Cicero: The Man and his Works

Cicero's Early Life

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BC at Arpinum, a small hill town some sixty miles south-east of Rome. Cicero always retained the deepest affection for his birthplace. He came of honest, stalwart, loyal country stock.

So that Cicero and his brother Quintus might receive the best education possible, the family moved to Rome. Cicero proved to be an able student. He roused the admiration of his fellow students, who brought their parents along to the school just to see him. (Plutarch, Cicero ii.2)

In 89 BC, when only seventeen years old, Cicero saw military service on the staff of the consul Pompeius Strabo in the war between Rome and her Italian allies.

From 88 to 82 BC he studied assiduously at Rome in preparation for the profession of advocate. His first extant speech in court was the Pro Quinctio, delivered in 81 BC on behalf of Publius Quinctius in a civil case, the matter in dispute being a partnership in a farm.

Cicero's Public Life

Cicero's real debut was made in 80 BC, when he appeared in his first criminal case and successfully defended Sextus Roscius on a charge of parricide. This was a splendid beginning for a young man of twenty-six. Cicero's name was on everyone's lips.

But the strain of pleading had impaired his health. To regain his strength and further his studies and, probably, to protect himself from the dictator Sulla, whose favourite freedman, Chrysogonus, he had criticised in the trial, he spent the next two years abroad in Greece and Asia Minor. He returned to Rome in 77 BC.

In 75 BC Cicero took his first step along the road of public offices (cursus honorum) which was to lead to the consulship: he became quaestor at Lilybaeum, the westernmost city of Sicily. He made himself popular with the Sicilians and became a man of importance in his province.

After his successful prosecution of the rapacious Verres, governor of Sicily from 73 to 70 BC, Cicero's fame as a barrister was equalled only by that of Hortensius, defending counsel in the same case. Verres was charged with serious misgovernment of his province, and Cicero was asked by the Sicilians to undertake the prosecution. Cicero's invective was so overwhelming that Verres fled into exile before the trial ended and was condemned in his absence. Unwilling to waste the hard work he had put into the collection of evidence against Verres, Cicero had the remaining speeches published in pamphlets. When in 1788 the orator Edmund Burke prosecuted Warren Hastings for misgovernment in India, he modelled his attack on Cicero's prosecution of Verres.

Cicero became curule aedile (supervisor of temples, markets, public buildings and games) in 69 BC and praetor in 66 BC.

Cicero's greatest political triumph came in 63 BC, when he became consul. It really was a triumph, because he was the first nouus homo in thirty years to win the consulship, a distinction that made him almost burst with pride.

His election was partly due to the fact that he was opposed by Lucius Sergius Catiline, an impoverished patrician who seemed to regard the consulship as his birthright. After failing to gain election in 66 BC, Catiline had laid a clumsy plot to murder the successful candidates. The plot failed, but Cicero, when standing for election in 64 BC, made capital out of it by playing up the nobles' fears of further mischief by Catiline. Cicero at least could be regarded as a safe choice.

Incidentally, Cicero's warning proved true. When Catiline in the following year again failed to gain election on a shocking platform of nouae tabulae (that is, a cancellation of all debts), he planned to overthrow the state. Cicero unmasked the conspiracy and called on the senatorial and equestrian orders to unite in a concordia ordinum. Catiline's accomplices were promptly executed in Rome, and Catiline himself was slain in battle in Etruria.

The Catiline affair had unfortunate consequences for Cicero. The tribune Clodius secured his exile from Rome in 58 BC on a charge of putting citizens to death without a trial. In 57 BC, thanks to the good offices of Pompey, he was recalled from exile and awarded damages.

In 51 BC Cicero served as proconsul of Cilicia, a district in southern Asia Minor, and governed well. In a letter to his friends Atticus (Ad Atticum IV. ii) he describes his administration with great gusto.

49 BC saw civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Cicero took the side of Pompey. After Caesar's final triumph at Pharsalus in 48 BC, Cicero wisely submitted to the conqueror and was permitted to continue his legal practice.

Cicero was now more popular than ever. People looked at Caesar and saw in him what smacked of the absolute power of the regal period; they looked at Cicero and saw in him the last representative of the true Republic.

After the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC, Cicero clashed violently with Caesar's henchman and would-be successor, Mark Antony. His speeches against Antony, the fourteen famous "Philippics", are charged with the bitterest invective and were to cost Cicero his life.

The term "Philippic" was first used of the speeches by Cicero himself as a joke. (The original Philippics were the speeches delivered in the fourth century BC by the Athenian statesman Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon, who was threatening Athens.) Only the first speech was actually delivered. Cicero found the political climate of Rome unhealthy, and the other speeches were circulated from his country retreat. Michael Grant calls the second Philippic "the most famous and effective of all political pamphlets" (Cicero, Selected Works, p. 101). It is interesting to note that, while Cicero was at work on it, he was also completing his treatise De Amicitia.

Having been proscribed by Antony in 43 BC, Cicero fled in a litter towards the sea, but Antony's assassins soon overtook him. Cicero died bravely. His head and hands, at Antony's bidding, were fastened up over the Rostra in Rome. (It is well to remember that the heads of political victims were often exposed on Temple Bar in London as late as 1773. One could sometimes obtain a close view of the heads by paying a halfpenny for the hire of a telescope.)

Cicero's Private Life

Cicero was an extremely wealthy man. Although advocates were forbidden by law to take any fees or presents for their services, the law was honoured more in the breach than in the observance. In early Rome a client went to his patron for legal aid, which the patron was obliged to give. In theory lawyers of a later age were at the beck and call of all who sought their advice, and most lawyers made this a point of honour. Grateful clients, however, could not be prevented from making generous gifts, and it is interesting to note that Cicero was favoured in the wills of many people who do not seem to have held an important place in his life. Yet in the main his wealth seems honourably acquired.

He owned many houses - about twelve in all - in both city and country. Included in the compensation he received as a result of his exile was a sum of 500,000 sesterces to repair damage done to his villa at Tusculum. Cicero thought the amount not nearly enough.

Cicero's first wife Terentia, whom he married in 77 BC, appears to have been a competent housewife but rather sharp-tongued and disagreeable and a complete stranger to her husband's literary pursuits. Cicero never mentions her in his works, yet we often read of his daughter Tullia, his brother Quintus and his son Marcus. Terentia consulted soothsayers and believed in prodigies, and Cicero was apparently content to let her do so. His letters to her, of which a whole book has come down to us, show every kind of feeling, ranging from intense passion, through courteous regard, to complete indifference. After thirty years of marriage they were divorced.

Cicero then married a very young girl, his ward Publilia. Cicero's confidential secretary Tiro believed, probably unjustly, that Cicero hoped to pay his debts with Publilia's fortune. Divorce came a few months later.

Then a friend Hirtius offered his sister's hand to Cicero, who refused, on the ground that he found it difficult to attend to a wife and philosophy at the same time.

Cicero never loved anyone more deeply than his daughter Tullia. He gave her a taste for those intellectual things which he loved so much and which Terentia apparently did not care for. "While she lived," he wrote to a friend, "I always had a sanctuary to flee to, a haven of rest. I had one whose sweet converse could help me to drop all the burden of my sorrows and anxieties." (Ad Familiares IV. vi, tr. W.G. Williams). When she died, about two years before he did, he was utterly desolate. It was the deepest personal sorrow of his life.

He completely misjudged the tastes and abilities of his son Marcus. Marcus had a soldier's instincts and gained the reputation of being the hardest drinker of his time. Cicero wanted to make him an orator and philosopher. But at least Marcus was a source of consolation in Cicero's last days. When Brutus passed through Athens, Marcus joined him and became one of his most courageous and able lieutenants. Brutus warmly praised the son to the father. Cicero, while rejoicing over this, wrote and dedicated to Marcus the three books of the De Officiis, his last farewell to family and country.

In theory Cicero regarded slavery as a legitimate system, believing that, while a master had certain duties to his slaves, they must, where necessary, be held down by cruelty. In practice, however, he was a very mild master, who was known to weep for his slaves when he had the misfortune to lose them. At the hour of his death they would have died for him had he not prevented them. He had a particularly lively affection for his freedman and secretary Tiro, who gradually became indispensable to his master. Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae VI. iii. 8) asserts that Tiro even helped Cicero in composition, a fact which Cicero's correspondence supports. Though Cicero was always deeply concerned for Tiro's health, the trusted servant, like Terentia, lived to be more than a hundred.

His closest friend was another literary figure, Atticus, whom he first met when they were students together in Athens. The friendship lasted till Cicero's death. From 68 B.C. the two corresponded constantly, the more so since Atticus spent the bulk of his life away from Rome. Atticus cared for Terentia while Cicero was in exile and helped in the circulation of Cicero's writings.

Cicero's Works

  1. Rhetorical works: of these there were seven, which have come down to us more or less complete. Most famous is the De Oratore.

  2. Philosophical works: Cicero in his philosophical writings made no original contributions to philosophical thought. But he wielded enormous influence as a translator and unbiassed interpreter of his authorities, the Greek philosophers, especially the Stoics. (One of his teachers, Diodotus, a blind Stoic, lived in his house.) Cicero wrote on such subjects as the state, the law, good and evil, death, virtue, old age, friendship, the nature of the gods and moral duties.

    Paul MacKendrick writes:

    His motives for philosophizing are very Roman: intellectual curiosity, consolation in adversity, occupation for leisure, desire to popularize, but above all to propagandize, in two ways: first, to prove that Latin is as good a philosophical vehicle as Greek ....; second, to justify the political role of the New Conservatism.
    (The Roman Mind at Work, p. 64)
    St Augustine of Hippo mentions, as a cardinal factor in his conversion, Cicero's Hortensius, a lost dialogue which contained an exhortation to the study of philosophy.

  3. Orations: These total 106, of which fifty-six are extant. They reveal Cicero's great practical talent for presenting a client's case in the best light possible. Gilbert Highet observes:
    The great speakers of Greece and Rome used to prepare an important speech as carefully as an opera star nowadays studies a new role. After writing it out a dozen times, they would deliver it before a few trusted friends, critics, and tutors, repeating it again and again until they knew every syllable and gesture, and yet the whole thing appeared, not a highly elaborate product of art, but a genuine outpouring of real and overwhelming emotion. When Cicero stood up to deliver his first attack on Catiline, he knew everything he was about to say and do - even the gestures of sudden horror and the hesitations - as an experienced actor, just before his cue, has his entry and his exit and all the intervening lines clear in his mind. That is why we still study the speeches of men like Cicero: a single page of them contains the results of more concentrated thought, active experience, intricate psychological knowledge, and training in language than most modern speakers can command in a whole lifetime.
    (The Art of Teaching, pp. 98-99)
  4. Letters: Cicero maintained a close correspondence with his friend Atticus and with a wide circle of literary and political friends and acquaintances. We now have about 800 letters, extending over a period of twenty-six years. They are unsurpassed for the wonderfully clear picture they give us of Cicero himself and his contemporaries. Tiro was responsible for their collection. "One of their pre-eminent charms is a spontaneity hampered by no haunting notion of publication." (J. Wight Duff, The Writers of Rome, p. 44).

  5. Verse: Cicero wrote a great deal of verse, both original and in translation. Though Plutarch tells us that he had the reputation of being the best poet at Rome as well as the best orator (Plutarch, Cicero ii. 4), Cicero's verses are now little studied, so many were the poets of genius who followed him. His importance in the history of Latin verse lies in the fact that he was the main link between Lucretius and Vergil in the development of the hexameter.
Cicero's Influence and Reputation

No Roman author did as much as Cicero to ensure the place of Latin as the medium of cultured communication throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages. And leading writers of the time were more than willing to recognize the fact. Cardinal Pietro Bembo, papal secretary to Leo X, founded a society of literary men whose members took an oath never to use any expression that could not be found in Cicero.

Thus Bembo, in his History of Venice, calls nuns uirgines uestales, cardinals senatores, and the saints diui.

Cicero's philosophical writings added largely to the meagre stock of Latin abstract nouns and in general made the Latin language much more versatile. Consider, for example, his concept and coinage of the word humanitas, the amalgam of human virtues, especially intelligence and kindliness, which enable us to distinguish human beings from animals. Thanks to Cicero, the early Christian apologists, such as Lactantius, Tertullian and Augustine, found an abstract Latin vocabulary admirably suited to their purpose.

His influence penetrates even to our own day, especially in the discussion of scientific and philosophical matters, in which words of Latin origin figure so prominently. MacKendrick writes: "Cicero invented the Western World's philosophical vocabulary." (The Roman Mind at Work, p. 64).

Cicero's political career has been severely criticised by many modern scholars. The very fact, however, that he played a leading role in Roman politics for some twenty years, suggests that the critics have given Cicero far less than his due. A careful reading of the Pro Roscio Amerino reveals that the young Cicero possessed a number of qualities that would be desirable in any politician: courage to criticise the abuse of power in high places, a readiness to champion the underdog, a superb gift for arranging and presenting an argument, and an abiding respect for the wisdom of earlier generations. I would suggest that, as Cicero's political career progressed, these qualities were in no way diminished, but enriched.

Like any good advocate, he often threw moderation aside. His satirical portraits and savage invective won the plaudits of his hearers. J. Wight Duff sums up Cicero the orator in the following words:

Learning in law and literature, knowledge of men, skill in argument, gift of clear statement, telling gesture, control of voice, mastery of the subtle cadences of the Latin language when declaimed, and an infallible instinct for the right rhythm in the structure and at the close of a sentence, all combined to make Cicero the greatest of the orators of Rome.
(The Writers of Rome, p. 40)
M.S. Dimsdale, in A History of Latin Literature, p. 159, describes Cicero's style as "the basis of European prose". And there is no doubt that he influenced, for instance, the Authorised Version of the Bible, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Gibbon, Macaulay and, in modern times, if only indirectly, such men as Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. Below are some extracts from Kennedy's inaugural speech:
United, there is little we cannot do in a host of new co-operative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder ....

If the free society cannot help the many who are poor, it can never save the few who are rich ....

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country will do for you - ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Note the appeal to the emotions, the well-defined rhythm, the cleverly turned phrases, all characteristics of Cicero's oratory.

Consider finally the tribute of the first century Roman historian and literary critic Velleius Paterculus:

citiusque e mundo genus hominum quam Ciceronis nomen cadet.

"The race of men will vanish from the universe sooner than will the name of Cicero."
(Historia Romana II. lxvi. 5, tr. C.G. Cooper)

Cicero delivered the Pro Caelio on behalf of his dissolute, extravagant young friend Marcus Caelius Rufus. Caelius, born c. 88 BC, was a lawyer and heavily involved in politics as well. He faced a number of charges, including conspiring to murder an Egyptian envoy, attempting to poison his former mistress Clodia, who was almost certainly Catullus's ALesbia@, and stealing gold from Clodia. Cicero's defence, which included a devastating attack on Clodia, was a brilliant piece of theatre - and totally successful.
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