Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Popes and Emperors, part 2

 The 9th and early 10th centuries were a bad time for western Europe, which was under attack from three different directions. From Scandinavia came the Vikings in their longships, first as raiders, and then as settlers, not just in the uninhabited lands of Iceland and Greenland, but also in England (the “Danelaw”) and northern France (Normandy, the “land of the north-men”). Meanwhile a non-Indo-European speaking people, the Magyars, migrated from Russia into the Danube basin, where, as a result of confusion with ancestral memories of Attila’s Huns, they became known as the Hungarians. At the same time Saracen pirates terrorized the shores of France and Italy, and even attacked Rome itself. Nowhere appeared safe: even such an inland territory as Burgundy was raided from all three directions. Long-distance trade almost disappeared.
    Organized resistance seemed impossible. Charlemagne’s great empire had been divided into three after the death of his son, Louis the Pious, in 840. The divisions were, effectively, France and western Germany, with between them a band of territory taken by Louis’s eldest son, Lothar. It was thus known as Lotharingia, from which we have the name Lorraine. It included northern Italy. Lotharingia was going to be contested between France and Germany right through to the twentieth century.
    With ever-present danger and the lack of effective central government, feudalism spread. People banded together under a local lord, promising to serve and pay him (mostly with food) in return for protection.  This period saw the appearance of armoured knights and privately-owned castles, making strong central government even more difficult.

Feudalism never really caught on in Italy, but the papacy was now in a very low condition. Popes were at the mercy of the Roman mob, and of armed intervention by Italian and German nobles. One Pope, Formosus, who died 896, was succeeded by his enemy Stephen VI, who had Formusus’s body dug up, put on trial, condemned and thrown into the Tiber. Stephen himself was deposed and strangled later that year. Then the papacy fell into the hands of a powerful family; the Theophylacts. A lady of the family, Theodora, was the mistress of one pope, John X, and her daughter Marozia the mistress of another, Sergius III; and these last two were parents of yet another pope: John XI. In 932 Marozia’s son Alberic made himself master of Rome, imprisoned both his mother and John XI, and appointed some better popes, Leo VII and Agapetus II; but then on his deathbed he arranged for his own son to be appointed pope as John XII, at age of only 19! Despite these deplorable events Rome was a major centre of pilgrimage; not least for visitors from Britain. King Offa of Mercia came in 794, to atone for the murder of Ethelbert; and the future King Alfred came in 854, aged 6, together with his father King Ethelwulf. Canute came in 1027, and Macbeth in 1050 (Contrary with the impression we obtain from Shakespeare, he ruled Scotland for seventeen years!)

But in Germany things were changing. When the Carolingian line ended, the German nobles chose the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler, as their king in 918. He imposed some order, defeating invasions by the Danes and Magyars. He died in 936. His title was elective, not hereditary, but his son Otto chosen to succeed him. He was to be known as Otto the Great; the most important European ruler since Charlemagne. He won a decisive victory over the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955, and began the conquest and forcible conversion of the pagan Slavs east of the river Elbe. He also initiated a cultural revival, called by historians the “Ottonian renaissance” But to secure domination over the German princes, control of the Church and the support of the Pope was essential, since bishops and abbots had huge local power. Otto’s brother Bruno was Archbishop of Cologne, Duke of Lorraine and royal chancellor! Conversely, anti-royal bishops could use their local and spiritual power to encourage nobles to revolt.
      In 961, Pope John XII, in conflict with the Roman nobility, asked Otto to help. Otto led his forces into Italy, defeated the Pope’s enemies, and in return John crowned him Emperor. Otto recognized the independence of papal territory, with himself as its “protector”. But John then turned against Otto, who quickly occupied Rome and called a synod presided over by himself. John was convicted of, amongst other crimes, ordaining a deacon in a stable, turning the papal palace into a brothel, castrating a cardinal, being addicted to hunting, and calling upon pagan gods when playing dice! John was deposed and replaced by a new Pope, Leo VIII, who had to swear an oath that no Pope would be consecrated without the Emperor’s agreement. But as soon as Otto left the city in 964, the Romans rose in revolt and drove out Leo. John being dead, they chose a better man as Pope: Benedict V. But Otto refused to accept this, and reimposed his own man. His victory over the church was complete: even the Byzantines had to recognize him; sending a royal princess, Theophano, to marry his son!

Otto died in 973, but his empire survived, despite the unsuccessful reign of his son, Otto II, who was defeated by both the Moslems of Sicily and the Slavs of eastern Germany before dying young in 983; leaving only a 3-year-old son, Otto III, with a Byzantine mother. But the boy proved to be the most amazing character of his time. He took personal control at age of 14, and appointed the most learned man of the day as Pope Sylvester II. Otto III held a very exulted view of his own position (probably instilled by his Byzantine mother), seeing himself as the successor of the Roman emperors and of Charlemagne: styling himself “Caesar”. He was capable of great brutality: when the Romans revolted against his rule, led by Crescentius, a nobleman who drove out Pope Sylvester and appointed his own pope; Otto invaded, executed Crescentius and mutilated the anti-pope: blinding him, cutting off his nose and tongue and banishing him to monastery. Would history have been very different if Otto had lived? But in 1002 he died childless, aged only 21.  
      After this there was always an Emperor, ruling what was generally known as the Holy Roman Empire. But it had no pretensions to universal rule: its territories were limited to Germany and northern Italy, and it had claims to sovereignty over the new kingdoms which had emerged, such as France and England.

When both Pope and Emperor were weak and ineffective there was a lull. Both had limited power: the Emperors ruled Germany and northern Italy (France being now a completely separate kingdom under a new dynasty, the Capetians) but the Imperial title never became hereditary, and the nobles were always jealous of their power and ready to revolt. Many towns in Italy were already becoming effectively self-governing. South of Italy was under no overall control, with still some Byzantine bases, Arabs ruling Sicily, and independent Lombard nobles in constant strife with each other. Normans to appear in southern Italy as bands of mercenary soldiers from about 1017; notably the numerous sons of an obscure knight called Tancred of Hauteville after 1034, who eventually became powerful monarchs.
       Emperor and Pope lived in a symbiotic relationship: until the Emperor had been crowned by the Pope he was technically only king of Germany. The method of choosing Popes was uncertain and anarchic: being acclaimed by the clergy and the people of Rome. The Popes could not control Rome, which was the scene of constant feuds between rival families, and when there was no strong Emperor enforced obedience, the result was often chaos. Many ancient buildings were converted into fortified towers, or demolished to get the building stone. A later writer said of Rome in his own day:-
“The Savelli owned the theatre of Marcellus and the temple of Libertas on the Aventine. The Frangipani had a large central fortress on the Palatine, with outlying forts on the Coliseum, the arches of Constantine and Titus, & the Janus in the Forum Boarium. The Colonna had possession of the mausoleum of Augustus, the Crescenti had the baths of Severus, and the Orsini the theatre of Pompey”.  
            This was applicable to the early middle ages as well. Each family wanted its own man as Pope, and might seek to overthrow a Pope allied to a rival family. Thus in 1046 the Emperor Henry III found no less than three rival Popes! He called a synod, deposed them all, and installed a German as Clement II; but both Clement and his successor were dead within a year, supposedly poisoned by rivals. The next Pope, Leo IX, was a reformer who tried to recover lost ground, only to be captured by Normans 1053.

            In 1054 there occurred an event which still resonates today: a doctrinal breach between the churches of Rome and Byzantium. It was only partly doctrinal; rather more a clash of personalities between the Patriach in Constantinople and Humbert, the Pope’s tactless and aggressive delegate. Many troubles would stem from this, notably the deep mutual suspicion between Byzantines and crusaders which played no small part in the failure of the crusading movement.

In 1024 a new imperial dynasty began when a Salian Frankish nobleman was elected by the German princes as Conrad II. He was crowned in Milan with the Iron Crown of Lombardy, and later was also crowned King of Burgundy. His coronation by the Pope was attended by King Canute of England, and he awarded himself a new title, “King of the Romans”, which would be held by all his successors. Conrad’s son, Henry III (reigned 1039-56) raised imperial power to new heights. He presided over a synod which deposed two rival Popes, and imposed a series of German Popes, two of whom were his relatives. But his reign saw the beginning of moves to free the church from lay control, which were to dominate the long reign of his son, the next Emperor, Henry IV (1056-1106).
            The first of the reforming Popes was Leo IX (1049-54) who, however, was captured by the rampaging Norman mercenaries who were now dominating southern Italy, and died soon afterwards. His successors were obliged to legitimize the rule of the Normans, who now formed a counterweight to imperial ambitions in Italy

In 1073 a monk by the name of Hildebrand was elected Pope, taking the name of Gregory VII. Most previous Popes has come from the aristocracy, but Hildebrand was apparently the son of a Lombard peasant, with a strong regional accent and unprepossessing appearance and manners – though these might be slanders put around by his many enemies. He was not a scholar, but had been brought to Rome by Leo IX, and had risen rapidly in the papal service. His drive was immense, and his ambitions for the papacy limitless. Not only did he continue his predecessors’ campaigns to enforce clerical celibacy and outlaw simony (the sale of clerical office), but he made extremely ambitious claims in his document, “Dictatus Papae”. The Roman church, he said, was founded by God and answerable to God alone; it was incapable of error; the Pope could be judged by no man, but could depose bishops and even Emperors. Crucially, he claimed the sole right of investiture: appointing bishops and abbots, which could not be done by any lay ruler. This at once brought him into conflict with several monarchs, who saw investiture as an important aspect of their political power. In 1073 a dispute over a bishopric led Gregory to describe King Philip I of France as an oppressor of the church, and to threaten him with excommunication and deposition, though in the end the problem was sorted out. Gregory approved of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, though William ignored his suggestion that England should be held as a fief of the Holy See.
There was a spectacular contest over investitures between Pope Gregory and the Emperor Henry IV, who saw the control of bishops and abbots essential for his government, both for administrative tasks in an age of widespread illiteracy and to check the power of his nobles. He had already tussled with the previous Pope, Alexander II, over the appointment to the Archbishopric of Milan. Now in 1075 Gregory severely reprimanded Henry for disobedience, and early next year Henry got the German bishops to denounce Gregory (styling him “the false monk Hildebrand“) and demand his abdication. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry. The German nobles took this as great opportunity to rebel. Henry, realizing he was outmanoeuvred, made a tactical surrender to the Pope at Canossa in the Apennines in January 1077; waiting barefoot in the snow for three days before Gregory agreed to see him. Gregory was not fooled by this dramatic show of penitence, but formally forgave him. Meanwhile the German princes declared Henry deposed, and elected Rudolf of Swabia in his place. In 1080 Gregory, finding Henry prevaricating on promises he had made, declared him deposed and recognized Rudolf as Emperor. Henry retaliated by summoning his own assembly of bishops, which declared Gregory deposed from the papacy. Soon Rudolf was killed in battle, enabling Henry to strike. He invaded Italy, and in 1084 he entered Rome, where Gregory had been deserted by most of his clergy. A specially-convened synod now appointed Archbishop Wibert of Ravenna as Pope Clement III. Gregory had taken refuge in the Castell Sant’ Angelo (formerly Hadrian’s tomb), and appealed to Robert Guiscard’s Normans to rescue him. Henry withdrew at Robert’s approach. For three days, Norman troops (who included Moslem mercenaries from Sicily) thoroughly pillaged Rome. Churches, palaces and ancient temples were destroyed, the area between the Coliseum and the Lateran burnt down, and thousands of Romans killed or taken prisoner and sold as slaves. Greater damage was done than the Goths and Vandals had managed six centuries earlier. Pope Gregory was taken to safety in Salerno, and in 1085 he died. “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, and therefore I die in exile”, he said. One wonders whether the Romans would have agreed.

             Gregory might seem to have lost this battle, but reform of the church was now unstoppable. There were no more really scandalous popes after this; and just a decade later, in 1095, Pope Urban II, a Frenchman, preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont, and the papacy gained new prestige. Because the Emperor Henry IV continued excommunicate, the Germans played no part in the First Crusade: a campaign dominated by the French, Normans, Lorrainers and Bohemond’s soldiers from Norman Italy. Indeed, Henry’s German territories suffered greatly, because the first action of the crusaders was to slaughter Jews in the Rhineland. Over a thousand were killed in Mainz alone, to the disgust of Henry, who took the Jews under his personal protection. Archbishop Ruthard, who had failed to prevent the massacre, had to flee to Flanders to escape the Emperor’s wrath.
     Henry’s end was ignominious. He remained excommunicate; his own family revolted against him; his son took him prisoner and forced him to renounce the throne, and he died at Liege in 1106.
       A strong central government structure was never created in Germany. All mediaeval kings were originally elected, but in France, England and elsewhere nation-states were gradually formed and elective monarchy changed to a system which was de facto hereditary. But the Holy Roman Emperors were always elected by the nobles, even in the eighteenth century. Only the doomed state of Poland had elective Kings by that time.
            In Italy, things were even more shambolic: every prince, city or trouble-making faction could decide whether to support Emperor or Pope, or more likely, play them off against each other whenever seemed advantageous. By the end of the twelfth century names for the two sides had emerged: papal supporters took their name from Welf, the Duke of Bavaria; main opponent of the Emperor in Germany: imperialists took theirs from the town of Waiblingen in Swabia; a stronghold of the Emperor. In Italian, these names became Guelfs and Ghibellines; but were often no more than excuses for local rivalries. Milan would always be opposed by Pavia, and Verona by Padua: Florence and Lucca were usually Guelf, so Siena and Pisa were Ghibelline: within Florence the Buondelmonti family were Guelf, so their rivals the Ubertini were Ghibelline, and so forth.  Some historians attribute the failure of nation-states to emerge in Germany and Italy before the nineteenth century to the rivalry of Popes and Emperors in the early Middle Ages. 

Pope Gregory VII was proclaimed a saint in 1606.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Foundation of the Middle Ages: Popes and Emperors

The Roman Empire was permanently divided between East and West from 395. The eastern empire, based in Constantinople, flourished, but gradually changed in character so that historians know it as the Byzantine Empire. In the west, the emperors abandoned Rome itself, first for Milan and then for Ravenna; western Europe and western north Africa were overrun by Germanic tribes, Rome itself fell to the Goths in 410, and in 476 the western empire disappeared entirely. The attempt by Justinian in the 6th century to reconquer Italy from the Goths caused only massive and widespread destruction. Rome itself was ruined, the great aqueducts had been cut, and the population had collapsed. In the east, the Christian church was firmly under the control of the Byzantine state; but in the west the church, and specifically the Popes, were able to step into the gap left by the disintegration of state power.
      The early Christian church was based on the towns (not for nothing was the word for the peasants, the country people, “pagani”!). Every large town with a Christian population had a bishop, and from the time of Constantine these were given a major role in local government; but it was generally accepted that primacy should go to the bishops of the great centres: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria (It will be noticed that that all but one of these were in the lands of by the Byzantine Empire). It was not clear whether, for religious purposes, Rome was superior to Constantinople, or vice versa; nor how much authority the Emperor at Constantinople had over the whole church.
     The church in west was greatly boosted by St Benedict, (c.480-543), the father of western monasticism. Early monks had lived in the deserts of the east, often practicing extreme asceticism (e.g. St. Simeon Stylites, who lived on top of a pillar for 33 years!). Benedict drew up rules for monks to live communal lives, working and praying together. Around 529, he founded the great monastery of Monte Cassino. The movement spread rapidly.
      Many of the earliest Popes are little known, perhaps even mythical; but the papacy grew in importance once Emperors ceased to live in Rome. It was Leo I who persuaded Attila the Hun to turn back, and then got Genseric the Vandal chieftain to promise not to kill anyone when his forces plundered Rome. The method of choosing a Pope was often chaotic; he was unofficially elected by Roman people, and then needed confirmation by the Emperor in Constantinople. The most important of the early Popes was Gregory the Great (590-608), who came from a noble background, had served as Prefect of Rome 573, and had had to deal with the threat caused by the Lombard invasion of Italy. He became a Benedictine monk, and was sent as an envoy to Constantinople in 579, to beg help from the Emperor Maurice (who had his own problems and could do nothing). He was elected Pope by the Roman people in 590, and strove to reform the church, especially enforcing clerical celibacy and obedience to Rome. Most famously, he sent Augustine to convert England, ensuring the Roman church’s control there from the start. Less happily, Gregory rejoiced when the Emperor Maurice and all his family were killed by an illiterate soldier, Phocas, and set up a column in Phocas’s honour in the Roman forum. It is still there. (Phocas proved to be perhaps the most brutal, murderous and incompetent of all the Byzantine Emperors)
     Events in the east meant that the Byzantine Emperors, whilst retaining footholds in Italy, were unable to do much there. From 606 to 628 there was a long and immensely destructive war with the Persian Empire. The Persians seized control of Palestine, Syria and Egypt (the Christian communities in these places never really recovering), and for two years Constantinople itself was besieged, by the Persians on Asian side and on the European side by the Avars: an Asiatic people who had emigrated into Hungary and the Balkans. The Emperor Heraclius (610-641) saved the city and smashed the Persians in brilliant campaigns, recovering his lost territories. But both empires were now completely exhausted; as was to be seen in what followed.
     A few years after the defeat of the Persians, Heraclitus would have received a strange letter from someone he had never heard of, living in a city from outside his empire, commanding him to embrace the new religion. The writer was, of course, Mohammed. It is not known whether Heraclitus read it.

Mohammed died in 632, and the early Caliphs, his successors set out to conquer the world for Islam: with astonishing success. By 640, Syria and Lebanon were overrun, Iraq fell in 642, Iran followed in 650, and the ancient Persian Empire disappeared. Simultaneously Egypt was overrun in 642, followed by North Africa, with Carthage taken in 695. In 711 an army commanded by Tariq’s invasion invaded Spain (he landed by an impressive geological feature which he named after himself: “Jebel Tariq”, the Rock of Tariq, or as we would say, “Gibraltar”). The Visigothic kingdom, which had existed since the fall of the Roman Empire, quickly collapsed. Christianity almost disappeared in the Middle East and North Africa, with Jerusalem and two other great church centres: Antioch and Alexandria, now in Moslem hands.
      The first Arab attack on Constantinople came in 674; then in 717-718 came a much greater attack, with Arab troops crossing the Hellespont to besiege the city from the European side, in alliance with Bulgar tribes emigrating from the Ukraine.  The city was saved by new emperor, Leo III (717-741), a Syrian peasant by birth. He retained control of sea with a new secret weapon, “Greek fire” (spontaneously-combusting substance, whose exact chemical composition remain a mystery); annihilated the Arab fleet and persuaded the Bulgars to attack the Arabs on the European side. Constantinople would not be attacked again for almost 500 years. (This must count as a decisive battle in world history; for if Constantinople had fallen, who could have stopped the Arabs from flooding into Europe from the east, as the Turks did in the 15th and 16th centuries?) But after this, the Byzantine Empire was confined to modern Turkey, and its Balkan territories were increasingly penetrated by the Bulgars and later by the Serbs.

But no sooner had Leo defeated the Arabs than there began a new religious conflict: iconoclasm! Leo ordered the destruction of all religious images, beginning in the great cathedral of Santa Sophia. His campaign was denounced by the papacy, so there was now a serious breach between Rome and Constantinople. Leo’s son, Constantine V (741-775) was even more hostile to icons, violently persecuting monks who kept them. He neglected his bases in Italy. The next Emperor, Leo IV, died young in 780, leaving only a 10-year-old son, Constantine VI. The dowager Empress, Irene, an Athenian girl of obscure origin, became regent for next ten years. She was pro-icon, and “veneration” of icons was once again permitted by the Council of Nicaea in 787. The Pope would approve, and so would most subjects of the empire; but no Pope could ever approve of what followed. When Constantine VI took personal control, he soon proved a cruel and incompetent ruler, and in 797 Irene struck back. She took her son prisoner and had him blinded (he died soon afterwards) and then ruled as empress in own right! Meanwhile, Ravenna, the main Byzantine base in northern Italy, fell to the Lombards, and Sicily broke away from Byzantine control, only to be invaded and overrun by Moslem invaders soon afterwards.
     So, from the point of view of the Popes, there were several heretical Emperors, followed by a usurping Empress who blinded her own son! Why should Constantinople be obeyed any longer? Had the Empire not clearly forfeited its right to lead the Christian world?

     One significant Pope of this period was Honorius II (625-638) who organized the supply of food and water to Rome; showing how the papacy could take on government functions, in the absence of anyone else to do it. Another was Gregory II (715-731), who denounced Iconoclasm; yet another was Zacharius (741-752), the first pope to be appointed without seeking approval from Constantinople. But other Popes of time were flagrantly corrupt, deeply insignificant, or mere puppets in the hands of Roman aristocratic families. Many Popes were terrorized by Roman mobs, and the city was frequently under threat from the Lombards. Popes might have moral authority, but had no means of enforcing order even in Rome. Who could help?

North of the Alps were the Franks. Unlike the Germanic tribes, they were pagans when they entered Roman territory after 406, but around 500 their king, Clovis, was baptized a Christian; and, what was more, a proper Catholic, unlike the Goths, who were Arian heretics! Clovis conquered modern France, from the Pyrenees to the Rhine – his southern territory being still heavily Romanized, with villa life continuing but slowly declining. Clovis’s descendants were known as the Merovingians (as featured in the “Da Vinci code” and other works of dubious historical merit). They were without question one of the most appalling dynasties in European history; their unedifying story being recorded in the “History of the Franks”, written by Gregory, Bishop of Tours, around 590. 
    There were primitive survivals from pagan times; notably that the kings never cut their hair, as a sign of their sacred nature. There was no capital; and when a king died, the kingdom was divided among all his sons, resulting in savage civil wars, betrayals and murders. Local control was in the hands of bishops (such as the famous St Martin of Tours) and the “comites”, who were in charge of local troops (which gives us the title of “count”. By about 700, the Merovingian kings had declined to mere figureheads, with real power in the hands of the “Mayor of the Palace” (Major Domo): a sort of hereditary Prime Minister.

In 732 Moslem forces, having overrun Spain, invaded France; but were defeated at the battle of Tours by the Mayor of Palace, Charles Martel. (This battle equals in importance the siege of Constantinople a few years earlier. Edward Gibbon speculated how far Moslem conquests might have extended had the victory gone the other way!) Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, deposed the last Merovingian, Childeric III, who had his sacred long hair cut and was banished to a monastery. The Frankish nobles hailed Pepin as King: Pope Zacharius recognized his title, and he was anointed with holy oil by St Boniface, an English missionary, in a ceremony deliberate copying the anointing of David by Samuel in Bible. (Anointing is still the central ritual of British coronations)
     In 753 Pope Stephen II fled from the Lombards to seek help from Pepin. His Franks then invaded Italy and defeated the Lombards but did not take Rome itself. Pepin succeeded in 768 by son, Charles, who became better known as Charlemagne (though at first he had to divide the kingdom with his brothers). During his long reign, Charlemagne destroyed the power of the Avars and forcibly spread Christianity eastwards among the pagan Saxons.
     Pope Adrian I again needed help against the Lombards in 773. Charlemagne invaded Italy, destroyed the Lombard kingdom and crowned himself with Iron Crown of Lombardy: but did not enter Rome. At some unknown time shortly before this, there appeared the “Donation of Constantine”; a document in which the great Emperor acknowledged the supremacy of the Pope and gave him sovereignty over Rome. Charlemagne accepted the validity of the Donation, which was exposed by Renaissance scholars as a blatant forgery.

In 799 the next pope, Leo III, lost control of Rome. After being attacked in street by mobs and beaten unconscious, he fled to Charlemagne. This time Charlemagne did enter the city, and in St Peter’s on Christmas Day 800 was crowned as Emperor by Pope Leo. He was thus the first in Emperor in the west for over 300 years; and there were now two Emperors in the Christian world. The significance of this, in the minds of Charlemagne and the Pope, has been debated by historians ever since; but it was certainly a direct challenge to Constantinople, and a repudiation of the Byzantine Emperors’ claim to universal rule. We should remember what had been in Constantinople: several heretical iconoclastic Emperors followed by the frightful woman Irene, who blinded own son. Leaders in the west could ask: was there really a legitimate Emperor there at all? (Ironically, Charlemagne rather admired Irene, and even wrote to her proposing marriage!) 

Charlemagne died in 814, and his empire ceased to exist as a single entity after the death of his son Louis in 840. But the concept survived as an ideal: a universal church and a universal empire, each under a single head, working together. But whether the Emperor was subordinate to the Pope or vice versa, was not clear and would cause much trouble in later centuries.

(This story is continued in my next post)

Monday, 3 August 2015


I have been reading the letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman advocate and orator. In his introduction to this edition, the editor, L. P. Wilkinson, told the following delightful anecdote:-

     A student looked up "Cicero" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found by accident the following entry:
   "Cicero: a town in Cook County, Illinois, bounded on the north, east and south by Chicago".

     Wilkinson thought this was a splendid metaphor for the career of the Roman Cicero. On three sides he faced politicians who were really just gangsters: Catiline and Clodius at the start of his career; Mark Antony at the end (Sulla, Pompey and Caesar were hardly any better, though on a much larger scale); and on the fourth side he found snobbish aristocrats who never fully accepted him because he was a "novus homo": literally a "new man": someone from an obscure provincial background without any famous ancestors. (He was also encumbered with a silly name: "Cicero" meaning "chickpea"!)

    In view of Cicero's political vacillations, his extreme vanity, and his tendency to irritate his contemporaries by forever bragging about his achievements, he was perhaps fortunate to survive as long as he did in this world of street violence, military coups-d'etat, bloody purges and civil war. Julius Caesar pardoned his support for Pompey; but eventually his luck ran out, and in the year 43 BC, at the age of 63, he was murdered on the orders of Mark Antony. His head and hands were cut off and nailed up in the forum, the scene of his greatest triumphs. Over a hundred other prominent Roman citizens were killed at the same time, without the least semblance of judicial process. Cicero fondly believed that he had a friend in the 19-year-old Octavian, Caesar's heir, and soon to be better known as the Emperor Augustus, but Octavian made no attempt to save him.

    The Roman historian Plutarch, in his life of Cicero, tells us that his last unsuccessful attempt to flee was betrayed by a young slave called Philologus. Later, Mark Antony, feeling pangs of remorse, compensated by handing over Philologus to Cicero's sister-in-law, who then tortured him to death with hideous cruelty. Plutarch considers that by this action, "Antony did show one sign of decent feeling". It cannot be stressed too much how deeply Roman standards of ethics differed from ours!

Footnote: The town of Cicero was notorious in the late 1920s as the headquarters of Al Capone's gang. I have sought to find in this a metaphor for the career of the Roman Cicero; but without success.