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Incidents of War - Cicero's "Thirst for Military Glory" and the Collapse of the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator, politician, and philosopher, is hardly thought of as a military man, but in fact, like all Romans of his time and class, he too soldiered. 

Born at Arpinum in 106 B.C., Cicero became liable for military service at 16. This more or less coincided with the outbreak of the “Social War” (91-88 B.C.), when many of Rome’s Italian allies (“socii”) took up arms to protest the Republic’s refusal to grant them full citizenship, despite centuries of loyal service. A member of the equestrian order – Rome’s upper middle class – Cicero did his bit as a contubernius (literally "tent-mate") to a senior officer, a volunteer aide-de-camp and orderly. This officer was usually a relative or a political ally of the young man's family. Serving as a contubernius permitted a young gentleman to fulfill his initial military obligation at relatively minimal risk, while starting to learn the art of war by observing a seasoned commander. Cicero served initially on the staff of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo – father of Pompey the Great -- and then that of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the later Dictator. While it’s unknown whether Cicero actually took part in combat – contubernii were sometimes given command of small details or cavalry patrols – he was present when Sulla captured an enemy camp at Nola. Cicero’s stint as a contubernius was enough to permit him to enter politics at Rome. But he seems to have never again donned the uniform, or not, at least, until he was about 55.

Over the next couple of decades Cicero became a major player in Roman law and politics, generally supporting the aristocratic position, but occasionally flirting with the popular movement. While consul in 63 BC, Cicero crushed the conspiracy against the state led by Lucius Sergius Catalina. Various complex political developments followed, including about a year of exile. Then, in 51 B.C., Cicero, much against his will, was appointed governor of Cilicia, what is now the southeastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

Now Cilicia was by no means the best of provinces. The local people were mostly wild tribesmen who enjoyed plundering their neighbors by land or sea, though since being castigated severely for piracy by Pompey the Great in 66 B.C. they were being moderately quiet. 

Despite his reluctance to assume the post, Cicero and his brother Quintus, who had attained some success as a legionary commander under Caesar in Gaul in 54-52, moved with reasonable speed to get there, sailing from Italy on June 4, 51 B.C., and then traveling across Greece, the Aegean, and Asia, to reach Laodicea, the easternmost city in his province, on July 31st, where he assumed the governorship, having averaged perhaps 30 miles a day for some 35 days. 

Now in 53 BC the Parthians had crushed an invasion by Marcus Licinius Crassus, and proceeded to invade Roman territories in turn. Rallied by Gaius Cassius Longinus (the “lean and hungry” guy who would later help bump off Caesar), the remnants of Crassus’ army had secured the frontier. But shortly before Cicero had left Italy, the Parthians had undertaken a new invasion. So upon reaching Laodicea, Cicero issued orders to concentrate Roman forces in the province at Iconium (today Konya, in south-central Turkey).

On August 24th Cicero joined the main body of his army at Iconium. This army consisted of two very weak legions, numbering perhaps 3,000-3,500 men each, plus some auxiliaries, for a total of no more than 7,500-10,000 troops. Cicero held a formal review of his little army on the 28th, and then marched for Tarsus on September 1st. Although it’s only about 125 miles in a straight line from Iconium to Tarsus, the circuitous route passed through some highly mountainous, semi-arid, sparsely inhabited country, and the army only reached Tarsus on October 5th, after an arduous march. At Tarsus, Cicero learned that Cassius had once again defeated the Parthians, who had then decided to return home; in letters to his friends Cicero would claim that the Parthians had become disheartened upon learning of his approach!

Having nothing better to do, Cicero decided to campaign against some tribes in the mountains Isaurian district who were occasionally raiding merchants traveling from Asia to Syria.

On October 13th Cicero defeated one of the principal Isaurian tribes in the Battle of Amanus. This took place on the site of the Battle of Issus, where Alexander the Great routed the Persians on November 5, 333 BC. Although Cicero's battle was apparently directed by Quintus, the next day the bookish governor was hailed as “imperator” by his troops in sight of the “Arae Alexandri – the Altars of Alexander,” which commemorated the long-ago victory. Over the next five days, Cicero’s troops reduced a number of strongholds in the vicinity. On November 18th he invested the principal city of the region, Pindenissum, a place now lost to history. A full siege ensued, with lines of investment, siege engines, and so forth, until the city succumbed on December 17th, bringing the war to end.

Cicero considered his campaign a great achievement. Though his old friend Titus Pomponius Atticus kidded him about defeating a bunch of mountain bandits, Cicero replied by saying they were the “Eleutherocilices [Free Cilicians] who have never yielded obedience even to the Seleucid kings,” and bragged that the sale of the tribesmen had brought in a considerable sum (he himself managed to make 2.2 million sestertii from the war), proudly signing himself Imperator. 

For the balance of his time in the province, until mid-50 B.C., Cicero reportedly ruled with considerable justice and minimal corruption, coming away only a little richer than when he had arrived, an amazing feat for a Roman governor.

So what does this have to do with the collapse of the Republic?

Well, in mid-50 Caesar, with his extraordinary command in Gaul coming to an end,  petitioned to have a law passed that would permit him to stand for consul without returning from his provinces to the city. To enter Rome meant he had to lay down his imperium – power of command – and thus lose control of his army. He could not do this, because he feared, rightly, that once he was a private citizen again, his enemies would subject him to charges of corruption, malfeasance, and even treason. Naturally, Caesar’s enemies opposed the proposal. Neither side had enough support in the Senate to prevail, so a standoff developed. Although many compromises were proposed, the situation steadily deteriorated.

As early as October of 50 B.C., when he arrived at Athens en route to Italy, Cicero had come to realize that the growing crisis might lead to civil war. But he was unable to play an effective role in resolving the crisis, because he too did not want to enter Rome. To do so meant that he would have to lay down his imperium; Having been hailed as imperator, Cicero wanted to celebrate a triumph, and could do so only if he retained his imperium. So though he returned to Italy on November 25th, he remained outside of Rome, encumbered by his military entourage and his lictors (who were also an annoying drain on his purse), as things fell apart. 

Cicero did make efforts to resolve the crisis. He wrote to friends in the Senate offering advice, and even to Caesar, hailing him as Imperator, and signing himself likewise, which must have brought a smile to the great commander’s lips. Cicero also met with many political leaders, most notably on December 10th and again on the 25th, when he conferred with Pompey the Great (who must have been embarrassed to see Cicero in his general’s regalia, surrounded by his lictors). 

On January 4, 49 B.C., Cicero arrived near Rome, but, clinging to his hopes for a triumph, still refused to lay down his imperium.  Thus, he could not enter the city just as the crisis reached its climax. Over the next few days he conferred with Caesar’s friends in Rome and again with Pompey. He seems to have secured their tentative agreement to a compromise – if Caesar retained Illyricum and one or two legions, he would stand for the consulship in absentia, while Pompey would leave Italy for his provinces – and army – in Spain. But the proposal had to be confirmed by the Senate. Perhaps to head off such a possibility, in the wee hours of January 7th the Consul Lucius Lentulus Crus secured the “senatus consultum ultimum – the ultimate decree” from the Senate, which called upon all those holding imperium, among them Pompey and Cicero [and technically Caesar himself], “to see that no harm come to the state.” Even before dawn, Caesar’s principal supporters in Rome, the tribunes Marc Antony and Quintus Cassius fled for their lives. 

On January 12, 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, effectively initiating a civil war, which, in Cicero’s own words, “our friends desired and Caesar neither feared nor wanted.” 

Cicero never celebrated a triumph. Some months later, still offering compromise proposals, he quietly laid down his imperium and later joined the Senatorial party and Pompey.

By the time the civil wars ended, nearly 20 years later, everyone mentioned here had met a violent end save Atticus, who had kept his nose out of politics and remained a friend to everyone.

Centuries later Edward Gibbon, historian of the decline of Rome, would write, “The thirst for military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.”

In Cicero’s case it also helped bring about the fall of the Republic.


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