Marcus Tullius Cicero was a famed orator, statesmen, philosopher, lawyer, and politician. He was also arguably the greatest writer and orator that Rome ever produced. It is Cicero who first demonstrated that eloquence itself conveys a form of power over men. Unfortunately, he was also born at a time that saw Rome produce some of the greatest—and most famous—men of any age. Cicero’s quest to climb the cursus honorum would bring him into competition with men like Marcus Crassus, Cato, Pompey, and Caesar. For all this, however, Cicero was destined to be seen as a champion of the Republic and as one of the best, if flawed, men of his age. Perhaps no other man of the Late Republican era was so marked by inconsistencies and policy shifts. Cicero was guided by a sense of practical politics, and he was wont to blow with the political winds of the moment. In an age where men changed their politics purely for personal gain, however, it can be argued that, although self-interest was never far away, Cicero sought to guide events so that the Republic would best survive the turbulent times.
Cicero was born in Arpinum on January 3rd, 106 BCE. He was a true homo novus, as he lacked any significant senatorial connections, but he was distantly related to one of the greatest Romans of his age: Gaius Marius. Unfortunately, Marius’ death during the Civil War with Sulla not only rendered this connection moot, it likely even hurt his political standing in the aftermath of Sulla’s rise to ultimate power. This may perhaps explain Cicero’s distaste for being compared with the more famous Marius.
Plutarch provides us with one interesting tidbit of information about Cicero. The name “Cicero” is derived from cicer, the Latin word for chickpea. According to Plutarch, the name was originally given to an ancestor of Cicero’s because of a large cleft on the tip of his nose that resembled a chickpea. Although Cicero was often pressed to change his name early in his career, he refused, instead wearing the name as a badge of honor.
In his early life Cicero was an apt student, with such a prodigious capacity for learning that he attracted attention from all over Rome. Eventually, his fame afforded him the opportunity to study law under the famous Quintus Mucius Scaevola, one of the foremost orators and lawyers of his generation. A prolific writer, it is for his more serious works that Cicero is well regarded. His frequent attempts at poetry were generally derided by his peers.
Rise to Prominence
In 90 BCE Cicero managed a position on the staffs of Gnaeus Pompieus Strabo and Sulla during the Social War. Cicero was a poor soldier and served primarily in an administrative capacity. As quickly as possible, the young Cicero set aside the rigors of military life to return to his books and philosophy. He had began to build a fledgling legal practice when, in 80 BCE, he undertook the successful defense of Sextus Roscius, accused of parricide as part of Sulla’s proscriptions. Roscius’s father had been murdered and his estates should have passed onto his son. As a parricide, however, Roscius had been placed upon the proscription list by Chrysogonus, a favorite of Sulla. Parricide was one of the most heinous of crimes in Rome, and in undertaking it Cicero displayed enormous courage as he faced both social pressure and potential danger in standing in opposition to Chrysogonus.
Cicero’s arguments were impressive—and risky. He first defended Roscius and asserted that he was innocent of the crime. He then proceeded to attempt to prove that others were more likely to have committed the crime (including a relative of the defendant). Finally, and most perilously, Cicero accused Chrysogonus of arranging the whole murder in order to purchase his estate at a cutthroat price. This case established Cicero both as a lawyer and a politician.
Unfortunately, it also brought him into indirect conflict with the Dictator Sulla and Cicero, always of rather delicate disposition, developed a sudden attack of laryngitis. Cicero traveled to Greece and Rhodes during his recovery, and it was there he met such intellectual magnates as the staunchly Republican Publius Rutilius Rufus and the famed philosopher Posidonius, who saw Rome’s Republic as an ideal political structure in an imperfect world. More significantly, he studied under the rhetorician Molon of Rhodes, who taught Cicero a form of oratory that was less intense and thus less strenuous on the throat. It was this more refined form that would provide Cicero with the foundation for his unique style in the future.
After Sulla’s death in 78 BCE, Cicero returned to Rome and then served as a quaestor in Sicily in 75 BCE. He continued to build his law practice until 70 BCE, when he undertook the successful prosecution of Gaius Verres, who was represented by the famed Hortensius, a former consul and considered to be Rome’s greatest attorney. This victory established Cicero as the “attorney of choice” in Rome, and it proved to be the launching pad for his turbulent political career.
Although a renowned lawyer, Cicero suffered from a lack of famous ancestry. No Tullius had ever been elected to the consulate, and Cicero’s ancestry was therefore tainted by a lack of fame and fortune. Worse, the Republic had become more conservative and patrician-oriented under Sulla, and the last homo novus to have come to power had been Gaius Marius. Although Sulla’s death had seen a slow move in the direction of more constitutional government, many of Sulla’s “reforms” were clung to by the patricians and Senators.
Cicero himself was in an unfavorable position politically. He was a member of the equestrian class and a novus homo, but he was also a strict constitutionalist, and thus refused to side with Populares faction. Unable to find firm support among the Optimates and unwilling to join the Populares, Cicero walked a narrow line where he attempted to garner the support of the people and simultaneously win the confidence of the Optimates. In the end, he was never able to win the people away from Populares such as Caesar, nor did the Optimates faction ever fully accept the homo novus. This left Cicero with the unpalatable (to his mind) choice of seeking out alliances with men such as Pompey and Octavian.
Consul of Rome
Cicero achieved the penultimate moment in his career in 63 BCE, when he was elected Consul. The patrician Lucius Sergius Catilina had been defeated during this election and was alleged to have attempted a plot to overthrow the Republic. In a whirlwind of four magnificent speeches, Cicero secured a senatus consultum de re publica defendenda (a form of martial law also referred to as the senatus consultum ultimum) and drove Catiline and his supporters from the city.
While Cataline fled the city, he left behind supporters to initiate the conspiracy. Meanwhile, Cataline himself set out to recruit an army from amongst Sulla’s veterans in Etruria. Cicero, however, captured a group of Cataline’s deputies that were seeking support from the Gallic Allogroges delegation. The deputies were forced to confess all before the entire Senate, and the legions were sent forth to defeat the growing army in Etruria. With the conspiracy crushed, the Senate began to deliberate on the appropriate punishment to deliver to the conspirators. Traditionally, Romans were not put to death in such circumstances (instead house arrest or exile was imposed), and certainly not without a formal trial. With Cicero’s urging, however, most in the Senate were leaning towards utilizing the declaration of martial law to execute the death sentence, until Julius Caesar rose to speak out against the penalty and the disturbing precedent it would set. As the Senate wavered, Cato spoke on behalf of executing the conspirators and the Senate confirmed the death penalty.
The prisoners were taken to the Tullianum, the Roman prison, where they were strangled one by one. Following the executions, Cicero declared “Vixerunt” (they have lived), the archaic formula intended to ward off ill fortune in such circumstances. The conspiracy, and the conspirators, was ended.
Cicero received the honorific Pater Patriae (Father of his Country) for his actions, and was overly fond of reminding all around him of his part in suppressing the Catiline Conspiracy for the remainder of his life. He would also spend the rest of his life in fear of trial or exile for having put Roman citizens to death without a trial.
In 58 BCE, the Populares tribune Publius Clodius Pulcher introduced a law requiring the exile of any man who had put Roman citizens to death without a trial. Cicero attempted to defend his actions by arguing that the senatus consutum ultimum guaranteed him immunity against the charge, eventually seeking the support of the people directly. Clodius’ supporters and street toughs prevented Cicero from appearing directly, however, and Cicero began to support another Populares, Milo, against Clodius. Fearful for his life, Cicero left Italy for a year, but continued to send speeches to Rome defending himself. For the rest of his life, Cicero bitterly maintained that the Senate, jealous of the homo novus, deliberately chose to not save him from exile.
Cicero returned triumphantly from exile to a cheering crowd. Clodius, however, would remain a thorn in his side even after death. In 55 BCE, Milo was accused of murdering Clodius on the Via Appia. Cicero attempted to defend Milo, and his speech, the Pro Milone, is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Unfortunately, Milo having freed the slaves that had executed Clodius proved to be too much to overcome, and Milo was convicted and sent into exile in Massilia.
As a titanic confrontation began to loom between the Optimates (and their champion; Pompey) and Julius Caesar, Cicero continued his struggle to remain the voice of moderation between the factions. Caesar and Cicero corresponded desperately, but Cicero remained firmly in the Pompeian camp. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, Cicero fled Rome, but remained in Italy. Caesar continuously wrote Cicero, hoping to woo the popular and respected former consul to his camp, but Cicero refused to yield. By 48 BCE, Cicero had joined the Pompeians at Pharsalus, where he quarreled with several of the more prominent Pompeian commanders over their eagerness to shed Roman blood. In Cicero’s opinion, the Pompeians had lost all sense of perspective in their lust to destroy Caesar. After Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus, Cicero accepted Caesar’s magnanimity and returned to Rome.
Under Caesar’s rule, Cicero turned inward, focusing his efforts on writing for posterity. As he explained to Varro in a letter in 46 BCE, “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.” The next year, as his beloved Republic lay postrate, Cicero’s daughter Tullia, the joy of his life, died. Already politically crippled, He was never able to fully recover from her death. Cicero left Rome, withdrew from public life, from his social responsibilities, and even from managing his own financial affairs. Retiring to his gardens in Asturia, Cicero spent three months grieving for his lost daughter, even considering building a massive shrine to her life as a means to express his grief. Such an action for a Roman matron, however great, was all but unprecedented, and his friend Atticus eventually managed to talk Cicero out of it.
The Ides of March and Mark Antony
When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE by the Liberatores, Cicero was taken completely by surprise. He later expressed his dismay at not having been involved, but in the aftermath of Caesar’s death, Cicero was the greatest Roman of his generation remaining. Pompey was gone, as was Cato, Julius Caesar, and Crassus. Cicero’s popularity was never greater than in the time following Caesar’s assassination, and his dreams of a restored Republic were never greater than in the chaos that followed.
Cicero and Mark Antony, Caesar’s chief subordinate, became the leaders of the new Rome, and Cicero quickly moved to establish a measure of peace between the Caesarians and the Liberatores. He prevented the Senate from outlawing Caesar in exchange for an amnesty for the assassins, thus preventing an imminent clash of arms between the factions. His actions undercut Antony who, to Cicero’s dismay, was plotting to murder Caesar’s assassins. While the two men had never been on friendly terms, Antony’s actions as consul and the executor of Caesar’s will quickly brought them further into opposition. Cicero feared that Antony was preparing to seize Caesar’s mantle and assume his position, and the arrival of Octavian, Caesar’s legal heir and adopted son, later that year seemed a gift from the gods. Cicero determined to play the young man against Antony, thereby eliminating the greater threat (Antony, to his mind) and leaving him with the weak, easily controlled Octavian to deal with. Cicero was never more incorrect, but in September he began attacking Antony in a series of speeches called the Philippics. Meanwhile, he lauded praise upon Octavian and rallied the Senate in opposition to Antony. When Antony refused to lift his siege against the governer of Cisalpine Gaul, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, he finally managed to have Antony declared an enemy of the state. Cicero was finally sure that his efforts to preserve the Republic had come to fruition.
The Death of Cicero
Cicero’s plans quickly fell apart, however, after Antony and Octavian reconciled and formed an alliance with Lepidus (the Second Triumvirate). The three men, in control of virtually all the troops in the vicinity of Rome, had the Senate formally declare the Triumvirate’s existence and grant each of them consular imperium for five years. The Triumvirate then began proscribing their enemies and rivals. Cicero and his younger brother Quintus Tullius Cicero, a one-time legate to Caesar, along with all their supporters, were numbered among the enemies of the state. According to some sources Octavian resisted Antony for two days over having Cicero’s name added to the list, but if so, he eventually acquiesced. Cicero was now a man with no rights, who could be murdered with the full approval and authority of the state.
Although pursued relentlessly, Cicero was still a popular figure and many refused to report his whereabouts to his pursuers. He was finally run to ground at one of his many villas on December 7, 43 BCE, and is said to have told his executioners, “there is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.” He was decapitated and his hands removed and, in a testament to the level of antipathy between Antony and Cicero, his hands and head were placed on display on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum. While this was a tradition of Marius and Sulla, Cicero was the only one of the enemies of the Triumvirate to be so displayed. Cassius Dio tells us that Fulvia, the wife of Antony, seized Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue, and stabbed it with her hairpin. A final testament, perhaps, at the power of Cicero’s eloquence.
Perhaps no more fitting testament to Cicero’s life exists than that given by Octavian in his later life. Now the Divine Augustus, the most powerful man in the world came upon one of his grandsons reading a book by the old master. The young boy, fearing his grandfather’s anger, attempted to conceal the book, but Augustus instead took the book, read part of it, and then handed it back saying, “He was a learned man, dear child, a learned man who loved his country.”