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1094 words

Tricks of the trade

18 April 2013

Rome’s greatest orator has a message for the current generation of political leaders, says Brett Evans


The intellectual in politics: Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882–88.

The intellectual in politics: Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882–88.

How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders
By Marcus Tullius Cicero | Edited by Philip Freeman | Princeton University Press | $19.95

A statesman, to paraphrase Harry Truman, is just a dead politician. On this basis, Marcus Tullius Cicero – who was elected consul of Rome in 64BC – has been a statesman for quite some time.

During his life, Cicero was a success at many things. He was a brilliant lawyer, a superb Latin stylist, a respected philosopher, and – by many accounts – the greatest orator of the ancient world. Like a Roman Clive James, he was a brilliant bunch of guys. But to the man himself these accomplishments were just a means to an end. In his own mind, Cicero was above all else that most derided of men: he was a politician. He wanted power, and he wanted to run things. And, most importantly, he regarded his political career as a noble vocation. So noble, in fact, that he was willing to die for his political beliefs.

In the years after Cicero’s consulship, Rome descended into despotism. Dismayed that the republic he so loved was being destroyed, Cicero unwisely used a series of speeches to excoriate the Roman Empire’s new ruler, Mark Antony. In 43BC Antony had him hunted down. “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly,” were reportedly his last words. Then his head was cut off; and with that, according to the lesser-known of the two Truman Doctrines, the politician became a statesman.

For over 2000 years Cicero has been remembered by politicians across the globe and down the ages as one of history’s wise old owls, someone who was erudite, admirable, courageous and quotable. From emperors down to deputy mayors, political leaders have relied on Statesman Cicero to give a patina of often unjustified learning to the most boring of after-dinner speeches. Even in our own time, when an education in the Classics no longer marks someone out as fit for higher office, Cicero still maintains a concession on a stall in the marketplace of ideas.

Last year Philip Freeman, who holds the Qualley Chair of Classical Languages at Iowa’s Luther College, had an unexpected hit with a short book called How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, reviewed in Inside Story last year. Freeman had translated a letter written to Cicero by his brother Quintus on the dark arts of electoral politics. Despite its antiquity, that cynical but down-to-earth treatise on how to make sure people vote for you, written by the man who was effectively Cicero’s campaign manager, still resonates today.

Freeman has followed up that success with this new book, which takes the story beyond the election and into government. And this time he has plundered the surviving works of the Great Man himself. He clearly reveres Cicero as a statesman – and without any Trumanesque cynicism.

According to Freeman, Cicero was a “moderate conservative,” someone “who believed in working with other parties for the good of his country and its people. Rather than a politician, his ideas are those of a statesman, another category whose ranks today grow ever more diminished.” Cicero, Freeman clearly feels, has a lot to teach the Republican legislators in America’s notoriously deadlocked Congress and the increasingly immoderate conservatives of the Tea Party.

In the words of Cicero himself: “In politics it is irresponsible to take an unwavering stand when circumstances are always evolving and good men change their minds. Clinging to the same opinion no matter the cost has never been considered a virtue among statesmen.” If there is an afterlife, perhaps Baroness Thatcher is there, ear-bashing poor old Cicero about the greater virtue of her alternative, “conviction politics.”

Freeman has cherry picked widely from Cicero’s surviving essays, speeches and letters, and from them he has constructed a sort of Statesman’s Top Ten. Just like the American Founding Fathers, Cicero thought that individuals enjoyed fundamental freedoms, Freeman argues – much like the famous “unalienable rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. (Mind you, the fact that both Imperial Rome and the America of 1776 were slave-owning societies goes unremarked by Freeman.)

Cicero also believed in constitutionalism, checks and balances, bipartisanship, political integrity, healthy compromise and intelligent discourse – which sounds like a gift-wrapped package of motherhood statements until you remember that Cicero lived in a society where people cut the heads off other people who didn’t agree with them. As Malcolm Fraser – that Cicero of Victoria’s Western District – once opined in another context, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.”

Cicero also argued that any statesman deserving of the title should never start an unjust war. Wars started from greed rather than national defence, are to be condemned, he said. He also advised that a statesman should never raise taxes – unless absolutely necessary. (In Freeman’s admittedly small book, Cicero’s views on cutting taxes and creating record deficits are not discussed.) And finally, a statesman should always support immigration, because new citizens bring new ideas and new energy to a society.

If Freeman’s selection of the lessons on offer in Cicero’s oeuvre sounds like a reproach to the current American political system, then you’ve got the idea. His book is a collection of titbits, of course, but if it sends its readers on a journey into Cicero’s world it will have achieved Freeman’s main purpose: the creation of citizen-readers who are a little bit more thoughtful about politics than they were before.

Cicero was perhaps the first member of that very rare breed – the intellectual in politics. He was a clever clogs, to be sure, who enjoyed the buzz of the game of politics. But he was also serious enough about the game to recognise it couldn’t be left to any one person or faction or class. We’re all in this game together, argued Cicero. In his political life – as opposed to his writings – Cicero was inconsistent, sometimes misguided, and occasionally fooled, but he did believe in a few things. And maybe that’s Cicero’s lasting lesson to our modern politicians. When it came to the crunch, when the jig was up, he bared his neck to the blade in the name of an idea. Can we say as much about many of our current leaders? •

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“Vegemite & Marmite in cupboard”: Green Party leader Natalie Bnnett.

“Vegemite & Marmite in cupboard”: Green Party leader Natalie Bnnett.