Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
pp. 22 - 23
The Roman Senate in Cicero’s time comprised 600 men, by far the most of whom would go no further in their careers. But they had the power to help elevate one of their own to the office of praetor (one who presides over the courts) or even to the supreme power of the consulship, of which there were only two. Ordinary senators were “bankers, businessmen, and landowners from all over Italy; wealthy, cautious, and patriotic; suspicious of the arrogance and show of the aristocrats. These were [Cicero’s] people, and observing him threading his way among them . . . was like watching a master craftsman in his studio, a sculptor with his stone—here a hand resting lightly on an elbow, there a heavy arm clapped across a pair of meaty shoulders; with this man a coarse joke, with that a solemn word of condolence, his own hands crossed and pressed to his breast in sympathy; detained by a bore, he would seem to have all the hours of the day to listen to his dreary story, but then you would see his hand flicker out and catch some passerby, and he would spin as gracefully as a dancer, with the tenderest backward glance of apology and regret, to work on someone else.
Cicero burned with ambition. He was a senator, but he wanted to be one of the two consuls of Rome. For every man in public life, this was the apotheosis. . . . How many nights and days must he have thought of it, dreamed of it, nursed it, since his gawky adolescence? Sometimes it is foolish to articulate an ambition too early—exposing it prematurely to the laughter and skepticism of the world can destroy it before it is even properly born. But sometimes the opposite occurs, and the very act of mentioning a thing makes it suddenly seem possible, even plausible. That was how it was [with Cicero.] When Cicero pronounced the word consul he planted it in the ground for us all to admire. And for a moment we glimpsed the brilliant, starry future through his eyes, and saw that he was right . . . he had a chance; he might just—with luck—go all the way to the summit.