1902 Encyclopedia > Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero)

(full name: Marcus Tullius Cicero)
Roman orator, writer and statesman
(106-43 BC)

MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO, born at Arpinum (Arpino) on the northern border of the Volscian territory, 3nd January 647 A.U.G., 106 B.C. His family was of equestrian rank, and his father, though living in retirement, was intimate with some of the public men of the day. The orator Crassus took an early interest in the young M. Cicero and his brother Quintus, and directed their education. As an orator, a statesman, and a man of letters Marcus became the most consummate specimen of the Roman character under the influence of Hellenic culture. He was first placed under the tuition of the Greek poet Archias, a teacher at Rome. With whom he read the poets and orators of Greece, composed in the Greek language, and also wrote Latin verse. This literary training he combined with study under the two Scaevolas, the augur and the pontifex, and from these roman masters he imbibed the spirit of the national law and ritual. His aim was to prepare himself by liberal as well as technical training for the career of an advocate; but the Roman institutions required him to serve in the field also, and he took part in the campaign of Sulla against the Italian confederates in the year 87. Returning to the city he betook himself once more to the pursuits most congenial to him, and attended on the teaching of Philo the chief of the Academics, of Diodotus the Stoic, and of Molo a philosopher of Rhodes. Many teachers had been driven at that moment from the schools of Greece by the invasion of Mithridates. Cicero, at the age of twenty-six, pleaded a civil cause in the speech pro Quinctio (81 B.C.), and again in a criminal action against Roscius Amerinus in the following year. After these efforts, which brought him some distinction, he suddenly withdrew to Athens, on the plea of weak health, but probably to avoid the displeasure of the dicator Sulla. Here he studied under Molo and others with a special view to the practice of declamation, and the management of his physical powers in a profession which made severe demands upon them. he traveled also through the Roman province of Asia, and stored up a vast amount of information in a mind singularly acquisitive and endowed with extraordinary facility of arrangement and expression, but with comparatively little fertility of invention or breadth and strength of character. Cicero was from the first an imitator and an adapter rather than an original thinker. He was throughout a follower rather than a leader in action as well as speculation. His mental training disposed him specially to admire past models or cling to existing institutions, and he was always too easily subjected to the influence of characters stronger than his own. His position, indeed, as a new man, or a struggling candidate for political honors which neither his birth nor his means could naturally command, made it necessary for him to attach himself to the leaders of party; but his versatile talents soon rendered him a valuable adherent, and its speaks well for the times in which his lot was cast, amidst the deep corruption which pervaded them, that his honest and enlightened patriotism was on the whole appreciated and rewarded.

Cicero image

Bust of Cicero, Roman statesman and writer.
(Capitoline Museum, Rome)

It was from policy, but partly also from his own kindly feelings, that the young orator, on resuming his profession, preferred to distinguished himself in defense rather than in attack. This course impressed the good-natured public in his favor. Moreover, the class from which the judices were taken, conscious that the position of defendants in a criminal suit might at any time be its own, was often glad of an excuse for screening public delinquents. It may be said that even the impeachment of Verres was rather a defence of the injured Sicilians than hostile attack upon an individual, who was allowed to withdraw quietly from the city. Cicero’s triumph in this famous cause (70 B.C.) raised him to the pinnacle of reputation. He had already attained the quaestorship (77 B.C.). He succeeded to the aedileship in 69, and became praedor in 68, a year memorable in his career for the passing of the Manilian law, which he warmly supported, by which Pompeius was constituted commander against Mithridates with extraordinary powers, in the place of Lucullus. Pompeius was at this period accepted by the oligarchy as their leader, though not without reluctance and distrust. Cicero gladly attached himself to their cause, and flattered himself with the hope of reconciling the senate with the knights by a more liberal and genial policy. Meanwhile he hoped, by favor of the dominant party, to attain the consulship. He found himself a candidate for that magistracy along with Catiline, a man of ruined character and already under suspicion of plotting against the state. Nevertheless he did not hesitate to combine with him in his canvass, and to undertake his defence on a charge of malversation. Cicero obtained the consulship; catiline was defeated, and thereupon betook himself to treasonable machinations. It was the business of his late ally to track these intrigues and defeat them. The vigor and courage with which Cicero conducted himself at this crisis won for him by popular acclamation the title of "Father of his Country" (63 B.C.). But the nobles ill requited the service he had done them. They now felt themselves secure in their ascendancy. They affronted Pompeius, they made light of Cicero, and allowed him to be treated contumeliously by a tribune, who, under pretence that he had condemned citizens unheard, forbade him to make the usual declaration of the services he had performed in his consulship. Cicero, in laying down his office, was only permitted to exclaim – "I swear that I have saved the state." Caesar, at the head of the popular party, countenanced this affront; while Pompeius, perhaps a little jealous of the rising statesman, on his return from the East vouchsafed him no cordial support. The real weakness of his position was made painfully manifest to him. He would not consent, however, to remove to a distance, and declining to sue for the government of a province, devoted himself for a time mainly to literary pursuits, composing among other things a poem on the glories of his own consulship. Meanwhile the enemies he had made became more emboldened. Clodius, a worthless demagogue, assailed him with a formal charge for putting citizens to death summarily without appeal to the people. In vain did he assume the garb of mourning, and traverse the streets as a suppliant. The magnates stood coldly aloof, and the factions arrayed against him did not scruple to menace his scanty defenders with violence. Cicero was obliged to seek safety in flight, and withdrew to Thessalonica. Clodius obtained a decree of the people for his banishment 400 miles from the city, and the destruction of his house on the Palatine, the site to be devoted to the erection of a temple of Liberty (58 B.C.).

Pompeius and Caesar had suffered Cicero to undergo this humiliation for their own purposes, but they were not dispose to submit to the arrogance of the upstart Clodius, who was now making himselfgenerally obnoxious. In the following year they let it be understood that the persecution should cease. The partisans of Clodius raised tumults in the city, but they were speedily put down, and a resolution for the exile’s recall was carried in the assembly of the people. Cicero had betrayed much weakness under banishment. The exultation with which he triumphed on his return was hardly more dignified. The senate, however, complimented him, by coming forth to meet him, and the state undertook the restoration of his mansion. The armed opposition of Clodius was met by a counter demonstration on the part of Milo, a no less turbulent instrument of the oligarchy. But Cicero now left himself powerless in the presence of chiefs of armies and leaders of factions. He attached himself more closely to Pompeius, and devoted his eloquence to the defence of his patron’s creatures, while he courted more and more the pursuit of literature in retirement. The attainment of a seat in the college of augurs on the death of Crassus (53 B.C.) placed him in a position of dignity well suited to the taste of a constitutional antiquarian. But Caesar, though now absent in Gaul, was rapidly becoming a great power in the state, and Cicero did not fail to pay court to him also, proposing to celebrate his British wars in an epic poem. The death of Clodius (52 B.C.), whose slayer, Milo, he defended, relieved him from the apprehensions he had never yet shaken off. He accepted, though not without reluctance, the lot which assigned him the government of Cilicia for the year following. His conduct in this post seems to have been highly meritorious. He checked the corruption of his officials while he preserved his own purity, and distasteful as warlike affairs were to his studious and quiet temper, he did not shrink from leading his troops against the restless mountaineers. His vanity induced him to pretend to a triumph for his success in these trifling operations; but in those degenerate days greater victories than his would have failed to secure such an honor, unless backed by the influence of the leaders of party, and neither Pompeius nor Caesar was disposed to indulge him.

The civil war between these two rivals was now imminent. Cicero naturally threw himself into the ranks of the senatorial or conservative party, which was blindly following the lead of Pompeius; but he was coldly received by the violent men who ruled it, to whom his old-fashioned patriotism was utterly distasteful. Reluctantly and with much misgiving he quitted Italy in the train of the senate and consented to set up a shadow of the commonwealth on a foreign shore; while Caesar attached to himself in the city, as dictator and consul, both the substance and the forms of constitutional power. After the disaster of Pharsalia and the rout of the senatorial forces, Cicero quickly threw aside his arms and returned to Italy, where Caesar had left Antonius in command. He was soon relieved from apprehensions for his own safety by kind assurances from the victor, and while Caesar was occupied in Egypt, Africa, and Spain, he withdrew altogether from public life. With his wife Terentia he had never lived happily; but he now took the step of repudiating her, which according to the ideas of the times caused no unfavorable remark, nor was it made matter of reflection upon him that he straightway married again his own ward Publilia, wealthy as well as beautiful. The young bride seems, however, to have contributed nothing to his domestic happiness, and her, too, he soon repudiated for the satisfaction she had seemed to evince at the death of his much-loved daughter Tullia. During this period, however, he abstained from making advances to Caesar, and did himself honor by composing a panegyric upon Cato, to which Caesar condescended to make an ill-tempered reply. But the conqueror’s elemency to Marcellus at last won his heart, and now, after the death of Pompeius, Cato, and Scipio, with all the other chiefs of his party, he could not refrain from declaring warmly in favor of the new ruler. Caesar felt the compliment, and repaid it by sparing at his instance the life of Ligarius. The conduct of Cicero at this critical moment was undoubtedly the most truly politic. Other republicans, such as Brutus and Cassius, who had espoused the senatorial cause with feverish zeal or angry factiousness, did not scruple to give their actual support to the new government, and to accept office under it, while they secretly chafed against it and threw themselves into a conspiracy against the life of their master. The difference between their spirit and that of Cicero is marked by the fact that in a plot which numbered, it was said, as many as eighty men of public note, Cicero himself was not included. The covert assassins dared not consult with men of true honor. When the deed was done, indeed, Cicero might fairly take part with its perpetrators in the name of the free state which in his sanguine view might still be restored. When, however, the liberators, as they called themselves, repaired to the provinces to strengthen their party against the Caesarians, Cicero declined to undertake active service. He remained in Italy, and employed himself in guiding, as he thought, the conduct of the young Octavius, the nephew and heir of the dictator. This crafty dissembler promised well, and Cicero expected to be able to use him as a convenient opponent to Antonius. It must be confessed that the veteran statesman was himself playing a part, and dissembling with the youth whom he meant eventually to get rid of. It was a game on both sides, and Octavios won it. He looked on with satisfaction while Cicero excited the passions of the citizens against Antonius in the series of orations to which he gave the name of Philippics, while he armed the consuls Hirtius and Pansa to overthrow him. The orator, now advanced in years, showed at this crisis all the vigor with which he had encountered Catiline twenty years earlier. To him the people entrusted the government of the city, and while and the forces of the republic were concentrated under various leaders on the Cisalpine, he might fancy himself for a moment the real controller of affairs. But after the deaths of Hirtius and Pansa in the battles before Mutina, and the discomfiture of the republicans under Decimus Brutus, Octavius, Antonius, and Lepidus formed a compact, and assumed to be a triumvirate or a board of three special officers for the regulation of the commonwealth. Their arrival at Rome was followed by bloody proscriptions of their public and private enemies. Antonius demanded the head of Cicero, and Octavius yielded it. The orator fled, together with his brother, but he could not endure to abandon Italy, and after some weeks’ delay, which seems to show that the pursuit was not keen, he was overtaken at the door of his Formian villa and his cut by the bravo Popilius. His head and hands were cut off and sent to Rome, where Antonius caused them to be affixed to the rostra, and Fulvia, the widow of Clodius and the wife of Antonius , pierced with her needle the tongue which had declaimed against both her husbands. Cicero perished at the close of the year 43, at the age of sixty-three. Octavius, in his later years, as the Emperor Augustus, could coolly say of the great statesman and patriot to whose murder he had consented, "He was a good citizen, who really loved his country." The saying was indeed well deserved, but it should have come from purer lips.

Cicero was indeed not only a good citizen, but a good man; he loved not his country only but mankind in general; he loved them not merely from a kindly nature, but from reflection and self-discipline. As a specimen of the highest culture of the ancient world both moral and intellectual he must ever stand pre-eminent. He was a wiser if not a more sincere patriot than Cato; his private virtues were subjected to a severer test than those of M. Aurelius. His intellectual superiority is sufficiently attested by the important place he attained, in the face of many disadvantages, in the conduct of public affairs. But a large portion of his multifarious writings still remains, and constitutes an enduring monument to his fame, which has been recognized through all ages. The great bulk of these works may be conveniently classed as (1) political, (2) philosophical, (3) personal. The first division comprises a collection of fifty-six speeches professing to have been delivered in the forum or the curia, though some of them certainly, as for instance that for Milo and the greater number of the Philippics, were written for publication but not actually delivered. The genuineness of that for Marcellus, and of the four which refer to the orator’s return from exile, has been much questioned. Besides the speeches themselves, Cicero produced several treatises on the subject of oratory, which as part of the Roman training for public life may be regarded as political. Of these the principal are the de Oratore, the Orator, and the Brutus. The origin of the strictly technical treatises de Inventione and Rhetoricorum is involved in much perplexity. To this divisions belong still more strictly the important works de Legibus and de Republica, which contain valuable references to the events of early Roman history. To our second division belong the famous treatises on philosophy, from which we derive all our knowledge of the Greek systems which succeeded to the schools of Plato and Aristotle, and in which it becme the fashion to affect an interest at Rome. Of these the Academica, the Tusculaoe, the de Finibus, and others which have been lost were devoted to speculative questions; the de Divinatione and de Natura Deorum refer more strictly to theological traditions; while the book de Officiis is an eleaborate treatise on moral obligations. The smaller works, de Senectute, de Amicitia, de Consolatione, and probably the lost essay de Gloria, may also be ranged more or less definitely under the head of practical philosophy. The third division embraces Cicero’s letters in two series, the one those to his friend Atticus, the other (ad familiars) to his correspondents generally. To these may be added a collection of letters addressed to his brother Quintus. These together give an account of the writer’s life almost from day to day; they are the most valuable of his works for the historical information they afford us, as well as for the insight they give us into the character not of the writer only but of many of the leading personages of the day. In both these respects they stand unique among the remains of antiquity, and few men of historical note even in recent times have been so fully presented to us in their correspondence as Cicero, whose life acquires thereby its transcendent interest for all students of human nature. It may be added that the great philosopher and orator amused himself further with more than one ambitious flight in poetry. His verses on his consulship attracted some attention from his countrymen, and a specimen of them has come down to us. He made also a Latin translation of the astronomical poem of Aratus, and proposed at least, as has been above mentioned, to execute an epic on the invasion of Britain by Caesar.

The latest critical and complete edition of Cicero’s works is that of J. Caspar Orellius, printed at Zurich (1826-1838). The text, accompanied by a full apparatus of various readings, is followed by a collection of the ancient scholiasts, an elaborate Onomasticon, and other valuable supplements. This edition is comprised in eight, but may be more conveniently bound in twelve large octavo volumes.(C. M.)

The above article was written by the Very Rev. Charles Merivale, D.D., D.C.L.; late Dean of Ely; formerly Tutor and Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge; author of History of the Romans under the Empire, Conversion of the Northern Nations, and General History of Rome.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries