Almost everybody will have heard of Cicero, one of the most famous ancient Romans. Recently, he has even been presented again to a wider audience by Robert Harris’ novels Imperium and Lustrum, where the author narrates Cicero’s life from the perspective of his secretary Tiro. Cicero is certainly among the best-known individuals from the Roman Republican period: but for what reason? To find out, let’s have a look at Cicero’s life and some of his political activities in Rome, since these were decisive for the development of the Roman Republic.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) was born into a relatively wealthy family in Arpinum (a provincial town in Italy); still, he came from a disadvantaged background, because he was what the Romans called ‘a new man’ or ‘newcomer’ (homo novus). That means that his ancestors had not reached the highest public offices in the Roman Republic. Therefore Cicero was not automatically regarded as a major player, but had to work hard to gain such a position. Since he did not accomplish any great military deeds either, the only elements he could build on were his intellect and his rhetorical power. Fortunately, Cicero had enjoyed a good education in areas important in his time, such as literature, rhetoric, philosophy and law. By exploiting this education and his natural abilities, he managed to obtain all public offices in Rome in the earliest year in which he was eligible for them, of which he remained immensely proud for the rest of his life.
As an active politician, Cicero composed and published many law court and political speeches; but he also produced treatises on philosophical, political and oratorical matters, and he wrote numerous letters to friends, family and fellow politicians and even tried some poetry. He often sat down to write treatises, which frequently have a political dimension (e.g. works on the state, on laws, on being a good orator), when there were fewer opportunities for his political engagement; for, as he said himself in a letter to his brother Quintus: "I can’t do nothing" (trans. D.R. Shackleton Bailey). A large number of Cicero’s works are still extant (in contrast to those by other writers from the Roman Republican period). Hence there is a great deal of information about his biography, exciting events of the time and his views on key issues of private and public life as well as on philosophical questions. This is one reason that makes Cicero so prominent: we know so much about his life, and he is a key source on his period.
At the same time, the fact that Cicero was such a versatile person and composed writings in so many different areas means that we can infer a lot about his personality and his procedures: for instance, we can compare his views on political figures and the tactics he followed in his political speeches with his assessment in his private letters; there may be considerable differences between those, so that modern readers sometimes have to apply almost detective skills to find out what he really believed and which of his statements can be regarded as historically accurate. In his letters, especially in those to his close friend Atticus, Cicero reveals some very personal details: he talks about illnesses, about meals, about buying property and particularly asks for advice and help with major decisions and projects. Therefore, from the early modern period onwards, when those letters by Cicero were found, there has been criticism of Cicero’s personality: one does not expect such behaviour from a major figure of the ancient world. Yet, after all, he too was only a human being.
Cicero lived during the period called the Roman Republic, which had a historically developed constitution based on three major political bodies, the popular assembly, the Senate and the magistrates. This set-up was not only the background to Cicero’s political engagement, but rather an essential part of it, since he actively endorsed it, thought about it and defended it. His ideas on constitutional forms become apparent from his treatise On the Republic (De re publica), which he wrote in the 50s BCE, arranged as a dialogue between major statesmen. Although there was an earlier treatise on the state by the Greek philosopher Plato (Politeia) as a model, Cicero’s version differs in that it focuses on the Roman state.
The main discussion in Cicero takes its starting point from a definition of the term res publica, which literally means ‘public thing’ and then developed into a technical term (therefore translated as ‘Commonwealth’ by some modern authors). In the first book of De re publica one of the speakers says: "Well then: the commonwealth is the concern of a people (res publica res populi), but a people is not any group of men assembled in any way, but an assemblage of some size associated with one another through agreement on law and community of interest." (trans. J.E.G. Zetzel). The discussion moves on to consider the three basic types of constitution, namely government by a king, by a group of aristocrats or by the People (which can all have a good and a bad form). It turns out that none of these options, even in their best realization, is ideal in its pure form, and that instead a mixed constitution, including elements of all three types, would be best and most stable.
Obviously, the entire treatise consists of a dialogue where the author puts views in the mouths of authoritative figures; nevertheless it can be assumed that what they say is based on Cicero’s own views. Cicero is likely to have agreed with the speaker at the end of the first book, who suggests that the traditional Roman system realizes such a perfect set-up: "I will state my own opinion and belief and judgment that no commonwealth, in either its organization or its structure or its conduct and training, can be compared to the one our fathers received from their ancestors and have passed on to us. And if you agree, since you want to hear from me what you know yourselves, I will explain both the character and the superiority of our commonwealth. My description of our commonwealth will serve as the pattern to which I will tailor what I have to say concerning the best form of state." (trans. J.E.G. Zetzel).
In the light of such ‘scholarly’ glorification, it is no surprise that Cicero rose to defend the Roman Republic when he considered it to be in danger. This attitude governed many of his court cases and political interventions; the most famous instances are perhaps his opposition against the so-called Catilinarian Conspiracy in his consular year (63 BCE) and the fight against the powerful politician Mark Antony at the end of his life (44/43 BCE). In 63 BCE, by clever tactics and by using all his rhetorical power, Cicero managed to make the leading figure Catiline leave the city of Rome; a few other conspirators were put into custody and later executed following a Senate decree. These measures soon triggered criticism and led to Cicero being exiled temporarily in 58/57 BCE. Nevertheless Cicero remained proud of his achievements and thought of himself as ‘having saved the Republic’.
The situation in 44/43 BCE was more fundamental: Caesar, who was one of the consuls for the year and had also been given dictatorial powers, was assassinated on the Ides of March 44 BCE. Subsequently, there was some sort of power vacuum; and two men, the remaining consul Mark Antony and Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son Octavian, the later emperor Augustus, were striving for pre-eminence. According to his letters, Cicero believed that Octavian was ‘the lesser evil’ and that one should side with him to eliminate Antony as he regarded Antony as a ‘public enemy’ and a ‘threat to the Republic’. Cicero thought that it would be possible to return to the established Republican system after Antony had been removed with Octavian’s help. In his speeches during this period, known as Philippics, Cicero portrayed Antony as an enemy of the Republic, with whom peace negotiations were impossible and who had to be confronted by war. He said, for instance: "This enemy of yours is attacking your Commonwealth, but he himself has none. … How can peace be made with an adversary whose cruelty taxes belief and whose good faith is nonexistent?" (trans. D.R. Shackleton Bailey).
Despite opposition from within the Senate, Cicero eventually managed to have Antony officially declared a public enemy; since at that time he did not have an office or command a military force, he was only able to work by his rhetoric, documented by the series of Philippic Orations. Cicero regarded this success as his second ‘saving of the Republic’ after Catiline. What Cicero did not foresee was that soon afterwards Octavian and Antony, along with M. Aemilius Lepidus, would unite to form the so-called Second Triumvirate; and one of their first actions, instigated by Antony, was to proscribe Cicero, who was killed on 7 December 43 BCE.
Modern scholars often say that Cicero put his faith into the traditional Republican system and did not realize that it was no longer up to date and suitable for governing a world empire. There may be some truth in this; at any rate he misjudged Octavian’s intentions. However during his fight against Mark Antony, Cicero himself did make allowances for provincial commanders to gain extraordinary powers and to make their own decisions, even without endorsement by the Senate, as long as their activities were of benefit to the Republic. This is a category for which no objective definition is given, but which seems to have been determined by Cicero’s view of the Republic. Cicero thought of these arrangements as exceptions; still, he thereby involuntarily prepared the Principate, since in this system there is indeed a single man (the emperor) making decisions according to what he regards as beneficial.
Presumably because Cicero had achieved his successes by hard work starting from a disadvantaged position, he was immensely proud of these; hence he took every possible step to promote them, by frequently talking and writing about them and by encouraging others to write about them. Such promotional activities were presumably not as unusual in the ancient world as they may be today, since in the absence of full media coverage everyone had to be their own publicist. Yet Cicero seems to have overdone it; and his vanity and self-praise earned him criticism in antiquity already. This is perhaps also the aspect that puts off some people today.
But we do not have to be friends with every individual from the ancient world! Irrespective of his personality, we can still admire Cicero’s intellect, his rhetorical versatility and political cleverness; he has left writings that continue to interest readers today, and one can respect him as an individual who fought actively for the res publica he believed in. Thus he can be regarded as a key figure in Roman and perhaps European history: without him the change from Republic to Principate might have proceeded in another way, and the Roman Empire, on which modern Europe is based, might have had a different shape.
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