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Cicero on Justice, Empire, and the Exceptional Republic

Cicero played no significant commanding role in the civil wars that marked the end of the Roman Republic. Nor could he boast of a distinguished military or diplomatic carreer prior to that chaotic period. Cicero had risen from an obscure family to the height of consular power in Rome, through his forensic and rhetorical ability and by forging a link between Rome’s old aristocracy and the equestrian class. Cicero could claim neither conquest of Gaul, nor subjugation of a foreign enemy like Carthage as grounds for posterity considering him an authority on grand strategy. Despite this, we find in Cicero’s moral and philosophic works a powerful theoretical framework for understanding (and justifying) the strategy and policy of an imperial republic such as Rome. Within this framework are serious thoughts about the relationship between power, interest, and the values of a republican polity. Not only are these thoughts profound and worthy of consideration in their own right, but they proved deeply influential to later thinkers. Importantly, these ideas would ultimately inform the ideological self-image of the Roman Empire.

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Polybius, The Histories (circa 150 BC)

Polybius’ origins as a servant of the Achaean League is interesting in part because he offers a vision of international politics between world domination and total anarchy—a sophisticated alliance system of similar democratic regimes that fended off, on both the strategic and diplomatic level, domination by the more powerful Sparta, Macedon, and Rome. The corollary to the rise of Rome is the decline of the Achaean League, and the Histories of Polybius marks out various possibilities for how we can envision the ordering of international life. Political history reveals that there are far more possibilities to political life than those straitjacketed by modern theory may suppose. In this regard Polybius continues the tradition of classical political science and the classical approach to political history as expressed by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.

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