“As a statesman he was honest, as an advocate fearless, and as a governor pure” — Anthony Trollope

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rollope praises Cicero, who in important ways serves as a pattern for his idea of the Victorian gentleman, for his unusual honesty and faithfulness to the idea of the Roman republic. Unlike most other government officials of the time, “he refrained, altogether refrained, from the iniquitous habits of making large fortunes which were open to the great politicians of the Republic.” An ambitious, avaricious politician would move up the ladder from one increasingly powerful position to another until at last he attained the governorship of a province, which he would then shamelessly ransack. “To be Quaestor that he might be AEdile, AEdile that he might be Praetor and Consul, and Praetor and Consul that he might rob a province--pillage Sicily, Spain, or Asia, and then at last come back a rich man, rich enough to cope with all his creditors, and to bribe the judges should he be accused for his misdeeds--these were the usual steps to take by enterprising Romans toward power, wealth, and enjoyment.” The greed and many crimes of governors, such as the infamous Verres, became legendary, but most officials acted — that is, stole and extorted — more moderately so that the inhabitants of the provinces would not risk charging them for their crimes. “A Proconsul might rob a great deal, and still return with hands apparently clean, bringing with him a score of provincial Deputies to laud his goodness before the citizens at home.” Cicero was unique because he “robbed not at all” (Chapter 4).

Trollope in fact presents Cicero's Rome as a gangster state. Things were bad in the provinces, and they were just as bad, maybe worse, in the capital where corruption permeated all aspects of the government. “Though law was loved at Rome, all forensic and legislative proceedings were at this time carried on with monstrous illegality. Consuls consulted the heavens falsely; Tribunes used their veto violently; judges accepted bribes openly; the votes of the people were manipulated fraudulently” (Chapter 12). In a state this corrupt and chaotic, one obtained power and kept oneself and one's family safe with gangs of men who would attack and slay one's opponents. As Trollope explains, “a vast population of idle men,”

became attached to certain friends, to certain patrons, and to certain parties, and soon learned that a return was expected for the food and for the excitement supplied to them. This they gave by holding themselves in readiness for whatever violence was needed from them, till it became notorious in Rome that a great party man might best attain his political object by fighting for it in the streets. This was the meaning of that saying of Crassus, that a man could not be considered rich till he could keep an army in his own pay. A popular vote obtained and declared by a faction fight in the forum was still a popular vote, and if supported by sufficient violence would be valid.

Cicero correctly worried about his own survival “when Clodius was intent on pursuing Cicero to his ruin,” and his survival depended upon his popularity with “the trained bands employed by the "boni" and the "optimates," and which might be used, if need were, in opposition to trained bands on the other side.”

Trollope finds Cicero's honesty heroic but judges his continued attempts to save a long-vanished republic naive, admitting that “it is an uphill task, that of advocating the cause of a man who has failed,” and Cicero “failed in the great purpose of his life” —  restoring honesty and patriotism in government. Having studied the history of his country, Cicero “knew that Rome had produced true patriotism. Her Consuls, her Censors, her Tribunes, and her Generals had, as a rule, been true to Rome, serving their country, at any rate till of late years, rather than themselves. And he believed that liberty had existed in Rome, though nowhere else.” Of course, Trollope explains, Cicero's notions of liberty have little in common with those of his Victorian readers.

Liberty was very dear to him--dear to him not only as enjoying it himself, but as a privilege for the enjoyment of others. But it was only the liberty of a few. Half the population of the Roman cities were slaves, and in Cicero's time the freedom of the city, which he regarded as necessary to liberty, belonged only to a small proportion of the population of Italy. It was the liberty of a small privileged class for which he was anxious. That a Sicilian should be free under a Roman Proconsul, as a Roman citizen was entitled to be, was abhorrent to his doctrine. The idea of cosmopolitan freedom--an idea which exists with us, but is not common to very many even now--had not as yet been born: that care for freedom which springs from a desire to do to others as we would that they should do to us. It required Christ to father that idea; and Cicero, though he was nearer to Christianity than any who had yet existed, had not reached it. But this liberty, though it was but of a few, was so dear to him that he spent his life in an endeavor to preserve it. The kings had been expelled from Rome because they had trampled on liberty. Then came the Republic, which we know to have been at its best no more than an oligarchy; but still it founded on the idea that everything should be done by the votes of the free people. [Chapter 3]

Just as Roman ideas of liberty fall far short of those held by Trollope's readers, so does the Roman conception of a republic. “The Republic,” he tells us, “was no republic, as we understand the word; nor did it ever become so, though their was always going on a perpetual struggle to transfer the power from the nobles to the people, in which something was always being given or pretended to be given to the outside class” (Chapter 3). In fact, any time a “plebeian made his way up into high place and became one of the magistrates of the State,” he joined the oligarchical faction instead of fighting for the rights of his original class. Cicero himself stayed true to the same conservative beliefs throughout his career, Trollope argues, claiming that “from the first to the last we may best describe him by the word we have now in use, as a conservative” (Chapter 11). That conservatism took the form of a firm belief in the Roman oligarchy, and to

that oligarchy Cicero was bound by all the convictions, by all the practices, and by all the prejudices of his life. When he speaks of a Republic he speaks of a people and of an Empire governed by an oligarchy; he speaks of a power to be kept in the hands of a few--for the benefit of the few, and of the many if it might be--but at any rate in the hands of a few. That those few should be so select as to admit of no new-comers among them, would probably have been a portion of his political creed, had he not been himself a "novus homo. [Chapter 11]

For all his heroic (and dangerous) defense of the Roman republic of old, Cicero failed, and Trollope marvels “at Cicero's blindness. Surely a man so gifted must have known enough of the state of Rome to have been aware that there was no room left for one honest, patriotic, constitutional politician” (Chapter 11). Only a shell, a husk, of the old republic remained, and “in seeing this, and yet not quite believing that it must be so, that the agony of Cicero's life consisted. There could have been no hope for freedom, no hope for the Republic, when Rome had been governed as it was during the Consulship of Caesar; but Cicero could still hope, though faintly, and still buoy himself up with remembrances of his own year of office” (Chapter 9).

To those who claimed that Cicero had first appeared to support democracy and then abandoned the cause, Trollope responds, “there had been no democracy in his youth, though there had existed such a condition in the time of the Gracchi. There was none in his youth and none in his age.” He explains that in Cicero's day what nineteenth-century authors mistook for democracy was in fact “conspiracy--not a conspiracy of democrats such as led to our Commonwealth, or to the American Independence, or to the French Revolution; but conspiracy of a few nobles for the better assurance of the plunder, and the power, and the high places of the Empire.”

Related Material


Trollope, Anthony. The Life of Cicero. Vol. 1. New York: Harper, 1881. Project Gutenberg. E-text prepared by Ted Garvin, Marc D'Hooghe, Steve Whitaker, and the PG Online Distributed Proofreading Team. April 18, 2011.

Last modified 16 August 2013