Greek philosophy and rhetoric moved fully into Latin for the first time in the speeches, letters and dialogues of Cicero (106-43 B.C.), the greatest orator of the late Roman Republic. A brilliant lawyer and the first of his family to achieve Roman office, Cicero was one of the leading political figures of the era of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Marc Antony and Octavian. A string of misjudged alliances saw him exiled and eventually murdered, but Cicero’s writings barely waned in influence over the centuries. It was through him that the thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment discovered the riches of Classical rhetoric and philosophy.
Cicero: Early Life, Education, Entry into Politics
Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in the hill town of Arpinum, about 60 miles southeast of Rome. His father, a wealthy member of the equestrian order, paid to educate Cicero and his younger brother in philosophy and rhetoric in Rome and Greece. After a brief military service, he studied Roman law under Quintis Mucius Scaevola. Cicero publicly argued his first legal case in 81 B.C., successfully defending a man charged with parricide.
Cicero was elected quaestor in 75, praetor in 66 and consul in 63—the youngest man ever to attain that rank without coming from a political family. During his term as consul he thwarted the Catilinian conspiracy to overthrow the Republic. In the aftermath, though, he approved the key conspirators’ summary execution, a breach of Roman law that left him vulnerable to prosecution and sent him into exile.
Cicero: Alliances, Exiles and Death
During his exile, Cicero refused overtures from Caesar that might have protected him, preferring political independence to a role in the First Triumvirate. Cicero was away from Rome when civil war between Caesar and Pompey broke out. He aligned himself with Pompey and then faced another exile when Caesar won the war, cautiously returning to Rome to receive the dictator’s pardon.
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Cicero was not asked to join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar in 44 B.C., but he was quick to celebrate it after the fact. In the infighting that followed Caesar’s death, Cicero made brief attempts at alliances with key figures, first defending Mark Antony before the Senate and then denouncing him as a public enemy in a series of withering speeches. For some time he supported the upstart Octavian, but when Antony, Octavian and Lepidus allied in 43 to form the Second Triumvirate, Cicero’s fate was settled. Antony arranged to have him declared a public enemy. Cicero was caught and killed by Antony’s soldiers, who are said to have cut off his head and right hand and brought them for display in Rome—Antony’s revenge for Cicero’s speeches and writings.
Cicero: Writings and Oratory
Cicero was one of the most prolific Roman writers, and the number of his speeches, letters and treatises that have survived into the modern era is a testament to his admiration by successive generations. For Cicero, philosophical understanding was an orator’s paramount virtue. He was deeply influenced by his own training in three Greek philosophical schools: the Stoicism of Lucius Aelius Stilo and Didotus, the Epicureanism of Phaedrus and the skeptical approach of Philo of Larissa, head of the New Academy. Cicero usually sided with the Stoics, who valued virtue and service, over the pleasure-loving Epicureans. But his New Academic training equipped him to combine elements of the various philosophical schools to suit a given situation.
Cicero offered little new philosophy of his own but was a matchless translator, rendering Greek ideas into eloquent Latin. His other peerless contribution was his correspondence. More than 900 of his letters survive, including everything from official dispatches to casual notes to friends and family. Much of what is known about politics and society of his era is known because of Cicero’s correspondence. Few of his letters were written for publication, so Cicero gave free reign to his exultations, fears and frustrations.
Cicero’s inventive command of Latin prose provided a model for generations of textbooks and grammars. The Church Fathers explored Greek philosophy through Cicero’s translations, and many historians date the start of the Renaissance to Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters in 1345. Enlightenment thinkers including John Locke, David Hume, Montesquieu and Thomas Jefferson all borrowed thoughts and turns of phrase from Cicero. The first century critic Quintilian said that Cicero was “the name, not of a man, but of eloquence itself.”