After just reading 5 of the 7 books of Colleen McCullough’s fictional series, Masters of Rome, I needed a little break. The Basic Works of Cicero comes as a mild diversion, and my timing was perfect. Book 5 titled Caesar ended 5 years before Cicero is beheaded and the dreadful event occurs halfway through book 6. In the introduction of The Basic Works of Cicero, Moses Hadas writes, “he suffered death for his views.” And indeed he did.
Marcus Tullius Cicero played a major role in Roman history; a lawyer, philosopher, and statesman. As a conservative Republican, his primary concern was maintaining Rome’s traditional values and preserving the democratic constitutional government. He was a master of Latin prose. His letters, essays, and transcripts of speeches have been studied throughout history. And he holds the title of Rome’s greatest orator.
The Basic Works of Cicero consists of a variety of letters, a somewhat humorous transcript of Cicero’s opening statement at the trial of Caelius, a speech made in the Senate against the traitor Catilina, and some general philosophizing.
The most impressive portion of the book is a 60-page speech made to the Senate called The Second Philippic which was the second of fourteen Philippic speeches Cicero made between September of 44 BC and April of 43 BC in relentless protest of Julius Caesar’s assassination and Mark Antony’s actions as a brutal dictator. Within he accuses Mark Antony of evil, immoral, idiotic behavior. Cicero feared for his life the entire time, and rightly so… he was beheaded in December of 43.
At times in the Masters of Rome series, Cicero comes across as weak, cowardly, and indecisive. But this was primarily because he was a pacifist in a country that glorified war. In reality, demonstrated especially by his Philippic speeches, it is obvious that Cicero was a great man. He was a self-possessed, courageous, dignified statesman who put his love of country above everything else. And reading Cicero’s passionate speech brings so much more meaning to the story of the Roman Empire.
The section of Basic Works that contains essays regarding Cicero’s philosophy on life covers everything from moral ethics to pain and death. Nothing really original… just a lot of common sense and good advice, amazingly written over 2000 years ago. A few choice quoted tidbits:
“If we offer to another under the guise of kindness what will do him harm, we are not to be accounted beneficent or liberal men but dangerous hypocrites, and if we harm one man in order to be liberal to another we are quite as unjust as if we were to appropriate our neighbor’s goods.” (Pg. 20)
From Cicero’s personal political experience “Men of ambition (to rule) neither listen to reason nor bow to public and legitimate authority, but chiefly resort to corruption and intrigue in order to obtain supreme power and to be masters by force rather than equals by law.” (Pg 27)
And on old age, “Life contains nothing more pleasant than wisdom, and that is what old age brings with it, though it takes away everything else.” (Pg. 109)
Well, you will have to excuse me now. I must get back to the Masters of Rome – book 6- The October Horse. Poor Caesar, and poor, poor Cicero!
Rated 4 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.