Rome’s greatest statesman, a man deeply admired by the American Founders for his insights into morality, law, and politics, drew his last breath in Formia. Marcus Tullius Cicero was at his seaside villa, north of Naples, along the old Appian Way, when soldiers sent by Mark Anthony arrived on December 7, 43 B.C. At the age of 64, he was retired from politics but continued to denounce the forces tearing apart Rome’s political and civic life. As the assassins approached him with swords drawn, Cicero reportedly displayed a calm defiance, born of his Stoic philosophy: “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but try to kill me properly.” They cut his throat.
Thus Cicero’s decades-long struggle to preserve Rome’s republic — with its “mixed” or “balanced” constitution — came to an end. The advocates of oppression and terror had triumphed. For all practical purposes, when Cicero fell the republic fell with him. “Cicero came to stand for future generations as a model of defiance against tyranny,” writes Anthony Everitt in Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. “For the Christian Fathers he was a model of the good pagan.”
Of course, the decay of Rome’s political institutions — what Cicero called “the enemy within” — had been raging for many years. When he wrote his seminal works, The Republic and The Laws, the age of the Caesars was already upon him. What strikes the modern reader is how Cicero’s analysis of Rome’s decline — the betrayal of its republican constitution, the rampant corruption, the partisan divisions — offers the West some profoundly disturbing lessons.
Rome initially managed to absorb and tolerate a great diversity of cultures, and gradually expanded its offer of citizenship to conquered peoples. But by the time Cicero drafted The Republic (54-52 BC), Rome’s political institutions were ineffective. Worldly senators blocked economic reforms being demanded by an urban proletariat alienated from the political system. There were deep economic disparities, worsened by a tax system that crippled private initiative. There were massive public works programmes, with no sensible scheme to finance them. Mob violence was on the rise. An over-extended military, dominated by ambitious generals, struggled to maintain discipline. In the city of Rome — a cosmopolitan centre of roughly a million people — everybody complained about the traffic.
Historians observe that Cicero failed to take account of Rome’s structural failings, focusing instead on its cultural problems. Rome’s institutional weaknesses were real enough: it was not a city-state, as Cicero sometimes imagined it, but rather a vast and multicultural empire built upon slave labour. In his fierce attachment to Rome’s constitution, Cicero neglected its shortcomings.
Nevertheless, the political maelstroms of his day did not occur in a moral vacuum, and no ancient pagan author wrote with greater clarity about the link between cultural rot and political decline: “For it is not by some accident — no, it is because of our own moral failings — that we are left with the name of the Republic, having long since lost its substance.”
Let’s start with Cicero’s understanding of natural law, which seems to be the touchstone for his discussion of politics and ethics. Cicero believed that a rational Providence oversaw the universe — a universe embedded in divine law, or a set of moral and religious truths that govern the human condition. This was the basis for all sound civil law. “The nature of law must be sought in the nature of man,” he wrote in The Laws. “Man is a single species which has a share in divine reason and is bound together by a partnership in justice.”
A political commitment to justice, according to Cicero, was only possible because of the universal and immutable character of natural law. It alone provided “the bond which holds together a community of citizens”:
We cannot be exempted from this law by any decree of the Senate or the people; nor do we need anyone else to expound or explain it. There will not be one such law in Rome and another in Athens, one now and another in the future, but all peoples at all times will be embraced by a single and eternal and unchangeable law; and there will be, as it were, one lord and master of us all — the god who is the author, proposer and interpreter of that law. Whoever refuses to obey it will be turning his back on himself. Because he has denied his nature as a human being he will face the gravest penalties for this alone.
It’s worth remembering that the Anglo-American political tradition — from John Locke to James Madison — owes a profound debt to the natural law philosophy that can be traced to Cicero. Without a belief in “the Moral Law”, there would have been no argument for the “inalienable rights” of every human being. Without natural law, there was no foundation for a political community based on equal justice. Whoever refuses to obey it will be turning his back on himself.
Today, of course, the natural law tradition has been discarded by Western liberal elites. And what have been the results? Cicero might have predicted them, based on what he had to say about the moral trajectory of Rome. There were staggering social injustices, and little regard for the common good; factions were the order of the day. “Nothing can be sweeter than liberty,” he wrote. “Yet if it isn’t equal throughout, it isn’t liberty at all.”
Is there any more conspicuous feature of contemporary democracies — especially the United States — than the denigration of the idea of the common good? The breakdown in a “partnership in justice” is nearly complete.
For Cicero, the great symptom of decline was Rome’s ongoing crisis in political leadership. By rejecting natural law — and its ability to both restrain vice and inspire virtue — Rome’s leaders behaved as though their “private lives” bore no relationship to the public good. The wrong kinds of men were entering politics for all the wrong reasons. Thanks to a “vulgar misconception,” Cicero wrote, “a few with money, not worth, have gained control of the state.” Welcome to American political culture on the eve of a presidential election.
A massive societal shift was taking place, Cicero wrote, and it was laying waste to the foundations of the republic: through greed, ambition, and malice Rome’s leaders were squandering their republican inheritance. Nothing was more appalling to Cicero than the desperate deficit of enlightened and principled leadership. “Long before living memory our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of their forefathers,” he observed. “Our generation, however, after inheriting our political organisation like a magnificent picture now fading with age, not only neglected to restore its original colours but did not even bother to ensure that it retained its basic form and, as it were, its faintest outlines.”
No wonder Cicero has been such a popular author among the champions of constitutional government. Renowned for his oratory, he rose through the ranks of Rome’s political order, serving as consul in 63 BC. As Anthony Everitt observes, Cicero’s rhetorical style can be detected in the speeches of Thomas Jefferson, William Pitt the Younger, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. The American Founders searched his writings for insights about how political communities either thrive or perish.
Unbridled, selfish ambition was among the greatest fears of the framers of the constitution. Republican government, they believed, offered the best hope of checking ambition and preserving both freedom and order — provided its citizens possessed the virtues necessary for self-government.
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself,” wrote James Madison in The Federalist Papers. “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on their government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The precautions against an oppressive state have largely atrophied. Why? In part because of the political abandonment of universal moral laws: their rejection has set loose the corrosive forces of factionalism. An ethos of relativism and materialism promises to eviscerate civic and political life, inviting greater state intervention.
Such was the Rome of Cicero’s day: a republic in name only, riven by divisions, corruption and remorseless violence. Yet until the moment that assassins took his life, he resisted dictatorships, for they represented a political community with a degraded conscience. For Cicero, Rome was in the dock. “Of this great tragedy we are not only bound to give a description,” he wrote, “we must somehow defend ourselves as if we were arraigned on a capital charge.”
Today, it seems, another great republic is on trial for its life. George Washington, known as America’s “indispensable man”, once warned of the global consequences should its experiment in self-government end in failure: “What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious.”