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FRIENDS, ROMANS AND COUNTRYMEN

Cicero (103 BC to 43 BC) was one of the famous orators and politicians of republican Rome. But his use of rhetoric and the ideas he promulgated have had an influence on the intellectual life of Western Europe. This book is a biography, but it is also much more than that. It brings alive ancient Rome and the process of its decline.

Cicero’s was a dramatic rise. His origins lay in the provinces. This made him — in spite of his formidable achievements — something of an outsider in the patrician world of the Roman republic. Yet, as Everitt shows, he made himself an insider. He was Julius Caesar’s dinner companion; he detected Marcus Brutus in a financial scam and helped put a stop to a sexual escapade of Marcus Antonius. The republic he so cherished collapsed before his eyes, and he himself was put to death.

The Rome of Cicero’s time was a bustling and sophisticated city. In the first century BC, the most important event to occur in the city was the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC. Cicero was an eyewitness to the assassination and came to be implicated in the murder through a peculiar twist in the unfolding of the drama.

He watched as the conspirators hacked at Caesar. One of Cicero’s and Caesar’s closest friends, Marcus Brutus, led the throng. Cicero had not been invited to join the conspiracy. The Senators were in a state of shock. As Brutus wounded Caesar in the groin, the latter gasped, “You too, my son”, and fell at the base of Pompeius’s statue. It was then that Brutus walked to the centre of the hall, brandished his dagger, shouted for Cicero by name and congratulated him on the recovery of freedom. Cicero embodied republican values and traditional liberties, but he had made his peace with Caesar.Yet, the act of liberation from tyranny was announced by Brutus to be in his name. Cicero was forced to back into the limelight albeit a dangerous one.

Cicero, because he was more astute than the conspirators, knew that the assassination of one man, however important, would not save the Republic. He tried to salvage the situation while the Caesarian faction regrouped. Everitt says he failed because he did not have Caesar’s “fabled luck”. The problem was more deep-rooted. The Republic could no longer govern the Empire. This failure created a power vacuum which was invariably filled by somebody like Caesar. A restored Republic would have been unstable and thus violent. It would have betrayed the civic virtues that Cicero advocated. Cicero chased what the author calls an “unattainable dream”.

A failure in life, Cicero enjoyed a posthumous success. Julius Caesar had predicted that Cicero would have an impact on European culture. Petrarch’s rediscovery of him gave a certain direction to the Renaissance; the philosophes approved of his scepticism, and Hume and Locke drew on his ideas.

Cicero’s own writings are the best source for his life and times. In his writings as Everitt pithily and memorably says, “noble Romans are flesh and blood not marble”. Cicero’s writings capture the times through the “excited, anxious eyes of a participant who did not know how the story would end”. Everitt captures this view and uses it to recreate the man, his career and the tempestuous era in which he lived.

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