Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), Roman statesman, orator, and author, who was one of the most active politicians and scholars of his time. He was born in the town of Arpinum in the Italian countryside on June 3, 106 b. c. His family was of equestrian rank. This denoted wealth and standing in Arpinum, but the equestrian rank was at a social level below that of the Roman senatorial class. Arpinum was also the birthplace of the general Marius, who was consul in Rome seven times. Marius, who was at the height of his prestige during Cicero's formative years, may have been an inspiration to Cicero's family, who were related to the Marii. Sometimes in the early 90's b. c., Cicero's father moved his family to Rome, which offered education, opportunity, and the possibility of a political career.
Young Cicero was an avid and tireless student, received the best education that money or influence could obtain. The gentle Greek poet Archias inspired him with a love of literature and learning. Cicero also observed and emulated Rome's finest orators, Lucius Licinius Crassus and Marcus Antonius. Even in those early years he practiced and polished his oratorical delivery. He received training in civil law from the jurist Quintus Mucius Scaevola (the Pontifex Maximus). His philosophic training was eclectic and thorough: he was exposed to Diodotus the Stoic, Phaedrus the Epicurean, and Philo of the Platonic Academy. Those school years also brought him into contact with Titus Pomponius Atticus, a fellow student who became a lifelong, intimate friend.
The decade of the 80's was a difficult one in which to mature. The violent struggle for supremacy between the factions of Marius and Sulla dominated the political scene. Cicero's family connections were with Marius, but several of Cicero's friends and contacts in Rome were associated with Sulla. Victims on both sides aroused his sympathy: the Marians slew his teacher Scaevola; the Sullans executed his relative Marius Gratidianus. Cicero sought to be neutral, but when that proved impossible he worked on the side of Sulla, although he did not take up arms.
Sulla's victory in 82 brought dictatorship, but it also brought stability and order. The courts were restored and reorganized after a decade of chaos. For Cicero that meant the resumption of a budding oratorical career. In 80 he appeared for the first time in a criminal case, the murder trial of Sextus Roscius. Cicero's speech for Roscius was primarily an attack on Chrysogonus, an ex-slave of Sulla who was abusing his influence, bypassing due process, and enriching himself at the expense of his enemies. The speech was a masterpiece. Chrysogonus was crushed, Sulla washed his hands of his ex-servant, and the freedom of the courts seemed assured.
In 79, Cicero went abroad for reasons of health and also in order to further his education. He studied in Athens with the renowned philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon and in Rhodes with Molo, the foremost professor of rhetoric. By 76 B.C., at the age of 30, his formal education was complete.
Cicero was prepared to embark on a political career. His oratorical talents and his connections helped, as did his marriage to Terentia, a woman of some means who brought with her a substantial dowry. In 75, Cicero was elected to the quaestorship, the lowest office in the hierarchy of magistrates. This position gave him automatic access to the Roman Senate. The tenure of his office was served in Sicily, where he impressed the inhabitants with his generosity, integrity, and learning. Those qualities stood out all the more sharply by contrast with those of Gaius Verres, a later governor of Sicily who ruthlessly exploited the populace and the island. When the Sicilians instituted legal proceedings against Verres in Rome, they naturally applied to Cicero to represent them in court. Cicero's brilliant prosecution of Verres in 70 unquestionably established his reputation as Rome's finest orator. Verres fled into exile. Cicero had outmaneuvered the defense counsel, Hortensius, previously regarded as the leader of the Roman bar. This victory was a great stimulus to Cicero's career. He advanced up the magisterial ladder, reaching the aedileship in 69 and the praetorship in 66.
Cicero was now nearing the summit of political ambition, the consulship. But that office was jealously guarded by the old nobility. It was rare indeed for a man of equestrian origin to reach it. Cicero needed powerful assistance. To obtain this, he developed closer ties with Pompey the Great, with whom he had served in the military in 89. During Cicero's term as praetor in 66, a political contest emerged over the appointment of Pompey to a major command in the war against Mithridates VI, king of Pontus. Cicero delivered a compelling speech in Pompey's behalf and overcame the opposition of men like Hortensius and Catulus. At the same time Cicero was serving his own interests and those of his class, the equites, whose financial investments in the East were seriously threatened by Mithridates. Therefore, as a candidate for the consulship in 63, Cicero could count on a wide following. Men from the Italian aristocracy outside Rome considered him one of their own. The business classes, headed by Cicero's wealthy friend Atticus, showed their gratitude. As an advocate of Pompey, Cicero took advantage of the generals reflected glory. And he campaigned tirelessly. Finally, he spread reports that his opponents, Catiline and Gaius Antonius, were planning violence. Cicero was swept in at the head of the polls.
As so often happens to the "new man" who reaches positions normally closed to his class, Cicero, once in office, grew more conservative and became a staunch defender of the status quo. His goal was a concordia ordinum, an alliance of the senatorial class and the wealthy equites as the state's most responsible and experienced leaders. Beyond this he advocated a consensus omnium bonorum, a coalition of the upper classes in Rome and throughout Italy to maintain stability and sound government. When an agrarian bill to purchase land and distribute it to the needy was presented early in his consulship, Cicero delivered a series of denunciatory speeches that crushed the effort. Its defeat must have driven many men who were in debt or without property to seek desperate measures. Catiline, beaten once more in the elections for the consulship of 62, took advantage of this growing discontent and organized a conspiracy, which included sabotage in Rome and armed insurrection in Etruria. Cicero's network of agents kept him informed of the plot and enabled him to thwart an attempt on his life. He denounced Catiline to the people and to the Senate and received full powers to deal with him summarily. Nevertheless, Cicero hesitated. According to rumors, Catiline was secretly backed by Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus, two of Rome's most powerful men. Cicero himself had many jealous rivals in the aristocracy, who refused for a long time to believe his stories about Catiline. It was only after Catiline had openly joined his armed compatriots in Etruria, and after conclusive evidence had emerged about his plans, that Cicero could arrest the leaders of the conspiracy in Rome. The Senate debated their fate in December 63, Caesar arguing for imprisonment, Cato for execution. When Gate's speech won the day, Cicero as consul swiftly carried out the execution. The conspiracy collapsed: Catiline and his remaining followers were defeated and slain on the battlefield early in 62.
Cicero regarded his actions here as the greatest of his triumphs. He had saved the state and had molded the coalition of senators and equites that he had long contemplated- with himself at its head.
Exile and Return to Rome
But Cicero's expectations turned out to be an illusion. He was soon to come under sharp attack by politicians who sought popularity by accusing him of executing Roman citizens without trial. Ponipey returned from the Eastern wars late in 62 and was cool to Cicero, refusing to praise him for his actions against Catiline. The alliance between Senate and equites broke down when Cato attacked the business classes for defaulting on a tax contract. Instead of winning Pompey over to his coalition, Cicero saw the general, who wished to secure land allotments for his veterans and to thwart the conservatives in the Senate, draw closer to Caesar and Crassus in 60 and 59. Worse yet, criticism of Cicero for his execution of the conspirators was growing. In 58 the demagogic tribune Publius Clodius presented a broad popular program, turned opinion decidedly against Cicero, and with the aid of armed bands drove the orator into exile. Cicero spent the next 15 months abroad, much of the time in Thessalonica. This was the grimmest period of his life. His letters are filled with spite, lamentations, and despair. In Rome, however, the situation was changing. Clodius had abused his power and turned his fire on Pompey. The general gathered armed bands of his own, checked Clodius, and effected the recall of Cicero in August 57.
Cicero was escorted home with wild enthusiasm. It was a great personal triumph. He delivered some of his most vitriolic speeches against Clodius and other enemies in the months after his return. Cicero had high hopes of a revival of his influence, but political realities dictated otherwise. His efforts to detach Pompey from Caesar and Crassus (the alliance of the three is known as the First Triumvirate) and win him for the establishment backfired. The triumvirs renewed their alliance in 56 and cowed their opposition into helplessness. Cicero lost all independence of action. He had to deliver a speech supporting Caesar's command in Gaul in 56 and other speeches defending his own former enemies. Cicero largely withdrew from politics and spent most of his time in study and writing. Some of his most important philosophical and rhetorical works were produced between 55 and 51.
In 51, Cicero was called out of his semi-retirement to serve as governor of Cilicia in Asia Minor. He accepted most reluctantly, for he hated to leave Rome, the center of political and intellectual life. Nonetheless, he carried out his duties scrupulously, preserving the province from outside attack, reconciling the interests of provincials and tax collectors, and producing a surplus for the treasury.
Shortly after Cicero's return to Rome late in 50, civil war erupted between Caesar and Pompey. Cicero was thrust into a tortuous dilemma. He had nothing but contempt for Caesar's cause, which represented revolution and chaos, but several of his friends, as well as his son-in-law, were in Caesar's camp. Many of the old nobility were with Pompey. Although Cicero's sympathies were with the Pompeian cause, he feared that Pompey himself would bring devastation and autocracy. For months the orator wavered; finally he joined Pompey in Greece in June 49. But his activities there were limited, and most of Pompey's generals profoundly distrusted him. After Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus in 48, Cicero sadly returned home, assured of Caesar's clemency.
The years 47 to 44 were bitter ones for Cicero. Little political life remained under Caesar's dictatorship. Cicero delivered only three speeches, all in praise of Caesar. But his private correspondence shows his distaste for the regime and reveals his inner isolation. These were also the most painful years of his personal life. He divorced his wife of 30 years; he became estranged from his brother; and he lost his daughter, to whom he had always been devoted. As usual, his only solace was in intellectual pursuits. He immersed himself in the writing of philosophical and oratorical treatises.
Cicero had no hand in the assassination of Caesar in 44, but he rejoiced in the deed. He collaborated afterward with Caesar's slayers Brutus and Cassius in order to restore the Republic. While the tyrannicides were in the East, Cicero worked assiduously in their behalf. This involved him in conflict with Mark Antony, who headed the Caesarian faction. In late 44 and early 43, Cicero recovered his old fervor and exercised more influence than ever. He delivered 14 blistering speeches, the Philippics, against Antony. These were among his most powerful orations, and with them he won the backing of much of the Senate. But when Antony allied himself with Octavian, Caesar's adopted son whom Cicero had hoped to play off against Antony, the orator's efforts proved in vain. A proscription list was drawn up; Cicero's name was on it. Antony's henchmen hunted him down and murdered him at Formiae on Dec. 7, 43. The vindictive Antony then ordered Cicero's head and hands cut off and had them exposed on the rostra in the Forum.
Although Cicero experienced frustrations and defeats in his political career, his literary production was prodigious, completely dwarfing in volume that of any other Latin writer. The range and variety of his writings are extraordinary. Oratory, of course, was his principal occupation. Of. his speeches 58 survive. They include orations in both civil and criminal cases, speeches to the Senate, and harangues to the people. They range from the most bitter invective, as in the speeches against Catiline, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, and Antony, to the warmest eulogies, as in the speeches for Pompey and Archias. There are important political speeches as well as intricate legal discussions. The mastery of all forms, the ease in handling the most difficult cases, and the subtlety and humor combined with compelling power make Cicero without question the foremost Roman orator.
Cicero's rhetorical works vary in quality. Two, however, stand out. Brutus is an invaluable history of Roman oratory, and De Oratore is a worthy effort to lift oratory from academic pedantry to the level of genuine humanism. Works of political theory also occupied Cicero's attention. The De Republica and De Legibus, an intellectualiz-ing of Roman political and constitutional ideals, essentially are adaptations of Platonic theory to the Roman experience. They were the vehicles for his firm belief in the rule of law and the guidance of an enlightened governing class. Cicero's philosophical tracts are largely paraphrases of Greek models, primarily Stoic and Academic. Though lacking originality, they possess great significance, for it was Cicero alone who was responsible for creating a philosophical literature in Latin. His works have survived to exercise a profound influence on succeeding centuries, whereas the works of his Greek predecessors have perished for the most part. His talent in expression and style brought Latin prose to a height not achieved before or since.
Cicero's poetry has not endured. Ancient critics found it wanting. He seems to have been more a versifier than an inspired artist. Yet Plutarch reports that Cicero in his younger days was regarded as Rome's finest poet.
In the midst of an incredibly full political and scholarly life, Cicero found time also to engage in a prolific correspondence. Of his letters to Atticus 16 books are preserved, as are 16 books of letters to other friends, 3 books to his brother Quintus, and 2 books to Brutus, a total of about 925 letters from Cicero and another 125 written to him. The scope and variety of subjects touched on are limitless. The letters are without parallel in classical literature. Since they were not meant for publication, they often reveal Cicero in intimate and unguarded moments. As a consequence there is no one else in antiquity of whom we know so much: his fears, his hopes, his innermost thoughts and feelings. His other works show Cicero the politician, the author, the thinker. His letters show Cicero the man.
Cicero has always been among the most controversial figures in history. Criticism of him has concentrated on his vacillation, his indecision, his insincerity, and his excessive self-laudation. Much of the criticism is misguided. Cicero's egotistic expressions were tempered by an ability also to laugh at himself on occasion. His shifts of political stance usually reflected changes in the political scene of the late republic. He was flexible in his allegiances and attitudes, but he did not lack ideals. A belief in constitutional government and the rule of law, together with an abhorrence of violence and civil war, remained constant convictions throughout his life.