Review of “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician” by Anthony Everitt

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt is a well-crafted, highly readable biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was a lawyer, orator, prolific and popular writer, and statesman of Ancient Rome. Everitt takes his information from some 900 letters Cicero penned (most of which were to his friend Atticus); many of his speeches (revised and edited by Cicero himself); and Cicero’s books on philosophy and oratory.

Cicero (January 3, 106 B.C. – December 7, 43 B.C.) wrote about the political events of his day: the rise of Julius Caesar, his assassination, and subsequent maneuvering to power of Mark Anthony and Octavian (later known as Augustus). He also set out to write a definitive work covering “the whole field in detail” of every philosophical system. Cicero had a son, Marcus, and a much-beloved daughter Tullia (who died while giving birth). He divorced his wife Terentia after some 30 years, although it is not clear why to historians. His second marriage lasted only a few months.

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Cicero was a life-long devotee of Republican government (and thus an opponent of Caesar). Ordinarily, opposing Caesar was not conducive to longevity. Cicero nevertheless lived to tell his tale for several reasons: Caesar was renown for his occasional leniency, Caesar enjoyed Cicero’s wit, and Cicero himself was a successful manipulator of people in general and alliances in particular.

Cicero longed for power, but always played a secondary role in Roman politics. He lacked the charisma of Caesar, as well as his deep understanding of politics. As Everitt observed, “Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balances prevented effective government . . .” But for Cicero, the solution to Rome’s crisis of inaction and inefficacy “lay in finding better men to run the government and better laws to keep them in order.” But a few good men were as hard to find then as they are today. Thus, Cicero’s advice and leadership, though valued by many, were bypassed by most. How well T.S. Eliot’s character of Prufrock captures Cicero!

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”

Cicero never understood that he was wrong, nor passed by an opportunity to tout his own insight, influence, and value. Eventually Cicero was put to death after Octavian added Cicero’s name on a proscription. (This was a posting of people wanted dead by the leadership. All property was then confiscated and turned over to the state after the killer was rewarded.)

Everitt brings Ancient Rome to life as if we were contemporaries of the protagonists. Ultimately, this attribute is what makes the story so enjoyable. This is an excellent book that makes the reader eager to find out more.

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Published by Random House, 2002

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