In the winter of 59 BC, the political factions of ancient Rome were at each others throats. The restless crowds gathered in the Forum hoped that their new consul, a brash and brilliant reformer named Julius Caesar, could break the stalemate that was paralyzing the state, threatening the fragile economy, and distracting everyone from military threats in the Middle East. But inside the senate house, a small core of stalwart conservatives led by the indomitable Cato were determined to bring Caesar down at any cost, even if they destroyed Rome.
Watching the two sides battle each other with threats, ultimatums, and not a few bloody fights in the streets was Marcus Tullius Cicero, a former consul and the greatest orator Rome had ever known. Cicero was the leader of an ever-shrinking group of moderate senators who believed the good of the republic was more important than the success of any one party. Cicero could be vain, pompous, and endlessly annoying to all sides, but he was desperate for Caesar and the conservatives in the senate to find a way to work together before the country fell apart.
Alas, the conservatives and liberals of Rome could find no common ground during Caesar's consulship, and so the republic slipped ever closer to chaos. Marginalized in the senate and without real power, Cicero in frustration began to write about how a government should be run. As Caesar conquered Gaul, then crossed the Rubicon and plunged Rome into civil war, Cicero penned some of the greatest works of political philosophy in history. He hoped someone in power would listen to him, but there was no place for moderates in the new political order. As he wrote to a friend: "I used to sit on the deck and hold the rudder of the state in my hands; now there’s scarcely room for me in the bilge."
Cicero's political writings have greatly influenced statesmen over the centuries, including the American Founding Fathers. They knew that his insights and wisdom are timeless, since the use and abuse of power have changed little in two thousand years. For those willing to hear him, Cicero still has important lessons to teach.
"In politics," he writes, "it is irresponsible to hold an unwavering position 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." Cicero knew first-hand from his years in Roman government that there was nothing more destructive to a state than political leaders who refused to work together. He had watched helplessly as the conservatives in the senate refused to consider any of Caesar's reforms simply because they despised the man.
Cicero knew what every thoughtful statesman throughout history has known—compromise is the key to making a government work. The conservatives of Rome proudly held fast to their beliefs until the day Cato fell on his own sword, unable to beat Caesar and unwilling to live in a world in which he was forced to share power with the opposition. His inflexibility and that of his party had at last brought down the republic. As Cicero wrote, "Our country survives only in words, not as anything of substance. We have lost it all. We have only ourselves to blame."
Philip Freeman is a professor of classics at Luther College. He is the author of nine books in the last nine years, several focusing on Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy including most recently "How to Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians" and the sequel "How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders."