This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
One of the greatest writers of the Roman world was Marcus Tullius Cicero. His cognomen, Cicero, derives from Latin cicer, “chickpea”, according to Plutarch’s Life of Cicero (1.3-5). Plutarch is not exactly the most reliable of ancient authors, but this seems all right. In any event, Cicero was born in Arpinum, south of Rome, on 3 January 106 BC. His importance in a cultural sense cannot be overestimated.
The “Golden Age” of Latin literature is conventionally thought to start with Cicero’s first known speech, dated 81 BC; it ends with the death of Ovid in AD 17. His contribution to Latin can be compared favourably to Dante Alighieri’s influence on Italian many centuries later: he streamlined the language and refined it.
Cicero is mostly known for his speeches and his letters; his verse is less well regarded. His speeches were written to be read out loud, but his letters consist of personal correspondence and give a great deal of insight into the man himself, and the career he’s had. His philosophical work consists for the most part of Latin interpretations of Greek philosophy, which nevertheless had a profound influence on early christianity as well as on the philosophical writings of the Middle Ages.
As an orator, he has been compared favourably to the Athenian Demosthenes (384-322 BC), who raged against the might of Macedon. But where Demosthenes was a true Attic orator, favouring sober language, Cicero infused his speeches with flourishes drawn from the supposedly Asiatic traditions (associated with Greek Asia Minor) that favoured more bombast and emotion.
Naturally, he was also taught philosophy. He studied in Rome where he was taught by the epicurist Phaedrus, the Academic Skeptic Philo, and the Stoic Diodotus. He was also taught oratory by rhetoricians before travelling to Greece and Asia Minor in 79-77 BC. There, he studied under other teachers. In Athens, he met Titus Pomponius Atticus, with whom he would strike up a lifelong friendship.
Naturally, he next embarked on a political career, as befitting a Roman man of standing, eventually being elected consul in 63 BC, the highest possible office in the Roman Republic. As consul, he managed to quash a conspiracy by Catiline, a revolutionary, a subject about which we’ll no doubt write something in the future. This is the highwater mark in Cicero’s political career. While not played out, he did get in some trouble, being banished by his political opponents in 58 BC before being recalled the following year.
Opposition to Caesar
As one of the foremost statesmen in Rome, Cicero was naturally caught up in the power struggles that erupted between Pompey and Julius Caesar. In the Civil War (49-46 BC), Cicero chose the side of Pompey, who to his mind best represented the republican ideals of Rome. After the death of Pompey, Caesar magnaminously forgave his erstwhile opponents, including Cicero.
But when Caesar was assassinated on 15 March 44 BC, Cicero chose to align himself with the murderers, who claimed to have simply wanted to rid the republic of a would-be tyrant. This put him in direct opposition to Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s closest personal friends and a staunch defender of the Caesarian cause, who was regarded as an opponent to proper Roman republican values by Cicero. When Antony went so far as to try and seize control of Cisalpine Gaul by force, Cicero denounced him as an outlaw.
As things heated up in Rome, he spent more time on his estate at Puteoli, that is: modern Pozzuoli in Campania. Many prominent Romans owned estates in Campania, where the climate was a little better and the land very fertile. Caesar’s adoptive son, Octavian, the man who would eventually rise to power as Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, went to see Cicero in Puteoli, where he managed to win the older orator’s heart. Around that time, Octavian and Antony didn’t see eye to eye, so Cicero no doubt felt safe forging a friendship with Octavian.
However, in 43 BC, Octavian and Antony reconciled. This left Cicero in a precarious position: he had been an outspoken critic of Mark Antony. When Octavian and Antony founded a Triumvirate with Lepidus, they swore to destroy their opponents and take revenge on the men who had been associated with the murder of Julius Caesar. They therefore issued proscriptions against their enemies. Anyone on these lists would be ruled an outlaw and stripped of their possessions and their citizenship.
Mark Antony had insisted that Cicero be put on the proscriptions list. According to Plutarch, Octavian had argued for two days with both Mark Antony and Lepidus that Cicero be left alone, but to no avail; he yielded on the third day (Life of Cicero 46.3-5), thereby sealing Cicero’s fate.
Plutarch furthermore claims that Cicero had decided to flee, but had second thoughts on his way to Macedonia, and returned to Rome. But then he imagined being taken captive and tortured, and ordered his servants instead to take him to Caieta on the coast (modern Gaeta), where he possessed another villa. But Cicero’s time had run out on 7 December 43 BC.
As Plutarch tells it (Life of Cicero 48):
But meantime his assassins came to the villa, Herennius a centurion, and Popillius a tribune, who had once been prosecuted for parricide and defended by Cicero; and they had helpers. After they had broken in the door, which they found closed, Cicero was not to be seen, and the inmates said they knew not where he was. Then, we are told, a youth who had been liberally educated by Cicero, and who was a freedman of Cicero’s brother Quintus, Philologus by name, told the tribune that the litter was being carried through the wooded and shady walks towards the sea. The tribune, accordingly, taking a few helpers with him, ran round towards the exit, but Herennius hastened on the run through the walks, and Cicero, perceiving him, ordered the servants to set the litter down where they were. Then he himself, clasping his chin with his left hand, as was his wont, looked steadfastly at his slayers, his head all squalid and unkempt, and his face wasted with anxiety, so that most of those that stood by covered their faces while Herennius was slaying him. For he stretched his neck forth from the litter and was slain, being then in his sixty-fourth year. Herennius cut off his head, by Antony’s command, and his hands — the hands with which he wrote the Philippics. For Cicero himself entitled his speeches against Antony “Philippics”, and to this day the documents are called Philippics.
“Philippics” is the name given to three of Demosthenes’ speeches against Philip II of Macedon, whom he (correctly) regarded as a threat to Athenian sovereignity on account of his imperialistic ambitions. Cicero consciously modelled his speeches against Mark Antony after these texts written by Demosthenes.
After his death, Cicero’s head and hands were sent back to Rome, where Mark Antony ordered them fastened to the Rostra, a large platform from where orators spoke. Plutarch notes that this was a sight “that made the Romans shudder; for they thought they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but an image of the soul of Antony” (Life of Cicero 49.2).