Cicero knew of Clinton's problem

May 11, 1994|By Russell Baker

THE high-school flavor of the Washington news was more than the spirit could bear, so I took Rome off the shelf. Not always admirable, those Romans, but they wrote a muscular prose far more bracing than the wheezing, whining, hyper-inflated, empty-headed, tongue-twisting, death's-door English of Washington.

Here is Cicero, for instance, reminding us that "lustful pleasures . . . cloud a man's judgment, obstruct his reasoning capacity and blind his intelligence."

If this seems pertinent just now, it is probably because the press seems about to embark on yet another earnest-Puritan exploration of Bill Clinton's pre-presidential sex life.

It is tempting to defend Mr. Clinton by noting that any American male under 75 who fails to behave goatishly at the drop of an eyelash risks disgracing the ideal of American manhood.

Still, the American man's terrible conviction that he must remain a boy forever, while amusing, diverts us from the essence of Bill Clinton's problem. Cicero states it with Roman Republican clarity of mind: "Let sensuality be present, and a good life becomes impossible."

He also mocks our prejudice against grown-up men by noting that in Rome the Senate was "an assembly of old men" -- the Latin meaning of the word. It comes from the same Latin word as "senility."

Roman senators obviously did not have to look friskily blow-dried, as their American versions must to pass inspection by an electorate besotted with dreams of eternal youth. Reading Cicero makes you feel a delightful 2,000 years distant from high school.

Cicero's Rome also played politics more robustly than today's Washington. There we have Republican sore losers trying to undo the last election with hints that Mr. Clinton is a shady-buck artist and godless philanderer.

Plutarch's account of Cicero's end reminds us how real men, as opposed to Washington's eternal high-school boys, play political hardball.

Cicero's politics had outraged Mark Antony, who seems to have been more Al Capone than Richard Burton. When Antony's party prevailed over Cicero's, Antony claimed the right to have Cicero's head. He sent killers to cut Cicero's throat. When overtaken on his litter by the assassins, Plutarch says, Cicero ordered the litter set down.

"Holding his chin in his left hand, as he had a way of doing, he XTC looked steadily at his murderers, his hair all unkempt and dusty and his face worn by anxiety. Most of those who were there covered their faces while Herennius was killing him. He was stabbed, stretching his neck out from the litter, being then in his 64th year. Following Antony's orders, Herennius cut off his head and his hands, with which he wrote . . . his speeches against Antony."

Antony had head and hands brought to Rome and publicly displayed, "a sight to make Romans shudder," says Plutarch, "for they saw there, they thought, not Cicero's face but an image of Antony's soul."

Antony's Rome had grown more civilized than the Rome of the early kings. The historian Livy, describing how King Tullus dealt with an unfaithful ally named Mettius around 670 B.C., shows a delicacy that suggests how little progress we have made these past 2,000 years.

Addressing Mettius, Tullus says, "Were you capable of learning loyally to abide by your word, I should have let you live. . . . But you are not capable. . . . Yesterday you could not decide between Fidenae and Rome: doubtless it was a painful division of mind -- but today the division of your body will be more painful still."

Then, writes Livy, "Two chariots were brought up, each drawn by four horses. Mettius was tied, spread-eagled, to both of them. At the touch of the whip the two teams sprang forward in opposite directions . . . All eyes were averted from the disgusting spectacle -- never, in all our history, repeated.

"That was the first and last time that fellow-countrymen of ours inflicted a punishment so utterly without regard to the laws of humanity. Save for that one instance we can fairly claim to have been content with more humane forms of punishment than any other nation."

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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