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Cicero's writings compiled in How To Run A Country may not be relevant today

Philip Freeman's collection of writings by Marcus Tullius Cicero is entertaining and educational, but politicos looking for leadership guidance would be well advised to choose a role model whose career did not end in assassination.

A bust from the first century BC of Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was assassinated by political rivals in 43 BC. Dea / A Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty Images
A bust from the first century BC of Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was assassinated by political rivals in 43 BC. Dea / A Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty Images

How to Run a Country:

An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders

Marcus Tullius Cicero (edited by Philip Freeman)

Princeton University Press

It has become something of a publishing cliché. Select a well-known figure from history (ancient, preferably), cobble together a selection of their sayings and draw some spurious conclusions about their relevance to the conduct of modern life.

The business world, in particular, seems especially susceptible to this kind of retro "wisdom", spawning such classics as The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan; Julius Caesar CEO and Expect the Unexpected or You Won't Find It: A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus.

Odd, really, especially when you consider how things panned out for some of these ancients. Caesar's period as "CEO" of Rome, for instance, ended with him being stabbed in the back.

Now, it seems, politics is ripe for the same treatment.

Last year we had How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, a "little-known classic in the spirit of Machiavelli's The Prince", which boiled down to a string of extracts from a single letter written by Quintus Tullius Cicero - the younger and less famous brother of Marcus Cicero.

The election in question was Cicero the Elder's bid in 64BC for the supreme office of consul. The advice, it has to be said, tended towards the obvious: "Surround yourself with the right people … call in all favours … build a wide base of support … promise everything to everybody … flatter voters shamelessly", etc.

In short, though a neat and occasionally amusing trick, the book raised a question: why do we set so much stock by the supposed wisdom and advice of the past?

There are, for sure, eternal human truths - mainly those known collectively as the seven deadly sins, on which Rome and its politicians really had a handle. But do today's savvy politicians or their observers really have anything to learn from long-dead Romans?

Well, Philip Freeman, the Orlando W Qualley chair of classical languages at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, clearly thinks so. The editor of How to Win An Election has returned to the Cicero brothers for his follow-up book, How To Run A Country, a collection of writings by Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Cicero, writes Freeman, was "a prolific author who wrote many essays, treatises and letters dealing with how to run a government". He was "a moderate conservative - an increasingly rare breed in our modern world - who believed in working with other parties for the good of his country and its people. Rather than a politician, his ideas are those of a statesman, another category whose ranks today grow ever more diminished".

This makes Cicero sound almost like a namby-pamby liberal (and Freeman is a man with a political agenda of his own). But a moderate conservative in Rome, where animals and men regularly fought to the death for the amusement of the mob and slavery was a staple of the economy, should probably not be compared with someone of a similar political persuasion today.

Doubtless, as Freeman says, "Cicero's political writings are an invaluable source for the study of ancient Rome", but claiming that "his insights and wisdom are timeless" is, perhaps, merely another way of saving that they are not insights at all, but mainly statements of the obvious.

"For the most part, your success depends on your own intelligence and hard work," Cicero writes to his brother, appointed governor of Asia. "Chance has nothing or at least very little to do with how you carry out your duties to your country."

Freeman frequently makes claims for Cicero that stretch a point. We are told that the influence of his views on the ideal form of government "features prominently in the mixed constitution created by the American Founding Fathers".

Yet the man himself believed that "Of the three main types of government, monarchy is in my opinion by far the most preferable. But a moderate and balanced form of government combining all three [monarchy, aristocracy and democracy] is even better than kingship."

Run that by John Adams or George Washington and see how it flies.

One clear point to be taken from books such as this is that, given sufficiently self-serving decontextualisation and manipulation, almost any example of ancient "wisdom" can be co-opted in the service of a modern cause.

Examine selected elements of the book through the prism of modern Middle Eastern politics, for example, and it can appear to shed new light on the machinations of the Arab Spring - of which, one could easily claim, Cicero would not have approved.

"Among the crowds are those who would destroy our country through revolution and upheaval," he writes, "either because they feel guilty about their own misdeeds and fear punishment, or because they are deranged enough to long for sedition and civil discord."

On the other hand, it could be argued, early consideration of Cicero's advice for "those helmsmen who guide our country" might perhaps have spared the leaders of Libya and Syria an awful lot of grief.

"When a small group of people control a nation because of their wealth or birth or some other advantage, they are simply a faction, even if they are called an aristocracy," Cicero notes. "On the other hand, if the multitude gains power and runs a country according to its wishes at the moment, it is called freedom, though it is in fact chaos.

"But when there is a tension between the common people and the aristocracy, with each man and group fearing the other, then neither can dominate, and an accommodation must be reached between the people and the powerful."

Cicero had no problem with absolute authority, provided it came with checks and balances, supplied in his time by men like him, seated in the Senate. But a tyrant who ruled with fear, he believed, was not only morally wrong but also an idiot - another lesson too late for several contemporary leaders in the Arab world.

"The death of Caesar, who ruled the state through armed force," he writes, "shows better than anything the terrible price paid by all tyrants … But the leader who keeps the goodwill of his people is secure." Rome was a small country that relied on people of many other nations for its workforce and development. Its solution to the immigrant question was to grant citizenship.

"Without a doubt what has done the most to increase the power and reputation of the Roman people is the precedent laid down by Romulus, the founder of our city, when he made a treaty with the Sabines and showed us that we make ourselves stronger by welcoming even our enemies as citizens," writes Cicero.

"Our ancestors never forgot his example in granting and bestowing citizenship on others."

A lesson to be learnt when so many young nations struggle with the same question? Or an irrelevancy in the modern context?

Dishing out general advice is one thing. But when it came to the specific politics of his time, Cicero got it badly wrong - and that, in Rome, usually meant rather more than losing the next election.

Cicero knew this, of course. Blood ran through the corridors of power in his beloved Republic - assassinations and revolts were commonplace - and yet three years after he had held the highest post in the land, as consul, he managed to manoeuvre himself into an impossible position.

In about 60BC Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Marcus Licinius Crassus - uncomfortable bedfellows at best, forced into alliance by circumstances - formed what came to be known as the First Triumvirate. Initially, they operated in the shadows, pulling the strings of power.

In a letter to a friend, Cicero says that, while normally his conscience couldn't possibly allow him to take part in this plot against his beloved republic, pragmatism dictated that he must work with, rather than against, the big three.

In politics, he writes, "it is irresponsible to take an unwavering stand 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. When at sea, it is best to run before a storm if your ship can't make it to harbour."

He did his best to toady up to all three, especially Pompey, but the outcome showed that Cicero's political antennae were not as finely tuned as he - and perhaps, Freeman - liked to think.

The triumvirate lasted until civil war broke out in 44BC, culminating with Crassus dead, Pompey on the run and Caesar crossing the Rubicon, shattering all pretence of a republic and leaving Cicero in some difficulty.

Now he had to choose - between Pompey, his long-term friend and benefactor, and Caesar, the man of the moment, who was poised to become the dictator of the Roman Empire.

"There is a great battle looming, perhaps the greatest history has ever known," he wrote to a friend … "what should I do? … There's no room left to sit on the fence."

He panicked and backed the loser. The great battle ended with Pompey losing the civil war, and his head, and Caesar triumphant - and still Cicero's political radar continued to malfunction. Fortunately, Caesar pardoned him, but no sooner had he snuggled up to the great dictator than the Ides of March left Cicero unprotected again.

Along the way, he had displayed a tremendous lack of political wit by making an enemy of Mark Antony, who now became convinced that Cicero had been on the side of Caesar's backstabbers.

At this crucial juncture, Cicero took the rash step in a series of speeches of denouncing Antony, who was guilty of "incredible folly … profligacy and debauchery", a man "devoid of humanity and ignorant of the common usages of life".

Carried away, perhaps, by his sense of self-importance, Cicero put his head in the lion's mouth.

"I defended the republic as a young man," he wrote. "I will not abandon it now that I am old … I will not quail before [your sword] … I will rather cheerfully expose my own person, if the liberty of the city can be restored by my death."

It could not. The Republic was already dead and, in 43BC, so was Cicero, struck down by assassins despatched by Antony.

Was he a wise man whose words carry import for modern politicos - or a vain fool who machinated his way to a death he really should have seen coming?

This slim, 132-page volume is certainly entertaining and, complete with invaluable glossary and even the original Latin texts, doubtless educational.

But perhaps a better title would have been How Not to Aggravate Your Enemies to the Point Where They Cut Off Your Head. Now that, in the turbulent world of modern politics, would be advice worth having.

Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The Review.