Text #9674Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk
During Cicero’s consulship, the conflict between the aristocrats who sought to organize the state fairly on behalf of all, and those who wanted the tiny clique at the top to have everything and nobody else to have anything, sharpened. It could even be said that Cicero hastened, or even caused, the death of the Republic. His consulship and what he did then was certainly the turning point when everything began to go downhill. He could have used his not inconsiderable powers of oratorical persuasion to help the popular cause to pass legislation that was fair and just. He could have used his skills to persuade not only those of his own class, but those of the senatorial class, of the value of changes that accommodate growth. Rome was no longer just a city-state, it had acquired an empire. It was time to see that this empire was run properly and fairly, to actually fulfill the claimed function of Rome, to bring justice and peace to the world.
But that’s not what Cicero did. He finally decided whose butter he wanted on his bread and which side he wanted it on. Meanwhile, this forced Caesar and the other supporters of popular changes to resort to other strategies to expose the actual goals of Cicero’s anti-subversive campaign and to provoke real debate about the real issues, not the false-flag issues run up by Cicero.
A group of tribunes-elect, other magistrates about to take office, the consul-elect Antonius, and probably Caesar, Crassus and Catiline, got together and drafted a comprehensive agrarian bill. When Cicero heard about these meetings, he asked to participate declaring that “if the law seemed… likely to be useful to the Roman plebeians [he] would support and help to pass it.” The drafters of the bill rejected his request with the comment that it was certain that he “could never be brought to approve any kind of largess” to the Roman people. There was over 40 clauses in the bill that attended meticulously to detail and provided a wide program of social reform. It granted allotments of public land to the landless poor, war veterans which would have served to solve the problems of hordes of indigent people crowding Rome as well as reconstitute the middle class which had all but disappeared as a result of endless wars and the consequences of same already described. The bill anticipated all objections and covered them fairly. It was comprehensive and rational which reveals that its main author must have been Caesar because it was a forerunner of legislation he would promote and pass in the future. The bill was advantageous to so many elements of the citizenry of Rome, and to Pompey as well, who had been agitating for land for his soldiers, thus, it would have been expected that Cicero would not unilaterally oppose it. However, in his inaugural address to the Senate and in two subsequent speeches in the Forum, Cicero not only exposed his attitude toward the bill at hand, but also the political line he was going to pursue during his year in office. One suspects that Caesar and his group certainly did not expect to pass this bill, but rather to expose Cicero so that they could take his measure and formulate further strategies.
Cicero not only rejected the bill unequivocally, he found no part of it worth salvaging. He offered no constructive criticism, no suggestions or ideas about how to solve any of Rome’s problems, just a big, flat, “no way”. His speeches reveal that he was so overjoyed, so over the moon, about finally being accepted into the boys club that had for so long kept the “Keep Out –Klub Members Only!” sign on the door of their tree-house, that he actually believed that it was all about him and him alone! He declared that with the backing of his clique he was going to rally all men of property behind him and was going to persuade them all to return to reason, i.e. the way the senate wanted things done. As Kahn notes, “Cicero delivered himself over to his mentors without reservation and committed himself with the passion of a new believer to their credo: “Let no innovation be made contrary to usage and the principles of our forefathers” – a credo that he had mocked only three years earlier. His new self-image was as the spokesman for the tiny controlling clique within the senate. He was now going to defend them from subversion. He was so impressed with himself and the grandeur of his mission that he actually began to present it in terms of a battle between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness!
Cicero’s speeches against the land bill are truly amazing examples of hyperbolic obfuscation, shameless twisting and distortion of facts, shameless disregard of humanity and principles, and models of reactionary oratory. They can be (and have been) used by elitists of any era who are desirous of repressing and suppressing efforts to alleviate social misery. Cicero made it plain that his new “friends” would not be granting redress to the desperate hordes, they would not yield an inch to anyone challenging their absolute authority and right to rule, and certainly would not allow any reforms that might have prolonged their outdated hegemony that was about to fall due to this very attitude. “Like entrenched oligarchs of every other era, they fixed their eyes on an illusory past and preferred repression of discontent and eventual overthrow to slow retreat with dignity preserved.” (Kahn)
The most common elements of Cicero’s speeches on this topic were ad hominem attacks, well known to be the standard for all crusaders against subversion (which is why it is so astonishing to see McCarthy on the list of Wikipedia’s demagogues, but not Cicero! Cicero wrote the book!) Cicero singled out Rullus, the tribune who presented the bill, who was known to be something of a bumbling speaker:
As soon as he was elected he practiced putting on a different expression, a different tone of voice and a different gait; his clothes were in rags, his person was terribly neglected, more hair about him now and more beard, so that eyes and aspect seemed to protest to the world the tribunician power and to threaten the republic.
Cicero then portrayed the land reformers as “enemies of Pompey” (trying to appeal to Pompey’s supporters). Representing himself as Pompey’s representative he declared “Pompeius rejects Rullus’ offer.” Unfortunately, he did not elaborate any alternative land offer for the warlord’s veterans and this would come back to bite Cicero soon enough.
Cicero charged that the reform bill was a blind for “pernicious designs by nefarious men” seeking “royal power.” Resorting to his “battle between good and evil” theme, he declared that the authors of the bill had “given hope to the wicked and inspired the good with fear.” But never fear! Cicero, the champion of righteousness was on hand to repel the powers of darkness just like a divine redeemer. He actually said:
In the midst of this confusion and disturbance of men’s minds and affairs… the voice and authority of a consul has suddenly brought light into utter darkness for the Roman people.
Oh yeah. But wait, there’s even more! This one is going to crumble your cookies: Cicero declared that there was no longer any enemies on the outside since Pompey was on the job over there in Asia stomping on the provincials so they would cough up everything they owned. No, indeed, “the evil [was] confined within [the] gates, it [was] internal and domestic.” He warned darkly of civil war.
The republic when it was handed over to me was full of anxiety, full of fear… All kinds of seditious plots against the present from of government and against your quiet were reported to be already in progress, some to have been entered on the moment we were elected consuls.
Cicero clearly had it in his mind that he was single-handedly going to quell any request from any little kid named Oliver asking for more, for all time to come. If a person reads Cicero with full awareness of what was really going on all around and through the empire, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the guy was stark, raving mad. He was delusional. He had been rejected by the cool kids all his life and now that they had let him come over to play, his lifetime of fantasies of what it would be like to be a “cool kid” just simply took over his mind completely. Either that, or he was a closet psychopath all his life and only when he became consul, the acme of his power aspirations, did he allow his true nature to manifest itself.
When he made speeches in the forum where there were many listeners who wanted agrarian reform and favored the bill, he didn’t dismiss the bill as arbitrarily as he did in the senate. Instead, he accepted the principle that agrarian reform was certainly needed, but then turned around and impugned the motives of the reformers. In the time honored tradition of oligarchs and ruling minorities, he asked “What were the actual intentions of those promising land reform to the Roman people?” They were, he declared, “darkly engineering something different.” On this basis, Cicero also warned his listeners that he would consider any proposals to mitigate misery and despair as evidence of revolutionary tendencies!
He declared that, as “the people’s consul”, he did not “disapprove of every kind of agrarian law in itself.” Then his hypocrisy vaulted he praised the Gracchi:
…the most illustrious citizens, the most able and the most devoted friends of the Roman people, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, settled plebeians in public lands.
According to Cicero, unlike the Gracchi, the drafters of the Rullan bill were not concerned with the people’s welfare because they “assembled privately… in darkness and solitude… in secret meetings” and their purpose was not to benefit the people but to gain control “of the treasury, the revenues, all the provinces and the entire republic, of friendly kingdoms, of free nations.”
Wow! All that from a program of social reform. Sound familiar?
In his private correspondence, Cicero expressed the opinion that the murder of the Gracchi and the massacre of their supporters by the senate was “justifiable.”
For the remainder of his consulship, Cicero continued to define the problem in his hyperbolic demagogic way as a war between good and evil. He could never see that the problem was that measures were needed to resolve a crisis of the republic which had outgrown the city-state model of “got to war, get plunder to bring home, close the gates and enjoy.” This allegedly great orator, this model Roman advocate for “freedom and democracy”, never once said any words in all his orations and writings about the problems of the homeless, the economic crises of the debts people were forced to shoulder just to survive, the jobless, the disenfranchised, or the starving multitude. Not a word. Ever. What was worse was that any proponents of reform designed to alleviate these problems were denounced as dangerous conspirators prepared “to throw the government into confusion by seditious speeches, by turbulent decrees of the senate, by unjust exercise of authority and to seek some excuse for revolution.” In other words, Cicero and his coterie left no choice to those who were suffering under oppression: their only choices were riots and rebellion. By repression all attempts at reform, Cicero and his colleagues only made the situation dire and desperate.
Kahn writes that “in Cicero, Caesar and his associates faced a cunning and eloquent foe. Caesar would have to exert all his genius in political maneuvering to counter the anti-subversive campaign.” Caesar had heard all the slogans before: “the plot against liberty,” Pernicious designs of nefarious citizens” and “seditious plots against the present form of government.” All of these and much more had been trotted out and marshaled against previous reformers: the Gracchi, Saturninus, Drusus, Sulpicius, Marius and a series of radical tribunes. Some of them had been assassinated, some had been exiled. Followers had been massacred.
Caesar could see where Cicero was going. With his warnings against “passionate men, always disposed for violence, ready for revolution, “ and his declaration that it was his “duty as consul to exercise the most serious care and attention in protecting the republic” , his reprimands to tribunes “not to stir up sedition during ‘[his] consulship,” Cicero was clearly moving the political action toward an invocation of the Senatus consultum ultimum (SCU), or declaration of martial law and the handing over of absolute power to the consul. This act suspended the rights of the citizens and made it possible for a consul to summarily execute citizens who were deprived of the right of appeal to the assembly of the people. The issue of the legality of this decree was a contentious one. Just a year earlier, Caesar, being assigned to sit as president of a court trying homicides, had issued a ruling that invalidated the preemptive amnesty for crimes committed during the Sullan Terror. In this act, he was making a statement and issuing a warning to those who might contemplate future “cleansings” of political opponents.
At the moment, however, with Cicero in the driver’s seat increasing the hysteria of the people, Caesar apparently realized that he could say nothing because any declaration for the reinforcement of constitutional rights would be denounced as a cover for conspiracy. Instead, Caesar and his friends came up with a brilliant plan to deliver a message and get people to think: The Trial of Gaius Rabirius.