Of all the writers who came at the end of the Roman Republic and at the beginning of the Empire, most make note of the loss of traditional morality. It was Cicero who advocated an adherence to nature and order by recognizing the proper meaning of a thing within and around the very existence of that thing. In this, according to Cicero, God has armed us well.
Cicero never hid the fact that he wrote his own On the Republic in imitation of, and as a corrective of, Plato’s more famous Republic. Indeed, Cicero reveled in the idea. Yet, his own work is never slavish. In book four of Cicero’s version—of which, sadly, very little survives and much of it only in fragments quoted in other works—Cicero openly criticizes Plato for several things. Even in his criticisms, though, Cicero is playful, with the participants of the dialogue noting that Plato seems to be exempt from all wrong doing.
Not so, Cicero declares.
First, he regrets that Plato seems to advocate common ownership of property. Of course, the ugly word communism had yet to come into being, but it’s clear that communism would best describe what Cicero despises. Rather, Cicero believes, at least as expressed in the dialogue, that the best economic situation comes from citizens themselves saving their own money and shaping and determining their own finances. “The best source of revenue both for private families and for the commonwealth is frugality,” he notes with some finality. Additionally, property in the control of the many becomes a means by which the majority can subvert virtue to its own will and manipulations. The man of integrity will always resist such appeals as though given for flattery alone. “Too many foolishly desire to abolish this useful system in their search for a new distribution of money through some resolution of the plebs providing for their return of the horses,” Cicero laments, realizing that Plato’s ideas have crept into the social fabric of Rome. Though he wants Greek philosophy and drama to make inroads into Rome, these are not the Greek ideas he wants.
Second, and even more importantly, though, Cicero admits through dialogue that Plato’s culture and times—if not necessarily Plato himself—promoted sexual impurity. Labeling the Greek sexual norms as “defilement” and “lust,” Cicero considers the Greeks immoral to the extreme. Why, he asks, would any society allow their grown men to appear naked in public, allow them to embrace one another, and, most tragically, encourage them to sleep together. “The athletic exercises of young men in the gymnasia are really idiotic,” he states without trepidation.
In contrast, the Romans may be accounted superior on sexual matters, as they “bestow” gratitude and praise upon “frugality and self-control, on faith in the marital bond, on chaste, honorable, and upright character.” In such a nurturing environment, he continues, women do what they can to avoid alcohol and any sense of impropriety. “And besides, if any woman had a bad reputation, her relatives refused to kiss her,” a sure sign of disrespect, and “thus impudence is derived from seeking, and shamelessness from demanding.”
Of all the writers who came at the end of the republic and at the beginning of the empire, most make note of the loss of traditional morality. Cicero is certainly not alone in worrying about the corruption of traditional marriage and marriage norms. Livy defined the empire itself by its inability to take marriage and traditional morality seriously.
Taking this even further, Tacitus, only two generations later than did Cicero, praises the Germanic (Barbarian) tribes for their fierce defense of traditional marriage, observing without blatantly stating it, that the Roman imperials could learn much from those they consider inferior. Germans, much to his delight, not only sheltered women from sexual impropriety, but they considered all abortion murder and they frowned upon even the possibility of divorce. In other words, the German Barbarians were, to Tacitus, the ideal men, spirited and righteous.
In opposition to what the Roman republicans considered the overrationality and abstract longings of the Greek Platonic era and Plato’s thought—which could be summed up as an improper love of and lust for things disordered—Cicero advocates an adherence to nature and the order provided by recognizing the proper meaning of a thing within and around the very existence of that thing.
In this, nature (or God) has armed us well. After all, he claims, the human mind is the perfect instrument to enable man to be man. It allows him to see the past and, thus, understand the present and the future. “If there is no one who would not prefer death to transformation into an animal of any sort, even if he could retain the mind of a man,” he asks, “how much more wretched is it to have the mind of a beast while retaining human form!” We follow the seasons for survival, he argues: “Since in the autumn the earth has opened for the sowing of crops, in the winter has loosened for preparing them, and in the ripeness of summer has softened some and parched others,” reason equally demands that we follow the order and patterns of human existence. Just as God created nature to promote our happiness, so men have created society to promote our happiness. “Consider furthermore how wisely all the rest has been foreseen in order to promote the citizens’ shared association in a happy and honorable way of life,” he explains. “That is, indeed, the first cause of the creation of society, and it ought to be accomplished on the authority of the commonwealth in part through institutions and in part through laws.” Here, again, Cicero reminds the reader of the Platonic errors of educating the young through perverse sexuality and through insatiable desires. However gifted Greek philosophy might prove, it ultimately succumbed to the basest desires of the human soul and mind and body.
It is worth remembering that the Roman republicans defined their very existence and explained their very essence by the very traditional notions of manhood and womanhood. For the Romans, a man was a man, and a woman was a woman. When men on the march behaved in an effeminate manner, Cato the Elder had over six hundred of his own men beheaded. And, when the Jewish family Maccabees denounced the Greek sexual practices before the Senate, the Romans responded by sending troops to liberate the Jews from Alexandrian oppression. Such views of manhood were never marginal. They were central to Roman identity.
This is the fifth essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Cicero’s Republic” series.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Triumph of Cicero” (c. 1520) by Franciabigio and Alessandro Allori, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.