Cicero may very well have been the first genuine asshole. He wasn’t always appreciated as such. During more noble and naïve times, people seem to have accepted his rather moralistic tracts like ‘On Duties’ and ‘On Old Age’ as untainted wisdom handed down through the eons. This, supposedly, was a gentle man doing his best in a corrupted age. It was easier to palate that kind of interpretation during Medieval and early Renaissance times because many of his letters had been lost and forgotten. But Petrarch found some of them again around 1345 and the illusion of Cicero’s detached nobility became distinctly more difficult to pass off. Reading his letters, you can’t help but feel that Cicero really was a top-notch asshole. He schemed and plotted with the best of them. His hands were never anything but soiled.
Now, I think it may be clear that I come to praise Cicero, not to bury him. Even in calling him an asshole I’m handing him a kind of laurel. Because it is the particular and specific way that he was an asshole that picks him up out of history and plunks him down as a contemporary, as someone even more accessible after over two thousand years than many figures of the much more recent past. Perhaps this is a function of the way that history warps and folds. The period of the end of the Roman Republic in the last century BC speaks to us in ways that even more recent historical periods do not. Something about its mix of corruption and verve, cosmopolitanism and rank greed, self-destructiveness and high-minded idealism causes the whole period to leap over itself. And that is Cicero to a ‘T’. He is vain and impetuous, self-serving and conniving. He lies and cheats and he puffs himself up in tedious speech after tedious speech. It’s pretty remarkable. But he loved the Republic for what he thought it represented and he dedicated his life, literally, to upholding that idea in thought and in practice.
In what may be the meanest and most self-aggrandizing public address of all time, the Second Philippic Against Antony, Cicero finds himself (as usual) utterly blameless and finds Antony (as usual) guilty of almost every crime imaginable. It’s a hell of a speech, called a ‘Philippic’ because it was modeled after Demosthenes’ speeches against King Philip of Macedon, which were themselves no negligible feat in nasty rhetoric.
One can only imagine the electric atmosphere around Rome as Cicero spilled his vitriol. Caesar had only recently been murdered. Sedition and civil war were in the air. Antony was in the process of making a bold play for dictatorial power. Cicero, true to his lifelong inclinations, opposes Antony in the name of the restoration of the Republic and a free society. In his first Philippic, Cicero aims for a mild rebuke against Antony. Antony responds with a scathing attack. This unleashes the Second Philippic. “Unscrupulousness is not what prompts these shameless statements of yours,” he writes of Antony, “you make them because you entirely fail to grasp how you are contradicting yourself. In fact, you must be an imbecile. How could a sane person first take up arms to destroy his country, and then protest because someone else had armed himself to save it?”
Cicero’s condescension is wicked. “Concentrate, please—just for a little. Try to make your brain work for a moment as if you were sober.” Then he gets nasty. Of Antony’s past: “At first you were just a public prostitute, with a fixed price—quite a high one too. But very soon Curio intervened and took you off the streets, promoting you, you might say, to wifely status, and making a sound, steady, married woman of you. No boy bought for sensual purposes was ever so completely in his master’s powers as you were in Curio’s.”
Cicero finishes the speech off with a bit of high-minded verbal self-sacrifice:
Consider, I beg you, Marcus Antonius, do some time or other consider the republic: think of the family of which you are born, not of the men with whom you are living. Be reconciled to the republic. However, do you decide on your conduct. As to mine, I myself will declare what that shall be. I defended the republic as a young man, I will not abandon it now that I am old. I scorned the sword of Catiline, I will not quail before yours. No, I will rather cheerfully expose my own person, if the liberty of the city can be restored by my death.
May the indignation of the Roman people at last bring forth what it has been so long laboring with. In truth, if twenty years ago in this very temple I asserted that death could not come prematurely upon a man of consular rank, with how much more truth must I now say the same of an old man? To me, indeed, O conscript fathers, death is now even desirable, after all the honors which I have gained, and the deeds which I have done. I only pray for these two things: one, that dying I may leave the Roman people free. No greater boon than this can be granted me by the immortal gods. The other, that every one may meet with a fate suitable to his deserts and conduct toward the republic.
If the lines are a bit much, remember that Cicero was to be decapitated by Antony’s men not long afterward, and, for good measure, to have his tongue ripped out of his severed head by Antony’s wife, so that she might get final revenge on his powers of speech. It’s not every asshole that garners such tributes.
Around the time that he re-discovered some of Cicero’s letters, Petrarch started writing his own letters to his erstwhile hero. In the first, Petrarch writes,
Of Dionysius I forbear to speak; of your brother and nephew, too; of Dolabella even, if you like. At one moment you praise them all to the skies; at the next fall upon them with sudden maledictions. This, however, could perhaps be pardoned. I will pass by Julius Caesar, too, whose well-approved clemency was a harbour of refuge for the very men who were warring against him. Great Pompey, likewise, I refrain from mentioning. His affection for you was such that you could do with him what you would. But what insanity led you to hurl yourself upon Antony? Love of the republic, you would probably say. But the republic had fallen before this into irretrievable ruin, as you had yourself admitted. Still, it is possible that a lofty sense of duty, and love of liberty, constrained you to do as you did, hopeless though the effort was. That we can easily believe of so great a man. But why, then, were you so friendly with Augustus? What answer can you give to Brutus? If you accept Octavius, said he, we must conclude that you are not so anxious to be rid of all tyrants as to find a tyrant who will be well-disposed toward yourself. Now, unhappy man, you were to take the last false step, the last and most deplorable. You began to speak ill of the very friend whom you had so lauded, although he was not doing any ill to you, but merely refusing to prevent others who were. I grieve, dear friend at such fickleness. These shortcomings fill me with pity and shame. Like Brutus, I feel no confidence in the arts in which you are so proficient.
Indeed, it seems that Cicero was just a fickle man looking out for Number One, and maybe he’d stumble across a little glory in the process. Still, even that isn’t entirely fair. As Petrarch admits in his disappointed letter, some concept of the Republic and human freedom was driving Cicero all along. But the Republic was always a sullied thing, even from the beginning. The concept of freedom was always mixed up with self-interest and the less-than-pure motivations of human creatures. Cicero got himself tangled up in the compromised world of political praxis precisely because he was uninterested in a concept of freedom that hovered above the actual world with practiced distaste and a permanent scowl. I like to think of him as an asshole because I like to think of him as one of us, neck-deep in a river of shit and trying his best to find a foothold, one way or another. Dum vita est, spes est (‘While there’s life, there’s hope’).