second (to a very young woman) leaves much to the imagination as well, and hints at Cicero’s personal shortcomings. But he redeemed himself, at least in my eyes, with his deep love for his daughter Tullia and his lifelong friendship with Atticus.
  • Speaking of shortcomings, Everitt didn’t spare the reader from the less-than-savory aspects of Cicero’s character. Everitt showed how Cicero was sensitive to criticism and how he missed very few opportunities to sing his own praises. This helped make Cicero a bit more human.
  • The chapter about the Catilinian conspiracy was fantastic. I remember studying about this in school — but only insofar as translating Cicero’s orations were concerned. Reading about the conspiracy as a broader event served to flesh out my knowledge.
  • I liked that Cicero faced death like a man. He wasn’t the blustering military type full of false bravado, and openly admitted fearing for his life on many occasions. But when finally faced with the assassin’s sword, he didn’t blink.

Disliked:

  • A great deal of this book focuses on Roman politics in general rather than Cicero in particular. I don’t know if that was unavoidable due to the lack of personal material about Cicero or if this was simply a choice the author made. Either way, I didn’t find Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Mark Antony, Brutus, Clodius, etc. nearly as interesting as Cicero, and though I know that much of his political career was tied up with theirs, I couldn’t bring myself to care too much.
  • Wow, the details of Cicero’s death were rather gruesome. I didn’t know he had has hands and head cut off and then displayed in the Roman Forum. I hated that detail (not that it was in the book; just that it happened at all).
  • In my electronic version of the book, there was no way to read footnotes as they occurred. They showed up as endnotes only, and as a consequence I missed out on all of the supplemental info.

Rating:

Cicero by Anthony Everitt is a decent biography of Rome’s greatest orator. It tells just enough about the subject’s personal life to keep the reader turning pages, and does a good job of showing how instrumental Cicero was in preserving the Republic for at least a few more years. But there were some drawbacks to this book that prevented me from enjoying it to the fullest. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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