Our time’s new Romans
Raymond Ramirez | Tuesday, August 21, 2018
“I pledge allegiance to the flag … and to the Republic, for which it stands. …”
Here was the situation: politics had moved beyond philosophical discussions of how a group of people should be governed to heated exchanges and threats of physical violence. The populace had coalesced around two camps: those in power claiming to be true representatives of the nation’s ideals, and those who sought to regain control of the country for the good of the people. Because of divisions between the wealthy and working classes, and the growing imbalance in power between those groups, the nation was unstable, and politicians ignored oaths of loyalty to the Republic in order to forge shifting alliances to stay in control.
Matters grew so dire that one senator wore body armor under his clothing to preside over elections for leadership positions. This same senator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, had learned of seditious and treasonous conspiracies to undermine the government. Cicero delivered a scorching speech condemning Catiline, the leader of this insurrection, which allegedly would have included armed uprisings in Italy and the torching of Rome.
After Cicero’s speech, the conspirators were tried in the Senate. Julius Caesar defended their actions as justified, if somewhat extreme. Cicero called for the execution of the defendants, which was carried out on Cicero’s responsibility. Cicero announced their death to the throng assembled outside the Senate with the single word “vixerunt” — “they are dead.” Cicero had weaponized political speech.
Now that the immediate threat to the Republic had been put down, Cicero appealed for “concordia ordinum,” “concord between the classes.” For this effort, Cicero was hailed as the “father of his country.” This was the high point of Cicero’s political career, but ultimately sealed his fate. The ideals of the Republic, especially the constraints on power placed on elected leaders, did not sit well with certain ambitious men, all too keen on disrupting the existing order and seizing wealth and power in the ensuing chaos. Cicero’s defense of the Republic put him at odds with those ruthless parties that sided with Catiline. Caesar had already been branded by Cicero, through implication and association, as complicit with Catiline’s mutiny.
Caesar sought to diffuse Cicero’s rhetorical and political influence by inviting him to join the political alliance of Crassus, Pompey and himself. Cicero considered this First Triumvirate unconstitutional, and he declined. Cicero had also made a powerful enemy when he criticized and gave evidence against Publius Clodius on charges of profanity. Profane or not, Clodius became tribune, and Pompey, who Cicero considered an ally, refused to help. Clodius declared Cicero an exile, and Cicero fled Rome. Cicero eventually returned, aligned himself with Pompey, Caesar and Crassus, and then left public life. He served as a provincial governor, but by the time of his return, his predictions of disaster for the Republic had been realized.
Pompey and Caesar were struggling for power and civil war threatened to shatter the Republic. Cicero spoke with Caesar and bravely said he intended to propose in the Senate that Caesar should not pursue the war against Pompey any further. Other senators took more violent action to stop Caesar’s ascendancy.
Cicero was not involved in the assassination of Caesar, and he called for a general amnesty a few days after the killing. He returned to Rome and intended to use Caesar’s adopted son Octavian to declare war on Mark Antony, who now was pursuing one of the assassins. Octavian defeated Antony and marched on Rome to secure the consulship. Unfortunately for Cicero, Octavian — the future emperor Augustus — learned of Cicero’s dismissive remark that “the young man should be given praise, distinctions — and then be disposed of.” The Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Antony and Marcus Lepidus soon formed and Cicero paid for his hubris: his head and hands were displayed in Rome on the speakers’ platform at the Forum.
The rest is, as they say, history. Augustus became emperor, and the Republic faded into obscurity as Rome survived as an empire, shaped by a series of sometimes competent, but all too frequently, monomaniacal despots. But Cicero had warned of this eventuality in his speech aimed primarily at Catiline, but intended to caution against all those who praised the ideals of the constitutional Republic while undermining it for their own profit and power:
“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. … For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.”
You can recognize our time’s new Romans by their wretched appeals to the “baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.” Cicero, who spoke truth to the powerful, was not the enemy of the people. The true enemies were leaders that abandoned all concepts of consensus building and compromise, who sought to amass power and wealth for their own sake, and who convinced people to ignore base and immoral actions for false promises of security. Rome fell the moment its leaders forgot the Republic was the people.
Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.