Roman Period: Cicero versus Caesar: Were Cicero’s Contributions as a Political Figure Ultimately More Responsible and Significant Than Caesar’s?

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Editors: Paul Allen Miller and Charles Platter
Date: 2005
From: History in Dispute(Vol. 20: Classical Antiquity and Classical Studies. )
Publisher: St. James Press
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 6,473 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1430L

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Roman Period: Cicero versus Caesar: Were Cicero’s Contributions as a Political Figure Ultimately More Responsible and Significant Than Caesar’s?

Two writers and politicians of genius loom large over the last century of the Roman Republic. In many ways Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.E.) and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) are mirror images. Both were masters of the Latin language; both were interested in the theory as well as the practice of rhetoric; and both were adept at navigating the shifting alliances and factional infighting that characterized the final decades of the Republic. For all their similarities, however, two more dissimilar characters can hardly be imagined.

Caesar was born into a patrician family, which though it had not been of the highest political prominence in recent generations, nevertheless had genuine claims to grandeur. In politics, Caesar was generally a supporter of the populares, or those who allied themselves with the people, as opposed to the traditional oligarchic elite. Caesar also proved to be a military man of genius and, with the campaign in Gaul, was able to establish an independent power base outside the shifting sands of Roman political alliances. This would prove decisive when his final break with Pompey came.

In literary matters Caesar was an advocate of the plain style. His prose is restrained and a model of Latinity. The stylistic tic for which he is best known is in many ways symptomatic of his political acuity: his Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars are written in the third person. The effect is one of distance and objectivity. In fact, the Commentaries are elaborately staged pieces of propaganda that inevitably show Caesar to his best advantage. Nonetheless, the touch is light and often goes unnoticed.

Caesar was an impatient innovator who, in his attempt to reform the Roman Republic, destroyed it. His assassination, however, did not restore the old order but sealed its doom. Cicero was fundamentally a conservative who looked back to a perceived Golden Age of republican rule. His ideal was the concordia ordinum, or consensus of the orders, which was a compact between Roman society’s two top echelons: the senatorial and equestrian orders.

Cicero’s nostalgia is ironic because he, unlike Caesar, was an outsider to the Roman political system. A novus homo from a prominent family in Arpinum, Cicero entered Roman politics without an established base. He rose to the rank of consul on the powers of his oratorical brilliance. Consequently, however, he was always dependent upon other, more powerful men from traditional aristocratic families, chief among them Pompey. These were men who not only brought with them established political alliances but also considerable Page 213  |  Top of Articlemilitary experience. They did not hesitate to abandon the brilliant Cicero when political expediency demanded it.

Cicero was an advocate of the middle style. His prose is more elaborate than Caesar’s and more explicitly self-congratulatory, but he also left a body of rhetorical theory, as well as political and moral philosophy, that is unrivaled in classical Latin. His Philippics against Marc Antony are not only rhetorical masterpieces but also examples of true political courage in the resistance to incipient tyranny. He was willing to die for his principles. Caesar more often killed for his.

Paul Allen Miller

Viewpoint: Yes. Cicero was a true statesman who dedicated himself to expanding the intellectual and moral frontiers of his compatriots

Who was the greater statesman, Cicero or Caesar? The answer to that question, of course, largely depends on how we define the word statesman, which is surely a word laden with heavy baggage. Would anyone, for example, refer to a woman—even Catherine the Great, to take a notable example—as a statesman? Imagine trying to feminize the word by changing it to stateswoman, or trying to render it neutral by saying statesperson. The fact is that the word remains inextricably tied to the male gender and can really be applied only to men. In trying to decide whether Cicero or Caesar was the greater statesman, then, we must take care to keep all the baggage firmly in mind.

According to Caesar’s biographer, Matthias Gelzer, there are two qualities that characterize a statesman:

One is a quick grasp of and prompt reaction to the circumstances with which he is faced: this can save the needs of the moment by allowing him to take account of existing trends with a clear head. The second, and nobler, is creative political ability, which can lead the statesman’s contemporaries in new directions and itself create new circumstances. (Caesar, p. 1)

Gelzer’s definition, of course, requires that we tip the scales in favor of Caesar, who is known for his legendary swiftness and the cataclysmic changes he brought to the Roman political order. Caesar had, as Michael Grant says, “an abnormally energetic ability to get things done,” and he also had the ability to get them done with extraordinary speed (The Twelve Caesars, pp. 31-33, cited by Barbara McManus, Cicero, on the other hand, took time—sometimes, perhaps, too much time—mulling over difficult issues and proper courses of action, and thus he is often accused of weakness and vacillation. If the race goes to the swift, we must suppose that Caesar would clearly take the prize.

Caesar’s opponents, several of whom would eventually become his assassins, were quick to note that he could be ruthless in the pursuit of his goals. Yet, this ruthlessness is a characteristic often admired, and even required, in politicians. Thus, Niccoló Machiavelli, who based much of his political theory upon a careful study of the ancient Romans, argued that a leader must be ruthless and unyielding if he is to succeed in effecting real and lasting change. Cicero, on the other hand, was deficient in ruthlessness and possessed an abundance of the warmth and humanity that Caesar seemed to lack. Did this make Cicero less of a statesman? Perhaps so, in the brutal world of realpolitik inhabited by strongmen like Alexander the Great, whom Caesar sought to emulate (Suetonius, Julius Caesar 7, in The Twelve Caesars, p. 16), Napoleon, who sought to emulate Caesar, and, of course, Caesar himself. Not so, however, in the eyes of countless others—among them the eminently realistic Voltaire, who says that Cicero “taught us how to think” (cited by Grant in his introduction to Cicero, Selected Works, p. 30), and the founders of the United States of America, who revered Cicero for his courageous and eloquent stand against tyranny.

Unlike the patrician Gaius Julius Caesar, who came from one of Rome’s oldest and most noble families, Marcus Tullius Cicero was not born to the purple. Indeed, he was not even born in Rome. He came from the small town of Arpinum, which was also the hometown of the upstart general Gaius Marius. Cicero’s family was not a poor one. He received the best education his father’s money could buy, and there were powerful connections that made it possible for him to contemplate a bright future in Rome. He made the most of those advantages, quickly establishing himself as the preeminent lawyer in Rome and reaching the successive levels of the senatorial ladder, normally reserved for members of the Roman aristocracy, at the earliest eligible age. Although he made the compromises that then and now seem necessary for establishing a career in law and politics, his rise to eminence was marked by an abiding concern for justice and decency. In the case that carried him to the top of the Roman legal pyramid, for example, he

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For Cicero, it may be said, was the one man, above all others, who made the Romans feel how great a charm eloquence lends to what is good, and how invincible justice is, if it be well spoken; and that it is necessary for him who would dexterously govern a commonwealth, in action, always to prefer that which is honest before that which is popular, and in speaking, to free the right and useful measure from everything that may occasion offence. An incident occurred in the theater, during his consulship, which showed what his speaking could do. For whereas formerly the knights of Rome were mingled in the theater with the common people, and took their places among them as it happened, Marcus Otho, when he was praetor, was the first who distinguished them from the other citizens and appointed them a proper seat, which they still enjoy as their special place in the theater. This the common people took as an indignity done to them, and, therefore, when Otho appeared in the theater they hissed him; the knights, on the contrary, received him with loud clapping. The people repeated and increased their hissing; the knights continued their clapping. Upon this, turning upon one another, they broke out into insulting words, so that the theater was in great disorder. Cicero being informed of it, came himself to the theater, and summoning the people into the temple of Bellona, he so effectually chid and chastised them for it, that again returning into the theater they received Otho with loud applause, contending with the knights who should give him the greatest demonstrations of honor and respect.

Source: Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated by John Dryden (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952),p. 709.

offered a passionate and supremely effective prosecution of the corrupt Gaius Verres, who had committed frightful abuses while he was governor of Sicily, where Cicero himself had once held public office, serving as quaestor.

By 63 B.C.E., when he was forty-three years old, this small-town boy had climbed to the highest rung of the Roman political ladder, the consulship. The major event of his term was the suppression of an attempted coup d’état by Lucius Sergius Catiline, a frustrated radical of noble birth whose supporters were rumored to include not only the immensely wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus but also Julius Caesar himself, ambitious as always but cash starved at this stage of his career. Cicero reckoned that he had saved Rome and its republic by defeating Catiline, but he also felt that the Roman establishment never gave him the credit he deserved for doing so. Indeed, his insistence on receiving due recognition for his accomplishments sometimes comes to resemble an obsession, giving fuel to his detractors, who accuse him of vanity, weakness, and insecurity.

The defeat of Catiline did not put an end to the crisis plaguing the Roman political order, and three years later the three most powerful figures of the time—Caesar, Crassus, and the preeminent general Gnaeus Pompeius—made an illegal backroom agreement to divide the power of the state among themselves. Cicero was asked to join the deal but refused to do so, on the grounds that it posed a mortal threat to the Roman constitution. The result was that Cicero went into political eclipse. Only a few years later he was condemned to endure a year of exile, and the confiscation of his property, for his role in executing some of Catiline’s accomplices.

In the meantime, Caesar’s star was rising. After serving as consul in 59, he was awarded the governorship of Gaul, where his phenomenal success as a military commander gave him an army on whose loyalty he could count and where he made himself a wealthy man, all the while extending the sphere of Roman power. While Caesar was in Gaul, however, his opponents back in Rome worked against him, eventually winning his one-time ally Pompey to their cause. In 49 the Senate ordered Caesar to give up his command and return to Rome. Return he did, but he brought his army along with him, thus fomenting the civil war that put a definitive end to the tottering Roman Republic. Pompey and his allies abandoned Rome for Greece, where they were pursued by Caesar, who defeated them in 48. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered, leaving Caesar in sole control of the Roman world. He continued to exercise and augment this power until 44, the year of his assassination.

Cicero’s detractors, taking full advantage of our access to his private correspondence, which is often unflattering, are fond of claiming that these years did not comprise his finest hour. Yet, what could he do? Returning from exile, he remained on the sidelines, watching the Republic spin toward its eventual destruction. Both sides courted him, but he kept his distance, fearing that, no matter which side won, the result would be tyranny. Writing to his friend Atticus in the month following the outbreak of the civil war (Selected Works, p. 80), Cicero poses a series of questions that should haunt any thoughtful and decent person caught in his dilemma:

Should one stay in one’s country even if it is
under totalitarian rule?

Is it justifiable to use any means to get rid of
such rule, even if they endanger the whole fab-
ric of the state? Secondly, do precautions have
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to be taken to prevent the liberator from
becoming an autocrat himself?

If one’s country is being tyrannized, what are
the arguments in favour of helping it by verbal
means and when occasion arises, rather than
by war?

Is it statesmanlike, when one’s country is
under a tyranny, to retire to some other place
and remain inactive there, or ought one to
brave any danger in order to liberate it?

If one’s country is under a tyranny, is it right
to proceed to its invasion and blockade?

Ought one, even if not approving war as a
means of abolishing tyranny, to join up with
the right-minded party in the struggle against

Ought one in matters of patriotic concern to
share the dangers of one’s benefactors and
friends, even if their general policy seems to be
unwise? (Letters to Atticus 9.4, in Selected Works,
 p. 80)

Cicero’s final question is deeply personal: if someone has done great services for his country and been treated shamefully on that account, should he voluntarily endanger himself on behalf of his country, or is he permitted to think of himself and his family, and refrain from fighting against those in power? Face-to-face with a world of violence and chaos, Cicero asks the questions we all ought to ask—and they are surely questions eminently befitting a true statesman.

His detractors also tend to gloss over the fact that during his years of political marginalization Cicero, like Winston Churchill, closer to our own time and also a powerful orator, produced a torrent of writing. The list is astounding, covering the entire gamut of humanistic learning—and, indeed, giving the humanities their name. The years running from 55 to 44, the penultimate year of his life, witnessed the appearance of a series of works whose influence on subsequent ages, from Rome right up to our own time, is incalculable. Those works include On the Orator On the State, On Laws, the Hortensius, the Academic Treatises, On the Highest Degrees of Good and Evil, the Tusculan Disputations, On Divination, On Destiny, On Duties, On Old Age, On Friendship, and On the Nature of the Gods. All the while, of course, Cicero continued to pursue his legal career and even served an obligatory but unwelcome year as governor of Cicilia.

In the tumultuous months following the assassination of Caesar, Cicero, who was now sixty-two years old, was once again drawn into the center of political life. The vacuum left by Caesar’s death was being quickly filled by Marc Antony, but Cicero felt that Antony’s power could be checked and some semblance of republican

Modern bust of the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher Cicero, who favored a return to republican order following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 Modern bust of the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher Cicero, who favored a return to republican order following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. (Museum of the Capitol, Rome)

order restored. On 31 August 44, nearly twenty years after he had taken decisive action against the threat posed by Catiline, he took another courageous and fateful step, delivering a speech against Antony in the Senate. This was the first in a series of fourteen Philippics, which took their title from the speeches the great Athenian orator Demosthenes had delivered against Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Although Cicero’s speech was somewhat moderate, Antony’s reaction was not. Cicero responded by writing and circulating his Second Philippic, which Grant aptly describes as “the most famous and effective of all political pamphlets” (in his introduction to the Second Philippic, in Cicero, Selected Works, p. 101). Though never actually delivered as a speech, the Second Philippic remains a work of unparalleled eloquence, an impassioned defense of liberty and a profound expression of genuine patriotism. After beseeching Antony to think of his country, Cicero concludes with a look back at his own career:

if, nearly twenty years ago, I declared in this very temple that death could not come prematurely to a man who had been consul, how much greater will be my reason to say this again now that I am old. After the honors that I have been awarded, Senators, after the deeds that I have done, death actually seems to me desirable. Two things only I pray for. One, Page 216  |  Top of Articlethat in dying I may leave the Roman people free—the immortal gods could grant me no greater gift. My other prayer is this: that no man’s fortunes may fail to correspond with his service to our country! (Second Philippic 119, in Selected Works, pp. 152-153)

His words make it plain that Cicero felt he was risking his life in coming out against Antony.

He was. It would not be long before the young Octavian, declared in Caesar’s will to be his adopted son and heir, decided to throw in his lot with Antony, thus dashing Cicero’s last hopes for the life of the republic—and for his own. When the list of losers and potential threats, all marked for death, was drawn up, Cicero’s name, along with the names of his brother and nephew, was on it. On 7 December 43, after a halfhearted attempt at escaping to Greece, Cicero was killed.

Many years later, Octavian, who had long since disposed of Antony and was now known as Caesar Augustus, came upon one of his nephews reading a book by Cicero. The boy was terrified, but the great Augustus merely took the book from him and stood there reading it. He handed it back with the following words: “A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country” (Plutarch, Cicero 49, in Fall of the Roman Republic, pp. 360-361). At this point in his life, perhaps, even the mighty Augustus might have come to suspect that Cicero was more worthy than his own foster father.

Who was the greater of the two? Gelzer, cited at the beginning of this essay, says that the noblest characteristic of a statesman is “creative political ability,” which can lead people in new directions and create new circumstances. For all his failings, Cicero possessed this quality in abundance. In a life marked by tireless and ultimately courageous work, he gave his fellow Romans a clear vision of what their political life could—and should—be. Cicero, like the rest of us, could not break free of cultural constraints (he was, for example, a staunch believer in Rome’s right to subdue and rule “inferior” peoples), yet he managed to reach beyond his culture and his contemporaries, bequeathing to the generations to come, including our own, some of their noblest ideals.

Perhaps the final answer should be left to Caesar himself, who, we should remember, would have delivered his assessment while Cicero was still alive. Cicero, according to Caesar, had reached greater heights than any victorious general. “It is more important,” Caesar said, “to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman empire” (Pliny, Natural History 7.117). Caesar, of all people, would have known the truth; his judgment should therefore be our own.


Viewpoint: No. Cicero failed to recognize the fundamental currents of political change occurring around him. Caesar, by contrast, not only diagnosed the crisis correctly but was also able to act decisively to shape events

In his pairs of Parallel Lives, the Greek author Plutarch, who surveys several centuries of Greek and Roman history from the vantage point of the second century of the Roman Empire, compares many Greek and Roman statesmen with each other. The choice of whom to pair with whom is not undertaken lightly, and so we should take due note of the fact that Plutarch links Cicero with Demosthenes, and Caesar with Alexander. His rationale appears to be the following: Cicero and Demosthenes were great orators, whose “cause” was ultimately lost—in Cicero’s case preserving the Roman Republic; in Demosthenes’ case staving off Macedonian dominance of Greece—while Caesar and Alexander were political and military prodigies (flawed, certainly) who changed the world and the course of history. In one sense, Plutarch has it right: just as he would never have dreamed of putting Cicero and Caesar in the same category, so it is Caesar’s political genius that makes him not only a greater statesman than Cicero, but also perhaps the greatest of all Roman statesmen.

The question as to whether Cicero or Caesar was the greater statesman has its origin in the work of the German historian Theodor Mommsen, who praised Caesar as the ideal statesman and criticized Cicero as a political trimmer who stood in the way of his progress. Since Mommsen, various others have taken up the issue, and a range of opinions has resulted, some championing Caesar, some Cicero, and some attempting to steer a middle course. The question has rarely been pursued without drawing parallels with recent history and contemporary political leaders, which is what makes the debate especially fraught. It has proved virtually impossible to speak of Caesar, for instance, without making references to such figures as Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. There is no agreement as to what constitutes a statesman either: a general notion of three qualities—an ability to respond to a crisis, a creative political vision, and a lasting impact on future development—seems to be about as close as one can get to anything like consensus.

Caesar and Cicero were born roughly contemporaneously into different family circumstances—the former into a venerable clan of Page 217  |  Top of Articlepolitically savvy nobles, the latter into a respectable provincial family without a political pedigree—but into the same, crisis-ridden political circumstances. It has been speculated that they both might have witnessed young Pompey’s Triumph in 81 B.C.E., sanctioned by the Senate in contravention of the rules, and the political careers of these three men were to become intricately bound up with each other. The last century of the Roman Republic was marked by continual struggle between forces that would eventually tear it apart: between the Senate and other classes that sought power, between civilian authority and the implicit power of large armies, and between powerful individuals jockeying for position as supreme man in the state. The underlying factor was the reluctance of the Senate to share what had hitherto been its exclusive right to rule with the various groups that had newly arrived on the political scene: the business classes, urban masses, Italian allies, and the army as it had been reformed by Marius. Consequently, the last century of the Republic has frequently been characterized by the terms crisis and revolution. Personal ties and obligations, money and bribery, violence and military force were the means by which this cataclysmic political struggle was played out.

Contrary to some claims, the interweaving of politics, money, and the military was not something invented by Caesar. He simply proved far more effective at exploiting it than his rivals. Much has been made of Caesar’s “ruthlessness” and “unscrupulousness” in pursuit of power and his own interests, the ultimate proof of which is his fateful decision to make war on his own country by crossing the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E. Yet, it must be remembered that Cicero, who is often hailed as the great champion of the laws and certainly presented himself as such, on more than one occasion went beyond what was legal in the cause of defending the Republic, as he saw it. Having already skirted the edges of legality in his punishment of the leaders of Catiline’s “conspiracy” in the late 60s, he was considerably bolder in his final struggle with Antony after Caesar’s death in seeking to deny him his lawful authority as a consul. He also argued in one of his series of outspoken speeches against Antony (Philippic 11.27) that Brutus and Cassius should wage war against Dolabella on behalf of the Republic, even though they held no legal command, giving as justification the fact that they had already constituted “their own Senate” on occasion. One can imagine that he made many remarks of this ilk in his later, admittedly extreme, circumstances. In defense of the Senatorial elite, then, Cicero was willing to adopt tactics that were not so different from Caesar’s when it suited him. The notion that Cicero heroically strove to uphold the laws while Caesar simply overrode them to get his way is, therefore, a vast oversimplification. In connection with this, we should also consign the pejorative term Caesarism to the cultural history of the nineteenth century, where it was coined and where it belongs. Used to describe a form of rule based on military power, disguised under the cloak of a legitimate monarchy, and accompanied by the preservation of Republican institutions in name but not in reality, Caesarism was rightly dismissed by Marx as a “schoolboy expression” that was of no value in understanding either Caesar or history. It also serves little to ruminate too much on whether or not Caesar wanted to be made “king” of Rome: the evidence is too contradictory and vague to allow us to reach a firm conclusion on this matter. It is clear that he sought and accepted unprecedented individual power as dictator perpetuus, but what the future extent and direction of this would have been had he not been assassinated remains an area for speculation and argument. We cannot assume that all of Cicero’s fears would have been realized, nor that they were reasonable: one historian, Andreas Alfõldi, regarded the regime that Cicero fought to preserve as “a collective monarchy of nobles who were sucking the blood from the Empire like leeches.” In Cicero’s treatise on political theory, On the Republic, moreover, he actually promotes the idea of a “leader” or “director” of the state (rector or moderator rei publicae), which may not have been all that different from Caesar’s vision of his own role.

If we are to assess who was the greater statesman, then, we must evaluate both men in the context of the political circumstances of the late Republic, rather than through the lenses of later history, and we should try to do so according to as neutral and basic a definition of a statesman as possible: (1) one who takes a leading role in the affairs of the body politic, (2) one who is skilled in managing political affairs for the common good, and (3) one who shows political vision in responding to a crisis.

With regard to involvement in politics, it is generally agreed that from 59 until 44 Cicero was basically impotent in the face of more powerful individuals to effect policy. He presents himself in his triumph of putting down the Catilinarian conspiracy as the savior of Rome and the Republic, but he indicates that the Senatorial elite was never sufficiently grateful to him for this. Sallust’s monograph about the conspiracy tells a more complex story than Cicero’s own words: in it the debate between Cato and Caesar, between the forces of reaction and change, is central, while the role of Cicero the consul is peripheral. Caesar’s speech, moreover, exhibits a political sophistication and rhetorical skill far beyond that we find in Cicero’s Catilinarian speeches. Three years later Cicero found himself

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This love of honor and passion for distinction were inspired into them and cherished in them by Caesar himself, who, by his unsparing distribution of money and honors, showed them that he did not heap up wealth from the wars for his own luxury, or the gratifying of his private pleasures, but that all he received was but a public fund laid by the reward and encouragement of valor, and that he looked upon all he gave to deserving soldiers as so much increase to his own riches. Added to this also, there was no danger to which he did not willingly expose himself, no labor from which he pleaded an exemption. His contempt of danger was not so much wondered at by his soldiers because they knew how much he coveted honor. But his enduring so much hardship, which he did to all appearance beyond his natural strength, very much astonished them. For he was a spare man, had a soft and white skin, was distempered in the head and subject to an epilepsy, which, it is said, first seized him at Corduba. But he did not make the weakness of his constitution a pretext for his ease, but rather used war as the best physic against his indispositions; whilst, by indefatigable journeys, coarse diet, frequent lodging in the field, and continual laborious exercise, he struggled with his diseases and fortified his body against all attacks. He slept generally in his chariots or litters, employing even his rest in pursuit of action. In the day he was thus carried to the forts, garrisons, and camps, one servant sitting with him, who used to write down what he dictated as he went, and a soldier attending behind him with his sword drawn. He drove so rapidly that when he first left Rome he arrived at the river Rhone within eight days. He had been an expert rider from his childhood; for it was usual with him to sit with his hands joined together behind his back, and so to put his horse to its full speed. And in this war he disciplined himself so far as to be able to dictate letters from on horse-back, and to give directions to two who took notes at the same time or, as Oppius says, to more. And it is thought that he was the first who contrived means for communicating with friends by cipher, when either press of business, or the large extent of the city, left him no time for a personal conference about matters that required despatch. How little nice he was in his diet may be seen in the following instance. When at the table of Valerius Leo, who entertained him at supper at Milan, a dish of asparagus was put before him on which his host instead of oil had poured sweet ointment, Caesar partook of it without any disgust, and reprimanded his friends for finding fault with it. “For it was enough,” said he, “not to eat what you did not like; but he who reflects on another man’s want of breeding, shows he wants it as much himself.” Another time upon the road he was driven by a storm into a poor man’s cottage, where he found but one room, and that such as would afford but a mean reception to a single person, and therefore told his companions places of honor should be given up to the greater men, and necessary accommodations to the weaker, and accordingly ordered that Oppius, who was in bad health, should lodge within, whilst he and the rest slept under a shed at the door.

Source: Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated by John Dryden (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), pp. 583-584.

excluded from political influence when he refused to join the triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey and even was exiled from the city for a year. There is no doubt that Cicero was a man of importance—and even more of moral stature—in Republican politics, and that is why both Caesar and Pompey assiduously courted him before the Civil War began, but he should be seen more as a kind of “elder statesman” figure or, in modern American terms, more like a venerable senator than a statesmanlike president. When we compare his record with Caesar’s, who managed to direct affairs at Rome even when he was absent on military campaigns in Gaul, and who was almost always at the center of things, it is clear that Cicero was much more successful in the realm of the philosophical and moral discussion of political affairs than he was in the real political arena. When he did end up in the center of things, opposing Antony in a last-ditch attempt to save the system he valued, Cicero showed personal courage and some quick thinking, but, however much he is to be praised for his stand, it remains true that he was simply overwhelmed by historical forces.

As far as concerns managing affairs for the common good—and, after all, what use is a statesman if he does not have the common good in Page 219  |  Top of Articlemind?—Caesar deserves credit for his practice of treating neutrals as friends and his famous clemency (clementia) toward his former enemies. Although this clemency was a powerful political and ideological weapon, often deployed with the most cynical motives, and although his opponents saw it—correctly—as pardoning those over whom he had no legal authority, it does indicate an “inclusive” and pragmatic perspective befitting a true statesman. Beyond this, we may consider Caesar’s legislation, on which one expert, Zvi Yavetz, comments as follows, after surveying the 38 laws associated with him: “Caesar was a popular leader because the basic needs of the people were his primary consideration. He distributed land in Italy and in the colonies, provided for the corn supply, for the relief of debts, and took care of rent problems. For the masses, he organized entertainments, distributed gifts and benefits, provided conditions to ensure an increase in the birth-rate and his huge development projects produced an income for thousands” (211-212). There is, moreover, a discernible thread of rational reorganization running through Caesar’s legislative program, typified by his reformation of the Roman calendar. Bringing the calendar year into harmony with the astronomical year was a long overdue reform, and removing from priests the power to insert days and months at will was an entirely sensible step. Although they were clearly not designed to strengthen the role of the Senate, the Caesarian laws are not those of an extremist or a revolutionary; rather, they constitute a moderate effort to extend the base of the government in a way that Rome had often done before. This was appropriate and indeed necessary, given the fact that it was now responsible for the administration of a large empire.

This brings us to the third criterion for statesmanship: political vision in response to a crisis. Cicero tended to see the crisis in the Republic in moral terms, as a struggle between the good men (boni)— those for the most part like himself—and the bad (improbi)—those who threatened the Senatorial order. Because his thinking was in this and in so many other ways “unpolitical,” he was unable to recognize the impossibility of governing a huge empire with the institutions of a city-state, whereas Caesar diagnosed the problem and came up with one solution, namely his appointment as dictator for life. Exactly how much “vision” this shows has been hotly debated: some argue that he set in motion the process that resulted in Augustus’s final constitutional settlement later, but others would say that he cannot be credited with this. It has been suggested that Caesar knew how to get monarchical power, but not what to do with it. In fact, if anyone, it is Cicero who is to be credited with Augustus’s much more tentative Principate

Statue of Julius Caesar, conqueror of Gaul and victor in the Roman civil war, first century Statue of Julius Caesar, conqueror of Gaul and victor in the Roman civil war, first century B.C.E. (Robert Harding Picture Library, London)

and for his making at least the pretense that the Republic had been “restored.” It was Cicero’s legacy, says Christian Habicht (99), “more than anything else, that made it virtually impossible for Augustus to follow in Caesar’s footsteps. Cicero, therefore, was responsible for the concessions which the new monarchic system made to republican tradition.” Of course, these concessions did not last much beyond Augustus himself, so one might conclude that Caesar’s vision—albeit one based on personal ambition—proved the more accurate in the long run. Indeed, according to the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Caesar’s monarchy was historically and objectively “necessary,” demanded by the circumstances since “the democratic constitution could no longer be really maintained.”

In conclusion, we can say that both Caesar and Cicero wanted to be leaders of the Roman state—and perhaps to be the most important individual in the political landscape—but, while Caesar for the most part succeeded in achieving this goal, Cicero’s efforts more often than not ended in failure. In assessing the “statesmanship” Page 220  |  Top of Articleof each, it is vital to separate Cicero the man, with all his outstanding intellectual talents and contributions to Roman culture (in rhetoric, philosophy, theology and so on), from Cicero the politician. Likewise, we must distinguish between Caesar the politician and Caesar the brilliant general, captivating writer, and charismatic individual. Caesar’s aristocratic background gave him the skills and resources that he needed to manipulate both friends and enemies; Cicero’s status as an outsider never allowed him full access to the web of power. Caesar’s charismatic personality, imbued as it was with decisiveness, quickness, and flexibility, proved to be an effective asset in the turbulent and unpredictable world of Roman politics; Cicero’s more cautious and reflective personality, accompanied by what even his admirers admit was a certain injudiciousness of speech and a tendency to push himself forward when it might have been wiser to stay in the background, did not serve him so well in these conditions. Although neither man lacked courage and determination, Caesar has to be reckoned the greater statesman of the two.



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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2878000037