Cicero was a Roman lawyer, orator, statesman and political philosopher. He was a champion of Republican government in the last days of the Roman Republic and was assassinated on the orders of Mark Anthony. Cicero wrote extensively on many subjects but is best known for his writings and speeches which include influential expositions of liberty, republican government and justice. His Latin texts had a very significant influence on later philosophers such as St Augustine, Desiderius Erasmus, and John Locke. Cicero is considered the pre-eminent Master of Latin prose – writing with a unique freedom, clarity and directness. He is said to have rescued philosophy from the philosophers and brought it to the public/political realm. His most influential work is the concept of natural rights.
“Law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature.”
Cicero, De Re Publica, 3.32
Marcus Tullius Cicero was born 106 BC to a wealthy family in Arpinum, Latium, [modern day Italy.] He was well educated in both Latin and Greek and undertook military training, but his greater interest was in training to be a lawyer. In 80 BC, he took a controversial case – the defence of Sextus Roscius who had been unjustly accused of fatricide. The difficulty was that the charges were made by those close to the powerful Roman statesman Sulla (who was briefly dictator of the Roman Republic 82-81 BC) Cicero’s defence placed him in opposition to these powerful interests. However, his skill in oratory enabled him to free the falsely accused man. The trial gained him a prominent reputation. Cicero’s skill as an orator and lawyer were based on his ability to rouse different emotions from righteous anger to laughter amongst the jury. He also avoided the excess of florid oratorary and got direct to the heart of the case.
With a rising reputation as lawyer and orator, Cicero then made an entrance into Roman politics and became a praetor or judicial officer. In Roman times it was rare to rise to prominence due to skill as a lawyer rather than military capacity. Public speaking was highly prised in Roman times as it was the main means of communication. Cicero took it seriously taking exercises to improve the strength of his lungs and voice. In the Senate, Cicero became allied with Pompey and he spoke against the leading Optimates – a conservative faction in the Roman senate who sought to uphold the interests and wealth of the aristocracy and oligarchy.
In 63 BC at the age of 43, he was elected consul. It was a tumultuous time with cracks appearing in the Roman Republic and threats to individual liberty. During his year of consul, there was a conspiracy aimed at killing Cicero and overthrowing the Republic. It was led by Lucius Sergius Catilina. However, Cicero came to discover the plot and Catilina and his four conspirators were unmasked. Cicero castigated the plotters in his speeches and the issue was brought to the Senate. Cicero agreed to have the plotters executed – even though Julius Caesar had spoken against the death penalty and for life imprisonment. The decision to execute Roman citizens without trial was considered a dangerous move. However, at the time, the decision to execute the plotters and save the Republic united all classes of Romans and Cicero became very popular. A feature of Cicero’s politics was that he was neither an aristocrat or plebian, but sought to unite the different classes in a Concordia ordinum, or “concord between the classes.”
However, within a few years, political changes swung against Cicero. Julius Caesar formed an alliance with Crassus and Pompey in the First Triumvirate as they sought to bypass the Senate. Cicero was invited to also be part of the Triumvirate, but he declined – fearing it was unconstitutional and against the Republican ideal.
In 58 BC Cicero was forced to flee Rome after Clodius and his other enemies conspired against him. However, after a while, Pompey was able to recall his old ally to Rome. Back in Rome, he was influenced by Pompey to finally accept the Triumvirate, but Cicero remained conflicted between the reality of the current political situation and his Republican principles. Because they saved his life and brought him back from exile, Cicero remained indebted to the Triumvirate and had to take dubious defence cases on behalf of them. In this period, he mostly retired from public life and concentrated on writing – this included his major works, such as On the Orator (55BC) De Republica (52; On the Republic) and began the De legibus (52; On Laws).
“Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man.” Cicero, De Officiis, 1.13.
In 51 BC he was given the governship of Cilcia in the south of Italy. Cicero was reluctant to take the job as he saw it as a partial exile from Rome. However, he proved an excellent governor – ruling with integrity, honesty and probity. He ran a frugal houshold, and unlike previous occupants, was not profligate. He sought to return property to those who lost it to previous embezlement schemes. His careful and honest governance enabled a lower tax burden on local inhabitants and he was widely admired.
In 49 BC Julius Caesar returned to Rome, triumphant against the Gauls. On crossing the Rubicon, Caesar sought to defeat Pompey and gain sole power over Rome. Cicero spoke to Caesar had tried to persuade him not to continue the war against Pompey. Cicero sought to avoid civil conflict and only justified war for the self-defence of a state.
“A war is never undertaken by the ideal State, except in defense of its honor or its safety.”
Caesar listened respectfully but had no intention of paying heed. By 45 Caesar had emerged triumphant and declared himself dictator, effectively ending the Roman Republic. Cicero disproved Caesar’s dictatorship, but both men came to an accommodation with Caesar pardoning Cicero.
In 44BC on the Ides of March senators, led by Brutus, assassinated Caesar on the steps of the Roman senate. Cicero was unaware of the plot, but was assumed to be sympathetic due to his republican sympathies. In the aftermath of the assassination, Cicero played a crucial role in mediating between different sides and became the leading spokesperson for the Senate. He disliked Mark Anthony and his plot to take revenge on the murderers. He also defended in part the legacy of Caesar so that not all his reforms would be lost.
However, in the ensuing power struggle, Mark Anthony, allied with Octavian rose in prominence. Mark Anthony was brutal in turning on any enemy, and a proscribed list included Cicero (despite Octavian arguing against it). Cicero was still popular amongst many in Rome, but he was chased out of Rome to his villa in Formiae. Eventually, on 7 December 43 BC, Mark Anthony’s soldiers arrived, and Cicero was betrayed by one of his freed servants. Cicero had hoped to flee to Macedonia, but once captured and surrounded Cicero did not resist but is said to have held out his neck to make it easier for the killers to do their job. His last words were said to be:
“There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.”
His throat was cut and then beheaded, and his hands cut off and displayed on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum.
The works of Cicero
Cicero is widely regarded as the Master of Latin prose. His works became so widely spread that the teaching of Latin is closely related to the writings of Cicero. He wrote extensively on philosophy, though he saw philosophy as subordinate to politics. Part of his objective was to try and summarise the great philosophy of the classical age. He admired the Stoics and Socrates in particular.
Cicero wrote favourably of human reason.
“what is there, I will not say in man, but in the whole of heaven and earth, more divine than reason?” Cicero, De Legibus, 1.22
The later rediscovery of Cicero had an important influence on the Renaissance and Enlightenment period, where reason rather than superstition rose in importance. For many medieval philosophers, the writings of Cicero gave a classical support to the new movement of reason and liberty. He wrote frequently of the maxim of liberty.
“leaving people alone, as long as they do not harm others”
In developing his theory of the social contract, John Locke made use of Cicero’s own statement: “salus populi suprema lex,” or “let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law,”
Amongst his most important writings, Cicero wrote in favour of liberty and Republican government. His philosophic writings give thought to the idea that all men are created equal.
“[T]hus however one defines man, the same definition applies to us all. This is sufficient proof that there is no essential difference within mankind. Cicero, De Legibus, 1.30.
When drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson paid tribute to the writings of Cicero for this early exposition of liberty and protection against tyrants. John Adams another Founding Father of the US, said of Cicero:
“As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”
Critics of Cicero such as the Marxist, Frederich Engels, claims that in political terms, Cicero was often insincere in his belief in equality and democracy – often opposing policies which would have benefitted the poor.
Religion of Cicero
Cicero did not write extensively on his own religious beliefs. He was sceptical of aspects of religious superstition but he valued the presence of religion and worship of the gods for the promotion of more virtuous living by other citizens.
And whilst Cicero was sceptical of established religion, he did talk of a belief in a universal harmony.
“I say, then, that the universe and all its parts both received their first order from divine providence, and are at all times administered by it.” Cicero, De Natura Deorum, 2.30
St. Augustine praised Cicero’s Hortensius for being a key factor in his turning away from a sinful life. Importantly, Cicero remarks that people have a duty to maintain the rights and doctrines of the established religion, a precursor to religious tolerance.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Cicero”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net, Published: 1 August 2019.
Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome
Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome at Amazon
Cicero Selected Works
Cicero Selected Works at Amazon
Quotes of Cicero
“Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”
“As for me, I cease not to advocate peace. It may be on unjust terms, but even so it is more expedient than the justest of civil wars.”
– Epistulae ad Atticum (Letters to Atticus) Book VII, Letter 14, section 3;
“That which is most excellent, and is most to be desired by all happy, honest and healthy-minded men, is dignified leisure.”
– Pro Publio Sestio; Chapter XLV
“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked. It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it.”
– De Re Publica [Of The Republic], Book III Section 22
“The beginnings of all things are small.”
– De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum Book V, Chapter 58
“For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.”
De Legibus (On the Laws) Book I, section 42; Translation by C.D. Yonge)
“There is nothing so absurd that it has not been said by some philosopher.”
– On Divination (44 BC)
“We are not born for ourselves alone; a part of us is claimed by our nation, another part by our friends.”
– De Officiis – On Duties (44 BC) Book I, section 22
“But of all motives, none is better adapted to secure influence and hold it fast than love; nothing is more foreign to that end than fear. “
On Duties Book II, section 7 (44 BC)
“We think a happy life consists in tranquility of mind.”
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