“I seem to read the history of all ages and nations in every page —
and especially the history of our country for forty years past.
Change the names and every anecdote will be applicable to us.”
— John Adams on Middleton’s Life of Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero was marginalized in the Roman senate. Frustrated without real power, Cicero began to write about how government should be run.
As Caesar conquered Gaul and subsequently crossed the Rubicon, plunging Rome into civil war, Cicero was writing some of the great works of political philosophy. While an accomplished orator and lawyer, Cicero’s most important achievement was his political career and writings.
He asked questions that still resonate today: What is the foundation of a just government? What kind of rule is better? How should a leader behave?
At the time of his writings, his political influence had declined. He wrote to a friend: “I used to sit on the deck and hold the rudder of the state in my hands; now there’s scarcely room for me in the bilge.”
“People in power don’t give it up easily.”
— Warren Buffett
How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders, a book by Philip Freeman, is a short anthology that provides a small sample of Cicero’s ideas that proves the uses and abuses of power have changed little.
“For those who will listen,” Freeman writes, “Cicero still has important lessons to teach. Among these are:
1. There are universal laws that govern the conduct of human affairs.
Cicero would never have thought of this concept of natural law in terms used later by Christians, but he firmly believed that divine rules independent of time and place guarantee fundamental freedoms to everyone and constrain the way in which governments should behave. As the American Founding Fathers, careful students of Cicero, wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
2. The best form of government embraces a balance of powers.
Even the most noble kings will become tyrants if their reign is unchecked, just as democracy will degrade into mob rule if there are no constraints on popular power. A just government must be founded on a system of checks and balances. Beware the leader who sets aside constitutional rules claiming the need for expediency or security.
3. Leaders should be of exceptional character and integrity.
Those who would govern a country must possess great courage, ability, and resolve. True leaders always put the interest of their nation above their own. As Cicero says, governing a country is like steering a ship, especially when the storm winds begin to blow. If the captain is not able to hold a steady course, the voyage will end in disaster for all.
4. Keep your friends close— and your enemies closer.
Leaders fail when they take their friends and allies for granted. Never neglect your supporters, but even more important, always make sure you know what your enemies are doing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who oppose you. Pride and stubbornness are luxuries you cannot afford.
5. Intelligence is not a dirty word.
Those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land. As Cicero says, if leaders don’t have a thorough knowledge of what they are talking about, their speeches will be a silly prattle of empty words and their actions will be dangerously misguided.
6. Compromise is the key to getting things done.
Cicero writes that in politics it is irresponsible to take an unwavering stand when circumstances are always evolving. There are times to stand one’s ground, but consistently refusing to yield is a sign of weakness, not strength.
7. Don’t raise taxes— unless you absolutely have to.
Every country needs revenue in order to function, but Cicero declares that a primary purpose of a government is to assure that individuals keep what belongs to them, not to redistribute wealth. On the other hand, he condemns the concentration of such wealth into the hands of the few and asserts that it is the duty of a country to provide fundamental services and security to its citizens.
8. Immigration makes a country stronger.
Rome grew from a small village to a mighty empire by welcoming new citizens into its ranks as it spread across the Mediterranean. Even former slaves could become full voting members of society. New citizens bring new energy and ideas to a country.
9. Never start an unjust war.
Of course the Romans, just like modern nations, believed they could justify any war they wanted to wage, but Cicero at least holds up the ideal that wars begun from greed rather than defense or to protect a country’s honor are inexcusable.
10. Corruption destroys a nation.
Greed, bribery, and fraud devour a country from the inside, leaving it weak and vulnerable. Corruption is not merely a moral evil, but a practical menace that leaves citizens at best disheartened, at worst seething with anger and ripe for revolution.
If you’re looking to learn more beyond How to Run a Country, start with Political Writings, The Republic and the Laws, The Nature of the Gods, and On Obligations. I also very much enjoyed Anthony Everitt’s Cicero.