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Marcus Tullius Cicero
(106 B.C.E. - 43 B.C.E.)


Marcus Tullius Cicero was an influential orator, write, lawyer, and Senator in ancient Rome. He built his life around studying law and philosophy, developing them through practice and writing, and participating in the politics of the waning Roman Republic. Because much of his work was rooted in Grecian philosophy and ideology, he has been criticized for unoriginality. However, by educating Roman students in schools of Greek philosophy such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism, he introduced the Republic and Latin language to Greek ideas and words that did not exist in the Roman legal and socio-political consciousness or daily life.  

Portrait of Cicero
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 20" x 24". 2015. Collection of Dan Stewart. Pace, FL.

Cicero's Political Rise

Cicero was born to a wealthy family in Arpinum, just outside of Rome. Their wealth came from vast land possession and their position in the Equites, the lower of the two aristocratic classes in the Republic. Despite their financial wellbeing and social status, most equites remained second-tier in the social stratification of the Roman senatorial aristocracy. Because the dominant aristocratic class or patricii controlled Rome's governing power, the equites were unable to change politics. Cicero’s career proved a rare exception.

Cicero’s various written works cover a vast terrain, and include incensed responses to the corrupt, unvirtuous, and violent operations of the ruling class, translations of Greek knowledge, and over 900 correspondence documents. Together, this body of work grants us a personal and candid perspective into the political turmoil, transitions, and culture of this unstable era of the Roman Republic. We also learn about both the political circumstances that shaped philosophical thought and the philosophy that birthed new political understandings. 

Philosophical and personal writings were a channel for Cicero’s political ambitions and proved an effective means of introducing fundamental notions to Roman society. He translated Greek concepts of “morals, property, individual, science, image, and appetite” into the Latin language, creating Latin word, which in turn shaped Roman ideology.  

"It is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman empire."

Cicero was initially drawn to politics before philosophy. The equites social class, however, allowed him entry to only the military or the law profession. He choose to become a lawyer and studied both jurisprudence and philosophy. This study and practice turned Cicero into a powerful orator and helped build his reputation in the political sphere. While philosophy was still important in its own right, for Cicero it became a means for the political. It was a way to participate in political reformations despite the limitations of his inherited status. Cicero served in the unofficial but influential Principle Roman Offices of quaestor, aedile, praetor, and the highest Roman office: consul. These positions paved the way to a place in the Roman Senate.

Conflicts with the First and Second Triumvirates

Cicero's alliances and loyalty to the Senate and Republic carved a rift between him and many other politicians. The division became consequential at the birth of the dictatorial Triumvirate, an alliance between the three powerful politicians Crassius, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. Because Cicero chose political independence over support of this powerful alliance, laws were changed to make his once victorious slaying of five Roman soldiers a crime and he was exiled. During this period, he wrote many important philosophical reflections including On the OratorOn the Republic, and On the Laws. These were political and philosophical treatises discussing the defense and recovery of the Republic from the Triumvirate. However, these works were written in vain against a ruling class whose hunger for power crushed the stoic standards of virtue and responsibility. While he eventually returned to Rome, Cicero was still considered to be "in debt" to the Triumvirate, a debt he paid off by practicing law.

However, Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC brought further instability to Rome and to Cicero’s life. In place of the first Triumvirate, a second was created. One of its members, Marc Antony, was a longtime enemy of Cicero's and so Cicero made the well-known Philippics speeches, appealing to the Senate to enlist Octavian, one of the other members of the Triumvirate, to overthrow him. It was one of the most powerful moments of political-philosophical oration in Cicero’s career, but one that turned out bitterly. In 43 BC, Cicero was murdered by Antony, with the support of newly allied Octavian. 

Legacy

Years later, Roman rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilianus described Cicero as “the name, not of a man, but of eloquence itself.” What an apt analogy for the humanist wordsmith whose career, literature, and voice shaped Roman politics and philosophy, the entire Latin language, and left a legacy that inspired the Church and well-known enlightenment thinkers. He is credited for beginning the Renaissance and lives on in an English word for eloquent, "Ciceronian." Among the many powerful rulers who were his contemporaries, Cicero still stands out as an important political figure. Julius Caesar was able to capture his lasting impact best: "It is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman empire."

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