106-43 B.C.

Roman orator and politician

Cicero, the greatest of the Roman orators*, was a man of action who made an art of using words as weapons. Cicero believed passionately in the principles of the Roman Republic* and struggled to oppose Julius Caesar and all those who would destroy its noble achievements. A versatile and practical man, Cicero exemplified the best of the Greek intellectual heritage that he so greatly admired and the Roman genius for law and politics.

Career. Born into a wealthy family in an Italian country town, Marcus Tullius Cicero was educated in Rome, Greece, and Rhodes. He studied Latin and Greek literature as well as rhetoric* and philosophy* with Greek masters. An ambitious young man, Cicero began his political career by defending cases in the law courts. Under the Roman system, legal advocates were paid not with money but with favors, and Cicero accumulated a large number of favors owed to him. His growing reputation received an enormous boost in 70 B.C. when he prosecuted Verres, the corrupt governor of Sicily. This case enabled Cicero to give expression to his belief in the essential sovereignty* of the Roman people. It also enhanced his own reputation, furthered his career, and exposed the problems of the Roman Republican government.

* orator public speaker of great skill

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* sovereignty ultimate authority or rule

Following his successful case against Verres, Cicero’s political star rose quickly. In 66 B.C. he was elected praetor* and delivered his first speech to the people. In it, he supported giving an important military command to the general he would admire for most of his life—Pompey. Two years later, his careful political maneuvering and accumulation of powerful friends paid off. He was elected consul*, the highest office in the republic, at the earliest age allowed by law.

Cicero gained even more renown when he delivered a series of orations* unmasking a conspiracy by a rival politician, Catiline, to seize the government. Although hailed as a national hero, Cicero’s political fortune soon changed. His ally Pompey decided to join Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus to form the First Triumvirate*, which took power in 60 B.C. The trio invited Cicero to join them, but he refused. He distrusted Caesar and despised Crassus. As a result of his refusal, the trio failed to protect Cicero from one of his greatest enemies, Publius Clodius. In 58 B.C., Clodius succeeded in having Cicero exiled on the charge that he had put the Catiline conspirators to death without public trials. Cicero’s enemies destroyed his house in Rome, and he was forced to leave Italy for Macedonia.

Recalled to Rome in 57 B.C., Cicero tried to drive a political wedge between Pompey and Caesar but failed to do so. He was forced to swallow his pride and spent several years defending friends of the triumvirs*, a humiliating task that he detested. He was elected augur*, and in 51 B.C. he was sent as proconsul* to govern Cilicia, a province* in Asia Minor. When he returned the following year, Caesar and Pompey had finally broken their alliance and had plunged Rome into civil war.

Cicero had always supported Pompey, and though he had less faith in Pompey as a true republican* at that time, he decided to enlist with the general and his followers in Greece. After the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., at which Caesar defeated Pompey, Cicero received Caesar’s pardon and returned to Italy. He retreated from public life and devoted his energies to writing on oratory* and philosophy.

Although Cicero had not participated in the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C., he rejoiced because it meant an end to Caesar’s dictatorship and hope for the failing republic. Regarded by many Romans as an elder statesman and representative of the republican spirit, Cicero returned to politics and tried to prevent Mark Antony from replacing Caesar. In a series of orations called the Philippics (named for a famous series of speeches of the Greek orator Demosthenes against Philip of Macedonia), Cicero attacked Antony, trying to characterize him as a would-be Eastern king. However, Antony joined forces with Octavian and Lepidus to seize power in a second triumvirate, and the three men proscribed* hundreds of their opponents, including Cicero. The great orator tried to escape from the country he loved so dearly, but he was captured and killed.

* praetor Roman official, just below the consul in rank, in charge of judicial proceedings and of governing overseas provinces

* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year

* oration formal speech or address

* triumvirate ruling body of three

* triumvir one member of a ruling body of three

* augur Roman religious official who read omens and foretold events

* proconsul governor of a Roman province

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* republican favoring or relating to a government in which citizens elect officials to represent them in a citizen assembly

* oratory the art of public speaking

* proscribe to declare someone an outlaw


Perhaps it would have consoled Cicero to know that, even though the Roman Republic passed away, his own words would help to give birth to a new republic. Many of the founders of the United States, particularly John Adams, had enormous respect for the classics that formed such a large part of their formal education. They knew Cicero’s works well, and they regarded him as both a political hero and an oratorical model. In fact, in 1765 Adams—one of the finest speakers of his time—even formed a club whose main purpose was to read and discuss Cicero's orations.

Orations. In Cicero’s time, public eloquence was a highly prized art form, the rules of rhetoric were laid down in detail, and a great speaker could powerfully sway public opinion. An orator was expected to excel in invention (finding arguments), organization, style, memory, and delivery. Like an actor, Cicero animated his speeches through gestures and varied vocal tones. He aimed at appealing to both the intellect and the emotions, and he changed his style to fit his subject and his audience.

Cicero delivered many speeches in the courts of law. Roman courts were held in the open air before a jury that might number 50 or 75 men, or before a panel of more than 100 judges, as well as a large crowd of cheering (or jeering) bystanders. In most cases, Cicero wrote out only the prooemium, or introduction, in advance. He then improvised most of the main body of the speech from his notes. The texts of many of Cicero’s speeches were written down by listeners and published later, so that the versions people read today can only approximate the fiery live performances. Cicero was especially renowned for the rousing perorations, or conclusions of his speeches. He was masterful at appeals for mercy. He once delivered a peroration while holding a baby in his arms.

Cicero’s most famous orations are those against Catiline in the Catilinarian Orations, all of which use a wide array of rhetorical devices to achieve their purposes. In them, Cicero used brilliant character sketches, fierce invective*, pointed examples drawn from Roman history, repetition, and memorable figures of speech. In the first speech against Catiline, for example, he opens with a string of repeated questions directly addressed to Catiline and designed to humiliate him and render him powerless:

How far, then, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience? How long, you madman, will you mock at our vengeance? ... Do you not see that all your plans are discovered? Do you not realize that your conspirators are bound hand and foot by the knowledge that every man here has of you? Which of us do you think is not aware of what you did last night, or the night before, where you were, whom you summoned, what plans you made? What times we live in, what scandals we permit! The Senate knows these things, the consul sees them; yet this man lives.

Other Works. In addition to speeches, Cicero wrote dialogues in imitation of Plato, treatises* on rhetoric, philosophical essays, poetry, and many letters. The dialogue De Oratore sets forth many of his fundamental beliefs about the role of rhetoric in society and his vision of the orator as statesman—a highly cultured person who combines technical skill, strength of character, and wide knowledge of philosophy and literature. De Republica is a dialogue that sets out to demonstrate that Rome is history’s finest example of the best kind of government—a mixture of monarchy*, oligarchy*, and democracy. In the Tusculan Disputations, set in Cicero’s villa at Tusculum, he explores the beliefs and attitudes of Stoicism, to which he was deeply drawn. Cicero was an eclectic philosopher-one who drew on ideas from various schools of philosophy and explored how these ideas could apply to the real world of law and public life.

* invective violent verbal attack

* treatise long, detailed essay

* monarchy nation ruled by a king or queen

* oligarchy rule by a few people

Perhaps the best way to become acquainted with Cicero the individual is to read some of his letters. In particular, the letters collected in Ad familiares (Letters to friends) and the letters to his best friend, Atticus, provide a vivid portrait of Roman political and social life. They range from sharp observations on major political events to casual comments on the matters of everyday life. The letters reveal a proud and emotional man who could also be vain, a well-known orator who admitted being nervous before his speeches, and a devoted citizen whose words played a major part in the development of Roman civilization. (See also Antonius, Marcus; Class Structure, Roman; Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Education and Rhetoric, Roman; Government, Roman; Law, Roman; Oratory; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic; Philosophy, Roman; Rome, History of.)

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