Why did Cicero fail to Save the Republic?

44 BCE is unanimously regarded as a defining moment in the history of Rome, possibly the date which marks the dusk of its Republic and the dawn of roman imperialism[1]. Having seen both the zenith and nadir of Caesar, he who was in this very year declared dictator for life and assassinated, any statesman who still held the Republic to be a desirable constitution had every right to be concerned for its longevity at this time. As the foremost advocate for a Republican Rome, it was now that Cicero played his final hand in an attempt to save it from slipping into absolute autocracy. Nevertheless, as history shows, Cicero’s wish was not fulfilled and Octavian was soon to become the emperor Augustus. Why did he fail? The possible reasons for this are numerous, but a few seem more plausible than others. Of these points, I shall propose the two categories of long-term and short-term factors that led to Cicero’s failure.

I deem the most significant long-term argument to be that Rome was simply too far into the throes of change for Cicero to be able to succeed; his task was impossible. The death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE marked the beginning of a steady constitutional flux that was inexorably trending towards the structural crisis that was wracking Rome by 44. With powerful individuals becoming less and less reserved about calling for reform and making other bold political demands, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Rome, with its city-state type government to keep tabs on the myriad of ambitious office-holders and military men spanning a vast Mediterranean infrastructure. The resultant culture of self-interest within the senate was a demonstrative microcosm of the political attitude throughout Rome; few politicians would have been willing to adhere to Cicero’s plans for the Republic.

I put forth two short-term factors. The first was Cicero’s failure to successfully regain control of the political reins in the wake of Caesar’s death. The power and influence he had gained from diverting the Catiline Conspiracy had waned. After the Ides of March, Cicero had found an implacable enemy in Mark Antony and an opposition that simply would not acquiesce to his desires to maintain political conservatism, as presented in his Philippics. The second point is that Cicero’s position as a statesman and not a general worked against him. The opposition he faced in preserving the Republic was focussed around the military men of Octavian, Mark Antony, Lepidus, Hirtius and Pansa, to name but a few. In the battles of Forum Gallorum and Mutina were the new political figureheads decided. In his robed position as a statesman during a period decided by war, Cicero’s influence would have diminished to the point where he ceased to be a person of political significance. 

By 44 BCE, Rome was experiencing a fundamental structural crisis. Not only had colonial expansion increased rapidly under Caesar with the annexing of Gaul and the extending of Roman borders to the Rhine and Britain, but Cicero’s beloved concordia had already crumbled back into the feuding self-interest of class conflict, lending credence to my view that Rome’s only viable solution by this time was the installation of some autocratic power. Cicero was faced with a remarkably difficult, if not impossible task in defending the Republic. As Rome’s conquests spread across a pan-Mediterranean swathe on the map, Mommsen was right to suggest that Rome’s city-state government – whilst adequate for the administration of Italy – began to become ineffective[2]. As the economy grew, with transmarine trading, the opportunities for ambitious parvenus grew in parallel, birthing an influential merchant class of publicani and equites who began to inject their own self-interested ideas into Rome’s politics[3]. Consequently, Rome’s political power was split into the conservative senatorial aristocracy of the optimates, the merchant class, the radical populares eventually led by Caesar and the plebs as represented by tribunes. Though Cicero had successfully cemented these classes into a temporary concord following the denouement of the Catiline Conspiracy, the inherent tensions and inevitability of class conflict rendered such concord unsustainable. By 44 BCE, Cicero had already been torn from the favour of the optimates for maintaining favour with Pompey earlier[4], and he was seen as a sympathiser of, if not complicit in, Caesar’s assassination[5]. The essential task for saving the Republic was to re-fuse these parties together, but as shown, each party’s self-interest was rather incompatible with another’s. Gruen offers the alternative view that Rome’s administration was always adequately equipped to deal with its expansive infrastructure, regarding the view that a structural crisis brought down the Republic as illusory.[6] However, his argument fails to deal with the new powers of an Emperor. True, Caesar maintained similar checks on the tenures of officials in the provinces[7], and even under Augustus the moral decline so abhorred by Sallust continued as evidenced by predatory magistrates reaping the rewards of colonial guardianship[8], yet the key difference between these situations in the Republic and then the Empire was where the power was held. Before Augustus held absolute imperium, crises that arose could only be dealt with via a convoluted system whereby the senate, holding auctoritas and not potestas, would merely advise temporary office holders as to how to enact solutions. Given the vicissitudes of the Conflict of the Orders from 133, having an autocratic power on hand to quell threats to Rome’s wellbeing was the natural next step in constitutional evolution. Gruen is correct to state that little changes drastically, but the key transition of power was of utmost importance, rendering Cicero helpless to prevent it. Meier puts forth a more credible argument for a ‘crisis without an alternative’[9]. Reasonably distinguishing the opposing groups as either conservative defendants of the Old Republic or radicals pushing for dictatorial or monarchical rule, there was no room, or no advocates, for a New Republic; it was either to be a Republic or an Empire[10]. Furthermore, Meier draws attention to Caesar’s character, and the incredibly high standards of personal achievement he set for himself[11]. Igniting the civil war to gain dignitas, by 44 BCE he had demonstrated the possibility of an exceptional individual to gain absolute power, inexorably paving the way for Antony and Octavian to vie for equal or greater position. Cicero, faced with a senate still rooted in the attitude of mos maiorum, could not have convinced a following great enough to accept significant constitutional change whilst maintaining the form of a Republic. It was instead in the hands of industrious generals to force the transition to an Empire.

Regarding short term factors offering reasons as to why Cicero failed to save the Republic in 44-43, his series of orations to the senate, his Philippics, cannot be overlooked. These fourteen speeches were the backbone of his attempt, and the magnum opus of his return to politics. With them, he intended to regather the power he had previously lost, and become again the pilot of Rome, steering her Republic clear of danger and back onto a safe course. However, this attempt to take the reins failed because the opposition he faced in 44-43 was simply too implacably arrayed against him, the political situation too turbulent for him alone to calm. Antony’s prime advocate was Calenus, father in law of the consul-elect Pansa, who was charismatic and influential enough in the senate to keep Cicero’s demands at bay. Cicero was ultimately without reliable allies, and any attempt would have been doomed to failure. Possibly the key element to his Philippics was the flagrant eulogizing of Octavian set against the anathema of Mark Antony, ascribing to the former the epithet ‘god sent child’ of ‘divine wisdom and courage’[12] and the latter a ‘sheep’ and styled him an enslaver of the people[13]. I would have this interpreted as an idiosyncratic play by Cicero to set the two biggest powers in Rome against each other, but one fundamental reason behind Cicero’s eventual failure was the unexpected joining of Octavian and Antony. This is not to say Cicero’s prolific output towards realising his ends was not without some reward; Tempest is right to note that though Cicero never enjoyed supremacy in these years, he did win his battle with the senate until the April of 43 (Antony declared enemy of the state), but his part in the ongoing war was over[14]. Nevertheless, it is clear that rhetoric could only go so far in a game played by so many men with legions, and despite the influence of the Philippics, Cicero – now merely a wizened ex-consul and fount of advice– lacked the political sway to ensure Octavian and Antony would behave as he desired[15].      

Arguably the most significant events of 43 BCE were the two battles of Forum Gallorum and Mutina. The military nature of these moments immediately tore the power from Cicero. Not a commander, their consequences excluded him, putting Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian into the drivers’ seats as the second Triumvirate. I posit the view that the conflict was the result of Cicero’s Philippics, and thus part of his attempt to save the Republic, and yet as Kathryn Tempest appositely suggests, a gamble[16]. A gamble which ultimately did not pay off. Cicero needed to eliminate Mark Antony, who held some military power and Caesarean support and was attempting to condemn Cicero as a warmonger. Making the case that peace was undesirable ‘because it is disgraceful, because it is dangerous, because it is not possible’[17], Cicero pushed for war against Antony. By the 26th of April, the senate had agreed to declare Mark Antony an enemy of the state. Now given the friction between followers of the various caesarean factions and the old optimates, the senate was by no means in a stable condition at this point. The moderate nature of the two Caesarean consuls Hirtius and Pansa in 43 BCE had allowed Cicero to form rudimentary bridges between the factions opposing Antony, and was consequently given some leeway over the senate as a guide. It has been rightly pointed out that the deaths of both of these consuls at Mutina rocked the political scene enough to require serious realignment of these factions[18], the adhesive – albeit a weak one – formerly connecting them having been stripped away. Cicero himself remarked to Decimus Brutus in the aftermath ‘the senate was my weapon, but now that has fallen apart’[19]. Furthermore, with the consuls dead, those forces now under Decimus Brutus were (as was to be expected) reluctant to serve under an assassin of their beloved Caesar. With Cicero rapidly losing control of the situation, the eventual alliance of Lepidus with Antony, and then the decisive turning of Octavian ensured Cicero was completely removed from any power whatsoever. Having attempted to initiate a war with the intent to eliminate Antony and thereon civil strife, he had simply exacerbated the Republic’s eventual fall by putting power straight into the hands of new triumvirs. In his own words, ‘it seems the war has not been extinguished at all, but rather it has been inflamed’[20].

To conclude most succinctly, Cicero failed to save the Republic because he could not succeed. The existing constitution was being harangued constantly by new disruptions and threats, so even if it was still at this time equipped to administrate across its territory in a time of peace, the growing turmoil that had sparked in 133 BCE needed the firm hand of a monarchical figure to be extinguished. Cicero was also faced with an overly-conservative senate, which was reluctant to reform its Republican constitution democratically, ensuring the required change was being put into motion by ambitious individuals who had seen the success of Caesar. Finally, Cicero’s direct involvement with politics in 44-43 was limited to his rhetoric and writings. For all the power he wielded with words, the vying for power over Rome was being battled out with swords and legions. Blood and steel saw the forging of the second Triumvirate, and the consequent proscription of Cicero.

Οὖτις

Bibliography:

  • Beard, M. and Crawford, M. (1985) Rome in the Late Republic, Problems and Interpretations, 2nd London: Duckworth.
  • Cicero and Shuckburgh, E.S. (1908) The Letters of Cicero; the whole extant correspondence in chronological order, in four volumes. London: George Bell and Sons.
  • Cicero and Yonge, C.D. (1891) The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero. London: George Bell and Sons.
  • Greenough, J. B. (1902) Select orations and letters of Cicero. Fascimile.
  • Meier, C. edited by Raaflaub, K.A. and Toher, M. (1993) Between Republic and Empire; Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate.
  • Mommsen, T. and Dickson, W.P. (2010) The History of Rome.
  • Plutarch and Perrin, B. (1919) Plutarch’s Lives.
  • Sallust and Watson, J. S. (1899) Conspiracy of Catiline. Harper & Brothers.
  • Tempest, K. (2011) Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome.

[1] cf. Beard (1985)

[2] Mommsen (2010)

[3] Beard 1985:64,70

[4] Powell 1998

[5] Greenough 1902, Cicero, Philippics 1.8

[6] Gruen 1974:502-503

[7] Cicero, Philippics 1.19

[8] Sallust, Conspiracy of Catiline

[9] Meier 1993:55

[10] ibid

[11] Cicero, Ad Atticus 7.5

[12] Cicero, Pro Marcello 29

[13] Plutarch, Cicero 49.4

[14] Tempest 2011:201

[15] cf. Greenough 1902

[16] Tempest 2011:201-210

[17] Cicero, Philippics 7.9

[18] Tempest 2011:201-202

[19] Cicero, Familiares 11.14

[20] Cicero, Familiares 11.12