What I Learnt From Cicero (and Caesar)


I finished reading Robert Harris’ “The Dictator” about the rise and fall of Caesar as told from the perspective of the statesman-philosopher Cicero. While it wasn’t as fun as the first two in the trilogy, it still had many gems of insight:

“How easy is it for those who play no part in public affairs to sneer at the compromises required of those who do” (Cicero had stuck to his principles and been banished from Rome).

“But popularity and power, as he well knew, are separate entities. Often the most powerful men in the state can pass down a street unrecognised, while the most famous bask in feted impotence”

“A man who is bitter hurts no one but himself. We must look to the future” (Cicero reflecting on past instances of cowardice)

“Whenever a thing seems at its zenith, you may sure its destruction has already started” (in relation to the seemingly powerful triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus ruling the Roman Empire)

“There is no nobler motive to enter public life than the resolution not to be ruled by wicked men”

“We must be careful no to do our enemies’ work for them. To argue that to preserve our freedoms we must suspend our freedoms, that to safeguard elections we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must appoint a dictator – what logic is this?” (Cicero in relation to Caesar’s attempt to take control of the empire)

“All wars are horrible, but civil wars especially so.”

“Of all the clever strokes that Caesar pulled, perhaps the most brilliant was his policy of clemency” (when Caesar returned to Rome)

“Just as some particularly faithful dogs are said to lie by the graves of their masters, unable to accept that they are dead, so there were those in Rome who clung to the hope that the old Republic might yet twitch back to life” (after Caesar had suspended the constitution and become dictator)

“A human being can only train for death by leading a life that is morally good; that is – to desire nothing too much; to be content with what one has; to be entirely self-sufficient within oneself…to do none harm”

“Julius [Caesar] the god seems to have forgotten what Julius the politician never would: that every time you fill an appointment, you make one man grateful and ten resentful” (Caesar had make annual appointment of senators for the next five years)

“[Caesar said that ] Obviously he wouldn’t die along his body because he was a god…At that moment, I ceased to envy him all his power and glory. It has driven him mad.”

“It is the most important rule in politics always keep things moving” (Cicero was trying to maintain the momentum to attack Mark Antony who had taken control of Rome after Caesar was assassinated)

“I may have lost the past and lost the present, but I wonder if with this I might not yet win the future”

“While there is life there is hope”

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