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The Founders' Father

The Founders' Father

8 Mins
August 29, 2010

Historian David McCullough, who last year published a biography of President John Adams, was asked in an interview why America's Founding Fathers seem so qualitatively different from today's politicians. His answer was simple and direct: "They didn't just read Cicero, Cicero was part of them." Most Americans probably cannot understand the significance of McCullough's answer, and that goes a long way to explaining why today's electorate is so qualitatively different from the electorate that voted the Founding Fathers into office.

Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of Anthony Everitt's new book, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician, which chronicles the life of the last great defender of the Roman Republic. Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.) was a true Renaissance man, a millennium and a half before the Renaissance. He was Rome's most renowned lawyer and orator. He was a scholar who wrote about everything from literature to science to politics. And he was a politician at a time when the Roman Republic was collapsing into civil war. That Republic, with its system of checks and balances and commitment to the rule of law, inspired America's Founders, and there are parallels between the crisis in Cicero's Rome and the challenges that America faces today. Thus, it is useful to step back into a world that lost its republican form of government to gain some insights about how to preserve our own. Although Everitt does not fully appreciate Cicero's understanding of the relationship between the Republic and the moral order, the reader can see for himself how the breakdown in that relationship led to the fall of the Republic.


The Roman Republic was established in 509 B.C. with the overthrow of Rome's last king. The people's assembly—in which voting was weighted according to wealth—became the new sovereign power. The assembly elected various magistrates for one-year terms, and the Senate, composed of previously elected magistrates who generally served in that legislative body for life, provided leadership and dominated the political process. Early civil strife between the patricians (nobles who could trace their ancestry to the founding of the city) and plebeians (those who could not) led to the creation of tribunes, who were elected by the plebeians and could veto actions of magistrates that harmed the plebeians. The role of chief executive was filled by two consuls, to ensure that no one man could ever again hold sole power as king. A man could be elected consul a second time—a rare occurrence—only if ten years had elapsed between his terms. Citizen armies guaranteed civilian rule, but only citizens who could afford to purchase their own fighting implements had the privilege of defending the Republic. To avoid even the impression that the Republic could fall under a military dictatorship, it was a strict law and tradition that no general could enter Rome with his army—during triumphs, soldiers carried wooden swords.

Although in practice the Republic was aristocratic and certainly not perfect, the Romans were proud of their balanced system. It sought to avoid the extremes of tyrannical rule by one man or a small elite and the rule of an unreflective, passionate mob, a problem that periodically plagued Athens and other Greek democracies. One can understand why America's Founders studied this model carefully.

Cicero was born into the Roman world at a time when its political system was breaking down. Rome's acquisition of an empire put strains on a system designed for a city-state and gave ambitious and often unscrupulous men a venue in which to win power, wealth, and fame through wars abroad. As a young man, Cicero witnessed Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla run roughshod over the Republic's laws and traditions. Marius was consul seven times, in most cases without an intervening decade. Sulla made himself dictator, a rarely used elective office that gave an individual near-absolute power for no more than a six-month period to deal with a threat to the Republic. Sulla held the office for three years, marched his own army into Rome, and killed off his enemies. In many cases, men were placed on death lists just so their estates could be confiscated by the government—Sulla's unique version of taxing the rich.


In the increasing political chaos, some ambitious men like Gaius Julius Caesar sought personal power through military careers. Others, like Cicero's lifelong correspondent Atticus, turned their backs on public affairs, preferring an epicurean life of intellectual pursuits and entertaining friends. Cicero chose a career in civilian public affairs, hoping to prevent the Republic from degenerating into a violent, lawless regime or into a new monarchy. He saw the Republic as a mix of different groups that would produce a "concord of the orders," just as music is a mix of different instruments that produces a harmonious sound. This system would benefit all members of society.

As a New Man—he was not of the Patrician class and none of his ancestors had held elected office—he decided to start his difficult climb in Roman politics as a lawyer. In his first famous public trial, he defended one Sextus Roscius against the charge of murdering his own father. In fact, the charge was hatched by three of the father's enemies, including Chrysogonus, a henchman of the then-dictator, Sulla. Cicero not only refuted the murder charge but launched a full-scale assault on Chrysogonus as a corrupt official. Though careful to point out that Sulla could not be expected to know the misdeeds of every underling, Cicero risked the anger of a murderous dictator to clear his client of false charges, and helped promote the importance of honesty as a moral foundation of the Republic.

Cicero also led by example. In his first elected office, he was in charge of purchasing and paying for grain to be sent to Rome from the province of Sicily. While filling that position, he refused to take the typical, though illegal, cut from the moneys he paid out to merchants for their grain. For Cicero, a magistrate's corruption and abuse even of subject peoples was a weakness for the Republic. His honesty so endeared him to the Sicilians that, a few years later, a delegation of Sicilians employed Cicero to bring a lawsuit against the politically well-connected but rapacious Gaius Verres, who became governor of that island after Cicero's term. Cicero went back to the island to gather facts and witnesses and, in spite of the efforts of Verres' friends, the corrupt former governor was forced to flee Rome ahead of the guilty verdict.

The highpoint of Cicero's political career, and his service to the Republic, came when he served as consul in 63 B.C. A particularly unscrupulous politician who had lost election to the consulship, Lucius Sergius Catilina, was plotting to raise an army to march on Rome, murder many of the magistrates, and set himself up as ruler. Many senators thought Cicero exaggerated the danger, but as the evidence mounted, more of his colleagues realized that the Republic was in peril.

In a famous speech still studied by Latin students, Cicero confronted Catilina in the Senate, outlining for all what Catilina was up to and decrying the degeneration of Republican virtue. ("O tempora. O mores." "Oh, the times. Oh, the morals.") Catilina fled ahead of probable arrest, placed himself at the head of an army that was eventually defeated, and died in the process. Cicero had saved the Republic—it was his finest hour.


In the end, however, the Catiline conspiracy was Cicero's undoing. The Senate had given him a Final Order during the crisis that allowed him to take any measures necessary to protect the Republic. When two conspirators were caught red-handed, he asked the Senate whether they should be put to death without the fundamental Roman right to a trial. Facing the threat of an armed assault on Rome, the Senate agreed to a death sentence and the conspirators were dispatched. But one of Cicero's enemies, Publius Clodius Pulcher, turned this action against Cicero after he left office.

Clodius was a brutal politico who organized a gang of thugs to intimidate and murder opponents. Playing up Cicero's seeming violation of a citizen's right to trial, Clodius rallied the former consul's opponents to have him exiled from Rome. His house in Rome was burned and his property confiscated. In just a few years, Cicero the savior of the Republic had become a refugee. This episode shows the deteriorating political regime in Rome: political violence was becoming a regular and tolerated part of Roman politics, and the law was being used by those who would destroy it.

Cicero's supporters later engineered his return to Rome. But for the rest of his political life Cicero operated in the shadow of two contemporaries, Gneaus Pompeius Magnus and Julius Caesar, who used their military careers as the basis of political power. Caesar also pandered to the growing poor urban population, putting on elaborate games to entertain the masses. Inevitably, a civil war broke out between Pompey and Caesar. Cicero reluctantly backed Pompey, who lost and was killed. Caesar took all power into his own hands and had himself made dictator for ten years. Cicero hoped that Caesar would reestablish republican institutions and then step down. Instead, Caesar decided to make himself dictator for life and was then assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.

Cicero was not involved in the assassination, but he stepped forward to lead efforts to reestablish the Republic. By this time, however, strong men and armies rather than law were the coin of the realm. Caesar's henchman Mark Antony had Cicero murdered. After several more decades of civil war, Caesar's great-nephew and adopted son Octavius was the last man standing, and he replaced the republican system with a monarchy. The statesman whom Everitt calls Rome's greatest politician died with the Republic.


Everitt criticizes Cicero for failing "to understand the reasons for the crisis that tore apart the Roman Republic."

Julius Caesar, with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its endless checks and balances prevented effective government, but like so many of his contemporaries Cicero regarded politics in personal rather than structural terms. For Caesar the solution lay in a completely new system of government; for Cicero it lay in finding better men to run the government and better laws to keep them in order.

Everitt's distinction is a vital one for America today. Though politicians have yet to invade Washington with private armies, politics has become largely an exercise in gaining and keeping power; the vast discretion that Congress has granted to the executive branch and the regulatory agencies has undermined the rule of law; and elections have become a modern version of offering bread and circuses to the populace. The system is broken and cannot be fixed, as Cicero seems to have believed the Roman system could, merely by electing better people. But Cicero was right in this: Even the best system must rely on a leavening of good men, and virtue, as he knew, is a matter of individual choice and character. Thus, Cicero realized that any reform of the political system had to be grounded in principles of morality, and it was here that he made his most enduring contribution to mankind.

Cicero is known to the ages not only as a master orator but as a philosopher of rhetoric, whose works have been essential reading for students of rhetoric ever since. But Cicero saw the goal of his art as more than winning lawsuits or Senate debates. He justified the study and use of rhetoric as a way of bringing moral principles effectively to bear on the issues of individual and political life. Today, rhetoric of this sort is largely a lost art.

Even more important was Cicero's understanding of law, a subject that Everitt might have covered much more fully. Romans saw their law as norms particular to their city and civilization. Cicero, by contrast, believed that law reflects the rational ordering of the universe and that human law is man's participation in that higher law. "Law," he said, " is the highest reason, implanted in nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. This reason, when firmly fixed and fully developed in the human mind, is Law." Thus, Cicero saw an objective basis for morality and law. To be valid, human law cannot be based on the subjective preferences of a particular city or country; it must be founded in and reflect this natural law.

And because the natural law applies to all humans, in virtue of their common nature as rational beings, it is universal as well as objective. As Cicero said in his Republic, "There will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and at all times." During Rome's imperial period, many of the magistrates who administered law in the far-flung provinces of the empire were steeped in Cicero's view of law and thus acted with justice, even as decadent emperors debauched and murdered in Rome. Although Cicero did not save the Republic, his philosophy helped save the best of Roman civilization.

To be sure, Cicero was not the first thinker to conceive of natural law. He inherited the concept from the Greek philosophers, especially the Stoics. And it would take later thinkers to carry Cicero's philosophical insights to their logical conclusions. But he defined natural law in the political context of a republican system. He saw it manifested in a government that employed a separation of powers as well as checks and balances, a system that became the model for the American Constitution. Thus, he was a vital link in the natural-law tradition that runs from the emperor Justinian's codification of Roman law, to the treatises of medieval schoolmen like Thomas Aquinas, to the essays of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, who argued that natural law necessitates natural rights for individuals. And so, when Thomas Jefferson drew on Locke to establish a country based on certain truths—that individuals are "created equal"; that they are endowed with "certain unalienable Rights"; and that "among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"—the United States itself became part of Cicero's legacy.

Edward L. Hudgins is the director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former Director of Advocacy and Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society, is now President of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at ehudgins@humanachievementalliance.org.