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How Cicero’s ruined reputation can be a lesson for politicians today

Roman philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero is still used as an intellectual example by politicians and speech writers today. But, he did not go unchallenged in his own day, as a statesman in particular. Classicist Leanne Jansen conducted research into how classical historians judged Cicero’s political integrity. She can see how modern politicians still struggle with the same pitfalls. PhD defence on 26 January.

Jansen conducted her research as part of the Dutch Research Council (NWO) Mediated Cicero VIDI project and focused on the historical perception of Cicero (106 BC–43 AD) as a statesman. For her research she also delved into the texts written by Cicero himself and by seven historians who lived in the Roman Empire, after the fall of the Roman Republic (31 BC). Although Cicero presented himself as a defender of the Roman Republic, classical historians see him as one of the causes of its fall.

‘Cicero portrays himself as the saviour of Rome, as father of the fatherland’ - Leanne Jansen

‘In his own speeches he presents himself as the saviour of Rome and he also enters into a dialogue with the state of Rome, which addresses him as its true saviour. This is a rhetorical device that shows how he feels connected to the Roman Republic and portrays himself as the father of the fatherland.’ But the historians Jansen studied, including the Greek Plutarchus, see these emotional speeches as a weakness. As a statesman you must be rational and above all not be led by emotions.

Lack of political integrity

Another point of criticism that Jansen came across in her research was the lack of a clear policy. Cicero was not seen as steadfast in his ideals. As a senator he allowed Julius Caesar to gain more and more power, at the expense of his cherished Roman Republic. The historians from the Roman Empire describe this as a lack of political integrity. Jansen: ‘In this last phase of the Republic in particular there was a lot of violence. During such a crisis, people are looking for politicians who are steadfast and that is something Cicero definitely was not. He chose Caesar because he thought this would benefit himself.’

Classicist Leanne Jansen

A similar lack of steadfastness is visible in our own politics, says Jansen. ‘Just like Cicero there are politicians now who keep emphasising that there is a crisis and that they are going to save the people or the nation. Strongly left-wing or right-wing politicians, like Jesse Klaver or Thierry Baudet, proclaim a pronounced ideology and thus play on the feelings of part of the population. But once they are in a position of power, they too are unable to solve this crisis in the short term and the people become disappointed. This also happened with Cicero.’

Historical figures and own identity

According to Jansen her research shows how societies use historical figures like Cicero to create their own identity. ‘We want to use these historical figures as a leitmotif for our own history, as a kind of moral compass. We seek figures who are clearly good or bad. Take cancel culture, with historical figures who preserved slavery, for example, being cancelled. We are constantly revising our own history and that is a complex process.’

Watch Leanne Jansen’s PhD ceremony online on 26 January at 16:15.


Text: Tim Senden
Photo: Pixabay / DEZALB

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