It is a good thing to be honest when honesty is in vogue; but to be honest when honesty is out of fashion is magnificent [Chapter 6].

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rollope explains that his Life of Cicero “has sprung from love of the man, and from a heartfelt admiration of his virtues and his conduct, as well as of his gifts. . . . It is not only that Cicero has touched all matters of interest to men, and has given a new grace to all that he has touched; that as an orator, a rhetorician, an essayist, and a correspondent he was supreme” Perhaps most important for Trollope, his hero had “something almost of Christianity, a stepping forward out of the dead intellectualities of Roman life into moral perceptions, into natural affections, into domesticity, philanthropy, and conscious discharge of duty, which do not seem to have been as yet fully appreciated.” Trollope's task is to try to make them appreciated, though he quickly admits that when he discusses Cicero's character with men of letters, none agree with him. “His intellect they have admitted, and his industry; but his patriotism they have doubted, his sincerity they have disputed, and his courage they have denied“ (Chapter 1). These he wants to vindicate.

True, he admits his hero's flaws, some of which derive from his greater humanity that his contemporaries. Thus, he has “none of the fixed purpose of Caesar, or the unflinching principle of Cato.” They had none of the “flutterings of the heart, doubtful aspirations, human longings, sharp sympathies, dreams of something better than this world, fears of something worse, which make Cicero so like a well-bred, polished gentleman of the present day.” In fact, Trollope explains, “It is because he has so little like a Roman that he is of all the Romans the most attractive” (Chapter 1).

“So like a well-bred, polished gentleman of the present day”

In one of the stranger paragraphs of this carefully argued book, Trollope suggests Cicero would have thrived as a Victorian clubman:

What a man he would have been for London life! How he would have enjoyed his club, picking up the news of the day from all lips, while he seemed to give it to all ears! How popular he would have been at the Carlton, and how men would have listened to him while every great or little crisis was discussed! How supreme he would have sat on the Treasury bench, or how unanswerable, how fatal, how joyous, when attacking the Government from the opposite seats! How crowded would have been his rack with invitations to dinner! How delighted would have been the middle-aged countesses of the time to hold with him mild intellectual flirtations--and the girls of the period, how proud to get his autograph, how much prouder to have touched the lips of the great orator with theirs! How the pages of the magazines would have run over with little essays from his pen! "Have you seen our Cicero's paper on agriculture? That lucky fellow, Editor ----, got him to do it last month!" "Of course you have read Cicero's article on the soul. The bishops don't know which way to turn." "So the political article in the Quarterly is Cicero's?" "Of course you know the art-criticism in the Times this year is Tully's doing?" But that would probably be a bounce. And then what letters he would write! With the penny-post instead of travelling messengers at his command, and pen instead of wax and sticks, or perhaps with an instrument-writer and a private secretary, he would have answered all questions and solved all difficulties. He would have so abounded with intellectual fertility that men would not have known whether most to admire his powers of expression or to deprecate his want of reticence.

The club of course would be the Athenæum, the club at the junction of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall to which Trollope himself belonged and in which he, like Thackeray, had a favorite place to sit and write his novels. The club, it turns out, now has a bust of Caesar but none of of Trollope's favorite Roman.

Caesar Augustus as a Youth, after the antique. Signed “L. Clerici / Roma /” [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

In the course of championing Cicero, Trollope explains his conception of character, which goes a long way to explaining many of the people in his novels. Trollope urges that no human being acts with entire consistency, so that “in discussing the character of a man, there is no course of error so fertile as the drawing of a hard and fast line.” He reminds us that when we evaluate someone's character, we too often act like naive navigators and, attracted by what we take to be “salient points,” jump to conclusions as “though there were a light-house on every point by which the nature of the coast would certainly be shown to us.”

But to say that a man is insincere because he has vacillated in this or the other difficulty, that he is a coward because he has feared certain dangers, that he is dishonest because he has swerved, that he is a liar because an untrue word has been traced to him, is to suppose that you know all the coast because one jutting headland has been defined to you. He who so expresses himself on a man's character is either ignorant of human nature, or is in search of stones with which to pelt his enemy. "He has lied! He has lied!" How often in our own political contests do we hear the cry with a person in question note of triumph!

Sounding like a very subtle casuist, Trollope asks, even if we have caught the person in question in a lie, “how often has he told the truth?” Are we entitled to censure him? Men tell unttruths, Trollope asserts, even without realizing it, “without thought of lying.” In this world of faulty knowledge and inconsistent action, “it is by the tenor of a man's whole life that we must judge him, whether he be a liar or no.”

Related Material


Trollope, Anthony. The Life of Cicero. Vol. 1. New York: Harper, 1881. Project Gutenberg. E-text prepared by Ted Garvin, Marc D'Hooghe, Steve Whitaker, and the PG Online Distributed Proofreading Team. April 18, 2011.

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Last modified 16 August 2013