248 of 250 people found the following review helpful
There are many able and thoughtful reviews of this bestseller below. Rather than rehash the common themes -- namely that "Cicero" is well-written but a bit shallow (I happen to agree) -- I've decided to use this review to assess Everitt's work against the last popular biography on the great Roman statesman and philosopher, Elizabeth Rawson's "Cicero: A Portrait," which is regarded by many Roman scholars as the finest ever written. With diligence and a little bit of luck I was able to obtain a copy of Rawson on the Internet. I decided to read the two books concurrently to discover why many learned readers hold her book in so much higher regard than Everitt's.
Keeping with the spirit of a head-to-head competition, first let us consider the "tale of the tape." The paperback versions of both books are remarkably similar is structure, organization and length. That is, both are chronological narratives organized into seventeen chapters and just over 300 pages in length (it should be noted that the font and margins in Rawson are smaller, so "Portrait" is roughly 20% longer in terms of wordcount). Clearly, then, Everitt's relative weakness isn't excessive brevity or an unorthodox and ineffective approach to Cicero's life.
Much to my surprise, these books turned out to be just as similar in content as they were in size. Rawson certainly does a more thorough job of analyzing Cicero's philosophical works and her book ends with an excellent but brief review of Cicero's legacy, but overall Everitt's prose is more lucid and he excels Rawson in his ability to capture the pulse of life in Republican Rome (his descriptions of the traditional Roman marriage ceremony and assembly voting procedures are especially noteworthy). Rawson doesn't quote from Cicero's writings or letters to Atticus any more extensively than Everitt -- indeed, Everitt's choice of quotes are so precisely similar to Rawson's that it almost raises some suspicions. In sum, because these books are so close in every way I feel that Everitt's is superior simply because it is more readable (not to mention far easier to find and purchase).
In closing, I'd like to echo the frequent comment that this book isn't a deep and penetrating study of Cicero and his times, such as Meier's biography of Caesar. It wasn't meant to be. It is targeted to a wide audience and succeeds exceptionally well at bringing Rome and one of its most remarkable figures to the average reader. In a world where many of the liberal arts graduates of our leading universities never touch Cicero or Polybius or Livy or Thucydides and probably couldn't tell you whether the Greeks or Romans came first, I can't help but think that books like this are at least a step in the right direction toward stimulating public interest in the classics. Ideally, "Cicero" will inspire young students or the merely intellectually curious to read some of Cicero's writings or pursue more substantial works on the Republican Rome or the ancient world in general. As someone who didn't "discover" the ancients until graduate school and then developed a passion for them, I can only hope that books like this will make a few converts along the way.
75 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2002
The dust jacket of Everitt's attractive biography quotes a perceptive English reviewer, who observes, "Of all the arts, that of politics has advanced least since the days of Greece and Rome." Upon closing the book, my overwhelming sense was that Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and, yes, Bill Clinton would have done perfectly well in Julian Rome. The broad contours of the political game have, in the intervening two millennia, acquired several strips of veneer and a few layers of varnish, but they are immediately recognizable in this briskly paced work. Pompey's political ponderousness, Caesar's bright dexterity, and Cicero's conservative deliberateness all find ready parallels in this and every other age. Gain, glory, and fear are here the prime motivators--generalize to politics Thucydides' famous observation that men will go to war for any of these three reasons and you will have neatly summarized all political motive--and Everitt nicely sifts through the ample historical record to relate how the great men of the late Republic clambered for the pinnacle as the challenge of Julius Caesar loomed.
For readers not particularly well versed in Roman history, Everitt does particularly well in quickly situating Cicero's life in the great events of his day, the context of an expanding empire, and the daily life of a Rome that had no city government as we would know it--little public security (private guards for the wealthy, nothing for the rest), sanitation, services, or urban administration. An accretion of checks and balances (so admired by our own founders) caused politic to deadlock, with each of the major protagonists offering solutions that either restored, or to circumvented, the formal primacy of the Senate and Rome's great families. Throughout, Everitt renders intelligible a bewildering tangle of events and human interactions. He shows Cicero standing at the center of these great events--with the exception of the plot to kill Caesar, of which he knew nothing (but you who know your Shakespeare will have known this as well...)--or, less charitably, desperately working the Roman public relations apparatus to "seem to stand," on firm Republican principals. At those times when when his cause fails--perhaps as a result of words or long harbored grudges that return to haunt him--Everitt's statesman retires to one of his well-appointed villas and the life of the mind, turing to his beloved philosophy and the composition of the writings that comprise his greatest legacy.
I dock this commendable biography a star for an insufficiency of documentation and the generally cursory handling of Cicero's ideas. Yes, yes, I recognize this is popular biography, but some particularly quirky looking passages beg for sourcing and don't get it, while other, better known material gets copious sourcing (and with endnotes, by page and passage, rather than with numbered end- or footnotes). As for Cicero's rich store of written ideas, the major works are dutifully listed, their contents for the most part cursorily described. I for one would have appreciated a broader, deeper discussion, but concluded that Everitt viewed his chapters on the works as necessary drudgery required by the life and legacy and as impediments to his narrative design (he does in fact refer to the authoritive scholarly studies in a bibliographic appendix). The author seems too eager to gallop off--perhaps to the cheers of most readers--on his thrilling, often bloody, tale. And so he does.
(And why didn't someone at Random House point out to the design people that the Coliseum, which graces the dustjacket, was erected more than a century after Cicero's death? A particularly shameless attempt to cash in on the Russell Crowe picture.)
This is nevertheless a very worthy book and a solid--and solidly entertaining--introduction to the timeless world of Roman politics. Highly recommended.
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2002
As a 56 year old physician and non-historian, I would otherwise have remained dimly informed of the complex history of the last days of the Roman Republic ....but for this remarkable book. With clear prose, and finely nuanced style, Everitt brings to life both the times of Rome during the last days of its Republic, and the multifaceted personality of Cicero. Moreover, his index of names is outstanding.
His detailed description of comon elements of Roman life, its overextended and patchwork government (laden with unbelievable corruption), and his fine description of the physical area of the Forum and its multiple functions - are fascinating and gripping.
This is an epic tale brilliantly told - a tragic but unavoidable outcome, enlivened with excellent primary source quotes which bring breath and life to the story.
You will be well versed of this critical period of history, and deeply appreciative of the cultural debt which Western Civiliazation owes Cicero after reading this book.
107 of 132 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2002
It is not my practise to review books for which I have little taste. There are cases where I make exceptions, particularly where I notice that there is an overwhelming tsunami of opinion that tends in the opposite direction to my views. I feel suich a situation requires some balance. Virtually every reviewer of this book has praised it to the skies as if it were the most important book to emerge on Cicero in recent memory.
Let me at the outset state that the best recent biography of Cicero is NOT this one. It is Elizabeth Rawson's "Cicero: A Portrait". It is not as lavishly produced, but its pedigree and credentials are infinitely superior to Everritt's rather disappointing (though lengthy) effort. And it is every bit as readable - and in fact is more succinct and to the point.
In fact this book is NOT the most important or best biography of our times. It is rather business-like and pedestrian. Serious students of the period and specialists should not reach for this book in the expectation of something ground-breaking. It is anything but that. It is a decent, well-written account (by a non-specialist) of one of the most famous and influential figures in all of history. The causal reader will enjoy it (as the other reviewers suggest) but they would profit more from an acquaintance with Rawson's book, which I have reviewed as well.
Everritt's book is filled significant mistakes in the Latin . And Everritt has adopted a policy that is dangerous for the non-specialist - he ignores the modern writers and goes back to the "ancient-sources". As a result he is at their mercy. As Mary Beard has remarked, "the result, almost inevitably, is a patchwork of ancient texts, sewn together with a thread of common sense, guesswork and sheer fantasy".
This book is also what Everritt terms, a "rehabilitation". Whether Cicero is or isn't due for such a thing one may debate. As I fall clearly in the "pro-Ciceronian" camp, it was heartening to read a thorough-going account rendered by a friend as opposed to a foe. But for those who know these issues and the history, we are ultimately left wishing for so much more.
As Mary Beard wrote, "What we have been waiting for is not another 'straight' biography of Cicero; there are more than enough of those. Much more to the point would be a biographical account that tried to explore the way his life-story has been constructed and reconstructed over the last two thousand years; how we have learned to read Cicero through Jonson, Voltaire, Ibsen and the rest; what kind of investment we still have, and why, in a thundering conservative of the first century BC and his catchy oratorical slogans. Why, in short, is Cicero still around in the 21st century? And on whose terms? Quo usque tandem?"
Marcus Junius Brutus is the subject of a thoroughly charming biography of this kind -- "The Noblest Roman", by M.L. Clarke. Out of print but readily available through the used book shops. You can read my review of it. Surprisingly such a biography of Cicero simply doesn't exist. And so we (and Cicero) wait....
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2003
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), Roman orator, advocate, politician, philosopher, and an introvert who led the most public of lives. Cicero lived through the stormy era of the Republic and testified the rise, the dictatorship and the assassination of Julius Caesar in addition to seditious movements of those who inherited his political legacy.
Drawn from Cicero's letters of correspondence with his friend Atticus and various modern sources, Everitt deftly recreates a vivid chronicle of Cicero's life and restores him to the pantheon of our common past.
To help readers understand the political infrastructure of the Roman Republic, Everitt begins with a chapter that explores the fault lines of the Republic that gave rise to all the seditious movements and military melee and thus inevitably led to the decadence. Cicero and his contemporaries helplessly inherited a self-constraining, self-defeating political system that inculcated the virtues of fortitude, justice, and prudence. Such inwardly unsound gesture was implemented to thwart any overmighty citizen seizing power.
The very same precautionary measure ironically pushed the Republic to the verge of hostilities and wars. The yearlong co-consulship, the lack of a prosecuting service and the continuous class struggle between the Patricians and People manifested venality, bribery, and collusion among officials.
In his portrait of the tenuous political situation, Everitt delineates Cicero as a man who was born and lived at the wrong time, or rather, the cruel times had dragged him along. Not a single day passed did Cicero not to worry about his opponents and those whom he had testified against with his instigation. Cicero thwarted and put down collusion and conspiracies, acted in defense and won acquittal of Roscius convicted of parricide, challenged the dictatorship of Sulla and the decadence of his regime. During his consulship, Cicero pursued the sedition of Catilina and thwarted his attacks on the Senate. Cicero vehemently opposed Julius Caesar and his despotic attempt to form a new Roman government. Even though Caesar took a liking of Cicero and looked up to him, Cicero asserted his preference for Pompey in the First Triumvirate and supported Pompey during Caesar's reign to restore Rome back to republicanism. In the remaining days of Caesar's dictatorship, Cicero remained a thorn to Caesar until his assassination.
Everitt's account also leaves readers in awe of Cicero's merits. Cicero had administrative gifts and oratorical skills of a very high order that none of his contemporaries could deploy. In a society where politicians were also expected to be good soldiers, Cicero was preeminently a civilian, a philosopher, a writer (Cicero admitted his physical weakness and nervousness) and this makes his success all the more remarkable. Cicero ceaselessly advertised and spread anti-war sentiment. He devoted his whole life, through his influence as a statesman; to negotiate a republic made of a mixed constitution. Cicero, when his career ended, must be in searing pain as he no longer entertained hopes that the Republic will be restored. Everitt deftly pointed that for the long years Cicero was a bystander in the working of Rome was not due to his lack of talent but a "surplus of principle." The republic collapsed around his neck as he tried to find more able men to run the government and enacted more efficient laws to keep these men in order.
Behind the political success laid Cicero's internal struggles. From Everitt's account, it seems the only people whom Cicero engaged in an emotional bonding were his daughter Tullia and his best friend Atticus. His divorce of Terentia (on the basis of her thoughtlessness and financial mismanagement) and his failed marriage with Publilia brought him nothing but loneliness. When Tullia died from a miscarriage, Cicero was completely devastated and read every book that the Greek philosophers had to say about grief. Atticus recounted his friend's grief as something of a new intensity too raw and too astonishing to be publicized. His rabid disagreement with Quintus, who heaped all the blame of his ill behavior on Cicero and switched to Caesar, pricked his heart. All the unfulfilled dreams led to Cicero's drastic change in personality that he was willing compromise his beliefs to stay in power and to exercise unscrupulous methods to restore the republic.
Everitt's book astutely captures the success, struggles, uproars and the spirits of truly the greatest politician of Rome. The book is up to the par of Boissier's Cicero and His Friends and Cowell's Cicero and the Roman Republic. Recommended. 4.5 stars.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2002
Anthony Everitt clearly states his aim very early in this book - "to restore him (Cicero) to his proper place in the pantheon of our common past" - and he pulls it off in this successful political biography.
Everitt brings together history, characters, and political intrigue to create a real person in a real city - Cicero in Rome. Whereas beforehand Cicero was "Selected Works" or "Collected Letters," Everitt brings him to life as a lawyer in the Forum, a leader in the Senate, an outcast in exile, and more. Everitt writes with authenticity and clarity. His explanations of building political connections as well as the daily activities in the Forum put you right in the scene unlike anything else I've read about Cicero. It really magnifies every speech of his that I've read before. Then Everitt portrays the key figures of the time. He shows how a few ambitious and gifted Romans manipulated the government for their own gains - all of which as Cicero leaves us nothing less than a timeless political legacy. In doing so he unsuccessfully tries to save the Roman Republic from dictators and the future emperors.
A modern biography on such a great subject was long overdue. However, as fascinating and enjoyable as the political biography was, I would have liked to read more about Cicero as a philosopher and writer (in addition to his letters). Not enough was devoted to this aspect of his life. Unfortunately, there will probably not be another similarly talented biographer willing to fill in this gap.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Anthony Everitt's "Cicero" is a biography of a figure from antiquity that reads as if it was written about a 20th Century American President. That's because a large amount of the great Roman orator's correspondence luckily has survived the 2000 plus years since his death. Cicero was a great tragic figure, a conservative and a republican (small "r") fated to live in a time of great turmoil that resulted in the death of the Roman republic (and his own). In the end, his philisophical writings helped crystalize Western thought and still affects academics and statesmen to this day. All of this from a man who held the highest Roman Reublic office (that of Consul) for only one year and had little military experience in a time when great generals were both feared and revered.
Everitt tells Cicero's story in a superbly readable narrative style that marks the best history writing these days. He explores his subject's political career and personal life while deftly setting the backdrop of the times in which he was a chief actor. Everitt pays particular attention to Cicero's stormy life long relationship with Julius Ceasar, that archenemy of republicanism who nevertheless had a soft spot for the cantakerous philosopher. Ceasar's assassination is the crucial event upon which Everitt's narrative pivots.
Overall, "Cicero" is an outstanding work of biography that will be greatly enjoyed by history buffs and even by more casual readers.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2003
Though my own knowledge of Cicero was next to nothing before reading this book, most people will find this biography by Anthony Everitt as a very readable and a well organized book on the life of a remarkable politician, Cicero. A man determined to defend the republic against the tumultous years of war and dictators that brought down the republic and ushered in the first Roman Emperor Augustus.
Cicero was gifted as a lawyer, politician and ranked among if not considered the greatest orator in history. He won both friends like Atticus and enemies like Antony. He was a man forced through conviction to support Pompey against Caesar, yet won the admiration of that very man he was so often against, Caesar himself. Caesar, before the war, had asked Cicero to join him in forming what became known as the first triumvirate; Cicero refused.
But Cicero was not without his own weaknesses. He could be ruthless at times, extremely boastful, lacking in courage, and unable to make up his mind. Yet his strengths are clear and his influence abundantly clear even though more than 2,000 years have elapsed since his death.
This biography of Cicero gives at least a partial glimpse of many of the major players in Rome during his day. From friends and family members like Atticus, Quintas and Marcus Cicero to leading politicians and leaders like Cato, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Antony and Octavian, this extremely well-written biography is a must for any interested reader in the life of Cicero and the decline of the Roman Republic.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2002
Everitt's style is wonderful! The book isn't overwhelming with facts and is paced perfectly. It is a light and casual read, but at the same time comprehensive and critical. If you are often bored with reading history, you don't need to worry about this book, it is a complete pleasure and delight to read. This isn't one of those books you pick up and read about 1/4 of and never look at it again.
Aside from all this, the book offers a rare insight into the life of Cicero and also the function of the legal system and trials. The author does a great job of presenting a two-faced Cicero, his actions in public life and then his private correspondance with his good friend Atticus. Along with all this, the reader gets one of the best overviews of the fall of the Roman Republic that I have ever read. I can hardly hold my pants on waiting for his next book on Augustus.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2003
Well I was pleasantly surprised by this book about Cicero. I thought it was going to be a rehashing of what you have seen in the movies from Spartacus to Cleopatra. This was a completely different view.
First it explained how the Roman Republic really worked from the time just before Sulla. You had to work through several levels before you could become a counsel in Rome. There was also an age requirement. Second I assumed that no one but the Patrician class could move up in power, while Cicero did not come from that class and used his acumen to became first Counsel of Rome. It was truly a republic and not a feudal system.
I enjoyed learning about the young lives and trials of people like Julius Ceasar, Pompey and Cicero. Each of them took a different course to reach the pinnacle of their system of government. An interesting tidbit was that lawyers like Cicero were not paid but did receive gifts from people or were left in their wills.
They had ex post facto laws where the Republic could charge the first counsels with all sorts of crimes after they had been counsel. Not just at the end of their term but 5 years after as in Cicero's case. Being first counsel did ot seem like the best job. I would have rather been a governor of a provience for an extended period of time like Ceasar did with Gaul, that was how he got all his wealth. I enjoyed the story of Marcus Lincinnus Crasas, it did not say where he got all his wealth but it did say how he died which I always wondered about after seeing Spartacus.
It seemed that the whole time that Cicero was alive that they were going through some Civil War. The alliances made for convenience and broken for polical gain were the most interesting. It was hard to keep track of all the characters because they were always switching sides and doing what was best for themselves like a regular Bill Clinton. (I'm sure that will rub some people the wrong way.)
There is a large emphasis on law and how it was determined throughout the book. Most of the decree and laws were changed back and forth several times to favor the party in power.
A lot of the book is about Julius Ceasar and even though he was murdered bought about the end of the republic. I was surprised how much Cicero seem to hate Antony. The story about Antony is much different than I had expected. In the movies he always goes after Cassias and Brutus right after Ceasar's murder but in the book it shows the true and completely different story.
The final alliance between Antony and Octavian shows how self centered these two power hungry Generals had become by compromising by putting all the wealthly people on a proscription list. Well I guess if you got to rich in ancient Rome you got killed for your wealth. Then Antony and Octavian go out after Cassais and Brutus to solidify their power with Octavian winning out overall in the end because he lasted the longest and had no one to challenge him.
I throughly enjoyed this book because it was different than I had expected.