On the Commonwealth by Marcus Tullius Cicero
Cicero’s De Republica
by Robert Frank Pence
Cicero’s De Republica
Robert Frank Pence
Gone, gone for ever is that valour that used to be found in this Republic and caused brave men to suppress a citizen traitor with keener punishment than the most bitter foe.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) had a decision to make. Catiline and his fellow conspirators were going to assassinate Cicero and other Roman senators within hours. What should he do? Knowing that Rome had its enemies, domestic as well as foreign, Cicero immediately had several of the conspirators arrested, taken to prison, and executed, all without extending to them the right of trial. Cicero announced their deaths to the crowd with the word vixerunt (“they had lived,” meaning, euphemistically, “they are dead”). For saving Rome, Cicero was hailed by Quintus Catullus as Pater Patriae, the “father of the country.” In 1779 Francis Baily would become the first to call George Washington (in print) the “Father of His Country.”
Our forefathers brought to America’s shores their hopes, their virtues, their religions, and their industry. They brought their fears of monarchs, oligarchy, and anarchy. They sought happiness and liberty. Ultimately, they sought a new republic founded on justice, one employing the ideal that there was a higher ‘natural law’ (common to different peoples and races without regional modifications) guiding human affairs. They also brought books. Fortunately, they brought Cicero.
Copies of De Republica have long been as prized as they were difficult to find. Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 950-1003, later Pope Silvester II), wrote to his friends in search of Cicero’s works, including De Republica. Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294) lamented that the works of Cicero, Aristotle, and other ancients could not be found except at great cost; Bacon looked unsuccessfully for a copy of De Republica for more than twenty years. Notwithstanding that Cicero’s books were considered pagan texts, many Church fathers, including St. Augustine and St. Jerome, avidly read them. Augustine actually credited Cicero’s Hortensius with turning his thoughts to God. We are indebted to Augustine for providing many quotations from De Republica (later lost). In his City of God Augustine wrote that those accused of crimes should not “be exposed to vilification without the right to reply and to make defense in court” and that “the agreement that musicians call harmony in singing is known as concord in the body politic. This is the tightest and best rope of safety in every state, and it cannot exist at all without justice.” Fortunately, Book VI of De Republica, the “Dream of Scipio,” continued to be known throughout the middle ages thanks to Macrobius’ commentary on that text. Cicero’s impact on the likes of John Locke, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Montesquieu, to name but a few, was wide and deep. With Macrobius’ work in hand, and with the fragmentary references to De Republica contained in the works of the Church Fathers and classical and medieval writers, our founders were, with the availability of other Ciceronian texts, ready, willing, and able to plant Cicero’s ideas on American soil. What a crop they produced!
In 1744 Benjamin Franklin printed the first translation of a classical text in the colonies. It was James Logan’s translation of Cicero’s De Senectute with a preface written by Mr. Franklin himself (in which he expressed his confidence “that the Publick would not unfavorably receive it”). Later, Thomas Jefferson would prove to be a devoted student of Cicero. After the British destroyed the Library of Congress in the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his library to the government in 1815. In a letter to Henry Lee dated May 8, 1825, Thomas Jefferson wrote with his usual clarity:
BUT WITH RESPECT TO OUR RIGHTS, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. . . .When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of. . . .Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment. . . .All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.
Cicero unequivocally identified the one crucial element without which States could neither be founded nor maintained: there must be men to defend them (V, I, 1-2). That required active patriotism (I, I, 1); “it is not enough to possess virtue, as if it were an art of some sort, unless you make use of it. . . .” (I, II, 2). The issue of public and private safety permeates the De Republica and the larger Ciceronian canon. Cicero speaks from his heart on the subject: “I took my oath before an assembly of the people, and the Roman people took the same oath, that the republic was safe. . . .”(I, IV, 7). He was equally firm in his belief that there was nothing so harmful to a State as injustice; and that justice cannot exist at all except where the government is just. Justice, for Cicero, was more valuable than all the gold in the world: it “instructs us to spare all men, consider the interests of the whole human race, to give everyone his due, not to touch sacred or public property, or that which belongs to others” (III, XV, 24). Yet, he knew that “one man’s vices can overthrow [a monarchy] and turn it easily toward utter destruction. . . .a nation [is thereby] deprived of many things, and particularly of liberty, which does not consist in serving a just master, but in [serving] no [master at all]” (II, XXIII, 43). Our Roman senator has seen much and offers us good advice. In some states
. . .[t]his extreme liberty gives birth to a tyrant [an unjust king] and the utterly unjust and cruel servitude of the tyranny. For out of such an ungoverned, or rather, untamed, populace someone is usually chosen as leader against those leading citizens who have already been subjected to persecution and cast down from their leadership—some bold and depraved man, who shamelessly harasses oftentimes even those who have deserved well of the State, and curries favour with the people by bestowing upon them the property of others as well as his own. . . .and finally emerges as a tyrant over the very people who have raised him to power. If the better citizens overthrow such a tyrant, as often happens, then the State is reestablished. (I, XLIV, 68, emphasis added)
Res publica signifies “the property of a people” (just as the term “commonwealth” does). For Cicero republica also signifies a three branch system of republicanism in which the best aspects of the three forms of government (monarchy, oligarchy [which Cicero saw as just another kind of tyranny], and democracy) are blended together. But liberty being his goal, that is the result “if the people hold the supreme power and everything is administered according to their desires” (III, XIII, 23). To be sure, Cicero was a champion of the sanctity of private property. Even when acting as prosecutor in criminal cases, he often argued against the confiscation of the defendant’s property.
Cicero had learned, from hard experience, that citizens “must see to it that [they are] always armed against those influences which disturb the stability of the State. . . .[he called this] “a dissension among the citizens, in which one party separates from the rest. . .sedition” (VI, I,1). But Cicero, great politician that he was, foresaw what was required: a united people and senate who would make the lives of Romans better and happier (I, XIX, 32). But Cicero, even in his most republican of moments, saw dangers. He offered two solutions and a terrifying conclusion; “no magistrate not subject to appeal shall be elected”; “no act of a popular assembly should be valid unless ratified by the Fathers” (the patrician senators); and, “unless there is in the State an even balance of rights, duties, and functions, so that the magistrates have enough power, the counsels of the eminent citizens enough influence, and the people enough liberty, this kind of government cannot be safe from revolution” (II, XXX, 54; II, XXXII, 56; and II, XXXIII, 57-8, respectively). If such occurs, two of Cicero’s greatest concerns are for ‘our’ descendants and the permanent stability of ‘our’ republic (III, XXIX, 41).
The conclusion of De Republica should be of little surprise: all “. . .who have preserved, aided or enlarged their fatherland have a special place prepared for them in the heavens. . . .For nothing of all that is done on earth is more pleasing to that Supreme God. . .than the assemblies and gatherings of men associated in justice. . . .Their rules come from [heaven] and to that place they will return” (VI, XIII, 13). For those of us “still below,” America will continue as long as we have patriots willing to defend both it and the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (with a little support from Cicero’s De Republica).
Read On The Commonwealth by Marcus Tullius Cicero here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3279
Robert Frank Pence is founder of the Pence Group, a developer of shopping centers, hotels and the Dulles Expo Center. His civic interests include staging concerts for the troops, as well as serving on the board of educational and cultural institutions including The Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, George Mason University, and American University. Mr. Pence is expected to receive his Ph.D. in Italian from Yale University this year. His dissertation is entitled, “Dante Alighieri’s Literary Debt to Marcus Tullius Cicero.”
Mr. Pence’s wife Suzy serves on the National Advisory Board of Constituting America. The Pences are generous contributors to Constituting America, and their support has helped make our 90 Day Study of the Classics That Inspired the Constitution possible. We thank you, Mr. Pence!
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. In Catilanam I-IV, Pro Murena, Pro sulla, Pro Flacco. Trans. C. MacDonald. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 1977. I, 3. Catiline and his surviving army were ultimately defeated near Fiesole. Survivors of that battle descended to the nearby river to found a new city among the flowers: Florence.
 Alas, we must admit, Cicero differentiated between just and unjust forms of slavery (III, XXV, 37-8).
All references herein to De Republica are taken from Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De Re Publica; De Legibus. trans. Clinton Walker Keyes. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 1928. Rpt. 2000 (hereinafter cited as “De Republica”). Except as otherwise indicated, all parenthetical notes in my text are to De Republica. Cicero is, of course, writing in the shadow of Plato’s Republic. Those portions of De Republica upon which I have principally drawn include: Book I: I,1,2; IV,7, 12; XVII, 26,28; XIX, 32; XXV, 39; XLIV, 68; XLV, 69; Book II: III,I,2; 7-8; XV, 27; XVII,31; XXIII, 41; XXXI, 54; XXXII, 56; XXXIII, 57; XLII, 69; Book III: XIII,23; XV,24; XVI, 27, XXII, 33; XXIII, 34; XXIX, 41; XXXI, 43; XXXIII, 34; Book IV: III,3; VII, 7; Book V:I,1; III,4; VI, 8; and Book VI: I,1; XIII, 13; XXIII, 25; XXIV; 26; XXVI, 29.
Sandys, John Edwin, A History of Classical Scholarship. 3 vols. New York and London: Hafner Publishing, 1967. I, 509 (hereinafter cited as “HCS”).
Sandys, HCS, I, 590-1, referring to Roger Bacon’s Opus Tertium, p. 55.
Augustine, City of God Books I-III, trans. George McCracken. ed. Jeffrey Henderson (1957; rpt., Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2000. II, ix, xxi, and 170, n.1, 173, citing De Rep. IV, X, 12; and 218, n. 2, citing De Rep. II, XLII, 69.
An excellent summary of Cicero’s influence on Western political thought is found in Jim Powell’s The Triumph of Liberty (New York and London: The Free Press, 2000). 3-10. See, also, JÃ¼rgen Gebhardt’s Americanism: Revolutionary Order and Societal Self-Interpretation in the American Republic. trans. Ruth Hein (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1976), especially his discussion of Cicero “as a model of social regeneration of political ethics that can continuously be updated by imitating moral-political examples” (40) and the proposition that “John Adams’ civic humanism once again proves the significant influence of the Roman stoic, Cicero. . . .” (123).
It was not until 1820 that larger fragments, constituting about one-third of De Republica, were discovered in the Vatican library.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. On a Life Well Spent. trans. James Logan; pref. by Benjamin Franklin. Delray Beach, Fla.: Levanger Press, 2006, (ix). Cicero’s De Officiis was the second book printed (after the Gutenberg Bible). De Officiis advanced the notion that there is a law of nature beyond the will of the stronger, dominant class.
Among the Ciceronian titles transferred to the Library of Congress were De Officiis, De Divinatione, De Fato, De Natura Deorum, De Finibus, Academia, Tusculan Disputations, De Senectute, five copies of the Epistles (Ad Atticus and Ad Familiares), the Somnium Scipionis (Book VI of De Republica), and Middleton’s Life of Cicero.
Jefferson, Thomas, “Letter to Henry Lee, May 8,1825,” in The Political Thought of American Statesmen. eds. Morton J. Frisch and Richard G. Stevens. Itasca, Ill.: F. E. Peacock Publishers, 1973. 12.
Cicero wants a ruler who “considers the good of his people rather than their desires” (V, VI, 8); and, “as in the case of an efficient head of a family, some experience in the cultivation of the land, the construction of buildings, and the keeping of accounts is necessary. . . .” (V, III, 4).
De Rep. I, XXV, 39.
“[A] commonwealth is the property of a people. But a people is not any collection of human beings brought together in any sort of way, but an assemblage of people in large numbers associated in an agreement with respect to justice and a partnership for the common good” (I, XXV, 39). To implement such a state “. . .there should be a supreme and royal element in the State, some power also ought to be granted to the leading citizens, and certain matters should be left to the judgment and desires of the masses” (I, XLV, 69). Cicero elsewhere excludes from his definition of ‘commonwealth’ a government in which every decision is left to the power of the masses. Such a government will seize and retain what it will, plunder and waste as it wishes.
Cicero also fears anarchy in which fathers feared their sons, shames disappears, there is no distinction between aliens and citizens, and teachers fear their students. Or, as Cicero writes, “An insane multitude should not be left in uncontrolled possession of the ‘property of the people.’” (III, XXXIII, 45). How prescient (on both counts)! Cicero postulates “. . .The two elements which most conspicuously contribute to the stability of a State are religion and the spirit of tranquility” (II, XV, 27).
Thank you, Pence family, for your support of CA. Today’s entry was an incredible read! This essay makes me want to dust off my old copy of “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”:). Perhaps Cicero was the early founder of the Conservative movement?!
It is difficult, difficult work; sometimes it just seems like we are banging our heads against the wall. So many in the progressive left; it seems like our government and the people in it are actively working against us citizens. This piece give me hope and encouragement; we can and MUST fight the good fight for our Nation, armed with knowledge, we have power! WE must recognize that and push back on all who would see to the destruction of our GREAT Nation. Thank you!
Thank you for such an informative essay. And thank you for supporting Constituting America. A businessman who knows his Cicero, how cool is that! There may be hope after all.
In note 15, shame is mentioned. Years ago, when I was studying Latin, I remember coming across the Latin word that corresponds to the English word “shame”–pudor. The Romans didn’t seem to use it in the modern pathological sense. It was that much-to-be-avoided negative emotion of being viewed in a discreditable light by yourself or by others. There were universally accepted public standards; if you fell short of those standards, you felt bad. Today, there really aren’t any standards (Hillsdale being a notable exception) so there’s really no occasion for shame or pudor to help direct people to be virtuous, to do the right thing. Nowadays, people don’t seem to care about the flip side of pudor either. How many Americans have honor as a guide for their lives? AVE ATQUE VALE