December 7, 43 BC
What does it take to be a philosopher-statesman?
To dedicate one’s life to public service, to approach the issues of the day with a level head, to remain reasonable in the face of radicalism, and, above all, to carry your convictions through to their logical end, even if it costs your life?
Marcus Tullius Cicero lived to see the greatest political moments in western history over the course of his 63-year life and his political, legal, and academic careers spanning nearly as long.
But he didn’t just see it. He was an integral part of it.
He served in the highest offices of the late Roman Republic, including the Consulate (chief executive) and the Senate, when he wasn’t finding spare time to translate into Latin, summarize, and write commentaries on the classic works of the Greek philosophers and craft a few philosophical tomes of his own.
His writings on the Republic and the Laws remain to this day, in this author’s humble opinion, essential reading for anyone interested in intellectual conservatism or classical liberalism.
Many have ranked him among the greatest legislators who ever held the office, not least among them the Father of the Constitution James Madison.
But there is a cost to holding office unless, of course, you mean to do nothing of value with it.
Cicero, for all his prestige in the Republic, opposed Caesar. He resisted Caesar’s relentless ambition for personal power. He reviled at Caesar’s comment that the Constitution of the Republic was dictum (mere words). Above all, he had little interest in bowing the knee to a demagogue who intended to leave Rome’s Constitution on the ash heap of history.
Caesar drew his power from the mob. He preyed upon the cynicism of Rome’s unemployed urban population. He promised national grandeur through hard-line foreign policy. He distributed bread and circuses to the poor to earn their favor against the rich.
But his ambition was imperial, and after decades of political chaos and ultimately civil war, the dust cleared to reveal Caesar at the helm of the ship of state.
On the Ides of March in 44 BC, an angry mob assassinated Julius Caesar, hoping to end the tyranny he had established, but in vain. Rather than restoring the Republic, the act of tyrannicide simply gave Caesar’s surrogates the excuse they needed to exact political retribution from anyone they accused, falsely or otherwise, of being involved in his assassination.
The year after Caesar’s death, soldiers sent by the Second Triumvirate intercepted the ship on which Cicero was attempting to flee the country for his life. When the soldiers went to arrest him, he bared his neck to make a sign that he would not resist death. For him, it was better than life under the tyranny of the new empire.
According to legend, he is supposed to have said:
“There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.”
With those last words on this day in history, one of the greatest statesmen who ever lived died with the dignity of a martyr and the dedication that few of us will ever have for what we believe in.