What Good Is a Lawyer In An Army Camp?

Caesar also nabbed the treasury

“Not bad for a lawyer.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero, former Roman consul, famed orator, Senator, and jurist, had been sent to govern the province of Cilicia, near modern-day Turkey. He had vanquished some roving bands of thieves, sent a Parthian reconnaissance force scurrying back to their territory, and stormed a hilltop fortress.

He didn’t equate himself with the two great generals circling Rome like tigers about to pounce — Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus — but since his performance was pretty good for an intellectual egghead, Cicero thought he deserved a triumph.

Even though Rome was a year away from the total collapse of its ancient republic, this was just the kind of distraction that kept things spiraling down the drain.

Cicero wrote his sometimes friend and ally Cato the Younger, hoping to get the Senator to use his influence to arrange for the parade. He started with a pile of compliments about Cato’s own accomplishments before rendering an exhaustive list of his own. His strategy was to talk about what they had in common, and why this triumph would be good for both of them.

Always a clever and persuasive man, Cicero ended with an argument that might just work on dour old stoic Cato, who led such a simple life he didn’t even wear shoes in public.

He said that a triumph would remove the shame of Cicero’s exile from Rome a few years back, right around the time Cato himself had been sent packing. He implied that his own glory might go part way toward relieving the stigma of Cato’s exile too.

This put Cato in a tough spot, because he was going to have to say no to Cicero.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast).


Cato’s answer is carefully preserved in Cicero’s collection of papers. This collection is a phenomenal insight into the turbulent fall of the Republic, as seen through the eyes of one of its principal actors. As it happens, it also contains the only surviving writing of Cato the Younger.

Cato has the reputation of being a brusque and harsh fellow, no stranger to hard truths, and with no hesitation in saying whatever he felt like to whoever he wanted. His letter to Cicero possesses none of these rough qualities. It is diplomatic and gracious, and even the nagging Cato was known for was muted.

Cicero was granted a thanksgiving by the Senate — a ceremony praising the gods for his good works — instead of a triumph, which would have been all Cicero, all day long.

Cato made the argument that a thanksgiving is precisely the kind of thing a proper servant of a republic should want. Triumphs made a general king for a day, so they were the stuff of empire. Cicero had spent so long in service to the Republic that a triumph should be the last thing he’d ever want.

“Farewell,” Cato wrote. “Continue to love me; and…secure to the…Republic the advantages of your integrity and energy.”

Cicero wrote privately that Cato “has been disgracefully spiteful to me…I cannot and will not put up with this.”

A squabble between the two most eminent defenders of the Roman Republic was the last thing anyone needed right about now. Hopefully their little spat would blow over, and not be made any worse by any sort of clever fellow looking to exploit divisions among his enemies.


Julius Caesar, a clever fellow looking to exploit divisions among his enemies, sent Cicero a very nice letter of condolence when he heard that the Senate, led by that mean old stubborn stick in the mud Cato, had deprived Cicero of a triumph he had earned through his brave exploits.

Caesar needed all the allies he could get. He was far away in Gaul, eyeing a triumphant return of his own to spend a year as consul. Pompey, who was with each passing day becoming Caesar’s only obvious obstacle to power, held all the cards in Rome.

Pompey wanted Caesar to disband his armies before coming home to replace him as the leader of the city. One of Caesar’s allies in the Senate argued that Caesar and Pompey should both disarm ahead of the elections because let’s all just remember we’re a Republic ruled by democracy, not a dictatorship propped up by hordes of legions. Right, Pompey?

Pompey was fine with stepping down; with one condition: “Caesar would have to go first.”

Gaius Scribonius Curio, Caesar’s man in the capital, rejected that idea. “Compel them both to stand down at the same time,” he argued, “or call them both outlaws.” He asked the senators if their reluctance wasn’t “setting up one tyrant through fear of another.”

This argument cut straight to the heart of Cato’s internal conflict. He would have preferred to see both would-be tyrants disappear, but the Roman Republic was well past that point now. One of the two — Caesar or Pompey — was going to assume total control of Rome, and the Republic was going to fall.

But Cato knew Pompey was the lesser of two evils. Rather than condemn them both, he was going to have to pick one.

So he did.


Caesar’s man Curio had forced the Senate to vote to order both generals to disband their legions and lay down their arms. He rushed out of town to go meet up with Caesar in Gaul to give him the good news.

A rumor came back to the city that Caesar was already on his way. A delegation of Rome’s elite went to Pompey’s house and pressed an unsheathed sword into his hand. Take this and defend Rome against Caesar.

Pompey took the sword.


Caesar’s followers took to the Senate floor on the first day of 49 BC to read a letter from their general. It was a full defense of the Republic and its institutions. Pompey might claim that Caesar was on his way to destroy the Roman constitution, but the truth, according to Caesar, was that he was coming to save it.

He was ready to give up most of Gaul, which he had just conquered for Rome, and all of his legions except two. He wanted to retain his immunity from prosecution through the end of that year and become consul in the next.

The simple fact that he was demanding that he become consul, normally an elected position, was a clear indicator that there was no more Republic. That the Senate could agree to his terms or not, because Caesar held all the power that mattered.

Cicero, the lawyer who had for a minute been a general, offered a compromise. Caesar would only keep one legion. Pompey, the other person who held all the power that mattered, agreed.

“You’re being a fool!” Cato shouted.


Caesar had what he wanted. The Senate had rejected his so-called peace proposal. He set out for Rome with five thousand troops, but by the time reports of his advance reached the city, the numbers had exaggerated to the point where the people believed he was on his way with a massive army.

No worries. Pompey the Great had only recently said that “he had only to stamp his foot anywhere in Italy…and armies of foot and horse would spring up out of the earth for him.”

A representation of Senators, having just heard that Caesar was bringing an army to town, went to Pompey’s house and told him that now would be a great time to do some foot stamping.

Plutarch wrote that Romans were fleeing the city, while Italians were pouring in from the countryside ahead of Caesar’s advance. The Republic’s establishment figures were terrified, looking for any savior. The Senate, with Cato’s blessing, granted Pompey whatever powers and funding he needed to repel the threat.

Pompey the Great had been a contradictory ruler for the time he had been in charge of the city, both officially and unofficially. He lurched his way into bad decisions, supporting Caesar’s machinations one minute and then opposing them the next, depending on who had his ear at that moment. Then he backpedaled out of them. Anyone expecting firm and resolute action was going to be disappointed.

So when he finally made a decision and stuck to it, everyone was surprised.

“Rome was to be abandoned at once. Anyone left behind was to be marked an enemy of Pompey — an enemy of the state.”

Well then.


Families, especially prominent ones, needed to be sent away for their own safety and to keep them from falling into Caesar’s hands and being used as bargaining chips. Cato scattered his wife and children to the southern tip of Italy. The night before Rome’s evacuation was a mess. Wives begged departing husbands to stay, or to take them along. Caravans left the city for all presumably safe points on the compass. Those who remained expected captivity or slaughter at Caesar’s hands.

Cassius Dio writes of that night that “anyone who saw them would have supposed that two people and two cities were being made from one and that the one group was being driven out and was going into exile, while the other was being left to its fate and taken captive.”

Every great Roman was now a refugee.

Cato the Younger went into mourning. He didn’t cut his hair or shave, and “wore tattered clothing.” What he had predicted for so long, and what he had spent his life to prevent — the fall of the Republic and the rise of dictators — was coming to pass. No matter who won this war, a dictator would once again rule Rome, and Cato remembered full well what had happened last time. After Sulla, though, the Republic had recovered and resumed.

This time, he had no hope that the Republic would survive.


Pompey Magnus wasn’t just abandoning the capital; he was leaving Italy altogether. Having won his military glory in the East, Pompey felt that was where his money and power really was. He was having trouble raising troops in Italy, where soldiers’ loyalty was divided between him and Caesar. He assumed he wouldn’t have the same trouble in the East.

He ordered the remaining Senators to seize the Treasury and bring it with them when they left town, but with all the confusion and uncertainty, they went to their estates to hunker down instead and left the gold downtown for Caesar to grab when he showed up, taking Rome without a fight in 49 BC.

Cato recommended that Pompey keep his troops from sacking Roman cities and killing any Romans other than those they met on the field of battle. This “brought the party of Pompey a good repute and induced many to join it.” Pompey himself finally fell into the role he had been born for — he took part in the military drills and impressed his men with his martial prowess and leadership. Even though he was nearing sixty, “he could march in full armor, easily draw and sheath his sword on horseback at full gallop, and throw a javelin with deadly accuracy — farther and faster than the youngest troops in his command.” Caesar had carefully crafted his own legend. Pompey, as it turned out, had one too, and he used it to swell the ranks of his army and navy.

Pompey and Caesar were also competing for the role of savior of the Republic; whichever general could convince the people and the world that he was on the side of the Republic’s ancient traditions and institutions would be on the side of right, as much as any civil war leader could be.

To prop up his case, Pompey had Cato, the Republic’s fiercest defender, and before long, he had Cicero too.

Cicero had, typically, been in talks with both Pompey and Caesar for months, while they each vied for the credibility his support would give them. Cicero’s constant waffling enraged Caesar, who was in a hurry. Speed was the only advantage he had, and Cicero was slowing him down. Finally, he told the statesman, “If I cannot make use of your advice, I will take it where I can find it. I will stop at nothing.”

Cicero fled to Pompey’s camp, where the general ordered he be shown every honor and deference. He hadn’t gotten the word to Cato the Younger, and it wouldn’t have mattered if he had.

“What are YOU doing here?” Cato demanded of his sometime friend and ally. “Why have you abandoned Rome?”

The great orator was likely speechless for a moment, since Cato’s uptight presence meant that he too, had abandoned Rome. Cato argued that he had supported Pompey all along, and that if Cicero had remained in the city with Caesar, he could have prevailed upon Caesar’s need for legitimacy to prevent things like purges and show trials.

Despite his earlier praise for Cicero’s military exploits as governor of Cilicia, Cato and Pompey asked the same question:

“What good was an orator and a lawyer in an army camp?”

Cicero went off to pout, and the army camp prepared for battle.



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Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.