Expanding the Liberty Canon: Cicero’s On the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a prominent lawyer, politician, and thinker in the last years of the Roman Republic. His death was a murder in revenge for his attacks on Marcus Antonius (known in English as Mark Anthony), in the form of a speech in the Senate against tyranny known as the First Philippic. It is known as the Philippic in tribute to the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC), which attacked the tyranny of Philipp II of Macedon over Athens and the other Greek city states.

The background to this is that the Roman Republic had been falling into the hands of military strong men for some time, who stretched the institutions and  laws of the republic in order to exercise supreme power.  Gaius Julius Caesar was  the last in this sequence. After his conquest of Gaul (France) he taken supreme power in Rome out of a mixture extreme drive for power and as a protective measure against enemies after the lost the immunity associated with the governor’s post he had during his war of expansion.

After winning a way against his most important rival, Caesar offered mercy to previous opponents allowing them to be influential in Rome. However, Caesar was increasingly looking like a new king, a  hated office in Rome, and the political system was designed to prevent any one person having complete power except for a short period in exceptional circumstnces. Caesar used this office of dictator, originally designed to offer emergency powers to a general during a time of military crisis for no more than six months, to become the permanent absolute ruler of Rome. He publicly rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Anthony, but was suspected of waiting for the right moment to proclaim himself king.

A conspiracy developed against Caesar amongst aristocrats who wished to preserve republican practices in which no one man could dominate Rome, so that power was shared between the aristocracy, with some influence granted to the common people. Cicero was a not a member of the conspiracy, but approved of its action against Caesar, which was led by Cicero’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus. It is highly pertinent  to Cicero’s vision of the republic that Brutus was, or appeared to be, the descendent of the Marcus Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last King of Rome in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

The conspiracy against Caesar resulted in his assassination by a group of senators in 44 BCE. However, the assassins were not able to take over Rome and moved to eastern Mediterranean parts of the Roman lands to raise forces and organise for a war against Caesar’s followers. After the assassination Caesar’s friend and colleague, mark Anthony allied with an 18 year old nephew of Caesar, who was his legal heir. The boy became the Emperor Augustus. The rest of the story would go beyond the limits of this post, so it will enough for now just to mention that Mark Anthony took power in the city of Rome, leading to the murder of Cicero, while the future Augustus built up a position which enabled him to become the political successor to Caesar, not Mark Anthony.

Mark Anthony is reported to have ordered Cicero’s hands to be removed during the assassination and nailed to the door of the Senate house, in a tribute of a kind to the power of an eloquent speaker arguing for liberty and demonstrating liberty in the act of speaking, using his hands as ancients did in a rhetorically guided way as a major part of emphasising points. Though after the First Philippic the likelihood of violent retribution from Mark Anthony led Cicero to confine himself to writing further Philippics that were not read out in the Senate.

Cicero had previously served as consul (one of two officers of the Republic who shared the powers of a king for one year), the governor of Cilicia (modern day Adana in Turkey), and other offices. His political career included some  very rough measures to defend the republic against what he thought of as existential danger and we should not turn Cicero into defender of pure constitutionalism and law in life, as well as in his writings. His writings do suggest a strong wish to live under laws rigorously enforced, and it has to be conceded that it was practically impossible to participate in politics at that time without being party to some very rough actions.

Cicero’s writings are not merely an important moment in antique thinking about liberty, but a major event in the  linguistic and conceptual translation of Greek philosophy into Latin. Cicero’s Latin became the model for educated Latin style and usage under the Empire. His influence as a Latin stylist, thinker, and republican, was important on many generations of the more educated members of the aristocracy and the upper classes in Europe into the 19th century, because of the centrality of Latin  to elite education.

Cicero wrote a number of texts concerned with liberty apart from On the Republic, including On the Laws, On Duties as well as various texts about oratory, letters and speeches. Online versions of On the Republic can be found here and here. The book connects with the issue of the apparent lineage of Brutus the assassin of Caesar going back to Brutus overthrower of   monarchy, because it emphasises tradition. Laws are understood to be good if coming from venerable custom and that reinforced the arguments for a Senate connected with the Roman past through the ancestry emphasised by the aristocracy. Cicero was himself from a provincial family that had recently became rich, but felt that the connections of many other Senators with the deep Roman past was very valuable.

The aristocracy, organised politically in the Senate, provides the real heart of Cicero’s ideal republic as it provides a means of government midway between the disorder of democracy and the tyranny of one man rule. The people should have a share in the political system, but one constrained to prevent imbalances arising. Monarchy existed in the Roman republic, in the form the consuls who shared power for two years. Democracy existed in the role of citizen assemblies and tribunes who had veto powers and were elected by the lower classes as a guarantee of their rights.

Cicero saw the benefits of aristocratic power as a so great that except where the people had become unusually virtuous it is a good thing for the aristocracy to be able the how the lower classes voted, so that patrons could influence the votes of those who depended on them financially. This could be seen as very self-interested on the part of Cicero since he was a member of the aristocracy, but also fits in with his argument about the importance of avoiding the bad government of individuals with absolute power and of disorderly democratic assemblies. Both extremes are bad for a republic.

Cicero was certainly very horrified by the idea of a tyrant, suggesting that such people were vicious beasts and enemies of humanity. Unfortunately, like the other ancient thinkers, it just seemed obvious to him that Romans were a free people not worthy of slavery, while other peoples were worthy only of slavery. Roman readiness for liberty was based on customs and traditions that endured over the centuries.  Cicero’s vision of law was as the outcome of  virtue cultivated over over centuries.  Laws were based on what could be found in customs so reducing the chances of laws appearing that impinged on the rights of any citizen.

Cicero’s understanding of law, custom, rights, and virtue was rooted in Roman history, in which he thought the early Roman kings Romulus and Numa, had built the institutions needed  by a republic concerned with respect for a divine sanction underlying laws.  Cicero probably did not believe in the standard Roman paganism, but evidently thought it suitable for making the laws as respected as possible. Cicero’s view of virtue also led him to favour a republic not too open to trade and other forms of connection with the outside world. He thought that Rome’s position  on a river rather than the sea was ideal for keeping foreign influences down to an acceptable level. Carthage, Rome’s old enemy in what is now Tunisia, was less blessed in that it was a city on the sea and had been dominated by trade.

Cicero’s suspicions of trade and cosmopolitan interaction  was regrettable, but was part of the antique way of thinking in which individual liberty in a city rested on virtue, state enforcement of public behaviour, as was the responsibility of Roman ‘censors’, and  detachment from money making activities. Liberty could only fully existed where an aristocracy accustomed to self restraint dominated institutions in which the recklessness of the lower classes and the greed of those trying to rise up could be held down.

It was difficult for Cicero to imagine strong laws and institutions, as able to guarantee liberty, except in a society where the rapid innovations and changes of trade and commerce were sufficiently dampened to allow the old to remain in place. There are modern problems in integrating effective laws and institutions with change and variety, and no one had an obviously better idea of how find a balance than Cicero did in antiquity.

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