Cicero: Roman Statesman Contribution to Latin Literature

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      Meanwhile, in the last age of the Republic, Latin prose had reached its full splendour in the hands of the most copious and versatile master of style whom the Graeco-Roman world had yet produced.

      The claims of Cicero to a place among the first rank of Roman statesmen have been fiercely canvassed by modern critics; both in oratory and philosophy some excess of veneration once paid to him has been replaced by an equally excessive depreciation. The fault in both estimates lay in the fact that they were alike based on secondary issues. Cicero's unique and imperishable glory is not, as he thought himself, that of having put down the revolutionary movement of Catiline, nor, as later ages thought, that of having rivalled Demosthenes in the Second Philippic, or confuted atheism in the De Natura Deorum. It is that he created a language which remained for sixteen centuries that of the civilised world, and used that language to create a style which nineteen centuries have not replaced, and in some respects have scarcely altered. He stands in prose, like Virgil in poetry, as the bridge between the ancient and modern world. Before his time, Latin prose was, from a wide point of view, but one among many local ancient dialects. As it left his hands, it had become a universal language, one which had definitely superseded all others, Greek included, as the type of civilised expression.

Thus the apparently obsolete criticism which ranked Cicero together with Plato and Demosthenes, if not above them, was based on real facts, though it may be now apparent that it gave them a wrong interpretation. Even Hellenists may admit with but slight reluctance that the prose of the great Attic writers is, like the sculpture of their contemporary artists, a thing remote from modern life, requiring much training and study for its appreciation, and confined at the best to a limited circle. But Ciceronian prose is practically the prose of the human race; not only of the Roman empire of the first and second centuries, but of Lactantius and Augustine, of the mediaeval Church, of the earlier and later Renaissance, and even now, when the Renaissance is a piece of past history, of the modern world to which the Renaissance was the prelude.
Cicero: as Roman Statesman

      Thus the apparently obsolete criticism which ranked Cicero together with Plato and Demosthenes, if not above them, was based on real facts, though it may be now apparent that it gave them a wrong interpretation. Even Hellenists may admit with but slight reluctance that the prose of the great Attic writers is, like the sculpture of their contemporary artists, a thing remote from modern life, requiring much training and study for its appreciation, and confined at the best to a limited circle. But Ciceronian prose is practically the prose of the human race; not only of the Roman empire of the first and second centuries, but of Lactantius and Augustine, of the mediaeval Church, of the earlier and later Renaissance, and even now, when the Renaissance is a piece of past history, of the modern world to which the Renaissance was the prelude.

      The life of Cicero as a man of letters may be divided into four periods, which, though not of course wholly distinct from one another, may be conveniently treated as separate for the purpose of criticism. The first is that of his immature early writings—poems, treatises on rhetoric, and forensic speeches—covering the period from his boyhood in the Civil wars, to the first consulship of Pompeius and Crassus, in 70 B.C. The second, covering his life as an active statesman of the first prominence, begins with the Verrine orations of that year, and goes down to the consulship of Julius Caesar, in 59 B.C. These ten years mark his culmination as an orator; and there is no trace in them of any large literary work except in the field of oratory. In the next year came his exile, from which indeed he returned within a twelvemonth, but as a broken statesman. From this point to the outbreak of the Civil war in 50 B.C., the third period continues the record of his great speeches; but they are no longer at the old height, nor do they occupy his full energy; and now he breaks new ground in two fields with works of extraordinary brilliance, the De Oratore and the De Republica. During the heat of the Civil war there follows a period of comparative silence, but for his private correspondence; then comes the fourth and final period, perhaps the most brilliant of all, the four years from 46 B.C. to his death in 43 B.C. The few speeches of the years 46 and 45 show but the ghost of former splendours; he was turning perforce to other subjects. The political philosophy of the De Republica is resumed in the De Legibus; the De Oratore is continued by the history of Roman oratory known as the Brutus. Then, as if realising that his true work in life was to mould his native language into a vehicle of abstract thought, he sets to work with amazing swiftness and copiousness to reproduce a whole series of Greek philosophical treatises, in a style which, for flexibility and grace, recalls the Greek of the best period—the De Finibus, the Academics, the Tusculans, the De Natura Deorum, the De Divinatione, the De Officiis. Concurrently with these, he continues to throw off further manuals of the theory and practice of oratory, intended in the first instance for the use of the son who proved so thankless a pupil, the Partitiones Oratoriae, the Topica, the De Optimo Genere Oratorum. Meanwhile, the Roman world had again been plunged into civil war by the assassination of Caesar.

      Cicero's political influence was no longer great, but it was still worth the while of younger and more unscrupulous statesmen to avail themselves of his eloquence by assumed deference and adroit flattery. The series of fourteen speeches delivered at Rome against Marcus Antonius, between September, 44, and April, 43 B.C., were the last outburst of free Roman oratory before the final extinction of the Republic. That even at the time there was a sense of their unreality—of their being rhetorical exercises to interest the capital while the real issues of the period were being fought out elsewhere—is indicated by the name that from the first they went under, the Philippics. In the epoch of the Verrines and the Catilinarians it had not been necessary to find titles for the weapons of political warfare out of old Greek history. Yet, in spite of this unreality, and of the decline they show in the highest oratorical qualities, the Philippics still remain a noble ruin of eloquence.

      Oratory at Rome had, as we have already seen, attained a high degree of perfection when Cicero entered on public life. Its golden age was indeed, in the estimation of some critics, already over; old men spoke with admiring regret of the speeches of the younger Scipio and of Gaius Gracchus; and the death of the great pair of friendly rivals, Crassus and Antonius, left no one at the moment who could be called their equal. But admirable as these great orators had been, there was still room for a higher formal perfection, a more exhaustive and elaborate technique, without any loss of material qualities. Closer and more careful study led the orators of the next age into one of two opposed, or rather complementary styles, the Attic and Asiatic; the calculated simplicity of the one being no less artificial than the florid ornament of the other. At an early age Cicero, with the intuition of genius, realised that he must not attach himself to either school. A fortunate delicacy of health led him to withdraw for two years, at the age of seven and twenty, from the practice at the bar, in which he was already becoming famous; and in the schools of Athens and Rhodes he obtained a larger view of his art, both in theory and practice, and returned to Rome to form, not to follow, a style. Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, the foremost representative of the Asiatic school, was then at the height of his forensic reputation. Within a year or two Cicero was recognised as at least his equal: it is to the honour of both, that the eclipse of Hortensius by his younger rival brought no jealousy or alienation; up to the death of Hortensius, about the outbreak of the Civil war, they remained good friends. Years afterwards Cicero inscribed with his name the treatise, now lost, but made famous to later ages by having been one of the great turning-points in the life of St. Augustine, which he wrote in praise of philosophy as an introduction to the series of his philosophical works.

      The years which followed Cicero's return from the East were occupied, with the single break of his quaestorship in Sicily, by hard and continuous work at the bar. His speeches of this date, being non- political, have for the most part not been preserved. The two still imperfectly extant, the Pro Roscio Comoedo of 76, and the Pro Tullio of 72 B.C., form, together with two other speeches dating from before his visit to the East, the Pro Quinctio and Pro Roscio Amerino, and, with his juvenile treatise on rhetoric known as the De Inventione, the body of prose composition which represents the first of his four periods. These early speeches are carefully composed according to the scholastic canons then in vogue, the hard legal style of the older courts alternating with passages of carefully executed artificial ornament. Their chief interest is one of contrast with his matured style; for they show, no doubt with much accuracy, what the general level of oratory was out of which the great Ciceronian eloquence sprang.

      In 70 B.C., at the age of thirty-six, Cicero at last found his great chance, and seized it. The impeachment of Verres for maladministration in the government of Sicily was a political trial of great constitutional importance. It was undertaken at the direct encouragement of Pompeius, who had entered on his first or democratic consulate, and was indirectly a formidable attack both on the oligarchic administration of the provinces and on the senatorian jury-panels, in whose hands the Sullan constitution had placed the only check upon misgovernment. The defence of Verres was undertaken by Hortensius; the selection of Cicero as chief counsel for the prosecution by the democratic leaders was a public recognition of him as the foremost orator on the Pompeian side. He threw himself into the trial with all his energy. After his opening speech, and the evidence which followed, Verres threw up his defence and went into exile. This, of course, brought the case to an end; but the cause turned on larger issues than his particular guilt or innocence. The whole of the material prepared against him was swiftly elaborated by Cicero into five great orations, and published as a political document. These orations, the Second Action against Verres as they are called, were at once the most powerful attack yet made on the working of the Sullan constitution, and the high-water mark of the earlier period of Cicero's eloquence. It was not till some years later that his oratory culminated; but he never excelled these speeches in richness and copiousness of style, in ease and lucidity of exposition, and in power of dealing with large masses of material. He at once became an imposing political force; perhaps it was hardly realised till later how incapable that force was of going straight or of bearing down opposition. The series of political and semi-political speeches of the next ten years, down to his exile, represent for the time the history of Rome; and together with these we now begin the series of his private letters. The year of his praetorship, 66 B.C., is marked by the two orations which are on the whole his greatest, one public and the other private. The first, the speech known as the Pro Lege Manilia, which should really be described as the panegyric of Pompeius and of the Roman people, does not show any profound appreciation of the problems which then confronted the Republic; but the greatness of the Republic itself never found a more august interpreter. The stately passage in which Italy and the subject provinces are called on to bear witness to the deeds of Pompeius breathes the very spirit of an imperial race. Throughout this and the other great speeches of the period "the Roman People" is a phrase that keeps perpetually recurring with an effect like that of a bourdon stop. As the eye glances down the page, Consul Populi Romani, Imperium Populi Romani, Fortuna Populi Romani, glitter out of the voluminous periods with a splendour that hardly any other words could give.

      The other great speech of this year, Cicero's defence of Aulus Cluentius Habitus of Larinum on a charge of poisoning, has in its own style an equal brilliance of language. The story it unfolds of the ugly tragedies of middle-class life in the capital and the provincial Italian towns is famous as one of the leading documents for the social life of Rome. According to Quintilian, Cicero confessed afterwards that his client was not innocent, and that the elaborate and impressive story which he unfolds with such vivid detail was in great part an invention of his own. This may be only bar gossip; true or false, his defence is an extraordinary masterpiece of oratorical skill.

      The manner in which Cicero conducted a defence when the cause was not so grave or so desperate is well illustrated by a speech delivered four years later, the Pro Archia. The case here was one of contested citizenship. The defendant, one of the Greek men of letters who lived in great numbers at Rome, had been for years intimate with the literary circle among the Roman aristocracy. This intimacy gained him the privilege of being defended by the first of Roman orators, who would hardly, in any other circumstances, have troubled himself with so trivial a case. But the speech Cicero delivered is one of the permanent glories of Latin literature. The matter immediately at issue is summarily dealt with in a few pages of cursory and rather careless argument; then the scholar lets himself go. Among the many praises of literature which great men of letters have delivered, there is none, ancient or modern, more perfect than this; some of the sentences have remained ever since the abiding motto and blason of literature itself.

 Haec studia, adolescentiam agunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solatium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur; and again, Nullam enim virtus aliam mercedem laborum periculorumque desiderat, praeter hanc laudis et gloriae; qua quidem detracta, iudices, quid est quod in hoc tam exiguo vitae curriculo, et tam brevi, tantis nos in laboribus exerceamus? Certe, si nihil animus praesentiret in posterum, et si quibus regionibus vitae spatium circumscriptum est, eisdem omnes cogitationes terminaret suas, nec tantis se laboribus frangeret, neque tot curis vigiliisque angeretur, neque teties de vita ipsa dimicaret.

      Strange words these to fall from a pleader's lips in the dusty atmosphere of the praetor's court! non fori, neque iudiciali consuetudine, says Cicero himself, in the few words of graceful apology with which the speech ends. But, in truth, as he well knew, he was not speaking to the respectable gentlemen on the benches before him. He addressed a larger audience; posterity, and the civilised world.

      The Pro Archia foreshadows already the change which was bound to take place in Cicero's life, and which was precipitated by his exile four years later. More and more he found himself forced away from the inner circle of politics, and turned to the larger field where he had an undisputed supremacy, of political and ethical philosophy clothed in the splendid prose of which he had now obtained the full mastery. The roll of his great speeches is indeed continued after his return from exile; but even in the greatest, the Pro Sestio, the Pro Caelio, the De Provinciis Consularibus of 56, or the In Pisonem and Pro Plancio of 55 B.C., something of the old tone is missing; it is as though the same voice spoke on a smaller range of notes and with less flexibility of cadence. And now alongside of the speeches begins the series of his works on oratory and philosophy, with the De Oratore of 55, and the De Republica of 54 B.C.

      The three books De Oratore are perhaps the most finished examples of the Ciceronian style. The subject (which cannot be said of all the subjects he deals with) was one of which, over all its breadth and in all its details, he was completely master; and, thus left unhampered by any difficulties with his material, he could give full scope to his brilliant style and diction. The arrangement of the work follows the strict scholastic divisions; but the form of dialogue into which it is thrown, and which is managed with really great skill, avoids the tediousness incident to a systematic treatise. The principal persons of the dialogue are the two great orators of the preceding age, Lucius Crassus and Marcus Antonius; this is only one sign out of many that Cicero was more and more living in a sort of dream of the past, that past of his own youth which was still full of traditions of the earlier Republic.

      The De Oratore was so complete a masterpiece that its author probably did not care to weaken its effect by continuing at the time to bring out any of the supplementary treatises on Roman oratory for which his library, and still more his memory, had accumulated immense quantities of material. In the treatise De Republica, which was begun in 54 B.C., though not published till three years later, he carried the achievement of Latin prose into a larger and less technical field—that of the philosophy of politics. Again the scene of the dialogue is laid in a past age; but now he goes further back than he had done in the De Oratore, to the circle of the younger Scipio. The work was received, when published, with immense applause; but its loss in the Middle Ages is hardly one of those which are most seriously to be deplored, except in so far as the second and fifth books may have preserved real information on the early history of the Roman State and the development of Roman jurisprudence. Large fragments were recovered early in the present century from a palimpsest, itself incomplete, on which the work of Cicero had been expunged to make room for the commentary of St. Augustine on the Psalms. The famous Somnium Scipionis, with which (in imitation of the vision of Er in Plato's Republic) the work ended, has been independently preserved. Though it flagrantly challenges comparison with the unequalled original, it has, nevertheless, especially in its opening and closing passages, a grave dignity which is purely Roman, and characteristically Ciceronian. Perhaps some of the elaborate fantasies of De Quincey (himself naturally a Ciceronian, and saturated in the rhythms and cadences of the finest Latin prose) are the nearest parallel to this piece in modern English. The opening words of Scipio's narrative, Cum in Africam venissem, Mania Manilio consuli ad quartam legionem tribunus, come on the ear like the throb of a great organ; and here and there through the piece come astonishing phrases of the same organ-music: Ostendebat autem Karthaginem de excelso et pleno stellarum inlustri et claro quodam loco. … Quis in reliquis orientis aut obeuntis solis, ultimis aut aquilonis austrive partibus, tuum nomen audiet? … Deum te igitur scito esse, siquidem deus est, qui viget, qui sentit, qui meminit, qui providet—hardly from the lips of Virgil himself does the noble Latin speech issue with a purer or a more majestic flow.

      During the next few years the literary activity of Cicero suffered a check. The course of politics at Rome filled him with profound disappointment and disgust. Public issues, it became more and more plain, waited for their determination, not on the senate-house or the forum, but on the sword. The shameful collapse of his defence of Milo in 52 B.C. must have stung a vanity even as well-hardened as Cicero's to the quick; and his only important abstract work of this period, the De Legibus, seems to have been undertaken with little heart and carried out without either research or enthusiasm. His proconsulate in Cilicia in 51 and 50 B.C. was occupied with the tedious details of administration and petty warfare; six months after his return the Civil war broke out, and, until permitted to return to Rome by Caesar in the autumn of 47 B.C., he was practically an exile, away from his beloved Rome and his more beloved library, hating and despising the ignorant incompetence of his colleagues, and looking forward with almost equal terror to the conclusive triumph of his own or the opposite party. When at last he returned, his mind was still agitated and unsettled. The Pompeian party held Africa and Spain with large armies; their open threats that all who had come to terms with Caesar would be proscribed as public enemies were not calculated to restore Cicero's confidence. The decisive battle of Thapsus put an end to this uncertainty; and meanwhile Cicero had resumed work on his De Legibus, and had once more returned to the study of oratory in one of the most interesting of his writings, the Brutus de claris Oratoribus, in which he gives a vivid and masterly sketch of the history of Roman oratory down to his own time, filled with historical matter and admirable sketches of character.

      The spring of 45 B.C. brought with it two events of momentous importance to Cicero: the final collapse of the armed opposition to Caesar at the battle of Munda, and the loss, by the death of his daughter Tullia, of the one deep affection of his inner life. Henceforth it seemed as if politics had ceased to exist, even had he the heart to interest himself in them. He fell back more completely than ever upon philosophy; and the year that followed (45–44 B.C.) is, in mere quantity of literary production, as well as in the abiding effect on the world of letters of the work he then produced, the annus mirabilis of his life. Two at least of the works of this year, the De Gloria and the De Virtutibus, have perished, though the former survived long enough to be read by Petrarch; but there remain extant (besides one or two other pieces of slighter importance) the De Finibus, the Academics, the Tusculans, the De Natura Deorum, the De Divinatione, the De Fato, the De Officiis, and the two exquisite essays De Senectute and De Amicitia.

      It is the work of this astonishing year which, on the whole, represents Cicero's permanent contribution to letters and to human thought. If his philosophy seems now to have exhausted its influence, it is because it has in great measure been absorbed into the fabric of civilised society. Ciceronianism, at the period of the Renaissance, and even in the eighteenth century, meant more than the impulse towards florid and sumptuous style. It meant all that is conveyed by the Latin word humanitas; the title of "the humaner letters," by which Latin was long designated in European universities, indicated that in the great Latin writers—in Cicero and Virgil preeminently—a higher type of human life was to be found than existed in the literature of other countries: as though at Rome, and in the first century before Christ, the political and social environment had for the first time produced men such as men would wish to be, at all events for the ideals of Western Europe. To less informed or less critical ages than our own, the absolute contribution of Cicero to ethics and metaphysics seemed comparable to that of the great Greek thinkers; the De Natura Deorum was taken as a workable argument against atheism, and the thin and wire-drawn discussions of the Academics were studied with an attention hardly given to the founder of the Academy. When a sounder historical method brought these writings into their real proportion, it was inevitable that the scale should swing violently to the other side; and for a time no language was too strong in which to attack the reputation of the "phrase-maker," the "journalist," whose name had once dominated Europe. The violence of this attack has now exhausted itself; and we may be content, without any exaggerated praise or blame, to note the actual historical effect of these writings through many ages, and the actual impression made on the world by the type of character which they embodied and, in a sense, created. In this view, Cicero represents a force that no historian can neglect, and the importance of which it is not easy to overestimate. He did for the Empire and the Middle Ages what Lucretius, with his far greater philosophic genius, totally failed to do—created forms of thought in which the life of philosophy grew, and a body of expression which alone made its growth in the Latin-speaking world possible; and to that world he presented a political ideal which profoundly influenced the whole course of European history even up to the French Revolution. Without Cicero, the Middle Ages would not have had Augustine or Aquinas; but, without him, the movement which annulled the Middle Ages would have had neither Mirabeau nor Pitt.

      The part of Cicero's work which the present age probably finds the most interesting, and the interest of which is, in the nature of things, perennial, has been as yet left unmentioned. It consists of the collections of his private letters from the year 68 B.C. to within a few months of his death. The first of these collections contains his letters to the friend and adviser, Titus Pomponius Atticus, with whom, when they were not both in Rome, he kept up a constant and an extremely intimate correspondence. Atticus, whose profession, as far as he had one, was that of a banker, was not only a man of wide knowledge and great political sagacity, but a refined critic and an author of considerable merit. The publishing business, which he conducted as an adjunct to his principal profession, made him of great use to Cicero by the rapid multiplication in his workshops of copies of the speeches or other writings for which there was an immediate public demand. But the intimacy was much more than that of the politician and his confidential adviser, or the author and his publisher. Cicero found in him a friend with whom he could on all occasions be perfectly frank and at his ease, and on whose sober judgment and undemonstrative, but perfectly sincere, attachment his own excitable and emotional nature could always throw itself without reserve. About four hundred of the letters were published by Atticus several years after Cicero's death. It must always be a source of regret that he could not, or, at all events, did not, publish the other half of the correspondence; many of the letters, especially the brief confidential notes, have the tantalising interest of a conversation where one of the speakers is inaudible. It is the letters to Atticus that place Cicero at the head of all epistolary stylists. We should hardly guess from the more formal and finished writings what the real man was, with his excitable Italian temperament, his swift power of phrase, his sensitive affections.

      The other large collection of Cicero's letters, the Epistolae ad Familiares, was preserved and edited by his secretary, Tiro. They are, of course, of very unequal value and interest. Some are merely formal documents; others, like those to his wife and family in book xiv., are as intimate and as valuable as any we possess. The two smaller collections, the letters to his brother Quintus, and those to Marcus Brutus, of which a mere fragment is extant, are of little independent value. The Epistolae ad Familiares include, besides Cicero's own letters, a large number of letters addressed to him by various correspondents; a whole book, and that not the least interesting, consists of those sent to him during his Cilician proconsulate by the brilliant and erratic young aristocrat, Marcus Caelius Rufus, who was the temporary successor of Catullus as the favoured lover of Clodia. Full of the political and social gossip of the day, they are written in a curiously slipshod but energetic Latin, which brings before us even more vividly than Cicero's own the familiar language of the upper classes at Rome at the time. Another letter, which can hardly be passed over in silence in any history of Latin literature, is the noble message of condolence to Cicero on the death of his beloved Tullia, by the statesman and jurist, Servius Sulpicius Rufus, who carried on in this age the great tradition of the Scaevolae.

      It is due to these priceless collections of letters, more than to any other single thing, that our knowledge of the Ciceronian age is so complete and so intimate. At every point they reinforce and vitalise the more elaborate literary productions of the period. The art of letter- writing suddenly rose in Cicero's hands to its full perfection. It fell to the lot of no later Roman to have at once such mastery over familiar style, and contemporary events of such engrossing and ever-changing interest on which to exercise it. All the great letter-writers of more modern ages have more or less, consciously or unconsciously, followed the Ciceronian model. England of the eighteenth century was peculiarly rich in them; but Horace Walpole, Cowper, Gray himself, would willingly have acknowledged Cicero as their master.

      Caesar's assassination on the 15th of March, 44 B.C., plunged the political situation into a worse chaos than had ever been reached during the Civil wars. For several months it was not at all plain how things were tending, or what fresh combinations were to rise out of the welter in which a vacillating and incapable senate formed the only constitutional rallying-point. In spite of all his long-cherished delusions, Cicero must have known that this way no hope lay; when at last he flung himself into the conflict, and broke away from his literary seclusion to make the fierce series of attacks upon Antonius which fill the winter of 44–43 B.C., he may have had some vague hopes from the Asiatic legions which once before, in Sulla's hands, had checked the revolution, and some from the power of his own once unequalled eloquence; but on the whole he seems to have undertaken the contest chiefly from the instinct that had become a tradition, and from his deep personal repugnance to Antonius. The fourteen Philippics add little to his reputation as an orator, and still less to his credit as a statesman. The old watchwords are there, but their unreality is now more obvious; the old rhetorical skill, but more coarsely and less effectively used. The last Philippic was delivered to advocate a public thanksgiving for the victory gained over Antonius by the consuls, Hirtius and Pansa. A month later, the consuls were both dead, and their two armies had passed into the control of the young Octavianus. In autumn the triumvirate was constituted, with an armed force of forty legions behind it. The proscription lists were issued in November. On the 7th of December, after some aimless wandering that hardly was a serious effort to escape, Cicero was overtaken near Formiae by a small party of Antonian troops. He was killed, and his head sent to Rome and displayed in the senate-house. There was nothing left for which he could have wished to live. In the five centuries of the Republic there never had been a darker time for Rome. Cicero had outlived almost all the great men of his age. The newer generation, so far as they had revealed themselves, were of a type from which those who had inherited the great traditions of the Republic shrank with horror. Caesar Octavianus, the future master of the world, was a delicate boy of twenty, already an object of dislike and distrust to nearly all his allies. Virgil, a poet still voiceless, was twenty-seven.

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