Elizabeth Rawson - "Cicero; A Portrait"

I wish I could find a simple way to convince people to read about one of my heroes, Marcus Tullius Cicero.  Today he seems so remote.  However a very great deal of our modern world (our laws, our language, our philosophy) is founded upon his thinking. And for those of you who are interested in Shelley, Cicero is actually extremely important.  Shelley was very familiar with his writings and said of him, "Cicero is, in my estimation, one of the most admirable characters in the world." Much of the underpinning for Shelley's philosophical skepticism is derived from his reading of Cicero; whose philosophical dialogues are cited in his letters as a "favourite".  The "Tusculan Disputations" were an extremely important source for aspects of "Prometheus Unbound". If you want to know Shelley, you must understand Cicero.

Early manuscript copy of The Tuscan Disputations

Early manuscript copy of The Tuscan Disputations

Elizabeth Rawson's biography of Cicero is probably the ONE indispensable modern portrait that we have. Cicero has, of course, been the subject of innumerable books. His importance to any understanding of his age (or indeed our own) simply can not be underestimated. So prolific was he that during the middle ages he was actually thought by many to have been two people: Tullius and Cicero! He was referred to as "Tully" by generations of aristocrats who often gave this name to their daughters. Sir John Harrington poignantly brought Cicero to the attention of the Elizabethan generation with his moving translation of what he called , "Cicero's Book of Friendship" (he was also the inventor of the flush toilet!!). Today we know this volume as "On Friendship" and I much recommend it.  Cicero was, in short, revered.

However, Cicero's reputation has, of late, suffered somewhat. A fantastic example of this is the crudely distorted and utterly unhistorical treatment he receives in one of the books in Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" series. I remember how excited I was when the first of these books appeared: "The First Man in Rome".  It was fantastic! But the series seemed to steadily deteriorate in quality and coherence from volume to volume - it was as if she started mailing it in. By the time she reached the fourth volume, "The October Horse" McCullough's abject and unreasoned hero worship of Caesar had reached its apogee and her vilification of Cicero had reached its nadir. The books were becoming unreadable.   In McCullough's portrayal, Cicero, the greatest orator of his age (and one of the greatest in history), squeaks and grovels his way through some of the most momentous moments in Roman history. McCollough (who comically purports in one of her "After Words" to have her "nose glued to the historical record") is not alone -- but her supposedly "historical" portrait surely remains the most distempered and dyspeptic view of Cicero in recent memory. She should, were she alive, be ashamed.

Rawson, on the other hand,  offers a readable, erudite, accessible biography that canvasses all of the important aspects of Cicero's life and thought. It is true that she is sympathetic and an admirer, but she is not blind to his many foibles.

As a young man I had a perhaps unreasoning admiration for Cicero. I held him in a somewhat old-fashioned esteem.  I confess I named a succession of dogs after him - though not a daughter!

But it was Rawson who provided me with the necessary perspective on him. You really need no other. I think that what is important about this volume is the careful attention devoted to Cicero's political and philosophical works. Mary Beard has best described what we were all waiting for: "a biographical account that tried to explore the way his life-story has been constructed and reconstructed over the last two thousand years; how we have learned to read Cicero through Jonson, Voltaire, Ibsen and the rest; what kind of investment we still have, and why, in a thundering conservative of the first century BC and his catchy oratorical slogans. Why, in short, is Cicero still around in the 21st century? And on whose terms?" Her review of Anthony Everitt's much inferior biography can be found here.

Cicero's reputation gets a much needed shot in the arm in Rawson's volume. She writes, "whatever the shortcomings of Cicero's political works, there is no evidence that any of his contemporaries understood the problems of the time as clearly or indeed produced nearly so positive a contribution towards solving them as he did."

Her penultimate chapter on his final year in Rome also offers a closely argued reassessment of his place in the "final conflict". In Rawson's view, it was in 43 BCE that he became the "true ruler of Rome" -- for however brief a period.

This book is filled with little gems. It is often remarked that one of Cicero's principal contributions to Rome was his elevation of the Latin language itself. But it was unknown to me that words such as "quality", "essence" and "moral" were first found in Cicero (though derived from Greek roots).
Also reproduced here are some of the marvelous witticisms for which he was so justly famous. Upon hearing that Brutus deemed Caesar to have "joined the boni" (by which he meant the privileged class), Cicero remarked that he did not know "where Caesar would find them, unless he first hanged himself." Cicero is also famous for the oft quoted expression "O tempore, O mores" which we can translate as "Oh what times! Oh what customs!" This was a phrase designed to deplore the viciousness and corruption of his age and comes from his famous attack on Cataline that began, "How far, then Cataline, will you go on abusing our patience. How long, you madman, will you mock at our vengeance? Will there be no end to your unbridled audacity".

Perhaps the most poignant assessment of Cicero was Plutarch's, though he puts the words in, of all people, Augustus' mouth. According to Plutarch, Augustus discovers one of his grandsons reading a volume of Cicero. The terrified boy trembles while his grandfather leafs through the book at length. At last the great emperor hands the book back with the famous words: "an eloquent man, my boy, an eloquent man....and a patriot."

Cicero is one of the most important personages in all of history. Indeed it is almost impossible for us to understand the roots of our culture unless we understand him. Percy Bysshe Shelley commented in one of his letters that he admired him above all other writers - a reason to love Shelley and a reason to love Cicero. If you read nothing else of him, read this wonderful book.