Cicero at about age 60, from an ancient marble bust
Mārcus Tūllius Cīcerō (IPA: [ˈsɪsərəʊ]; Classical pronunciation: [ˈkiːkeroː] ; January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC) was an orator, statesman, political theorist, lawyer and philosopher of Ancient Rome. He is considered by many to be amongst the greatest of the Latin orators and prose writers.
The latter half of the first century BC witnessed the close of the Republican era. Cicero was idealistic regarding his aspirations for the continuation of the Republic. He was a practical statesman; although his career was marked by inconsistencies and policy shifts to suit the changing political climate, he remained the Republic’s genuine champion. This inconsistency, which is perhaps not surprising for a politician in turbulent times, was a constant theme throughout his life, as he often equated “his own problems with the ills of the republic.”
Birth and family
Cicero was born in Arpinum without senatorial aristocratic connections. He was however distantly related to one of the populares from Arpinum, Marius, who was the leader of one faction of the Roman Civil War against Cornelius Sulla in the 80s BC. This however provided little political help to Cicero. In fact it most likely could have hindered his political standing as the Marian faction and many connected with it were ultimately destroyed by Sulla. Cicero's father was a well connected Roman knight, which at least allowed him Roman Citizenship. His family, the Tullii, were from the landed gentry and resented the fame and fortunes of the other great Arpinate family, the Marii. Throughout his life, the conservative Cicero loathed being compared to the more famous Marius.
The name Cicero is derived from cicer, the Latin word for chickpea. Plutarch explains that the name was originally applied to one of Cicero’s ancestors who had a cleft in the tip of his nose, which resembled that of a chickpea. Plutarch adds that Cicero was urged to change his superficially ignoble name when he entered politics, but he refused.
The Young Cicero Reading, 1464 fresco, now at the Wallace Collection.
According to Plutarch, Cicero was an extremely adept student, learning so well and rapidly that he attracted attention from all over Rome, so much so that he was granted the opportunity to study Roman Law under Quintus Mucius Scaevola; in the same way in later years, the young Marcus Caelius Rufus studied under Cicero. Such associations were considered to be a great honour for both teacher and pupil. Cicero was fond of poetry, although his own poems have mostly been overlooked. His works in poetry include translations of Homer and the "Phaenomena" of Aratus, which subsequently influenced Virgil's usage of that poem in the "Georgics".
In 89 BC–88 BC, Cicero served on the staffs of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo and Lucius Cornelius Sulla as they campaigned in the Social War, though he had no taste for the military life. Cicero had a love for almost everything Greek, and even stated in his will that he wanted to be buried in Greece. He studied the ancient philosophers such as Plato. This love of Hellenic culture was stoked during a semi-voluntary sojourn in the region that followed his successful defence, of a man accused of parricide, that was an indirect challenge to the Dictator Sulla in 80 BC. It was both due to the potential (though never realised) wrath of the dictator and a sudden attack of laryngitis brought on by Cicero’s early speaking style that prompted his trip to Greece and Rhodes. While there, he visited with Publius Rutilius Rufus, a former magistrate who had been exiled to Asia and held staunch Republican ideals, and with Posidonius, a famed philosopher and scholar who also held an idealized view of Rome in the world. He also met and studied at the feet of the rhetorician Molon of Rhodes, who instructed Cicero in a more expansive and less intense (and less strenuous on the throat) form of oratory that would provide the foundation of Cicero's own idiosyncratic style in years to come.
It was in 84BC that Cicero took his first case, defending Quinctius. His first major case was in 80 (mentioned above), defending Sextus Roscius, who was accused of parricide. Normally this case would never have been attempted by any lawyer - parricide along with matricide were considered appalling crimes in the Roman Empire and the people who Cicero was proposing to accuse regarding the crime (the most notorius being Chrysogonus) were favourites of Sulla who had just written thousands of names on proscription lists. It would not have been difficult for Sulla to have Cicero murdered as Cicero was barely known at this time in the Roman courts. Yet Cicero still took the case. His arguments were divided into three parts: the first where he defended Roscius and attempted to prove he did not commit the crime, the second where he attacked the people who likely committed the crime (one a relative of Roscius) and stated how the crime fitted them more than the defendant. The final part of his argument was an attack upon Chrysogonus stating that Roscius' father was murdered to obtain his ample estate at cheap prices in the following auction. As a result, Roscius was acquitted. This was an impressive feat for any lawyer, let alone Cicero the "novus homo" (new man). From that case onwards Cicero's reputation rapidly improved, assisting his elevation to office in 75.
Cicero served as quaestor in western Sicily in 75 BC. He wrote that in Sicily he saw the gravestone of Archimedes of Syracuse, on which was carved Archimedes’ favorite discovery in geometry, that the ratio of the volume of a sphere to that of the smallest right circular cylinder in which it fits is 2:3.
Cicero built an extremely successful law practice, and first attained prominence for his successful prosecution in August 70 BC of Gaius Verres, the former governor of Sicily, even though Verres was represented by Hortensius, a former consul and reckoned at the time to be Rome's greatest lawyer.
Despite his great successes as an advocate, Cicero suffered from his lack of reputable ancestry; as no Tullius had been consul before him, he was neither noble nor patrician, and his family was considered unimportant. He was further hindered by the fact that the last memorable “new man” to have been elected to the consulate without consular ancestors had been the politically radical and militarily innovative Gaius Marius -- a distant relative of Cicero's who also came from Arpinum.
Cicero matured in an environment of civil unrest and war. Sulla’s victory in the first of many civil wars, resulted in a new constitutional framework that undermined the fundamental value of the Roman Republic, Libertas (liberty). However, Sulla’s reforms strengthened the position of the Equestrian class and contributed to that class’s growing political power. Cicero was both an Italian equite, and a "novus homo" but more importantly he was a constitutionalist, meaning he did not wish to side with the Populares faction and embark on a campaign of ‘seditious’ reform. His social class and loyalty to the Republic ensured he would “command the support and confidence of the people as well as the Italian middle classes.” However, his absence of social standing resulted in his inability to secure a reliable and viable power base, as the equites, his main support base, did not hold considerable power. Despite his outstanding talents and vision for the security of the Republic, the Optimates faction never truly accepted Cicero as one of their own. This not only forced the orator to seek out alliances with questionable characters such as Pompey and Octavian, but also undermined his efforts to reform and save the Republic.
In 63 BC, Cicero was elected consul. His most significant accomplishment during his year in office was the suppression of the Catiline conspiracy, a plot to overthrow the Roman Republic led by Lucius Sergius Catilina, a disaffected patrician. Cicero procured a senatus consultum de re publica defendenda (a declaration of martial law, also called the senatus consultum ultimum) and drove Catiline out of the city by four vehement speeches in which he described the debauchery of Catiline and his followers, describing them as a company of dissolute senators and other assorted rogues who were deep in debt and latched onto Catiline as a last hope. At the end of the first speech, Catiline burst from the Temple of Jupiter Stator, where the Senate had been convened, and made his way to Etruria. The other three speeches were therefore not directly addressed at him (as the first one was — the main theme was something on the order of “leave Rome, and take your mob with you!”) but at the people or Senate, depending on the particular speech, to steel them for action in case the worst happened, as well as exposing more evidence against Catiline.
Catiline fled, but left behind his ‘deputies’ to start the revolution from within whilst Catiline assaulted it from without with an army recruited among Sulla’s veterans in Etruria. Cicero managed to have these deputies of Catiline confess their crime in front of the entire Senate, after ambushing an embassy they had sent to a Gallic tribe, the Allobroges.
The Senate then deliberated upon the punishment to be given to the conspirators. As it was the dominant advisory body to the various legislative assemblies rather than a judicial body, there were limits on its power to do so; however, martial law was in effect, and it was feared that simple house arrest or exile — the standard options — would not remove the threat to the State. At first most in the Senate spoke for the ‘extreme penalty’; many were then swayed by Julius Caesar who spoke decrying the precedent it would set and argued in favor of the punishment being confined to a mode of banishment. Cato then rose in defense of the death penalty and all the Senate finally agreed on the matter. Cicero had the conspirators taken to the Tullianum, the notorious Roman prison, where they were strangled. Cicero himself accompanied the former consul Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, one of the conspirators, to the Tullianum. After the executions had been carried out, Cicero announced the deaths by the formulaic expression Vixerunt (They have lived), (meant to ward off ill fortune by avoiding the direct mention of death). He received the honorific “Pater Patriae” for his actions in suppressing the conspiracy, but thereafter lived in fear of trial or exile for having put Roman citizens to death without trial. He also received the first public thanksgiving for a civic accomplishment; previously this had been a purely military honor. Cicero's four Catiline Orations remain outstanding examples of rhetorical style.
Cicero’s oration Pro Flacco provides an early and clear example of Jew-hatred; in this speech, Cicero plays upon several stereotypical themes which were echoed throughout the following two millennia. The case involved the defense of Lucius Valerius Flaccus, a Roman aristocrat, who was accused of (among other things) unlawfully confiscating Jewish funds which had been collected for the maintenance of the Temple at Jerusalem. In defense of Flaccus, Cicero made arguments regarding the public site which had been selected for the open-air tribunal: “Now let us take a look at the Jews and their mania for gold. You chose this site, [chief prosecutor] Laelius, and the crowd which frequents it, with an eye to this particular accusation, knowing very well that Jews with their large numbers and tendency to act as a clique are valuable supporters to have at any kind of public meeting.”
Exile and return
In 58 BC, the populist Publius Clodius Pulcher introduced a law exiling any man who had put Roman citizens to death without trial. Although Cicero maintained that the sweeping decree senatus consultum ultimum granted him in 63 BC had indemnified him against legal penalty, he nevertheless appeared in public and began to beg for support from the people. Since he could not go out in public without being threatened by Clodius's heavies, he dedicated a statue to Minerva in the Forum and left Italy for a year and spent his quasi-exile setting his speeches to paper. In letters to his friend Atticus, Cicero maintained that the Senate was jealous of his accomplishments, and therefore did not save him from exile.
Cicero returned from his exile to a cheering crowd. During the 50s, Cicero supported the populist Milo to use as a cat's-paw against Clodius, who continued to use his popular support to establish terror in the streets. During the mid-50s, Clodius was killed by Milo’s gladiators on the Via Appia. Cicero defended Milo on counts of murder from the relatives of Clodius, yet failed. Despite this failure, Cicero’s speech Pro Milone was considered by some as his masterpiece. Cicero argued that Milo had no reason to kill Clodius and had all to gain from his living, pointing out that Milo had no idea that he would encounter Clodius on the Via Appia. The prosecution, however, pointed out that Milo had freed the slaves who were with him during the attack on Clodius, so that they could not testify against him in court that he had ordered the killing. Cicero in turn claimed that Milo’s slaves had defended him honorably and deserved to be free, for they had saved their master "from an attack by Clodius." Milo fled into exile and continued to live in Massilia until he returned to stir up further trouble during the Civil War.
As the struggle between Pompey and Julius Caesar grew more intense in 50 BC, Cicero favored Pompey but tried to avoid turning Caesar into a permanent enemy. When Caesar invaded Italy in 49 BC, Cicero fled Rome. Caesar attempted vainly to convince him to return, and in June of that year Cicero slipped out of Italy and traveled to Dyrrachium (Epidamnos). In 48 BC, Cicero was with the Pompeians at the camp of Pharsalus and quarreled with many of the Republican commanders, including a son of Pompey; they had disgusted him by their sanguinary attitudes. He returned to Rome, however, after Caesar's victory at Pharsalus.
In a letter to Varro on April 20, 46 BC, Cicero outlined his strategy under the dictatorship of Caesar: “I advise you to do what I am advising myself – avoid being seen, even if we cannot avoid being talked about… If our voices are no longer heard in the Senate and in the Forum, let us follow the example of the ancient sages and serve our country through our writings, concentrating on questions of ethics and constitutional law.”
In February 45 BC, Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia died. He never entirely recovered from this tragic shock.
Opposition to Mark Antony, and death
Cicero was taken completely by surprise when the Liberatores assassinated Caesar on the Ides of March 44 BC. In a letter to the conspirator Trebonius, Cicero expressed a wish of having been "...invited to that superb banquet." Cicero became a popular leader during the following instability and was disgusted with Mark Antony, who was scheming to take revenge upon Caesar’s murderers. He arranged to avoid having Caesar outlawed as a tyrant so that the Caesarians could have lawful support, in exchange for amnesty for the assassins - which the Senate agreed to.
Cicero and Antony, Caesar’s subordinate, became the leading men in Rome; Cicero as spokesman for the Senate, and Antony as consul and as executor of Caesar’s will. But the two men had never been on friendly terms, and their relationship worsened after Cicero made it clear he felt Antony to be taking unfair liberties in interpreting Caesar’s wishes and intentions. When Octavian, Caesar’s heir and adopted son, arrived in Italy in April, Cicero formed a plan to play him against Antony. In September he began attacking Antony in a series of speeches he called the Philippics, in honour of his inspiration- Demosthenes. Praising Octavian to the skies, he labeled him a “God-Sent Child” and said he only desired honor and that he would not make the same mistake as his father by adoption. Meanwhile, his attacks on Antony, whom he called a “sheep,” rallied the Senate in firm opposition to Antony. During this time, Cicero became an unrivaled popular leader and, according to the historian Appian, he "had the [most] power any popular leader could possibly have." Cicero heavily fined the supporters of Antony for petty charges and had volunteers forge arms for the Republicans. According to Appian (although the story is not supported by others), this policy was perceived by Antony's supporters to be so insulting that they prepared to march on Rome to arrest Cicero. Cicero fled the city and the plan was abandoned.
Cicero supported Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus as governor of Cisalpine Gaul (Gallia Cisalpina) and urged the Senate to name Antony an enemy of the state. One tribune, a certain Salvius, delayed these proceedings and was "reviled," as Appian put it, by Cicero and his party. The speech of Lucius Piso, Caesar's father-in-law, delayed proceedings against Antony. Antony was later declared an enemy of the state when he refused to lift the siege of Mutina, which was in the hands of Decimus Brutus. Cicero described his position in a letter to Cassius, one of Caesar's assassins, that same September: "I am pleased that you like my motion in the Senate and the speech accompanying it… Antony is a madman, corrupt and much worse than Caesar — whom you declared the worst of evil men when you killed him. Antony wants to start a bloodbath..."
Cicero’s plan to drive out Antony failed, however. After the successive battles of Mutina, Antony and Octavian reconciled and allied with Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate. Immediately after legislating their alliance into official existence for a five-year term with consular imperium, the Triumvirate began proscribing their enemies and potential rivals. Cicero and his younger brother Quintus Tullius Cicero, formerly one of Caesar's legates, and all of their contacts and supporters, were numbered among the enemies of the state (though reportedly Octavian fought against Cicero being added to the list for two days).
Among the proscribed, Cicero was one of the most viciously and doggedly hunted. Other victims included the tribune Salvius, who, after siding with Antony, moved his support directly and fully to Cicero. Cicero was viewed with sympathy by many, and many refused to report that they had seen him. He was eventually caught at one of his villas after going to retrieve money. He fled along the coast; when the executioners arrived, his slaves said they had not seen him, but a dependant of Publius Clodius gave Cicero away.
Cicero's last words were said to have been “there is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.” He was decapitated by his pursuers on December 7, 43 BC at Formia; his head and hands were displayed on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum according to the tradition of Marius and Sulla, both of whom had displayed the heads of their enemies in the Forum. He was the only victim of the Triumvirate’s proscriptions to be so displayed. According to Cassius Dio (in a story often mistakenly attributed to Plutarch), Antony's wife Fulvia took Cicero's head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin, taking a final revenge against Cicero's power of speech.
Cicero's son, later a politician, had some revenge when he announced to the Senate Mark Antony’s naval defeat at Actium by Octavian, and when Octavian, later in life, came upon one of his grandsons reading a book by Cicero and saw the boy trying to conceal it, fearing his grandfather’s reaction, he instead took the book from him, read a large part of it and then handed the volume back with the words “He was a learned man, dear child, a learned man who loved his country."
Marriage and issue
Cicero had two children, a daughter, Tullia Ciceronis, and a son, Marcus Tullius Cicero Minor, from his marriage to Terentia Varrones. He later divorced Terentia and remarried Pubilia (then aged 15), probably for her money, about 46 BC, with no further issue. After the death of his daughter Tullia, who had been married three times, in 45 BC, he divorced Pubilia.
Political and social thought
Cicero’s vision for the Republic was not simply the maintenance of the status quo. Neither was it a straightforward desire to revitalise what many, such as Sallust, term the ‘moral degradation’ of the Republican system. Cicero envisaged Rome as a "selfless nobility of successful individuals determining the fate of the nation via consensus in the Senate”. Cicero’s middle-class background resulted in a broader outlook, not marred by self-interest.
Cicero aspired to a Republican system dominated by a ruling aristocratic class of men, “who so conducted themselves as to win for their policy the approval of all good men”. Further, he sought a concordia ordinum, an alliance between the senators and the equites. This ‘harmony between the social classes’, “which he later developed into a consensus omnium bonorum to include tota italia (all citizens of Italy), demonstrated Cicero’s foresight as a statesman. He understood that fundamental change to the organization and the distribution of power within the Republic was required to secure its future. However, Cicero was also naļve to believe that ‘the best men’ would institute large-scale reforms which were contrary to their interests as the ruling oligarchy. Cicero's guiding principle throughout his political career was:
That “some sort of free-state” is the necessary condition of a noble and honourable existence; and that it is the last calamity for a people to permanently renounce this ideal and to substitute for it the slave’s ideal of a good master.
Links with the Equestrian class, combined with his status as a novus homo meant that Cicero was isolated from the optimates. Thus, it is not surprising that Cicero envisioned a “selfless nobility of successful individuals” instead of the current system dominated by patricians. The fact remains that those who sat in the Senate had appropriated huge profits by exploiting the provinces. Repeatedly, the oligarchy had proved to be shortsighted, reactionary and “operating with restricted and outmoded institutions could no longer cope with vast territories containing multifarious populations.” The repeated failings of the oligarchy were not only due to leading patricians, such as Cato, but also to the influx of conservative equites into the Senate’s ranks.
The combination of the Roman governing system, established by the oligarchy to maximize economic exploitation, and the introduction of the business minded Knights only sought to increase the plundering of resources within the Empire. The large-scale extortion destabilized the political system further, which was continuously under pressure by both foreign wars and from the populares. Moreover, this period of Roman history was marked by constant in-fighting between the Senators and the equites over political power and control of the courts. The problem arose because Sulla originally enfranchised the equites, but then, these privileges were soon removed after he stepped down from office. Cicero, as an equite, naturally backed their claims to participate in the legal process; moreover the constant conflict was incompatible with his vision of a concordia ordinum. Furthermore, the conflict between the two classes showed no signs of a feasible solution in the short term. The ruling class for over a century had showed nothing of ‘selfless service’ to the Republic and through their actions only undermined its stability, contributing to the creation of a society ripe for revolution.
The establishment of individual power bases both within Rome and in the provinces undermined Cicero’s guiding principal of a free state, and thus the Roman Republic itself. This factionalised the Senate into cliques, which constantly engaged each other for political advantage. These cliques were the optimates, led by such figures as Cato, and in later years Pompey, and the populares, lead by such men as Julius Caesar and Crassus. It is important to note that the although the optimates were generally republicans there were instances of optimate leaders with distinctly dictatorial ways. Caesar, Crassus and Pompey were at one time the head of the First Triumvirate which directly conflicted with the Republican model as it did not comply with the system of holding a Consulship for one year only. Cicero’s vision for the Republic could not succeed if the populares maintained their position of power. Cicero did not envisage wide spread reform, but a return to the “golden age” of the Republic. Despite Cicero’s attempts to court Pompey over to the Republican side, he failed to secure either Pompey’s genuine support or peace for Rome.
After the civil war, Cicero recognised that the end of the Republic was almost certain. He stated that “the Republic, the Senate, the law courts are mere ciphers and that not one of us has any constitutional position at all.” The civil war had destroyed the Republic. It wreaked destruction and decimated resources throughout the Empire. Julius Caesar’s victory had been absolute. His time as dictator demonstrated the stability of “long settled, [and] orderly government” which the plebs appreciated after decades of volatile politics. Thus, Caesar’s assassination failed to reinstate the Republic, despite further attacks on the Romans’ freedom by “Caesar’s own henchman, Marc Antony.” Furthermore, his death only highlighted the stability of ‘one man rule’ by the ensuing chaos and further civil wars that broke out with Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius, and finally between his own supporters, Marc Antony and Octavian.
Cicero remained the ”Republic's last true friend” as he spoke out for his own ideals and that of the libertas the Romans had enjoyed for centuries. Cicero’s vision had a fundamental flaw. It harked back to a ‘golden age’ that never existed. Furthermore, the Republic had reached such a state of disrepair that regardless of Cicero’s talents and passion, Rome lacked “persons loyal to [the Republic] to trust with armies.” Cicero lacked the political power, nor had he any military skill or resources, to command true power to enforce his ideal. He also failed to recognize the real power structures that operated in Rome, instead following the rules of the ideal Republican game, which no longer (or perhaps had never) existed.
Cicero is credited with the precept "nun erit alia lex Romae, alia Athenis" -- the law (meaning in context specifically the principles of contract and commerce) must be the same in Rome as in Athens. That precept has cropped up in debates over federalism and commerce in the United States.
Cicero also advocated several sexual ideals that were controversial at the time, such as homosexual brothels and a specific type of polygamy. It is widely believed that Cicero supported homosexual brothels because he himself practiced homosexual intercourse on a regular basis, however no such indications are expressly stated throughout his works. He addresses these issues lightly in several of his speeches (most notably Pro Tullio), as well as in at least one of his surviving works on rhetoric, De Officiis.
Cicero was declared a “Righteous Pagan” by the early Catholic Church, and therefore many of his works were deemed worthy of preservation. Saint Augustine and others quoted liberally from his works “On The Republic” and “On The Laws,” and it is due to this that we are able to recreate much of the work from the surviving fragments. Cicero also articulated an early, abstract conceptualization of rights, based on ancient law and custom.
Of Cicero’s books, six on rhetoric have survived, as well as parts of eight on philosophy.
Of his speeches, eighty-eight were recorded, but only fifty-eight survive. Some of the items below are more than one speech.
- (81 BC) Pro Quinctio (On behalf of Publius Quinctius)
- (80 BC) Pro Sex. Roscio Amerino (On behalf of Sextus Roscius of Ameria)
- (77 BC) Pro Q. Roscio Comoedo (On behalf of Quintus Roscius Gallus the Actor)
- (70 BC) Divinatio in Caecilium (Spoken against Caecilius at the inquiry concerning the prosecution of Gaius Verres)
- (70 BC) In Verrem (Against Gaius Verres, or The Verrines)
- (69 BC) Pro Tullio (On behalf of Tullius)
- (69 BC) Pro Fonteio (On behalf of Marcus Fonteius)
- (69 BC) Pro Caecina (On behalf of Aulus Caecina)
- (66 BC) Pro Cluentio (On behalf of Aulus Cluentius)
- (63 BC) Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo (On behalf of Gaius Rabirius on a Charge of Treason)
- (63 BC) Pro Murena (On behalf of Lucius Licinius Murena)
- (62 BC) Pro Sulla (On behalf of Publius Cornelius Sulla)
- (62 BC) Pro Archia Poeta (On behalf of the poet Aulus Licinius Archias)
- (59 BC) Pro Flacco (On behalf of Lucius Valerius Flaccus)
- (56 BC) Pro Sestio (On behalf of Sestius)
- (56 BC) In Vatinium (Against Publius Vatinius at the trial of Sestius)
- (56 BC) Pro Caelio (On behalf of Marcus Caelius Rufus): English translation
- (56 BC) Pro Balbo (On behalf of Cornelius Balbus)
- (54 BC) Pro Plancio (On behalf of Plancius)
- (54 BC) Pro Rabirio Postumo (On behalf of Gaius Rabirius Postumus)
Early career (before exile)