How To Conquer Tyranny and Avoid Tragedy: A Lesson on Defeating Systems of Empire
This is a transcription of a lecture, which can be found here, given as part of the RTF series “Art, Science and Civilization: The Renaissance Principles Across the Ages.“
It is common today to be confronted with the belief that any country, any civilization that gains a certain degree of power, will be destined to become an empire. After all, we are in an American system of empire right now that is presently clashing with competing systems of empire from the East, correct?
Well, this is at least, the thinking that has been driving 77 years of cold war to this present day. That despite us being told that the cold war ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is rather evident that this cold war is still ongoing.
So is humanity doomed? Can a flourishing and prosperous civilization avoid the seductions of empire?
At first glance looking at history, the answer looks rather bleak for us. It can easily look like the good is always losing to tyranny. The list is seemingly endless of assassinations, betrayals, the folly of the populace, the madness of the mob, the degree of villainy that tyranny is willing to commit; such that it seems nothing genuinely good has the ability to last for very long before it falls once again into the clutches of tyranny.
It is true that we would be very hard pressed indeed to find an example in our history where a great civilization did not undergo periods of empire and that many great civilizations entirely collapsed as a result of it. Many of these former systems of empire still exist as large cities or countries today. If these regions were to once again hold immense power, would they return to the whim of empire?
Such a question cannot be answered until we have a thorough understanding of what causes a civilization to enter into a system of empire. By this I do not mean a cold, calculating summary of events and dates of “historical” significance. What I mean by a study of history, is the story, the drama behind the events that took place. What moved the people in their passions, their concerns, their fears that shaped the judgements and actions of their time.
By us entering into the drama as if we were participants ourselves within these potent moments in history, we will in turn be able to look upon our own time with fresh eyes. We will be able to compare how our thoughts were different and how they were similar to those of the great civilisations of the distant past; and by observing how their thoughts culminated into the consequences of large events in history, we can judge whether our similarity or difference to these periods in time is a good or bad thing.
For this paper, I will be focusing on the story of Athens and Rome.
For those of us who have some familiarity with ancient Athens, when we think upon it, we tend to think of its magnificent beauty and artistic accomplishments in its productions of drama, notably of tragedy, of exquisite sculptures and august architecture.
We regard Athens as the birthplace of the western political system, the origins of democracy, the birth of the Republic.
And though Rome was undeniably, greatly influenced by Athens, such that it was their model for many things in their society. We tend to think of Athens as the bringer of democracy and Rome as its extinguisher. Athens as the birthplace of the Republic and Rome as the birth of Empire.
I would like to clarify that though this is in many ways true, it is a gross generalisation nonetheless, and loses many valuable lessons that the history of these two civilisations can actually teach us.
Athens was the birthplace of democracy but it also fell into a system of terrible empire and at one point became a monstrous oppressor to anyone who came into contact with them. Rome, in its earlier life was a republic and governed by democracy, but it too fell into tyranny. That is, both went from a form of Republic to a system of Empire.
Thus we should ask ourselves the question, was it a corruption of a lawful concept of a Republic that caused their fall into tyranny, or is there something inherently flawed in the concept of a Republic?
Let us start our inquiry with the case of Athens.
By 478 BC, Athens had won, alongside the Spartans and Corinthians and others, three significant battles against the Persians, the Battle of Marathon in 490, the Battle of Salamis in 480 and the Battle of Plataia in 479 BC (The famous Battle of Thermopylae was in 480 BC led by King Leonidas I with his 300 Spartans).
The Battle of Marathon in particular became legendary. The Athenian General Miltiades was able to defeat the Persian army which was 3x larger.
The Delian League would be formed in 478 BC as a means of uniting Greek city-states (150-330 members) against the Persian Empire.
It was at this point that things took a turn for the worst.
The Delian League was under the leadership of Athens, named for its chosen official meeting place on the island of Delos where congresses were held and where the treasury stood.
Shortly after its inception, Athens began to use the League’s funds for its own purposes. This led to conflict between Athens and the less powerful members of the League.
Athens started to treat the other Greek city-states, who were originally meant to be partners, as vassals states to Athens, who increasingly were intimated and threatened to pay tribute to Athens for assurance of their security.
Sparta resisted Athen’s oppression and the Peloponnesian War begun.
What had ultimately started as an alliance between Greek states against an Empire, resulted in Greeks fighting Greeks. Ironically the Greek city states were never defeated by the greatest and most powerful empire during their day, the Persian Empire, but rather they were destroyed by cannibalising themselves from within.
The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) would have a short intermediary of peace from 421 to 415 BC called the Peace of Nicias, but which would be broken by Alcibiades with the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. Plato wrote a dialogue on Alcibiades critical of what governed his thinking that threw Athens into a terrible tragedy.
Sparta would eventually win the drawn out war in 404 BC under the command of Lysander.
Athens would never fully recover from the corruption that had seeped in during its age of empire and the Thirty Tyrants would take over Athens for eight months. During this time many Athenians were brutalised and murdered.
The popular historical account blames this as if it were solely a Spartan creation, as revenge for Athen’s oppression during the Peloponnesian War, however, this is an inaccurate account and completely loses sight of something that was festering within the Athenian society itself.
Socrates was 66 years old during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants and Plato was a young man at the age of around 20-24 years old.
In order for us to get a more reliable account of this period of history we will refer to the words of Plato himself in his famous letter VII where he describes this tyrannical period:
In my youth I went through the same experience as many other men. I fancied that if, early in life, I became my own master, I should at once embark on a political career. And I found myself confronted with the following occurrences in the public affairs of my own city. The existing constitution being generally condemned, a revolution took place, and fifty-one men came to the front as rulers of the revolutionary government, namely eleven in the city and ten in the Peiraeus – each of these bodies being in charge of the market and municipal matters-while thirty were appointed rulers with full powers over public affairs as a whole. Some of these were relatives and acquaintances of mine, and they at once invited me to share in their doings, as something to which I had a claim. The effect on me was not surprising in the case of a young man. I considered that they would, of course, so manage the State as to bring men out of a bad way of life into a good one. So I watched them very closely to see what they would do.
And seeing, as I did, that in quite a short time they made the former government seem by comparison something precious as gold – for among other things they tried to send a friend of mine, the aged Socrates, whom I should scarcely scruple to describe as the most upright man of that day, with some other persons to carry off one of the citizens by force to execution, in order that, whether he wished it, or not, he might share the guilt of their conduct; but Socrates would not obey them, risking all consequences in preference to becoming a partner in their iniquitous deeds – seeing all these things and others of the same kind on a considerable scale, I disapproved of their proceedings, and withdrew from any connection with the abuses of the time.
Not long after that a revolution terminated the power of the thirty and the form of government as it then was. And once more, though with more hesitation, I began to be moved by the desire to take part in public and political affairs. Well, even in the new government, unsettled as it was, events occurred which one would naturally view with disapproval; and it was not surprising that in a period of revolution excessive penalties were inflicted by some persons on political opponents, though those who had returned from exile at that time showed very considerable forbearance. But once more it happened that some of those in power brought my friend Socrates, whom I have mentioned, to trial before a court of law, laying a most iniquitous charge against him and one most inappropriate in his case: for it was on a charge of impiety that some of them prosecuted and others condemned and executed the very man who would not participate in the iniquitous arrest of one of the friends of the party then in exile, at the time when they themselves were in exile and misfortune.
As I observed these incidents and the men engaged in public affairs, the laws too and the customs, the more closely I examined them and the farther I advanced in life, the more difficult it seemed to me to handle public affairs aright. For it was not possible to be active in politics without friends and trustworthy supporters; and to find these ready to my hand was not an easy matter, since public affairs at Athens were not carried on in accordance with the manners and practices of our fathers; nor was there any ready method by which I could make new friends. The laws too, written and unwritten, were being altered for the worse, and the evil was growing with startling rapidity.
The result was that, though at first I had been full of a strong impulse towards political life, as I looked at the course of affairs and saw them being swept in all directions by contending currents, my head finally began to swim; and, though I did not stop looking to see if there was any likelihood of improvement in these symptoms and in the general course of public life, I postponed action till a suitable opportunity should arise.
Finally, it became clear to me, with regard to all existing communities, that they were one and all misgoverned. For their laws have got into a state that is almost incurable, except by some extraordinary reform with good luck to support it. And I was forced to say, when praising true philosophy that it is by this that men are enabled to see what justice in public and private life really is. Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers.
– Plato’s Letter VII
For those who are not familiar with the Trial of Socrates, it is one of the most significant events in world history.
Many understand in some general form that the power of an idea is mightier than ten thousand swords, and that the execution of a wielder of an idea can have far reaching consequences. In the case of Socrates it would span centuries to our present day.
Thus we should review it with great care. Fortunately for us, Plato was present at Socrates trial and recorded it in his dialogue The Apology for posterity. Socrates was being tried as a “corrupter of the youth” and was facing a death sentence if charged guilty. Socrates says at the trial in his defense:
What do the slanderers say?…”Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.” That is the nature of the accusation, and that is what you have seen yourselves in the comedy of Aristophanes; who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he can walk in the air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little – not that I mean to say anything disparaging of anyone who is a student of natural philosophy…But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with these studies….
…I dare say, Athenians, that someone among you will reply, “Why is this, Socrates, and what is the origin of these accusations of you: for there must have been something strange which you have been doing? All this great fame and talk about you would never have arisen if you had been like other men: tell us, then, why this is, as we should be sorry to judge hastily of you.” Now I regard this as a fair challenge, and I will endeavor to explain to you the origin of this name of “wise,” and of this evil fame…
I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit, and will tell you about my wisdom… Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether…there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser.
Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him – his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination – and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.
So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.
After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me – the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle…the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better.…
This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing…[that the riddle of the oracle truly meant] “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.”
But, someone will say: “And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end?”…[My response to this is] God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men…[therefore I cannot] abandon my post through fear of death, or any other fear.
…this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.
…I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil…if you say to me, Socrates, this time we… will let you off, but upon one condition, that you are not to inquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing this again you shall die;
if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply: Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?
…and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed. But if anyone says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth. Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you, do as Anytus bids or not as Anytus bids, and either acquit me or not; but whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.
…I would have you know that, if you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me…Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours…For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me…[who] am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you….I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives…
The jury condemns Socrates to death
Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them.
For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves. This is the prophecy which I utter before my departure, to the judges who have condemned me.
– Plato’s The Apology
I think that Socrates does a pretty good job speaking for himself against the accusation of him being a corruptor of the youth and rightly identifies that he is hated by certain men not because he corrupts but because they are afraid he will cause them to face their own errors and fallacies. That Socrates true crime is that he does not cater to what people want to hear but rather speaks the truth no matter how much it upsets and angers those who hear it.
Socrates is not acting in a shameful or dishonorable way, and though his actions may be perceived to punish him while on earth, the true measure of the good is the improvement of the soul and not this confused and mislead belief that it is to reap material good and false prestige and to avoid punishment and mockery.
Socrates also makes the point that to crush your accusers, as they are attempting to do with Socrates, will not make your problems go away, but will instead multiply and cause them to become more severe. And that it is much easier and nobler to focus on simply improving yourself rather than trying to crush those you think will expose your dishonesty and fraudulent ways.
I think we can appreciate the magnitude here, that if an entire society allows itself to be governed by this level of dishonesty and refusal to focus on the true good and improvement of the soul, that peace and stability surely will not be the fate of such a society, but rather chaos and tyranny.
So what caused Athens to fall from grace?
Well Ernst Curtius who is a renown 19th century Greek historian and archaeologist wrote of his insight into the matter:
“Athens did not fall because of its external enemies. Athens fell through itself…Stains of a treasonous spirit were recognizable in Athens already during the times of the Persian Wars…But these tendencies became a genuine threat to the state when the teachings of Sophism penetrated Athens. It was Sophism, which, above all, stimulated the force of destruction. Sophism dissolved the bonds that brought together the hearts of the citizens into common aims…A wealth of the finest talents was there, but they were turned into their opposite. The best minds became the worst enemies of their state, [Sophist] education became a poison that destroyed the marrow of the Athenian state.”
– Ernst Curtius’ Greek History Vol. II
What is sophism you may be asking? In its most simple definition; it is simply to be dishonest in your speech.
Why are people most often dishonest in their speech? Because they want to deflect responsibility, to hide a flaw or mistake, and to gain false prestige and promotion.
It is often called the art of persuasion; that is, saying what people want to hear. And people will most often think you are very wise….because they think the very same as you. That is, they use their own set of opinions to judge whether someone is wise or unwise.
However, if most people think this way, and yet most people are not wise what is the consequence of catering to such a phenomenon?
Well, the outcome is that you become increasingly distant from wisdom and increasingly closer to folly or a form of collective insanity. If those who are promoted in your society are rewarded for simply speaking to flatter ignorance you will be left with a society that will not be able to function for very long before a collapse.
There is however, another form of sophism which is even more dangerous than incompetence, and that is the intention to use sophistry such as to fool and disarm a populace for the purpose of exacting tyranny.
This form of sophism is much more dangerous and much less temporal, and has shaped long spans of our history.
In order to gain some insight into the nature of such a use of sophistry, let us compare two philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. We will begin with Aristotle:
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?
There is no difficulty in answering this question, on the grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient: from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.
Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another’s and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend a principle; they obey their instincts.
And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different: for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life. Nature would like to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labor, the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts both of war and peace.
…And if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul? but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen, it is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.
– Aristotle’s Politics
Interestingly, Aristotle admits that the beauty, and thus superiority, of the soul is hidden. Yet, concludes in the same breath that it is clear that some are marked out to be free and others to be slaves by nature, despite having developed no method as to how to judge the hidden beauty of a soul! He goes on:
…the words slavery and slave are used in two senses. There is a slave or slavery by law as well as by nature. The law of which I speak is a sort of convention- the law by which whatever is taken in war is supposed to belong to the victors. But this right many jurists impeach, as they would an orator who brought forward an unconstitutional measure: they detest the notion that, because one man has the power of doing violence and is superior in brute strength, another shall be his slave and subject.
Even among philosophers there is a difference of opinion. The origin of the dispute, and what makes the views invade each other’s territory, is as follows: in some sense virtue, when furnished with means, has actually the greatest power of exercising force; and as superior power is only found where there is superior excellence of some kind, power seems to imply virtue, and the dispute to be simply one about justice (for it is due to one party identifying justice with goodwill while the other identifies it with the mere rule of the stronger). If these views are thus set out separately, the other views have no force or plausibility against the view that the superior in virtue ought to rule, or be master. Others, clinging, as they think, simply to a principle of justice (for law and custom are a sort of justice), assume that slavery in accordance with the custom of war is justified by law, but at the same moment they deny this. For what if the cause of the war be unjust?
…Wherefore Hellenes do not like to call Hellenes slaves, but confine the term to barbarians. Yet, in using this language, they really mean the natural slave of whom we spoke at first; for it must be admitted that some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere. The same principle applies to nobility. Hellenes regard themselves as noble everywhere, and not only in their own country, but they deem the barbarians noble only when at home, thereby implying that there are two sorts of nobility and freedom, the one absolute, the other relative.
– Aristotle’s Politics
Aristotle also admits that virtue has the greatest power to exert a kind of force, and thus because it holds the most power, it is a superior quality. He then goes on to state that since virtue partakes in the superior, everything that is deemed superior (including brute strength) must thus be virtuous! Everyone appears to agree that virtue is indeed good and thus it is the matter of how one defines justice which becomes problematic according to Aristotle. For there are those who define justice as goodwill and protecting the weak and there are others who define justice as one’s right to rule and be master over others. In fact, Aristotle believes that many if not most laws have been made by weak men to protect themselves against the strong and superior.
Let us now listen to what Plato has to say on the matter. Plato wrote the dialogue Gorgias to address this question of right to rule, the characters in the dialogue are real people during Socrates’ time. Gorgias was a leading Sophist in his age.
Socrates: I assert, Polus, that both orators and tyrants have the least possible power in their own countries, as I said just now. For they do nothing, so to speak, they wish to do, and yet do what is in their opinion best.
Polus: Well, isn’t that having great power?
Socrates: Not, at least, according to Polus.
Polus: I say it isn’t? But I say it is!
Socrates: But you don’t really, since you said great power was a good to the man who controls it…So you think it is good for a man without sense to do what he thinks is best for him? And you call this great power?…
Polus:…What on earth do you mean by that, Socrates?
Socrates: That to do injustice is the greatest of all evils.
Polus: What? Is it the greatest? Isn’t to suffer injustice a greater evil?
Socrates: By no means.
Polus: So you’d prefer to suffer injustice rather than do it?
Socrates: For myself I should prefer neither; but if it were necessary…I should choose to suffer rather than do it.
Polus: So I suppose you wouldn’t like to become a tyrant?
Socrates: Certainly not, if you mean by that what I do.
Polus: Well, I mean…the ability to do whatever a man pleases: to kill and banish and do everything according to his own fancy…[such as] Archelaus, son of Perdiccas. Do you think he is happy or wretched?
Socrates: I haven’t the remotest notion, Polus. I’ve never met the man…I know nothing about his education or his attitude toward justice.
Polus: How’s that? Is this what all of happiness consists in?
Socrates: According to my account it is, Polus. I call a good and honorable man or woman happy, and one who is unjust and evil wretched.
Polus: So Archelaus is wretched, according to you?
Socrates: Yes, dear friend, if he is really unjust…You believe it is possible for a happy man to do wrong and be unjust…And I say this is impossible…in my opinion, at least, Polus, the wrongdoer and the unjust man are completely wretched, yet even more wretched if they are not punished and do not meet retribution for their crimes; and less wretched if they are punished and chastised by gods and men.
Polus: I disagree
Socrates: …Which, then, is a happier condition for a man’s body to be in: to be cured or never to be sick at all?
Polus: Obviously never to be sick.
Socrates: …Of two men who have an evil either in body or soul, which is the more wretched, the one who is cured and rid of his evil or the other who is not cured and still has it?…that such men [tyrants] have contrived for themselves much the same plight as that of a man who is afflicted with diseases of the worst sort, yet manages not to be brought to justice by physicians for his bodily shortcomings and so is never healed, since, like a child, he fears cautery and the knife as painful…Such a man is ignorant, it seems, of the very nature of health and soundness of limb…those who try to escape justice: they perceive its painful element, but are blind to its utility and ignorant of how much more wretched it is to associate with an unhealthy soul than with an unsound body. – a soul, moreover, which is corrupt and unjust and impious. To this end they provide themselves with money and friends and learn to speak as persuasively as possible, straining every nerve to avoid being brought to justice and rid of the greatest of evils…Wrongdoing, then is merely the second greatest of evils; to do wrong and not to be brought to justice is the first and greatest of all evils.
Polus: It looks that way.
Socrates: Was not this, my friend, the point in dispute between us? You were congratulating Archelaus, the greatest of criminals, because he enjoyed complete immunity from justice; while, on the contrary, I thought that Archelaus or anyone else who hasn’t been brought to justice for his crimes must necessarily be wretched far beyond all other men.
– Plato’s Gorgias
At this point in the dialogue Callicles, who has been mostly silent up till this point mocks Socrates and asks him is he not ashamed to be called a philosopher in his old age. He goes on to say that the study of philosophy is respectable for a child but once a man enters adulthood, it is in the political arena that he will become a man, to which Socrates responds:
Socrates: …Do you think it unimportant for a man to rule not himself, but only others?
Callicles: How do you mean, ‘his own ruler’?…How can a man be happy if he is a slave to anything?… of their own accord drag in a master to subdue them: the law, the language, and the censure of the vulgar? How could such men fail to be wretched under the sway of your ‘beauty of justice and temperance’ when they can award nothing more to their friends than to their enemies?
Socrates:…I once heard a wise man declare that we are, in fact, dead here and now: the body is really our tomb, and the part of the soul in which the desires are located is such that it easily yields to persuasion…he gave it the name ‘wine jar’ and the foolish the uninitiated.
In the uninitiated that part of the soul where the desires are located…he compared to a leaky jar, because it could never be filled…and of the inhabitants of Hades…the world invisible…these, the uninitiated will be the most wretched since they have to carry water to their leaky vessel in a similarly perforated sieve. By the sieve, he meant the soul and he compared the soul of the foolish to a sieve because it was leaky, by their lack of conviction and forgetfulness they cannot retain anything [but are consumed forever in obsessively trying to fill a faulty jar].
– Plato’s Gorgias
What do you think Plato is saying in this story?
That if you are a chaser of desires and ambitions, you are not a ruler onto yourself, and rather will be ruled by such things. The more obsessed one becomes in attaining what they perceive to be their ‘rightful’ gain through exerting their ‘superiority’ over the ‘inferior’, as Aristotle is so keen on exerting his right over, the more insatiable ones greed becomes, and the emptier they will in turn be, and the more obsessed in their delusion to fill it with false prestige and false wealth.
Such a person is not a ruler of anything, not even themselves, but rather they are the most ruled of all. The irony of what Aristotle claims to be the mark of superiority, is in fact, the true mark of slavery.
If one is to believe Aristotle’s claim that there is a false law made by weak men in order to keep the strong and superior in check; it would mean that such a man who believes that he has no need to follow any law, would also have no idea how to be a ruler onto himself. Such a person is the closest to an animal and is governed by their emotions, they lack discipline and are the most governed by their desires and the most envious of others. The more one chases after such a life, the sicker their soul will become which will grow into a greater and greater spiritual torment. Such a person cannot know peace within themselves and thus they cannot be an abider of peace.
Rome was founded in 753 BC as a kingdom, though much of the details around this partake in legend, suffice for our purposes here she was founded by Romulus who ruled until 717 BC. Numa Pompilius who would rule as king for the next 43 years, was a very wise king and founded the laws and governmental institutions that Rome would use for most of her existence. It should be noted that during this period, the kings were not chosen by bloodline but rather through a voting process by the senate, yes, there was already a senate formed during the period of kings.
Another interesting note is that during this period of Roman Kings (which consists of seven), never did they succumb to picking their own son for king but rather, starting with the 4th king (Ancus Marcius), he recommended to the senate that his ‘adopted’ son Tarquinius Priscus be chosen over his very own sons, which was supported by the senate vote.
Tarquinius Priscus ruled for 37 years, until the sons of Ancus, who never forgave that Tarquinius should be chosen to rule over them, stabbed Tarquinius as an elder in an attempt to usurp the throne. It is said that Tarquinius was alive long enough to tell his wife that he supported Servius Tullius as king, and his wife then shouted the message from their palace window. Interestingly, once again the former ruling king had chosen an ‘adopted’ son over his own sons. Servius was born a slave, but upon his mother’s death when he was just a boy, he was taken in by Tarquinius who raised him amongst the royal sons, and he quickly excelled them and rose to become Tarquinius’ favourite. Though Servius was known for shirking away from this favouritism, it only wounded the pride of Tarquinius’ sons further.
Servius would become king and would rule for 43 years until the day that his own daughter (Tullia), whom he had marry to one of Tarquinius’ sons (Superbus), conspired together to brutally murder Servius in his elder years in a terribly bloody public spectacle. According to Livy’s history of Rome, Tullia encouraged Superbus to secretly persuade, and buy the senators votes, in order to select him as the new King.
Superbus went to the senate house with a group of armed men. He summoned the senators and gave a speech criticising Servius: for being a slave born of a slave. When aged Servius, who was in his 70s at the time, arrived to defend himself, Superbus beats him and throws him down the front steps of the senate house.
Servius’ body would then be run over by his daughter by horse carriage causing an even further grisly scene, and the street would be known afterwards as Vicus Sceleratus (street of shame and infamy). Servius would be known as the last of the benevolent kings.
Tarquinius Superbus would rule for 26 years and would be the last of the kings. He, not surprisingly, was very unpopular with the Roman people and senate, ruling as a cruel despot. This hatred for Superbus would find its snapping point when one of Superbus’ sons, Sextus raped a nobleman’s wife, named Lucretia. Lucretia was so humiliated and felt so dishonored by this act that once she had relayed the message to a group of four high-ranking men she stabbed herself in the heart with a dagger.
Junius Brutus was one of the men present during this scene, and Livy writes that as soon as Lucretia had committed suicide, Brutus rushed over to her, plucked the dagger out of her breast and raised it, swearing the end of the Tarquin kingship.
Junius Brutus was able to quickly organise a gathering within the city where he exhorted the Roman people to rise up against the tyrant king. The people would support this and vote for the deposition of Superbus and the banishment of him and his entire family. Brutus then proceeded with armed men to the Roman army then camped at Ardea. The king, who had been with the army, heard of the developments at Rome, and left the camp for the city before Brutus’ arrival. The army received Brutus as a hero, and the king’s sons were expelled from the camp. Tarquinius Superbus, meanwhile, was refused entry at Rome, and fled with his family into exile
Once the Tarquin family had been successfully banished, Junius Brutus would gather the people of Rome to swear an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome ever again, and as per Livy, the Roman people desirous of liberty would vow from that point on no longer to be swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.
It should be noted that though the rape of Lucretia is often credited as what caused the Roman people to rebel and never suffer a king again, as Machiavelli makes the point in his Discourses on Livy, it was not the isolated event of Lucretia’s suicide that had caused the people to rebel, but the fact that Superbus had forsaken all law and had treated all of Rome with such dishonor that Rome would have been unrecognisable after a few generations under the Tarquins. If Superbus had been a just king, the crime against Lucretia would have been presented to him to act as judge over and he would not have been punished for the crime of his son, but this was not done. It was not done because it was known that Superbus had no respect for a law benefitting the general welfare of the people but rather only knew his own personal law, and this is what the people could no longer suffer under.
Though much of the political institutions remained the same, the largest change which transformed Rome from a kingdom into a republic would be the replacement of the king with two pro-consuls, who would be voted in by the Roman citizenry and would only have a one year term. This was done to dissuade anyone from desiring to rule indefinitely and from abusing their powers for personal gain. And thus, was to protect against the corrupting lust for unbounded power seen during the age of kings from their sons.
As noted with the period of kings, though it was remarkable that no king ever succeeded in accordance to bloodline, the temptation for a dynasty, especially by the sons of these kings, had ultimately corrupted this system. It was this very corrupting lust for unbounded power that the republic was formed to defend against.
Junius Brutus would be one of the first pro consuls of two, in replacing the king, of Rome. During his term, it was found out that his two sons had been caught conspiring with the exiled Tarquin family in plotting their return to the throne and the return of Rome to a kingdom. Brutus had to act as judge over his sons in their treason and sentenced them to death, for which he witnessed their executions, something that was expected of the consul. This is not to say that Brutus was a cold man, but rather that he treated his sons with no additional favour, and judged their punishment for their crimes as he would have done for anyone else. It was because of this reputation for upholding honor that Brutus became a hero in Roman history, that he not only overthrew a tyrant king and helped establish the republic, but that he embodied the noble qualities it was to represent and that nobody was above the law for the general welfare of its people. The Roman Republic would exist from 510 BC to 27 BC.
For a little less than 300 years (5th to 2nd century BC), the Roman Republic had succeeded in upholding the oath that the people swore with Junius Brutus. And though it would be confronted with challenging times, additional heroes would follow after, such as Quinctius Cincinnatus, who became a legend not only in Roman but in American history as a representation of the ideal Roman virtue; as a man who had received absolute power in order to defend Rome at a time of crisis, and when his duty was complete and Rome was saved, returned the pre-existing political order and resumed a life as a citizen farmer.
Rome treated for the most part its captured cities well and formed a sort of commonwealth to which their citizens, as Livy confirms, had pretty much equal rights to those in Rome, in fact they were called Roman citizens which was not a term taken lightly. In addition, Rome, unlike its counterpart Athens, did offer its citizenship to foreigners.
During these years, the Roman people regarded liberty to be the most noble above all things and respected it when they saw it in a foreign people. As Machiavelli wrote of the senate’s decision to give the Privernati people citizenship in response to them stating that they will abide under Rome as long as they are treated well under her, the senate did not rule to punish them for such a response but rather to reward them with Roman rights since “men who hold their liberty above everything else were worthy of being Roman citizens.”
It was only by around the 2nd century BC that Rome started to develop core fundamental problems that would lead to extensive corruption and civil unrest. They would never fully recover from this and it would spell the end of the republic.
It is common in historical accounts of this period to focus on the problems of military expansion as the main reason for the Roman Republic’s downfall. And it is true that as Rome expanded, their militaries were led by their generals for longer periods of time and elite military groups started to form, replacing the pre-existing citizens army. After long campaigns, these elite military groups would begin to hold more allegiance to their General than to the Republic. This is what made the power of Caesar and the existence of the two triumvirates possible. In addition, slavery became much more prevalent, the treatment of their slaves much more barbaric, and thus the gladiator games became popular. These horrific ‘games’ had only started in Rome by mid 3rd century BC, thought to have come from a foreign city that Rome conquered, but had been rather uncommon up till the 2nd century BC. The gladiator games would be a terrible corruption on the people by 1st century BC, and Spartacus would lead a successful rebellion for two years in response to this inhumanity in 73-71 BC.
However, just as in the case of Athens, Rome would not be destroyed from an external enemy but rather would destroy itself from within. What many historians tend to focus on, in these large sweeps in history are the economic, military and political actions and reactions of things, but hardly any notice goes towards the change in culture of a people. For it is a corruption of the culture that leads to such internal ruination as seen in the case of both Athen’s and Rome’s lost Republics.
For Rome’s story of this we will be using Cicero as our guide through the tangled forest of history.
Cicero lived from 106-43 BC. Trained as a lawyer, he entered into politics at the age of around 30 years old.
Cicero served as quaestor (responsible for public revenues and expenditures) in western Sicily in 75 BC and demonstrated such honesty and integrity in his dealings with the inhabitants, that the Sicilians asked Cicero to save them from the tyranny of Gaius Verres, a governor of Sicily, who had badly plundered the province. After a lengthy period in Sicily collecting testimonials and evidence and persuading witnesses to come forward, Cicero returned to Rome and won the case against Verres in a series of dramatic court battles. Verres had hired the prominent lawyer of a noble family, Quintus HortensiusHortalus, known at the time to be the greatest lawyer in Rome.
With Cicero’s winning the case, he also won the title of the greatest orator and lawyer in Rome.
Less than 10 years later Cicero would be voted pro-consul in 63 BC. During his term as pro-consul there was a conspiracy led by Catiline to overthrow the Roman Republic with the help of foreign armed forces. This was discovered by Cicero, and in four scathing speeches Cicero denounced Catiline before the senate, and exposed his treachery to such an extent that Catiline could no longer show his face in Rome and fled.
However, he left his conspirators within the city to start a revolution from within while he assaulted the city with an army made up of, in Cicero’s words, “moral bankrupts and honest fanatics.”
Cicero was able to seize letters to the five conspirators, and they were brought in front of the senate, and confessed. Due to Catiline’s declaration of war, Rome was under marshal law, the conspirators did not receive a full trial, but rather the senate deliberated and it was decided that these men be put to death. Cato the Younger and Caesar were part of the deliberation.
Cicero received the honorific title “pater patriae” which means the Father of Rome for saving the Roman Republic.
In 60 BC, Julius Caesar would invite Cicero to be the fourth member of the First Triumvirate, which was a military pact between the three generals who had their own armies: consisting of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. Cicero was the only one invited to this who did not have an army, and I think it safe to say that they must have thought Cicero’s words were as good if not better than a great army.
Cicero refused, however, and was not supportive of the First Triumvirate, recognising it as a threat to the sovereignty of the Roman Republic.
In 59 BC, Julius Caesar would be pro consul. While on a long expedition Caesar left in place Clodius, who almost certainly had orders to get rid of Cicero. Under Clodius’ keep, Rome became a police state, he lost no time attacking Cicero by pushing through legislation that anyone who sentenced a person to death without a trial would receive the punishment of exile, this meant to implicate Cicero for the execution of the five Catiline conspirators and was used as an excuse to banish him.
Clodius’ gangs brought terror to the streets of Rome and anyone who dared speak in favour of Cicero was brutalised. Others were successfully turned against Cicero and, the once proclaimed Father of Rome was now being called a wretched criminal. Caesar who was actually encamped very near by during all this, upon Cicero’s visit to him claimed there was nothing he could do.
Clodius then passed a law to deny Cicero fire and water (meaning shelter) within four hundred miles of Rome and Cicero went into exile. During his period of exile Cicero fought against complete despair. He would be in exile for a little over a year before the senate voted to allow Cicero re-entry into the city.
When Cicero returned to Rome, he was greeted by what seemed the entire city, who all cheered for him and hailed after him “the Father of Rome has returned!”
This was a bittersweet welcoming. And was a reminder as to how dangerous the mob’s emotional sway between love and hate can be.
Cicero continued to resist the ever growing power of the First Triumvirate, but was not successful and at a certain point had to fain public support for it so as not to be sent an outcast again. However, Caesar would always remain suspicious of Cicero’s intentions.
It is typical when reading the historical accounts of Cicero and his achievements that they are heavily peppered with references to his grand ego, vanity, ambitions for status and wealth. As if every good deed Cicero had done for the people of Rome, and there are too many to list here, was always ultimately governed by the intention to gain him further prestige and status, rather then, because of his good deeds he had rightfully earned true prestige and true status amongst the people.
In addition, Cicero is often criticised for his increased focus on writing books, especially on philosophy as he was approaching the end of his life, and that this was because he was a coward and shirked away from political life after having been bitten by it. It is clear from those who use this detraction that they do not consider philosopher very important in politics, which I think very much exposes where they are at in their thinking and comprehension of such events in history.
Thus, an ongoing theme we see with both Socrates and Cicero is that it is apparently not respectable for an aged man to focus so much time on the study of philosophy.
To settle the matter on what kind of man Cicero truly was, let us look at sections of a dialogue he wrote titled “On the Chief Good and Evil”.
You will notice in this dialogue that Cicero is speaking very much to Marcus Brutus, who is the descendant of Junius Brutus, the man who saved Rome from tyranny and monarchy.
I was not ignorant, Brutus, when I was endeavouring to add to Latin literature the same things which philosophers of the most sublime genius and the most profound and accurate learning had previously handled in the Greek language, that my labours would be found fault with on various grounds. For some, and those too, far from unlearned men, are disinclined to philosophy altogether; some, on the other hand, do not blame a moderate degree of attention being given to it, but do not approve of so much study and labour being devoted to it. There will be others again, learned in Greek literature and despising Latin compositions, who will say that they would rather spend their time in reading Greek; and, lastly, I suspect that there will be some people who will insist upon it that I ought to apply myself to other studies, and will urge that, although this style of writing may be an elegant accomplishment, it is still beneath my character and dignity. And to all these objections I think I ought to make a brief reply; although, indeed, I have already given a sufficient answer to the enemies of philosophy in that book in which philosophy is defended and extolled by me after having been attacked and disparaged by Hortensius.
And as both you [Brutus] and others whom I considered competent judges approved highly of that book, I have undertaken a larger work, fearing to appear able only to excite the desires of men, but incapable of retaining their attention. But those who, though they have a very good opinion of philosophy, still think it should be followed in a moderate degree only, require a temperance which is very difficult in a thing which, when once it has the reins given it, cannot be checked or repressed; so that I almost think those men more reasonable who altogether forbid us to apply ourselves to philosophy at all, than they who fix a limit to things which are in their nature boundless, and who require mediocrity in a thing which is excellent exactly in proportion to its intensity.
For, if it be possible that men should arrive at wisdom, then it must not only be acquired by us, but even enjoyed. Or if this be difficult, still there is no limit to the way in which one is to seek for truth…and it is base to be wearied in seeking a thing, when what we do seek for is the most honourable thing possible. In truth, if we are amused when we are writing, who is so envious as to wish to deny us that pleasure? If it is a labour to us, who will fix a limit to another person’s industry?
…But those men who would rather that I would write on other topics should be reasonable, because I have already composed so many works that no one of my countrymen has ever published more, and perhaps I shall write even more if my life is prolonged so as to allow me to do so. And yet, whoever accustoms himself to read with care these things which I am now writing on the subject of philosophy, will come to the conclusion that no works are better worth reading than these. For what is there in life which deserves to be investigated so diligently as every subject which belongs to philosophy, and especially that which is discussed in this treatise, namely, what is the end, the object, the standard to which all the ideas of living well and acting rightly are to be referred? What it is that nature follows as the chief of all desirable things? what she avoids as the principal of all evils?
And as on this subject there is great difference of opinion among the most learned men, who can think it inconsistent with that dignity…to examine what is in every situation in life the best and truest good?
Shall the chief men of the city…argue whether the offspring of a female slave ought to be considered the gain of the master of the slave; and shall Marcus Brutus express his dissent from their opinion…and do we read, and shall we continue to read, with pleasure their writings on this subject, and the others of the same sort, and at the same time neglect these subjects [of philosophy], which embrace the whole of human life? There may, perhaps, be more money affected by discussions on that legal point, but beyond all question, this of ours is the more important subject: that, however, is a point which the readers may be left to decide upon.
…This Epicurus places in pleasure, which he argues is the chief good, and that pain is the chief evil; and he proceeds to prove his assertion thus. He says that every animal the moment that it is born seeks for pleasure, and rejoices in it as the chief good; and rejects pain as the chief evil, and wards it off from itself as far as it can; and that it acts in this manner, without having been corrupted by anything, under the promptings of nature herself, who forms this uncorrupt and upright judgment. Therefore, he affirms that there is no need of argument or of discussion as to why pleasure is to be sought for, and pain to be avoided. This he thinks a matter of sense, just as much as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet; none of which propositions he thinks require to be confirmed by laboriously sought reasons, but that it is sufficient merely to state them.
…But that you may come to an accurate perception of the source whence all this error originated of those people who attack pleasure and extol pain, I will unfold the whole matter; and I will lay before you the very statements which have been made by that discoverer of the truth, and architect, as it were, of a happy life. For no one either despises, or hates, or avoids pleasure itself merely because it is pleasure, but because great pains overtake those men who do not understand how to pursue pleasure in a reasonable manner.
…Therefore the wise man holds to this principle of choice in those matters, that he rejects some pleasures, so as, by the rejection, to obtain others which are greater, and encounters some pains, so as by that means to escape others which are more formidable.
…But, at present, I will explain what pleasure itself is, and what its character is; so as to do away with all the mistakes of ignorant people, and in order that it may be clearly understood how dignified, and temperate, and virtuous that system is, which is often accounted voluptuous, effeminate, and delicate. For we are not at present pursuing that pleasure alone which moves nature itself by a certain sweetness…
…For as the chief annoyances to human life proceed from ignorance of what things are good and what bad, and as by reason of that mistake men are often deprived of the greatest pleasures, and tortured by the most bitter grief of mind, we have need to exercise wisdom, which, by removing groundless alarms and vain desires, and by banishing the rashness of all erroneous opinions, offers herself to us as the surest guide to pleasure.
For it is wisdom alone which expels sorrow from our minds, and prevents our shuddering with fear: she is the instructress who enables us to live in tranquillity, by extinguishing in us all vehemence of desire. For desires are insatiable, and ruin not only individuals but entire families, and often overturn the whole state. From desires arise hatred, dissensions, quarrels, seditions, wars. Nor is it only out of doors that these passions vent themselves, nor is it only against others that they run with blind violence; but they are often shut up, as it were, in the mind, and throw that into confusion with their disagreements.
And the consequence of this is, to make life thoroughly wretched; so that the wise man is the only one who, having cut away all vanity and error, and removed it from him, can live contented within the boundaries of nature, without melancholy and without fear.
…I in treat you not to fancy that I, like a professed philosopher, am going to explain to you the doctrines of some particular school; a course which I have never much approved of when adopted by philosophers themselves. For when did Socrates, who may fairly be called the parent of philosophy, ever do anything of the sort? That custom was patronized by those who at that time were called Sophists, of which number Gorgias of Leontium was the first who ventured in an assembly to demand a question,—that is to say, to desire any one in the company to say what he wished to hear discussed. It was a bold proceeding; I should call it an impudent one, if this fashion had not subsequently been borrowed by our own philosophers.
But we see that he whom I have just mentioned, and all the other Sophists, (as may be gathered from Plato,) were all turned into ridicule by Socrates…
– Cicero’s On the Chief Good and Evil
I think Cicero has made it evidently clear that he considers philosophy to be the most important of all subjects, even more important than law and politics (both of which Cicero had gained a good deal of notoriety and prestige in). And that he considers Socrates (and thus Plato as well) as the greatest of all philosophers.
The more you explore Cicero’s writing, the more undeniable that his guiding influence in philosophy, which governs all other subjects, was Plato and Socrates.
Here is a list of Cicero’s writings on philosophy (he also wrote on many other subjects). Notice that they were all written less than a two year span apart, during the tumultuous days of Caesar and Marc Anthony.
(46 BC) Paradoxa Stoicorum (Stoic Paradoxes)
(45 BC) Hortensius
(45 BC) Lucullus or Academica Priora – Liber Secundus (Second Book of the Prior Academics)
(45 BC) Varro or Academica Posteriora (Posterior Academics) (45 BC) Consolatio (Consolation)
(45 BC) De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (About the Ends of Goods and Evils) (45 BC) Tusculanae Quaestiones (Questions debated at Tusculum)
(45 BC) Translation of Plato’s Timaeus (sections 27d – 47b)
(? BC) Translation of Plato’s Protagoras – testimonia quoted in Priscian, Jerome, and Donatus
(45 BC) De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods)
(45 BC) De Divinatione (On Divination)
(45 BC) De Fato (On Fate)
(44 BC) Cato Maior de Senectute (Cato the Elder on Old Age)
(44 BC) Laelius de Amicitia (Laelius on Friendship)
(44 BC) De Officiis (On Duties)
Cicero also wrote two books dedicated to Brutus in 46 BC: Brutus (For Brutus, a short history of Roman rhetoric and orators) and Orator ad M. Brutum (About the Orator)
Cicero was very evidently in close dialogue with Brutus and saw something of potential in him. He was trying to organise him to be a great leader of the people.
Shakespeare writes about the tragedy of Rome in his play Julius Caesar with great insight into the nature of the problem.
The play starts with Caesar having just defeated Pompey, one of the members of the First Triumvirate (the most noble of the members). Caesar is returning into the city and the Roman people are greeting him as if he were some kind of hero, even though only weeks ago the Roman people were cheering for Pompey.
Amongst all the hype, Marc Anthony who is Caesar’s right hand man, offers a crown to Caesar. Brutus and Cassius hear a bunch of cheering from the throng and as the procession walks by them, they stop Casca and ask him what the whole commotion was about:
Casca: Why, there was a crown offered him: and being offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a shouting.
Brutus: What was the second noise?
Casca: Why, for that too.
Cassius: They shouted thrice: what was the last cry for?
Casca: Why, for that too.
Brutus: Was the crown offered him thrice?
Casca: Ay, marry, was’t, and he put it by thrice, every time gentler than the other; and at every putting-by, mine honest neighbours shouted.
Cassius: Who offered him the crown?
Casca: Why, Anthony.
Brutus: Tell us the manner of it, gentle Casca.
Casca: I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery: I did not mark it. I saw Mark Anthony offer him a crown; – yet ‘twas not a crown neither, ‘twas one of these coronets; -and, as I told you, he put it by once; but for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loth to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by: and still as he refused it, the rabblement shouted, and clapped their chapped hands, and threw up their sweaty nightcaps, and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown, that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swooned, and fell down at it: and for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.
Cassius: What did Cicero say?
Casca: Ay, he spoke Greek.
Cassius: To what effect?
Casca: Nay, an I tell you that I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another, and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me….
This part of the dialogue, which is at the beginning of the play is very telling for several reasons. We see again how quickly the mob is swayed. Pompey was a great general and one of the most respected men in Rome. Yet after Caesar cut him down, the crowd cheers Caesar for it and even applauds him being offered the crown.
We also see how the Roman people have forgotten themselves, they have forgotten that they are citizens of Rome, meant to uphold liberty above all else. As held in the Junius Brutus oath that started the Republic and vowed never to have a king rule over the people again.
We also hear that Cicero was present during the attempted crowning of Caesar, but when Cassius asks what did Cicero say, Casca responds that he could not understand Cicero, only a few could, and that he might as well have been speaking Greek for Casca understood nothing.
So we have a mob that has lost its senses, Rome is forgetting the liberties she fought to uphold at the start of the republic and hardly anyone can understand the words of advice and warning of Cicero.
Cassius: But what of Cicero? Shall we sound him? I think he will stand very strong with us.
Casca: Let us not leave him out.
Cinna: No, by no means.
Metellus: O, let us have him; for his silver hairs will purchase us a good opinion; And buy men’s voices to commend our deeds: It shall be said, his judgement rul’d our hands; Our youths, and wildness, shall no whit appear, But all be buried in his gravity.
Brutus: O, name him not; let us not break with him; For he will never follow anything that other men begin.
Brutus finds himself in a bit of a quandary. He sees that Rome is headed for tyranny. He very much has the actions of his ancestor Junius Brutus in mind and believes he is being called upon by destiny to restore Rome again to a Republic.
He organises a group of men in secret and they agree that Caesar must be killed and that they will all share in his death equally to show their fidelity to the cause.
Interestingly, Cicero is left out of this group.
Brutus understands that Cicero will not go along with this plan, nor does he want to go against Cicero, and thus he thinks it best to simply not inform him.
In Cicero’s letters (in real life), he remarks, after the fact, that if Brutus had asked him his thoughts on their plot, he would have advised them against it. However, if they were fully committed that they could not end at Caesar, and had to at least include Marc Anthony.
Lest we forget Shakespeare’s reminder to us through the voice of Cassius “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.“
The conspirators decide to go ahead and kill Caesar.
There were many mistakes committed by the conspirators in their noble yet naive attempt to save Rome and return it to a republic.
For starters, Brutus made the mistake of killing Caesar as a secret plot (unlike Junius Brutus who brought it forth to the people to decide). Brutus and his men then come out to speak to the Roman people, all with bloody hands, as to why Caesar had to be killed. And though they were right, Caesar was a tyrant, their actions would ironically open the door to a more horrendous tyranny. The fact that Caesar’s assassination was done in secret and in such an undignified manner lost them much respect they could have had with the people.
It was undignified because Caesar, for all his problems, trusted Brutus, and Brutus used that trust to stab him in the back, with Caesar’s dying words haunting us, “And you too, Brutus?”
As an audience to this, what would you do differently if you were in the position of Brutus?
Do you think this is what Cicero had in mind when he was organising Brutus?
Brutus comes out to speak to the Roman people. After his speech, Shakespeare has the crowd cheer for Brutus, the citizens cry out “Let him be Caesar!” another says “Caesar’s better parts shall now be crown’d in Brutus.”
Suffice to say the mob is thoroughly confused as to what Brutus’ intention was in attempting to save the republic.
Brutus also did not heed the tutelage of Cicero closely. For Cicero had warned him of the art of sophistry, the seducer of the mob and the enemy of truth. Yet, Brutus would put himself at its mercy under Marc Anthony. In this painting we see Marc Anthony giving a flourished speech on the death of Caesar whose corpse is lying behind him.
Again Shakespeare shows excellent insight into the situation. Brutus and his conspirators would very likely have succeeded in restoring Rome to a republic (though not clear how long lasting it would be since it was the cultural breakdown ultimately that had to be addressed to save Rome) if they had not allowed Marc Anthony to speak at Caesar’s funeral. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony speaks after Brutus, and calls to the ‘tragedy’ the great loss of ‘their dead king’ and repeats after every sad and pathetic statement “But Brutus was an honourable man.” Certainly intending the opposite, and the people still in shock seeing Caesar lying dead in front of them and all the conspirators not shy to hide their bloody hands in the deed.
Marc Anthony played on the confusion of the people and had them weep even harder for their ‘dead king’. The people were all the more convinced that Caesar was like an angel onto the people and they had been robbed of a golden age.
After Marc Anthony’s speech the citizens exclaim “There is not a nobler man in Rome than Marc Anthony”, others exclaim of the conspirators “They were traitors! Honourable men!, They were villains, murderers!” and say “We will be revenged, revenge! Seek, burn, fire, kill, slay! Let not a traitor live!”
In the following scene the crazed mob goes searching for the conspirators and comes across a poet named Cinna, who just happens to have the same name as Cinna one of the conspirators. In complete madness, the mob tears this poor man apart in a brutally violent scene, some knowing that it wasn’t even the right Cinna but killed him for sharing his name!
This is the anarchy that Marc Anthony unleashed on Rome.
And thus, Brutus, had killed one tyrant and spared the life of the more terrible tyrant that would seal the fate of Rome’s descent into anarchy and mayhem.
There is much to be said about the events that followed afterwards but for the sake of time. Marc Anthony understood that Cicero would be a thorn in his side and makes the mistake of attacking Cicero one day when he is not present at the senate.
Cicero’s responds to the anarchy and tyranny of Marc Anthony in his famous Philippics:
Another law was proposed, that men who had been condemned of violence and treason may appeal to the public if they please. Is this now a law, or rather an abrogation of all laws? For who is there at this day to whom it is an object that that law should stand? No one is accused under those laws; there is no one whom we think likely to be so accused. For measures which have been carried by force of arms will certainly never be impeached in a court of justice. But the measure is a popular one. I wish, indeed, that you were willing to promote any popular measure; for, at present, all the citizens agree with one mind and one voice in their view of its bearing on the safety of the republic.
What is the meaning, then, of the eagerness to pass the law which brings with it the greatest possible infamy, and no popularity at all? For what can be more discreditable than for a man who has committed treason against the Roman people by acts of violence, after he has been condemned by a legal decision, to be able to return to that very course of violence, on account of which he has been condemned?
But why do I argue any more about this law? as if the object aimed at were to enable any one to appeal? The object is, the inevitable consequence must be, that no one can ever be prosecuted under those laws. For what prosecutor will be found insane enough to be willing, after the defendant has been condemned, to expose himself to the fury of a hired mob? or what judge will be bold enough to venture to condemn a criminal, knowing that he will immediately be dragged before a gang of hireling operatives? It is not, therefore, a right of appeal that is given by that law, but two most salutary laws and modes of judicial investigation that are abolished. And what is this but exhorting young men to be turbulent, seditious, mischievous citizens?
To what extent of mischief will it not be possible to instigate the frenzy of the tribunes now that these two rights of impeachment for violence and for treason are annulled? What more? Is not this a substitution of a new law for the laws of Cæsar, which enact that every man who has been convicted of violence, and also every man who has been convicted of treason, shall be interdicted from fire and water?
– Cicero’s Philippics
Marc Anthony is using Caesar’s name to change the law, and that all criminals who had been banished from Rome were to be allowed re-entry, and anyone who commits a crime from here on out will be allowed to appeal and escape justice. Marc Anthony is essentially releasing all the delinquents and villains and allowing them to roam the streets of Rome freely, in addition he is encouraging that others of such character are welcome now in Rome. It is clear that Marc Anthony was more comfortable around delinquents, whom he had a much easier time manipulating, than he was around sound men of character.
And you, O Marcus Antonius, (I address myself to you, though in your absence,) do you not prefer that day on which the senate was assembled…What a noble speech was that of yours about unanimity! From what apprehensions were the veterans, and from what anxiety was the whole state relieved by you on that occasion! when, having laid aside your enmity against him, you on that day first consented that your present colleague should be your colleague…Then, at last, we did appear to have been really delivered by brave men, because, as they had willed it to be, peace was following liberty.
On the next day, on the day after that, on the third day, and on all the following days, you went on without intermission, giving every day, as it were, some fresh present to the republic; but the greatest of all presents was that, when you abolished the name of the dictatorship. This was in effect branding the name of the dead Cæsar with everlasting ignominy, and it was your doing,—yours, I say.
For as, on account of the wickedness of one Marcus Manlius, by a resolution of the Manlian family it is unlawful that any patrician should be called Manlius, so you, on account of the hatred excited by one dictator, have utterly abolished the name of dictator.
…What I am more afraid of is lest, being ignorant of the true path to glory, you should think it glorious for you to have more power by yourself than all the rest of the people put together, and lest you should prefer being feared by your fellow-citizens to being loved by them. And if you do think so, you are ignorant of the road to glory. For a citizen to be dear to his fellow-citizens, to deserve well of the republic, to be praised, to be respected, to be loved, is glorious; but to be feared, and to be an object of hatred, is odious, detestable; and moreover, pregnant with weakness and decay.
– Cicero’s Philippics
Here Cicero makes the point that Marc Anthony himself, if he were to use his past words in judging the tyranny of another, would be his own and Caesar’s harshest critic. That if Marc Anthony had said these words in truth against past tyranny, he was condemning himself with these words in the present. Cicero is reminding Marc Anthony that he will gone down in history forever as a miscreant, in exchange for a very temporal existence as a dictator.
The senate did not take heed to Cicero’s warnings. Marc Anthony did flee after Cicero’s scathing reports of Anthony’s debauch character in the Philippics but did not give up his stake and Rome broke into a civil war.
Octavius returned to Rome, who was the grand nephew to Caesar and his adopted son, and originally fought on the side of the upholders of the republic, alongside Brutus, Cassius, and Cato the Younger. However, Octavius would later betray them and form a military pact with Marc Anthony and Crassus forming the Second Triumvirate. As part of this partnership Marc Anthony demanded the head of Cicero. (Brutus, Cassius and Cato would all die in the civil war).
Cicero knew that he was likely to be assassinated if he stayed in Rome. And struggled with what would be the best course of action in combating the ever growing tyranny. Cicero had many chances to leave and even was on the verge of leaving Rome to Macedonia, a choice that Socrates had as well, and changed his mind. On his way back, Roman soldiers captured him and beheaded him.
Cicero’s last words are said by Cassius Dio, a Roman statesman, to have been “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.“ He bowed to his captors, leaning his head out in a gladiatorial gesture to ease the task. On Antony’s instructions Cicero’s hands, which had penned the Philippics against Antony, were to be cut off; these were nailed along with his head on the Rostra in the Roman Forum.
According to Cassius Dio, Antony’s wife Fulvia took Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in final revenge against Cicero’s power of speech.
Ultimately and rather predictably, the Second Triumvirate would turn on itself once its resistors had been dealt with and Octavius would come out of the mayhem victorious.
In 30 August BC, assisted by Agrippa, he invaded Egypt. With no other refuge to escape to, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with his sword in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had already done so. When he found out that Cleopatra was still alive, his friends brought him to Cleopatra’s monument in which she was hiding, and he died in her arms.
In Livy’s ‘History of Rome’ he writes “Fortune thus blinds the minds of men when she does not wish them to resist her power.”
To which Machiavelli responded in his ‘Discourses on Livy’;
“For where men have but little wisdom and valor, Fortune more signally displays her power; and as she is variable, so the states and republics under her influence also fluctuate, and will continue to fluctuate until some ruler shall arise who is so great an admirer of antiquity as to be able to govern such states within a republic so that Fortune may not have occasion, with every revolution of the sun, to display her influence and power”
It should give us much to think about that both Socrates and Cicero were criticised for what was considered an abnormal focus on the importance of philosophy. Still to this day, philosophy is relegated to the realm of the abstract, not reality.
And yet, here we are, talking about Socrates and Cicero as among the largest shapers of the events of their time as well as posterity.
As with anything in life, the solution to empire, that is the solidifier and ensurer of peace, is not something that can be presented in a static form. Just like the journey for an individual to find peace within themselves is not something that can be rigidly dictated towards or prescribed. And there is not one specific path towards this, but many, and it will be a mixture of falters and successes.
But one thing is absolutely certain and vital if we are to find peace within ourselves, within a state, within a civilization. That we must have as our greatest and utmost priority the seeking of truth, no matter how hard a sting it may feel at times and to judge our actions in accordance with the betterment of our soul and the soul of others.
Therefore, just with that recognition, we can understand that such a journey will not be easy, but it is entirely possible and for those who embrace it, the greatest joy they will ever know.
Feature Image: Thomas Cole’s “Desolation” from his series “The Course of Empire”
Cynthia Chung is the President of the Rising Tide Foundation and a writer at Strategic Culture Foundation, consider supporting her work by making a donation and subscribing to her substack page. This article was originally published by The Rising Tide Foundation.