What the Romans can teach us

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Julius Caesar.



Two ancient volumes on politics that are strikingly relevant to modern times, especially to the Indian situation.

THOSE remarks are as true of us Indians. Dr Philip Freeman has ably edited the Latin texts and translated them into lucid English prose. His introduction to both volumes makes their author alive and his writings strikingly relevant to modern times, especially to the Indian situation.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a great republican devoted to democratic governance and the rule of law. He was one of the finest symbols of the Graeco-Roman civilisation. He was to Rome what Demosthenes was to Athens and was a devotee of Plato. “It was no little brook that flowed from Greece into our city, but a mighty river of culture and learning.” The ethos of Rome becomes a part of the Hellenistic world.

Cicero was born in B.C. 106, four hundred years after Rome had expelled its last king and established the Republic. He studied law and became the most powerful advocate of his times. His political speeches in the Senate were dreaded by foes and admired by all. “The questions he asked echo still today: What is the foundation of a just government? What kind of rule is best? How should a leader behave in office? Cicero addressed these and many other questions head-on; not as an academic theorist, but as someone who had run a country himself and had seen with his own eyes the collapse of republican government.”

He refused to join the triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar to run Rome secretly by an “unconstitutional arrangement and took to writing on the enduring problems of constitutional government. After Caesar’s assassination, he pinned his hopes on Caesar’s great nephew and heir, Octavian. But Octavian allied himself with another tyrant Mark Antony. Cicero’s final attempt to restore the Republic was to turn his formidable oratorical talents against the tyranny of Antony—but the age of freedom had passed away. With Octavian’s assent, Antony passed a death sentence on his nemesis. Cicero’s last words were to the assassins who came for him: ‘At least make sure you cut off my head properly.’”

Cicero believed that the best form of government rests on a balance of powers and on a spirit of compromise. A republic, he asserted, is destroyed from within if its leaders are corrupt. Greed, bribery and fraud eat into the vitals of the polity. “Even those who disagreed with Cicero couldn’t help but admire the man. In his later years, Octavian, now the emperor Augustus, came upon his own grandson reading one of Cicero’s works. The boy was terrified to be caught with a book written by a man his grandfather had condemned to death and so tried to hide it beneath his cloak. But Augustus took the book and read a long part of it while his frightened grandson watched. Then the old man handed it back to the youth saying, ‘A wise man, my child, a wise man and a lover of his country.’”

But to be elected as a consul, Cicero had to contest elections more than once. His younger brother, Quintus, sensed the idealist in Marcus and wrote a short pamphlet on electioneering in the form of a letter, which is reproduced in the first of the two volumes. It won the admiration of the hard-headed James Carville, a Democrat, and Karl Rove, a Republican.

Cicero’s campaign

The historian Plutarch described how Cicero went on his campaign. It was no different from the style of candidates in modern times. “Now that he was beginning to go in for politics more seriously, he came to the conclusion that it was a disgraceful thing that, while a craftsman who uses inanimate tools and inanimate materials still knows what each of these is called, where it can be found, and what it can do, the statesman, who uses men as his instruments for public action, should be slack and indifferent where knowledge of his fellow-citizens is concerned. He therefore trained himself not only to memorise names, but also to know in what part of the city every important person lived, where he had his country houses, who were his friends and who his neighbours” (Plutarch; Fall of the Roman Republic; Penguin Classics; page 317. See also in the same series Cicero’s Selected Political Speeches and Selected Works).

Quintus reminded Marcus that the business community was on his side and so were the men he had defended as advocate. The young admired him.

“Now is the time to call in all favours. Don’t miss an opportunity to remind everyone in your debt that they should repay you with their support. For those who owe you nothing, let them know that their timely help will put you in their debt. And, of course, one thing that can greatly help an outsider is the backing of the nobility, particularly those who have served as consuls previously. It is essential that these men whose company you wish to join should think you worthy of them.

“You must diligently cultivate relationships with these men of privilege. Both you and your friends should work to convince them that you have always been a traditionalist. Never let them think you are a populist.”

Running for office

Marcus was taught how to exploit the flaws in the character of his opponents. “Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity; securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. You gain the goodwill of friends through kindness, favours, old connections, availability, and natural charm. But in an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company. But don’t neglect those who are your friends in the traditional sense through family ties or social connection. These you must continue to carefully cultivate.”

He should dole out favours, extend hope and strengthen personal attachments. Concentrate on the key man in every neighbourhood and town. “You should pay special attention to the centuries that represent the businessmen and moderately wealthy citizens. Get to know the leading members of these groups, which shouldn’t be difficult as they are not great in number. Most of them are young men, so they should be easier to win over than those already set in their ways. Do this and you will have the best and the brightest of Rome on your side”—the Roman equivalent of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

The younger man was more cynical. “Since I have been writing so much on the subject of friendship, I think now is the time to sound a note of caution. Politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal. I’m not going to begin a long-winded discussion of how to separate a true friend from false, but I do want to give you some simple advice. Your good nature has in the past led some men to feign friendship while they were in fact jealous of you, so remember the wise words of Epicharmus: ‘Don’t trust people so easily.’”

Read this: “Whatever you do, you must do freely and with enthusiasm. But sometimes you must do something more difficult, especially for a man of your good nature, and that is to say no graciously when someone asks you to do something for him. The other option is to always say yes—a path often taken by political candidates. But when someone asks you to do something impossible, such as taking sides against a friend, you must, of course, refuse as a matter of honour, explaining your commitment to your friend, expressing your regret at turning down the request, and promising that you will make it up to him in other ways.

“But saying no is only for such extreme cases. I once heard about a man who asked several lawyers to take his case, but was more pleased by the kind words of the one who refused him than those who agreed to represent him. This shows that people are moved more by appearances than reality.”

On making promises

Quintus cited an example, “Remember Cotta, that master of campaigning, who said he would promise everything to anyone, unless some clear obligation prevented him, but only lived up to those promises that benefited him. He seldom refused anyone, for he said that often a person he made a promise to would end up not needing him or that he himself would have more time available than he thought he would to help. After all, if a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends. Events are always happening that you didn’t expect or not happening that you did expect. Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.”

“If you break a promise, the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. But if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a larger number of voters. Most of those who ask for your help will never actually need it. Thus it is better to have a few people in the Forum disappointed when you let them down than have a mob outside your home when you refuse to promise them what they want.”

On seeking publicity

Now comes this “modern” touch. “You must always think about publicity. I have been talking about this throughout my whole letter, but it is vital that you use all of your assets to spread the word about your campaign to the widest possible audience. Your ability as a public speaker is key, as is the support of the business community and those who carry out public contracts.

“Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the colour and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves. The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you. On the other hand, you should not make specific pledges either to the Senate or the people. Stick to vague generalities. Tell the Senate you will maintain its traditional power and privileges. Let the business community and wealthy citizens know that you are for stability and peace. Assure the common people that you have always been on their side, both in your speeches and in your defence of their interests in court….

“Fear works even better than actual litigation. And don’t be discouraged by all this talk of bribery. I am certain that even in the most corrupt election that there are plenty of voters who support the candidates they believe in without money changing hands.”

Cicero won the election for consul. His books on governance, On the State and On the Laws, are based on Aristotle and the Stoics. They rest on one fundamental. “The laws of a state rule over a leader just as he rules over the people. Indeed, we could say that a leader is the voice of the law and the law is a silent leader. The rule of government should be in harmony with justice and the fundamental principles of nature, by which I mean it is in agreement with law. Without such government, no home or city or country nor indeed the human race, the natural world, or the universe itself could exist.” In foreign affairs Cicero believed in “peace with honour”.

He was at once, a master of invective and a preacher of compromise. “When a small group of people control a nation because of their wealth or birth or some other advantage, they are simply a faction, even if they are called an aristocracy. On the other hand, if the multitude gains power and runs a country according to its wishes at the moment, it is called freedom, though it is in fact chaos. But when there is a tension between the common people and the aristocracy, with each man and group fearing the other, then neither can dominate, and an accommodation must be reached between the people and the powerful….

“In politics it is irresponsible to take an unwavering stand when circumstances are always evolving and good men change their minds. Clinging to the same opinion no matter the cost has never been considered a virtue among statesmen. When at sea, it is best to run before a storm if your ship can’t make it to harbour. But if you can find safety by tacking back and forth, only a fool would hold a straight course rather than change directions and reach home. In the same way, a wise statesman should make peace with honour for his country the ultimate goal, as I have often said. It is our vision that must remain constant, not our words.”

Machiavelli remarked that a man would sooner forget the death of his beloved than the confiscation of his property. Taxes must not be oppressive. Corruption corrodes the policy. Cicero wrote: “There is no greater vice than greed, especially among those governing our country. For to use public office for personal gain is not only immoral, but also criminal and just plain wicked. When the oracle of Apollo at Delphi told the Spartans that the only enemy who could conquer them was greed, she wasn’t speaking just to them but to every prosperous nation. For those politicians who wish to gain the favour of the public, there is no better way than self-restraint and honesty.

“As for those politicians who pretend they are friends of the common people and try to pass laws redistributing property and drive people out of their homes or champion legislation forgiving loans, I say they are undermining the very foundations of our state. For years, we have watched in silence while all the wealth of the world is gathered into the hands of a few men. Our willingness to let this happen is all the more evident because none of these men even bothers to pretend he is not doing wrong or tries to conceal his greed.”

Cicero abhorred wars. A good country does not begin a war except to defend its honour or to protect itself. Wars are unjust if they are undertaken without cause. Only a war waged in retaliation or defence can be considered just.

On tyranny

Cicero lived in times when the democratic structure was fragile and tyranny lay not far beneath the surface. “Those rulers who wish to keep their subjects under control by force will have to use brutal methods, just as a master must when dealing with rebellious slaves. Whoever tries to govern a country through fear is quite mad. For no matter how much a tyrant might try to overturn the law and crush the spirit of freedom, sooner or later it will rise up again either through public outrage or the ballot box. Freedom suppressed and risen again bites with sharper teeth than if it had never been lost.”

Cicero posed a question: “How can a state ruled by a tyrant be called a republic at all? For that is what republic means— res publica, ‘the property of the people’. No country where everyone is oppressed by a single man, where there is no common bond of justice, where there is no agreement among those coming together, can ever belong to the people.”

But nor would he submit to the dictatorship of the multitude. “I cannot see how despotism is lessened when a state is ruled by a mob. As you wisely said, Scipio, a true republic can exist only when the citizens consent to be bound together under the law. The monstrosity you describe surely deserves the name of tyranny just as much as if it were a single person. Actually, it is even worse, for there is nothing more despicable than a government that falsely assumes the appearance and name of ‘the people’.”

Cicero’s Epilogue on “The Fallen State” would apply to failed states as well as “successful” ones where democratic values have eroded.

“Now our republic looks like a beautiful painting faded with age. Our generation has not only failed to restore the colours of this masterpiece, but we have not even bothered to preserve its general form and outline. What now remains of the ancient ways of our country the poet declares we were founded upon? These traditions have so sunk into oblivion that we neither practise them nor even remember what they were. And what shall I say about the men? For the reason our customs have passed away is that the people who once upheld them no longer exist. We should be put on trial as if for a capital crime to explain why this disaster has happened. But there is no defence we can give. Our country survives only in words, not as anything of substance. We have lost it all. We have only ourselves to blame.” That is true of all republics.