Review: Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician

I was a member of one of the last classes of Latin students at my public high school. Originally, I had signed up for the language because it has no spoken assessment component. As a language that is strictly phonetic it was not considered necessary to test students’ speaking ability, and even an amateur can pronounce Latin correctly (despite the differences in modern and classical pronunciation, both methods are simple).

However, my days as a youth had also instilled a love of studying classical culture. Some of my fondest early memories are of my father reading to me from books detailing the rise and fall of ancient civilizations and of the way these societies changed the world.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (Amazon affiliate link) by Anthony Everitt is a great picture of one particular moment in time: the end of the Roman Republic and its replacement with the Roman Empire.

Of course, such a transition is arbitrary, since it was a transition of power from Rome to Rome, but in our peculiar way of categorizing things it seems a tangible milestone.

I listened to the audiobook (by the way, Audible has a deal where you can get two free books when you join up, even for a free trial; it’s a great way to start on an audiobook library and the selection is expansive), which was read by John Curless. I’m not enough of an expert to critique audiobooks on their quality (though by my count I’ve listened to 22 over the past year or so), so I merely say if I thought they were done well or if there were any problems that I had with the book. In this case, I’m happy to announce as I can usually announce that the audiobook is well-done.

I have often considered Cicero to be a role model. His moderation, both politically and personally, makes him someone who can be praised by everyone despite his faults. As with all people, there are some complexities to his life. There are certainly times when he seems to fail to uphold his values, but that is perhaps only because we do not understand him as a person in the same way that all historical figures become inscrutable beneath the sands of time.

In any case, the book follows Cicero through correspondence and other documents and accounts of his life. As a historian, I appreciate its methodology greatly. It is the sort of work that provides information rather than shallow interpretation, and while there is still much interpretation the reasons for Everitt’s judgments are made clear so that the reader can choose to accept or reject them.

The prose is well-written. Falling somewhere between a biography and a general history, this book falls into a category that is rife with opportunities to fail horribly or succeed greatly. I don’t think I would say it is a tremendously exciting read, because much of its subject matter is dry and even an expert handling cannot fix that, but for someone interested in the classics you could go a long way before finding a similarly interesting book.

Some of this is also probably me being spoiled by similar books, like M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (my review), which can take advantage of the contemporary subjects and the greater knowledge we have available for them to present a picture with more intimacy than one can find of classical figures with the information that is available.

Editor’s note: Symphony for the City of the Dead also includes audio excerpts from compositions created by its subject, Shostakovich, which make it a prime example of an audiobook elevating its medium above what a book can be.

With that said, one of the strengths of Everitt’s work is that it is both immensely accessible and tremendously deep. As an English teacher, I taught Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to students, and one of the parts of the unit was a crash course in Roman history and society so that students understood what was going on with Caesar’s ascent. In addition to my own general interests in the Classical era, the research I did while preparing that content means that I have a decent amount of familiarity with that point in Roman history.

This book taught me things that I had never heard, but it also covered the key points the I shared with my students so that they could understand Julius Caesar. I think it’s fair to say that this book is valuable both to a beginner who wants an overview of a great historical figure but lacks understanding of context and historical methods, and more learned readers who want a deep dive into a particular figure and period.

I would consider it similar to Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live (mentioned in my first reflections on Montaigne’s work, though I seem to have forgotten to write about it!), a biography of the philosopher Montaigne, in that it presents as intimate a picture as we can have of its subject with the information which is available while also providing historical context so that we can understand what shaped their life.

In terms of writing, this book is not thrilling. However, it is clear and while it is not thrilling it is also not boring. As a biography, it is meticulously detailed, as a book on such a well-known figure has to be. Where it is able to give an intimate picture it does so, and one does get a feel for Cicero’s triumphs and sorrows. As a historical inquiry, it presents a detailed picture of a transitional period in Roman society, but is anchored by the life of a single subject so that it does not become too confusing.

As such, I think I would feel good recommending this book to most readers. It might not make a top 10 list of all books of all time, but it’s certainly a good entry in the field of Classical history and Roman history in particular.

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