When writer Caitlin Flanagan announced the opening of the University of Austin — a proposed private liberal arts college that is “anti-cancel culture” and welcomes academics treated like “thought criminals” — in November, she made a strange claim: that Cicero defended the dying Republic (apparently against Julius Caesar).
Cicero, had Twitter existed during his time, would be immensely pleased to see this — he had often said he “saved the state,” from the Catilinarian Conspiracy — an abortive attempt to overthrow the economic and political power of the Roman state.
Cicero was Rome’s leading public speaker and one of its two consuls. Although his political powers were diminished in later years, his public and private correspondence provides a detailed look at political life in Rome.
Conservative writers often use him as an example of someone who defended the Republic by standing up to Caesar or stood up for Rome’s constitution in the face of executive overreach. Some even believe that Cicero “nobly held the Republic together” during the last decades of the Republic, or even that “he serves as the republic itself.”
Cicero himself promoted this view, but modern historians see it differently. Although he privately disapproved of Caesar’s power, Cicero publicly supported him and directly contributed to the end of the Roman Republic — the reign of Caesar’s nephew Augustus.
Cicero and Caesar
Many people have heard of Caesar’s dictatorship. But they might be less aware that Caesar became dictator after a civil war between himself and his friend and rival, Pompey the Great, or that “dictator” was a legal office in the Roman Republic.
The unusual thing about Caesar’s dictatorship didn’t come until a month before his death, when Caesar was named “dictator perpetuo” or “dictator in perpetuity.” This event arguably triggered his assassination.
Once Caesar had been installed as the head of the Roman state, Cicero quickly became a member of the dictator’s “court.” This was humiliating and alienating for him.
Cicero tried to spin his position as useful: he could use his close contact with Caesar to win extra pardons. But he wasn’t successful in convincing everyone. Those who eventually assassinated Caesar didn’t trust him enough to join their plot.
Although he had been happy to learn of Julius Caesar’s assassination, Cicero supported Caesar’s young nephew, who would later become Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.
Cicero promoted Augustus’ interests until Augustus turned on him. Augustus found a better ally in Antony — Caesar’s former right-hand man who had replaced him as Rome’s quasi-legal leader.
Augustus and Anthony teamed up with a third man in what is now called the Second Triumvirate. To support this political program, they initiated a purge targeting wealthy citizens whose estates could fund their army. Political enemies were also targeted, and at the top of the list was Cicero.
Although it is tempting to fit Cicero into the template of a martyr, his contemporaries had a different view.
Upon his return, he wrote works of political philosophy, including On the State, a work which promoted the idea of benevolent dictatorship as a stabilizing measure. Cicero had achieved his political aims before his exile by invoking what I have called a “rhetoric of terror” to ensure his extrajudicial murders would not be questioned.
Ancient historians, as well as modern scholars, struggled with Cicero’s legacy. Writing shortly after Cicero’s death, the historian Livy admitted that Cicero’s death was tragic, but “he suffered at the hands of his enemy no more cruel fate than he would himself have inflicted had he been equally fortunate.”
Confusing what Cicero had actually said and done throughout his life for a heroic character “Cicero” who died for the Republic has become commonplace.
Intended to persuade
Cicero’s silver tongue secured his reputation. His speeches are masterpieces of rhetoric and remained part of an elite education from his own day until the early 20th century. But we shouldn’t forget that they are rhetorical, and therefore they are intended to persuade, not to inform.
In talking about the University of Austin, Flanigan said: “We have a strange little goal: we’re going to teach you to think for yourself. Then you’ll be free.” But “thinking for yourself” is smoke and mirrors; everyone thinks their own thoughts. But thinking critically, the goal of a university education, requires asking hard questions.
Cicero co-operated with Caesar to save his life; he promoted Augustus to powers outside of constitutional norms to regain clout after Caesar’s death; he advocated political murder not only once, but multipletimes.
Oddly enough, conservatives remember Cicero’s “willingness to surrender power for the sake of the republic.” But they should reconsider. Because he isn’t a model for saving the state, but a symbol of the political calculations and binary thinking that destroyed it.