Cicero by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

(Supplementary To Published Essay.)

Some little official secrets we learn from the correspondence of Cicero as Proconsul of Cilicia.[1] And it surprises us greatly to find a man, so eminently wise in his own case, suddenly turning romantic on behalf of a friend. How came it–that he or any man of the world should fancy any substance or reality in the public enthusiasm for one whose character belonged to a past generation? Nine out of ten amongst the Campanians must have been children when Pompey’s name was identified with national trophies. For many years Pompey had done nothing to sustain or to revive his obsolete reputation. Capua or other great towns knew him only as a great proprietor. And let us ask this one searching question–Was the poor spirit-broken insolvent, a character now so extensively prevailing in Italian society, likely to sympathize more heartily with the lordly oligarch fighting only for the exclusive privileges of his own narrow order, or with the great reformer who amongst a thousand plans for reinfusing vitality into Roman polity was well understood to be digesting a large measure of relief to the hopeless debtor? What lunacy to believe that the ordinary citizen, crouching under the insupportable load of his usurious obligations, could be at leisure to support a few scores of lordly senators panic-stricken for the interests of their own camarilla, when he beheld–taking the field on the opposite quarter–one, the greatest of men, who spoke authentically to all classes alike, authorizing all to hope and to draw their breath in freedom under that general recast of Roman society which had now become inevitable! As between such competitors, which way would the popularity be likely to flow? Naturally the mere merits of the competition were decisive of the public opinion, although the petty aristocracy of the provincial boroughs availed locally to stifle those tumultuous acclamations which would else have gathered about the name of Caesar. But enough transpired to show which way the current was setting. Cicero does not dissemble that. He acknowledges that all men’s hopes turned towards Caesar. And Pompey, who was much more forced into towns and public scenes, had even less opportunity for deceiving himself. He, who had fancied all Campania streaming with incense to heaven on his own personal account, now made the misanthropical discovery–not only that all was hollow, and that his own name was held in no esteem–but absolutely that the barrier to any hope of popularity for himself was that very man whom, on other and previous grounds, he had for some time viewed as his own capital antagonist.

Here then, in this schism of the public affections, and in the mortifying discovery so abruptly made by Pompey, lay the bitter affront which he could not digest–the injury which he purposed to avenge. What barbed this injury to his feelings, what prepared him for exhausting its bitterness, was the profound delusion in which he had been previously laid asleep by flattering friends–the perfect faith in his own uniform popularity. And now, in the very teeth of all current representations, we advance this proposition: That the quality of his meditated revenge and its horrid extent were what originally unveiled to Cicero’s eyes the true character of Pompey and his partisans.

* * * * *

The last letter of the sixth book is written from Athens, which city, after a voyage of about a fortnight, Cicero reached precisely in the middle of October, having sailed out of Ephesus on the 1st. He there found a letter from Atticus, dated from Rome on the 18th of September; and his answer, which was ‘by return of post,’ closes with these words: ‘Mind that you keep your promise of writing to me fully about my darling Tullia,’ which means of course about her new husband Dolabella; next about the Commonwealth, which by this time I calculate must be entering upon its agony; and then about the Censors, etc. Hearken: ‘This letter is dated on the 16th of October; that day on which, by your account, Caesar is to reach Placentia with four legions. What, I ask myself for ever, is to become of us? My own situation at this moment, which is in the Acropolis of Athens, best meets my idea of what is prudent under the circumstances.’

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Well it would have been for Cicero’s peace of mind if he could seriously have reconciled himself to abide by that specular station. Had he pleaded ill-health, he might have done so with decorum. As it was, thinking his dignity concerned in not absenting himself from the public councils at a season so critical, after a few weeks’ repose he sailed forward to Italy, which he reached on the 23rd of November. And with what result? Simply to leave it again with difficulty and by stratagem, after a winter passed in one continued contest with the follies of his friends, nothing done to meet his own sense of the energy required, every advantage forfeited as it arose, ruined in the feeble execution, individual activity squandered for want of plan, and (as Cicero discovered in the end) a principle of despair, and the secret reserve of a flight operating upon the leaders from the very beginning. The key to all this is obvious for those who read with their eyes awake. Pompey and the other consular leaders were ruined for action by age and by the derangement of their digestive organs. Eating too much and too luxuriously is far more destructive to the energies of action than intemperance as to drink. Women everywhere alike are temperate as to eating; and the only females memorable for ill-health from luxurious eating have been Frenchwomen or Belgians–witness the Duchess of Portsmouth, and many others of the two last centuries whom we could name. But men everywhere commit excesses in this respect, if they have it in their power. With the Roman nobles it was almost a necessity to do so. Could any popular man evade the necessity of keeping a splendid dinner-table? And is there one man in a thousand who can sit at a festal board laden with all the delicacies of remotest climates, and continue to practise an abstinence for which he is not sure of any reward? All his abstinence may be defeated by a premature fate, and in the meantime he is told, with some show of reason, that a life defrauded of its genial enjoyments is not life, is at all events a present loss, whilst the remuneration is doubtful, except where there happen to be powerful intellectual activities to reap an instant benefit from such sacrifices. Certainly it is the last extremity of impertinence to attack men’s habits in this respect. No man, we may be assured, has ever yet practised any true self-denial in such a case, or ever will. Either he has been trained under a wholesome poverty to those habits which intercept the very development of a taste for luxuries, which evade the very possibility therefore of any; or if this taste has once formed itself, he would find it as impossible in this as in any other case to maintain a fight with a temptation recurring daily. Pompey certainly could not. He was of a slow, torpid nature through life; required a continual supply of animal stimulation, and, if he had not required it, was assuredly little framed by nature for standing out against an artificial battery of temptation. There is proof extant that his system was giving way under the action of daily dinners. Cicero mentions the fact of his suffering from an annual illness; what may be called the etesian counter-current from his intemperance. Probably the liver was enlarged, and the pylorus was certainly not healthy. Cicero himself was not free from dyspeptic symptoms. If he had survived the Triumvirate, he would have died within seven years from some disease of the intestinal canal. Atticus, we suspect, was troubled with worms. Locke, indeed, than whom no man ever less was acquainted with Greek or Roman life, pretends that the ancients seldom used a pocket-handkerchief; knew little of catarrhs, and even less of what the French consider indigenous to this rainy island–le catch-cold. Nothing can be more unfounded. Locke was bred a physician, but his practice had been none; himself and the cat were his chief patients. Else we, who are no physicians, would wish to ask him–what meant those continual febriculae to which all Romans of rank were subject? What meant that fluenter lippire, a symptom so troublesome to Cicero’s eyes, and always arguing a functional, if not even an organic, derangement of the stomach? Take this rule from us, that wherever the pure white of the eye is clouded, or is veined with red streaks, or wherever a continual weeping moistens the eyelashes, there the digestive organs are touched with some morbid affection, probably in it’s early stages; as also that the inferior viscera, not the stomach, must be slightly disordered before toothache can be an obstinate affection. And as to le catch-cold, the-most dangerous shape in which it has ever been known, resembling the English cholera morbus, belongs to the modern city of Rome from situation; and probably therefore to the ancient city from the same cause. Pompey, beyond all doubt, was a wreck when he commenced the struggle.

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Struggle, conflict, for a man who needed to be in his bed! And struggle with whom? With that man whom his very enemies viewed as a monster ([Greek: teras] is Cicero’s own word), as preternaturally endowed, in this quality of working power. But how then is it consistent with our view of Roman dinners, that Caesar should have escaped the universal scourge? We reply, that one man is often stronger than another; every man is stronger in some one organ; and secondly, Caesar had lived away from Rome through the major part of the last ten years; and thirdly, the fact that Caesar had escaped the contagion of dinner luxury, however it may be accounted for, is attested in the way of an exception to the general order of experience, and with such a degree of astonishment, as at once to prove the general maxim we have asserted, and the special exemption in favour of Caesar. He only, said Cato, he, as a contradiction to all precedents–to the Gracchi, to Marius, to Cinna, to Sylla, to Catiline–had come in a state of temperance (sobrius) to the destruction of the state; not meaning to indicate mere superiority to wine, but to all modes of voluptuous enjoyment. Caesar practised, it is true, a refined epicureanism under the guidance of Greek physicians, as in the case of his emetics; but this was by way of evading any gross effects from a day of inevitable indulgence, not by way of aiding them. Besides, Pompey and Cicero were about seven years older than Caesar. They stood upon the threshold of their sixtieth year at the opening of the struggle; Caesar was a hale young man of fifty-two. And we all know that Napoleon at forty-two was incapacitated for Borodino by incipient disease of the stomach; so that from that day he, though junior by seventeen years to Pompey, yet from Pompey’s self-indulgence (not certainly in splendid sensuality, but in the gross modes belonging to his obscure youth) was pronounced by all the judicious, superannuated as regarded the indispensable activity of martial habits. If he cannot face the toils of military command, said his officers, why does he not retire? Why does he not make room for others? Neither was the campaign of 1813 or 1814 any refutation of this. Infinite are the cases in which the interests of nations or of armies have suffered through the dyspepsy of those who administered them. And above all nations the Romans laid themselves open to this order of injuries from a dangerous oversight in their constitutional arrangements, which placed legal bars on the youthful side of all public offices, but none on the aged side. Of all nations the Romans had been most indebted to men emphatically young; of all nations they, by theory, most exclusively sanctioned the pretensions of old ones. Not before forty-three could a man stand for the consulship; and we have just noticed a case where a man of pestilent activity in our own times had already become dyspeptically incapable of command at forty-two. Besides, after laying down his civil office (which, by itself, was often in the van of martial perils), the consul had to pass into some province as military leader, with the prospect by possibility of many years’ campaigning. It is true that some men far anticipated the legal age in assuming offices, honours, privileges. But this, being always by infraction of fundamental laws, was no subject of rejoicing to a patriotic Roman. And the Roman folly at this very crisis, in trusting one side of the quarrel to an elderly, lethargic invalid, subject to an annual struggle for his life, was appropriately punished by that catastrophe which six years after threw them into the hands of a schoolboy.

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Yet on the other hand it may be asked, by those who carry the proper spirit of jealousy into their historical reading, was Cicero always right in these angry comments upon Pompey’s strategies? Might it not be, that where Cicero saw nothing but groundless procrastination, in reality the obstacle lay in some overwhelming advantage of Caesar’s? That, where his reports to Atticus read the signs of the time into the mere panic of a Pompey, some more impartial report would see nothing to wonder at but the overcharged expectations of a Cicero? Sometimes undoubtedly this is the plain truth. Pompey’s disadvantages were considerable; he had no troops upon which he could rely; that part which had seen service happened to be a detachment from Caesar’s army, sent home as a pledge for his civic intentions at an earlier period, and their affection was still lively to their original leader. The rest were raw levies. And it is a remarkable fact, that the insufficiency of such troops was only now becoming matter of notoriety. In foreign service, where the Roman recruits were incorporated with veterans, as the natives in our Eastern army, with a small proportion of British to steady them, they often behaved well, and especially because they seldom acted against an enemy that was not as raw as themselves. But now, in civil service against their own legions, it was found that the mere novice was worth nothing at all; a fact which had not been fully brought out in the strife of Marius and Sylla, where Pompey had himself played a conspicuous and cruel part, from the tumultuary nature of the contest; besides which the old legions were then by accident as much concentrated on Italian ground as now they were dispersed in transmarine provinces. Of the present Roman army, ten legions at least were scattered over Macedonia, Achaia, Cilicia, and Syria; five were in Spain; and six were with Caesar, or coming up from the rear. To say nothing of the forces locked up in Sicily, Africa, Numidia, etc. It was held quite unadvisable by Pompey’s party to strip the distant provinces of their troops, or the great provincial cities of their garrisons. All these were accounted as so many reversionary chances against Caesar. But certainly a bolder game was likely to have prospered better; had large drafts from all these distant armies been ordered home, even Caesar’s talents might have been perplexed, and his immediate policy must have been so far baffled as to force him back upon Transalpine Gaul. Yet if such a plan were eligible, it does not appear that Cicero had ever thought of it; and certainly it was not Pompey, amongst so many senatorial heads, who could be blamed for neglecting it. Neglect he did; but Pompey had the powers of a commander-in-chief for the immediate arrangements; but in the general scheme of the war he, whose game was to call himself the servant of the Senate, counted but for one amongst many concurrent authorities. Combining therefore his limited authority with his defective materials, we cannot go along with Cicero in the whole bitterness of his censure. The fact is, no cautious scheme whatever, no practicable scheme could have kept pace with Cicero’s burning hatred to Caesar. ‘Forward, forward! crush the monster; stone him, stab him, hurl him into the sea!’ This was the war-song of Cicero for ever; and men like Domitius, who shared in his hatreds, as well as in his unseasonable temerity, by precipitating upon Caesar troops that were unqualified for the contest, lost the very elite of the Italian army at Corfinium; and such men were soon found to have been embarked upon the ludicrous enterprise of ‘catching a Tartar;’ following and seeking those

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‘Quos opimus
Fallere et effugere est triumphus.’



Bribery was it? which had been so organized as the sole means of succeeding at elections, and which, once rendered necessary as the organ of assertion for each man’s birthright, became legitimate; in which Cicero himself declared privately that there was ‘[Greek: exoche] in nullo,’ no sort of pre-eminence, one as bad as another, pecunia exaequet omnium dignitatem. Money was the universal leveller. Was it gladiators bought for fighting with? These were bought by his friend Milo as well as his enemy Clodius, by Sextus Pompey on one side as much as by Caesar on the other. Was it neglect of obnunciatio? And so far as regards treating, Cicero himself publicly justified it against the miserable theatrical Cato. How ridiculous to urge that against a popular man as a crime, when it was sometimes enjoined by the Senate with menaces as a duty! Was it the attacking all obnoxious citizens’ houses? That was done by one side quite as much as by the other, and signifies little, for the attack always fell on some leading man in wealth; and such a man’s house was a fortress. Was it accepting provinces from the people? Cicero would persuade us that this was an unheard of crime in Clodius. But how came it that so many others did the same thing? Nay, that the Senate abetted them in doing it; saying to such a person, ‘Oh, X., we perceive that you have extorted from the people.’


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Then his being recalled; what if a man should say that his nephew was for it, and all his little nieces, not to mention his creditors? The Senate were for it. But why not? Had the Senate exiled him? And, besides, he was their agent.


It was ‘an impious bargain’ are the words of Middleton, and Deiotarus who broke it was a prince of noble character. What was he noble for? We never heard of anything very noble that he did; and we doubt whether Dr. Conyers knew more about him than we. But we happen to know why he calls him noble. Cicero, who long afterwards came to know this king personally and gave him a good dinner, says now upon hearsay (for he had then never been near him, and could have no accounts of him but from the wretched Quintus) that in eo multa regia fuerunt. Why yes, amputating heads was in those parts a very regal act. But what he chiefly had in his eye, comes out immediately after. Speaking to Clodius, he says that the visit of this king was so bright, maxime quod tibi nullum nummum dedit.


Wicked Middleton says that Cicero followed his conscience in following Pompey and the cause approved by what in the odious slang of his own days he calls ‘the honest men.’ But be it known unto him that he tells a foul falsehood. He followed his personal gratitude. This he is careful to say over and over again. Some months before he had followed what he deemed the cause of the Commonwealth and of the boni. The boni were vanished, he sought them and found only a heap of selfish nobles, half crazy with fear and half crazy with pride. These were gone, but Pompey the man remained that he clung to. And in his heart of hearts was another feeling–hatred to Caesar.


403. ‘Cicero had only stept aside’ was the technical phrase for lurking from creditors. So Bishop Burnet of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey, it was thought he might have stept aside for debt.


[1] Cicero entered on the office of Proconsul of Cilicia on the last day of July, 703 A.U.C.; he resigned it on the last day but one of July, 704.–ED.

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