When I look at Cicero’s legacy my purpose is not simply to focus on ancient Rome. My intention is to produce a narrative that distils one of the pivotal moments in history to illuminate how Cicero influenced the birth of modern public relations and the world it inhabits.
Cicero is important because he shows us two things. First, public relations primarily serves those who commission it: though popular and respectable, Cicero in fact represented Rome’s corrupt oligarchy. Second, despite this, PR can still possess an ethical and moral content that promotes social progress.
What Cicero does not do is lend credibility to Professor Jim Grunig’s school of thought, which maintains that Cicero was committed to two-way symmetrical communication. That’s a description Cicero never used and which doesn’t usefully describe how he operated. Neither did Cicero, as some PR academics maintain, promote the concept of ethical rhetoric. That’s because, according to Cicero, people are ethical and rhetoric is a neutral art (see also my Are modern PR thinkers spinning Isocrates’ legacy?).
Setting the scene
Legend has it that when Marc Antony’s assassins arrived to kill the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), he had one last go at influencing events. Counter-intuitively, he stuck his head out of his vehicle (ethos) and said, “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier (pathos), but do try to kill me properly (logos)”. Unmoved by his attempt to gain their empathy, they killed him. Afterward they cut his head off and nailed it to the Rosta in the Forum Romanum, the place reserved for public debate.
Cicero, the promoter of consensus gentium (communal conviction), was killed because his oratorical skills and mass public popularity were feared. He was also executed because he was deeply involved in intrigue and rebellion. He had consistently alienated elite society by backing losers such as Pompey against Julius Caesar, Octavian against Marc Antony and then, finally and fatally, Decimus Brutus against both Marc Antony and Octavian.
The good news for the Renaissance and beyond, however, was that Cicero’s murderers didn’t burn his books, which were beacons of rhetorical eloquence, or obscure his ideas. Hence, Cicero still stands tall for opposing dogmatism by promoting reason and scepticism, and for influencing the form of modern constitutions. But he was, as we shall now examine, a conflicted character.
Breaking the glass ceiling
Cicero lived in a Roman Republic that had elected officials in the senate and a legislative assembly, both of which had purely advisory powers. But with the ever-present fear of the mob, and the growing self-awareness of the upper middle classes, Rome took public opinion and debate seriously – so seriously that the recommendations of the Senate were normally accepted.
Cicero’s story as a philosopher, statesman and orator is one of the first recorded examples of the reputation of a common-born person, based on merit and persuasion, opening the door to power in a patrician society. In short, he was elected to all of his public positions: quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul. This made him a leading member of Rome’s Republic by virtue of his fame and influence, without him having any natural claim to power based on his parentage.
Cicero became consul in BC 63 because he was able to mobilise the citizens of Rome in defence of a (partially) meritocratic Republic, and in opposition to factions which sought to impose a dictatorship. However, these merits didn’t stop Cicero from declaring martial law when he was consul, OR from executing conspirators without a proper trial.
To his credit, Cicero dedicated his life to campaigning to renew the Republic and to combating corruption, which he believed was responsible for Rome’s decline. He fought to defend Rome from revolution, civil and foreign wars and serial economic crises. But his major appeal and usefulness was not to the masses. It was to Rome’s ruling elites, which he called upon to save themselves from moral decay by becoming more virtuous.
Rome merely had the appearance of being a democracy. In that respect it was very unlike Athenian democracy in Classical Greece. That had been based on direct radical democracy and on equality within the polis, where reputation and not birth conferred influence, and there was no state above the people. In contrast, Rome was governed from the top by a disunited oligarchy backed by a state apparatus and a professional army.
Cicero was the leading representative of the optimates, a conservative alliance which campaigned for concordia ordinum (agreement of or between the classes) and which sought to unite the upper middle classes and the aristocracy with the urban and rural classes in defence of the constitution. He made plain that true power lies in the people by occasionally threatening to unleash them on his rivals.
In 60 BC, a beleaguered Julius Caesar invited Cicero to join his First Triumvirate to rule Rome, because he wanted to benefit from Cicero’s charisma and popularity. The offer was refused, though Cicero accepted a similar offer to “restore the Republic” from Brutus in BC 44, after the knife was pulled from Caesar’s back. Cicero was not involved in the plot, but Brutus needed Cicero because the conspirators required a popular non-conspirator to be the peacemaker to confer legitimacy upon the new regime.
Unfortunately, Cicero took command of the Senate, while Antony kept control of the army, and the latter used it to destroy former.
The rule of law, public duty and service
He established that the rule of law – underpinned by the radical concept of universal moral equality – forms the ‘social glue’ that holds societies together. In other words, instead of rule by force, Cicero advocated that commonly accepted laws should be applied to all.
But we shouldn’t overlook how suspicious Cicero was of the people and their potential power:
Nothing is more unpredictable than the mob, nothing more obscure than public opinion, nothing more deceptive than the whole political system. [Cicero, Pro Murena 36]
His contibution to the art of rhetoric is so significant in terms of its style and theory, that I shall have to examine it in more depth another time. However Cicero’s popular appeal was more to his audience’s emotions than intelligence. That might seem to run counter to his mostly enlightened outlook. However, Cicero was fundamentally a pragmatist, whose use of oratory was merely expedient, in the sense of deploying it to achieve his objectives. When he wanted an audience to act, he targeted its base instincts by appealing to its feelings of love, hate, joy and fear.
Nevertheless, long before Machiavelli and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), Cicero was a thinker of significance on modern morals, civic responsibilities and duties.
Cicero argued that, in public life, nobody has to surrender all self-interest, and that it is morally acceptable to pursue the personal and rational goals of fame and wealth, so long as such a pursuit does not hurt others. Indeed, he maintained that the purpose of justice is not just punishment, but also to keep human beings from harming others. He held that it was legitimate for men (women didn’t figure much at this point) to use their common possessions for common interests and their private property for their own [Cicero, De Officiis I.20; see also I.31].
As Alan E Samuel says in The Promise of the West: in The Greek World, Rome and Judaism (pages 272-84, London, Routledge, 1988), Cicero developed ideas about law, political association, pure love between man and wife, and about friendship and trust and honourable conduct. He examined death, pain, virtue and duty, and found that a relentless focus on pleasure, money and envy led to unhappiness.
Cicero and the Renaissance
It was Cicero’s appealing belief in people power that arguably did most to shape modern thinking. The breakthrough – at least according to most accounts, even though I find them exaggerated – came with the rediscovery of Cicero’s texts by Petrarch, Poggio and Gerardo Landriani, which effectively ended the so-called dark ages.
Though republican governments emerged in Italy from around 1100, conventional wisdom has it that from the 14th century onward, people throughout Europe began to work through the implications of Cicero’s ideas, as well as those of many other Roman and Greek thinkers. Or, as the free markets guru F A Hayek puts it in The Road to Serfdom, University Chicago Press, 2007, people began increasingly to realise that “power is ultimately not a physical fact but a state of opinion which makes people obey”.
Percy Shelley (1792–1822) expressed the same point more poetically in The Masque of Anarchy, when he suggested that the barrier to progress was to be a “slave in soul”, and that the right course of action was to “steam up like inspiration, Eloquent, oracular; A volcano heard afar…Ringing through each heart and brain, Heard again – again – again”.
Cicero’s writings on rhetoric, politics, public affairs and the masses influenced everybody from Saint Augustine (354–430 AD), Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616). He had an effect on Reformation figures such as Erasmus (1466–1536) and Luther (1483–1546), and on to Enlightenment heroes such as John Adams (1735 – 1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826).
Cicero’s maxim that the welfare of the people is the ultimate law (Salus Populi Est Suprema Lex) helped inspire the American, French and Russian revolutions. However for Cicero, the form of a state, be it kingship, aristocracy or democracy, was of secondary importance to the absence of greed and the presence of justice. Still, one can clearly see the essence of modern democratic constitutions in this recommendation:
. . . a moderate and balanced form of government which is a combination of the three good simple forms is preferable even to kingship. For if there should be a supreme and royal element in the State, some power also ought to be granted to the leading citizens, and certain matters should be left to the judgements and desires of the masses. Such a constitution, in the first place, offers a high degree a sort of equality, which is a thing free men can hardly do without for any considerable length of time, and secondly, it has stability. [Cicero, De Re Publica I.xlv.69]
Cicero’s ideas transformed
By contrast with Cicero’s emotional politics, the mass debates that fuelled the American revolution took place during the flowering of the rationalist Enlightenment. These debates were rooted in considered argument, universal principles and moral values and a piercing scepticism, rather than in manipulative calls to action (the same cannot be said confidently about the USA today). As one American academic observes, the colonialists’ opposition to English rule was driven by their reasoning and reading, which focused their opposition to theoretical tyrannies, rather than their anger at real ones. In the words of the pro-American Edmund Burke (1729–97) in Britain’s House of Commons:
They [Americans] augur misgovernment at a distance and snuff the approach of tyranny, in every tainted breeze. [Quoted in Gordon S Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, University of North Carolina Press, 1988, page 4].
So it took the better part of 2000 years to unite Cicero’s core theories with genuine practice.
Many of Cicero’s concepts drew on those of classical Greece. That is particularly true of his views on universal moral equality, and his idea that ultimate power should rest on the judgement of the people. These ideas could only find real meaning beyond the context of his time. So let’s conclude with that context.
The ironic thing about the end of 450 years of Rome’s Republic was that it fell in Cicero’s lifetime. Yet he has been celebrated ever since, rightly, as its greatest Republican. Indeed, the autocracies that followed felt obliged to pay lip-service to the constitutional legacy of Cicero and the Republic.
Imperial government was instituted by Augustus (Octavian) and maintained by those princes who understood their own interest and that of the people. It was, in the words of the famed historian Edward Gibbon, “an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness”. [Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Wordsworth Editions, 1998, chapter 3]
In my opinion, Cicero stands out as one of the most important figures in the history of modern politics, public relations and rhetoric. But his rough and tumble life story and rational thinking do not lend credibility to idealistic models of ‘excellence’ promoted by modern-day professors of public relations.