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Anthony Everitt: Cicero: The Life And Times Of Rome's Greatest Politician

Even as the Roman Empire's borders spread and its wealth grew, it was haunted by the specter of its past, in which governmental power flowed not from a succession of emperors, but from representatives elected by the citizenry. If that specter had a face, it might have looked like Cicero's. Possibly no man believed in the fading Republic more than Cicero, the orator, politician, and author whose death (if any single event can symbolize so massive a transition) signaled the permanent replacement of the Roman Republic with the Imperial Age. In the introduction to Cicero, author Anthony Everitt laments the semi-obscurity that has overtaken his subject as Latin has disappeared from the standard course of study. As an attempt to rescue Cicero for post-Latin generations, Everitt's book is a tremendous success. A scholar and journalist of art and culture making his first attempt at biography, Everitt assumes a lack of knowledge on the part of his reader, and without condescension, re-creates the world while re-creating the man. He idealizes neither. In spite of their guiding principles, the politics of Cicero's age turned ugly with astounding frequency; the exchange of ideas in the Senate were sometimes echoed in the clash of armed thugs on the surrounding streets. Setting out from little-respected middle-class beginnings, Cicero quickly learned how to negotiate this world, and Everitt paints him as a man of unwavering ideals, but also as a consummate politician, willing to make substantial compromises if the ends justified them. The character sketch comes as much from Cicero himself as from latter-day conjecture. A man of words, he left behind speeches, philosophical treatises, and (perhaps most useful for a biographer) voluminous correspondence with a close confidante. What emerges is a character of little outright contradiction, but much inconsistency: a man of unrivaled rhetorical prowess who occasionally fell victim to paralyzing lapses in confidence, a man capable of private self-effacement who still published much-mocked poems chronicling his political career. Those efforts aside, Cicero's writing continues to exert a powerful influence on political thought today. This legacy has made him immortal, but Everitt helps restore him as the key figure of his day, the last of the old age's stalwarts. Two attempts to destroy the Republic bookended his career. One, led by a would-be tyrant named Catalina, he defeated, leading to decades of influence and a few years of outright power. The other defeated him. After surviving a relationship with Julius Caesar that was by turns warm, wary, and outwardly hostile, and which left the orator banished from Rome for several years, Cicero became too great a liability for the man who would be Augustus, and he lost his life for it. Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of Everitt's book—as much a compelling narrative as a vivid illustration of the past—comes from the way he makes Cicero's final chapters feel like the final chapters of the world in which he lived.

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