Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There are many great Romans whose names are still honored to this day. None has been more feted down the centuries than Cicero. He was perhaps Rome’s greatest author and one of its greatest orators and philosophers. Cicero was also one the last defenders of the Roman Republic, inspiring democrats and those who oppose tyranny to this day.
Early Life of Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was born into an aristocratic family in Arpimium, not far from Rome. He received a good education in Latin and Greek and oratory, the art of public speaking, which was essential for a life in politics and law.
After briefly serving with the legions he became a lawyer. His oratory soon became legendary and was a much sought-after lawyer. Cicero won fame for defending a man against a trumped-up murder charge.
The Young Cicero Reading by Vincenzo Foppa (fresco, 1464), now at the Wallace Collection
Politically he was allied to the Optimates, that is the old Senatorial nobility, even though they never fully accepted him. His public speaking made him a powerful force in Roman politics and he became the enemy of the populist party (populares).
One of the most prominent populists was Cataline. Cicero regularly condemned him and his party in fiery and eloquent speeches. When Cataline failed to become consul in 63 B.C. he began to plot with others to seize Rome and start a popular revolution. Among his aims was believed to be the destruction of the old aristocratic elite and the cancellation of all debts.
Cicero became aware of this, which later became known as the Cataline Conspiracy. He urged the Senate to move against the populists, who were planning to start a revolt in Italy and burn Rome.
Cicero managed to persuade the Senate to issue a decree ordering Cataline to be detained. There was an attempt to assassinate the great orator, but it failed. Cataline then left Rome, and evidence was produced that proved he was guilty. Cicero had the conspirators executed, but many including Julius Caesar believed that he had gone beyond his powers as Consul.
Cicero Denounces Catiline in the Roman Senate (1888), by Cesare Maccari
Cicero and the First Triumvirate
Cicero had a close relationship with Pompey the Great. He was a supporter of him, because he was the leader of the Optimate party. The orator lent his support to the creation of the First Triumvirate. This was a political alliance between Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey which effectively made them the most powerful men in Rome.
Cicero began to criticize Caesar and his policies and as a result he was forced out of Rome and became an exile. Later he was able to return to Rome and even became a governor. He intrigued with Pompey and he warned him about the growing power of Caesar.
Cicero returned to Italy just as Caesar was crossing the Rubicon. Later he tried to broker a deal between Caesar and Pompey but he failed. Later the orator joined the army of Pompey in the Balkans. When Caesar defeated the Republicans at the Battle of Pharsalus, Cicero was pardoned by Caesar and even returned to politics.
Cicero made many speeches opposing Mark Antony and he encouraged the Senate to oppose his ambitions. When Mark Antony took up arms against the Senate, the orator urged that the Consuls be sent against him.
After the Battle of Mutina, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, and they divided the Republic and its provinces between them. They decided to secure their position by starting a campaign of terror against their enemies, known as the Proscriptions.
Mark Antony wanted Cicero dead. This forced the orator to go into hiding, and many Romans helped him to evade the Second Triumvirate. However, he was finally betrayed to two killers by a former slave of his brother. Cicero died with great bravery and when the assassins approached him, he bared his throat to them, to show that he was not afraid.
His killers beheaded him and cut off the hand that had written so many condemnations of Mark Antony. According to legend, Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, mocked the head of Cicero and reputedly stuck a pin into the tongue of the dead orator. This was done out of revenge for all the times he had used his tongue to castigate Mark Antony.
The Vengeance of Fulvia by Francisco Maura Y Montaner, 1888 depicting Fulvia inspecting the severed head of Cicero
Cicero is considered to be one of the masters of Latin. His speeches and oratory were collected and widely read. They have influenced oratory to the present day and the adjective “Ciceronian” is used to describe eloquence.
He was also a distinguished philosopher, much influenced by Greek Scepticism and Neo-Platonism. Cicero worked tirelessly to introduce Greek philosophy into Rome. He also wrote extensively on politics and ethics.
His works have had an enduring influence on the development of European culture and history. Cicero influenced Italian Humanists of the Renaissance such as Petrarch, who discovered letters between Cicero and his friend Atticus that had been lost to time. He was also much admired by leading members of the Enlightenment, such as David Hume and even many of the founding fathers of the United States.
“…the philosophers of the Academy have been wise in withholding their consent from any proposition that has not been proved. There is nothing worse than a hasty judgment, and nothing could be more unworthy of the dignity and integrity of a philosopher than uncritically to adopt a false opinion or to maintain as certain some theory which has not been fully explored and understood.” ~ Cicero, De Natura Deorum
Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen. ( Public Domain )
“A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.” ~ David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Cicero was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, despite his bravery and oratory, he failed to save the Republic. He is remembered as one of the greatest of all Latin writers and decisively shaped Western culture. To this day, Cicero inspires those who want to defend freedom against tyrants.