Cicero, Marcus Tullius (106–43 BC)


Artist's impression of Cicero delivering one of his speeches.

Cicero was a Roman politician, philosopher, and orator. A leader of the senate, Cicero expounded Catiline's conspiracy and prosecuted his supporters. He opposed Julius Caesar but took no part in his assassination. He criticized Mark Anthony in the senate and when Octavian came to power, Anthony persuaded him to have Cicero executed. Among Cicero's greatest speeches were Orations Against Catiline and the Phillipics. He also wrote a number of books on rhetoric and philosophical works including De Amicitia and De Officiis.



Rome, 80 BC: the dictator Sulla has defeated the forces of his late rival Marius and published lists of the names of his enemies, All included in these 'proscription' lists are to be killed.


Terror reigns in the streets of Rome; Sulla's freemen roam the dark alleys of the city by night and kill the richest 'outlaws' without fear of punishment, so as to obtain their wealth. They even add the names of their own personal enemies to the lists. No one dares to oppose them.


It was in this atmosphere of terror that a certain man named Roscius was accused of killing his father. No one was willing to defend him against his accusers, for it was known that behind them lurked Sulla's dreaded freedmen, the cut-throat Chrysogonus.


In this crisis a young barrister offered his services. So fine and fearless was his speech for the defense that Roscius was acquitted. And who was this courageous barrister? His name was Cicero; it was his first big case.


Prosecution of Verres

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in Arpinum in 106 BC. As a young man he came to Rome to study law and rhetoric (public speaking). After his successful defense of Rocius, he traveled to Athens and Rhodes, partly for the sake of his health, partly to continue his studies of rhetoric. He did not return to Rome until after Sulla's death.


Cicero really made a name for himself in 70 BC by his prosecution of Verres. Verres had been the Roman Governor of Sicily for three years. Cruel and rapacious, he had amassed a large fortune there from bribes and confiscations, He had powerful friends in Rome; he was defended by Hortensius, the most famous orator of the time, and fully expected to be acquitted. But he had reckoned without Cicero. The evidence Cicero produced against him was so damning that Verres could not face it. He threw up his case in the middle of the trial and went into exile.


Catiline's conspiracy

A few years after this big triumph Cicero was elected consul. The year was 63 BC; he was only 43 years old. yet during his consulship he had to face dangerous conspiracy of desperate men trying to seize power.


Cicero uncovered the intrigues of Catiline (L. Sergius Catilina), the leading conspirator, and denounced him publicly to the Senate and to the people. He took vigorous action to stop the attempted rebellion. He caught some of the leading conspirators red-handed and then decided to make an example of them. After obtaining a promise of support from the Senate, he had them put to death at once, without trial.


His prompt action had saved the state, and he was called Pater Patriae (Father of the Country). But the fact that he had executed Roman citizens without trial was soon to give his enemies a useful weapon against him.


Banishment and recall

Cicero hoped that many honest patriots who had supported him against Catiline would continue to work together for the good of the state. But no; they were soon quarrelling again, and their quarrels played into the hands of three powerful politicians: Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar.


Cicero refused to support this 'triumvirate' so in 58 BC Caesar allowed Cicero's old enemy Clodius to pass a law banishing 'anyone who had condemned a Roman citizen without trial'. Poor Cicero had to flee at least 500 miles from Italy, his property was confiscated and his house destroyed.


His friends, however, soon managed to have this decree annulled, and after a year and a half Cicero was allowed to return to Rome.


As a statesman he was now overshadowed by Pompey and Caesar, despite the latter's absence in Gaul. Cicero returned to the Law Courts as a barrister.


In 51 BC he was sent, much against his will, to govern Cilicia (in Asia Minor) for a year: on his return he found Rome on the brink of civil war. With many other senators he joined Pompey against Caesar. But is was Caesar who won, and Cicero had to retire from public life.


The 'Philippics'

Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in the year 44 BC. At his funeral one of his lieutenants, Mark Antony by name, seized his chance to rouse the people against Caesar's murderers.


Antony, however, had not reckoned in his bid for power with Caesar's adopted son and heir Octavian, nor with Cicero. Cicero felt very strongly that Antony was a menace to liberty in Rome, and attacked him fearlessly in speech after speech. (These speeches are called the Philippics, after the speeches made by the famous Athenian orator Demosthenes, attacking Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.)


Cicero supported Octavian against Antony, but Octavian and Antony made up their differences and marched on Rome. Once they were installed with supreme power, they too issued 'proscription' lists. Octavian wanted to spare Cicero, but Antony could not forgive him the Philippics. Cicero was murdered on 7th December 43 BC; his head and hands displayed in the forum.


Cicero the man

So perished the great Cicero, finest of all writers of Latin prose. Besides his speeches, he also wrote many books on philosophy and on literary subjects; over 700 of his letters have also survived. These are particularly interesting for the glimpse they give of Cicero the man: not always modest, not always courageous, but intelligent, humorous, an affectionate father, basically honest and genuinely patriotic.