Cicero, Dictators and Christ

I’ve just finished Robert Harris’ titanic trilogy about the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, famous lawyer, politician and philosopher, as told by his secretary, Tiro. The author must surely be one of the best living writers in our language. His understanding of the late Roman Republic must rival many actual Romans’, as recorded in ImperiumLustrum and Dictator.

One of the books’ themes is Cicero’s determination to resist dictatorships and preserve the Republic, with its annual elections and careful power-sharing. Aediles, tribunes, praetors and consuls are part of the system’s delicate balancing act. When Julius Caesar seeks to destroy all that, Cicero rejoices in his murder. Without understanding the full consequences of his actions, he promotes and supports a young man to bolster republican hopes; this young man, Octavian, becomes the monster Augustus, the first of the emperors. Cicero ends up helping to destroy the very republic he sought to save.

For the last two millennia, men have sought power. How many presidents and prime ministers today alter their nations’ constitutions to extend their time in office? How many fiddle election results, or imprison rivals? This week, President Kenyatta of Kenya, for example, has just been re-elected to that office with a remarkable 98% of the vote. Politicians’ lust for power is as great today as it was then, and Cicero would recognise much of it.

Contrast our race’s greedy hunger for power with that of Christ, who, though Emperor of the universe, surrendered His authority for love’s sake:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Philippians 2:5

Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Capitoline Museum, Rome