Page:Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) - Volume 1.djvu/730

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712 CICERO.

with regard to which we shall speak more fully hereafter; in quelling the tumults excited by the enactment of Otho; in reconciling the descendants of those proscribed by Sulla to the civil disabilities under which they laboured; in defending C. Rabirius, charged with having been concerned in the death of Saturninus; in bringing forward a measure to render the punishment of bribery more stringent; in checking the abuses connected with the nominations to a legatio libera; and in remedyingvarious defects in the administration of justice. But his whole thoughts were soon absorbed by the precautions required to baffle the treason of Catiline. The origin and progress of that famous plot, the consummate courage, prudence, caution, and decision manifested throughout by Cicero under circumstances the most delicate and embarrassing, are fully detailed elsewhere. [Catilina.] For once the nation did not prove thankless to their benefactor. Honours were showered down upon him such as no citizen of Rome had ever enjoyed. Men of all ranks and all parties hailed him as the saviour of his country; Catulus in the senate, and Cato in the forum, addressed him as " parens patriae," father of his father-land; thanksgiving in his name were voted to the gods, a distinction heretofore bestowed only on those who had achieved a victory in a field of battle; and all Italy joined in testifying enthusiastic admiration and gratitude. But in addition to the open and instant peril from which the consul had preserved the commonwealth, he had made a grand stroke of policy, which, had it been firmly and honestly followed out by those most deeply interested, might have saved the constitution from dangers more remote but not less formidable. The equites or monied men had for half a century been rapidly rising in importance as a distinct order, and now held the balance between the optimates or aristocratic faction, the members of which, although exclusive, selfish, and corrupt, were for their own sakes steadfast supporters of the laws and ancient institutions, and felt no inclination for a second Sulla, even had he been one of themselves; and the populares or democratic faction, which had degenerated into a venal rabble, ever ready to follow any revolutionary scheme promoted by those who could stimulate their passions or buy their votes. Although in such a state of affairs the equites were the natural allies of the senate, from being deeply interested in the preservation of order and tranquillity, yet unfortunately the long-protracted struggle for the right of acting as judices in criminal trials had given rise to the most bitter animosity. But when all alike were threatened with immediate destruction this hostility was forgotten; Cicero persuaded the knights, who always placed confidence in him as one of themselves, to act heartily with the senate, and the senate were only too glad to obtain their co-operation in such an emergency. Could this fair fellowship have been maintained, it must have produced the happiest consequences; but the kindly feelings passed away with the crisis which called them forth; a dispute soon after arose with the farmers of the Asiatic revenues, who desired to be relieved from a disadvantageous contract; neither side shewed any spirit of fair mutual concession; the whole body of the equities making common cause with their brethren became violent and unreasonable; the senate remained obstinate, the frail bond was rudely snapped asunder, and Caesar, who had viewed this alliance with no small dissatisfaction, contrived to paralyze the hands of the only individual by whom the league could have been renewed.

Meanwhile, Cicero could boast of having accomplished an exploit for which no precedent could be found in the history of Rome. Of ignoble birth, of small fortune, without family or connexions, without military renown, by the force of his intellectual powers alone, he had struggled upwards, had been chosen to fill in succession all the high offices of the state, as soon as the laws permitted him to become a candidate, without once sustaining a repulse; in the garb of peace he had gained a victory of which the greatest among his predecessors would have been proud, and had received tributes of applause of which few triumphant generals could boast. His fortune, after mounting steadily though swiftly, had now reached its culminating point of prosperity and glory; for a brief space it remained stationary, and then rapidly declined and sunk. The honours so lavishly heaped upon him, instead of invigorating and elevating, weakened and debased his mind, and the most splendid achievement of his life contained the germ of his humiliation and downfal. The punishment inflicted by order of the senate upon Lentulus, Cethegus, and their associates, although perhaps morally justified by the emergency, was a palpable violation of the fundamental principles of the Roman constitution, which solemnly declared, that no citizen could be put to death until sentenced by the whole body of the people assembled in their comitia; and for this act Cicero, as the presiding magistrate, was held responsible. It was in vain to urge, that the consuls had been armed with dictatorial authority ; for, although even a dictator was always liable to be called to account, there was in the present instance no semblance of an exertion of such power, but the senate, formally assuming to themselves judicial functions which they had no right to exercise, formally gave orders for the execution of a sentence which they had no right to pronounce. The argument, pressed again and again by Cicero, that the conspirators by their guilt had forfeited all their privileges, while it is virtually an admission of the principle stated above, is in itself a mere flimsy sophism, since it takes for granted the guilt of the victims — the very fact which no tribunal except the comitia or commissioners nominated by the comitia could decide. Nor were his enemies, and those who secretly favoured the traitors, long in discovering and assailing this vulnerable point. On the last day of the year, when, according to established custom, he ascended the rostra to give an account to the people of the events of his consulship, Metellus Celer, one of the new tribunes, forbad him to speak, exclaiming, that the man who had put Roman citizens to death without granting them a hearing was himself unworthy of being heard. But this attack was premature. The audience had not yet forgotten their obligations and their recent escape; so that when Cicero, instead of simply taking the common oath to which he was restricted by the interposition of the tribune, swore with a loud voice that he had saved the republic and the city from ruin, the crowd with one voice responded, that he had sworn truly, and escorted him in a body to his house with every demonstration of respect and affection.

Having again refused to accept the government