Cicero (Latin for Marcus Tullius Cicero) was born on January 3, 106 B.C. in Arpinum, Italy and died on December 7, 43 B.C. near Arpinum. He was a Roman statesman and a Latin author.
A notable speaker, he published an abundant production considered as a model of classic Latin expression, most of which has reached us.
Photo by Louis Cheng on Unsplash
If he was proud of having saved the Roman Republic of Catilina, his political life was appreciated and commented on in various ways.
Intellectual lost in the middle of a fair of seizure, Italian arrived in Rome, versatile opportunist, “passive instrument of the monarchy” unbridled of Pompey then Caesar according to Theodor Mommsen and Jerome Carcopino but also, for Pierre Grimal, the intermediary that transmitted us a part of the Greek philosophy.
He was born in 106 B.C. in the municipality of Arpinum (110 km southeast of Rome) into a family of plebeian origin elevated to the rank of equestrian.
His cognomen, Cicero, can be translated as “chickpea, wart”. This cognomen is said to come from one of his ancestors whose nose tip was shaped like a chickpea.
Cicero was sent to Rome to study law; among his professors were the most famous jurisconsults of the time, the Scævola.
These legal studies were accompanied by a solid philosophical formation, with Academician Philon de Larisse (at a time when the New Academy was still marked by skepticism and the probabilism of the Flesh) and with the Stoic Diodot.
Like all young Roman citizens, Cicero did his military service at the age of 17: he was under the orders of Pompey Strabo, father of the Great Pompey, during the social war; it was probably at this time that he met Pompey.
Demobilized at the end of the conflict in 81 B.C., he returned to his law studies.
Cicero made a remarkable entrance into the bar in 81 B.C. with the Pro Quinctio (succession problem).
In 79 b.C. he pronounces the Pro Roscio Amerino; he attacks a man liberated from the Roman dictator Sylla, feeling supported by the Nobilites. He wins the trial but considers more prudent to move away from Rome for a while.
That is why he will complete his formation in Greece, from 79 to 77 b.C.: there he follows particularly the teaching of Antiochus of Ascalon (an eclectic scholar, successor of Philo of Larissa, also marked by Aristotelian and Stoic doctrines), of Zeno and Phaedra (Epicureans) in Athens, of Stoic Posidonius and of rhetoric Molon in Rhodes.
Also in Athens he became friends with Atticus, who remained one of his main correspondents (many letters of “Aticus” “aticum” in Latin are preserved).
At the end of this period of formation, both oratorical and intellectual and philosophical, Cicero returns to Rome, where he marries Terentia, who gives him a daughter, Tuleia, and a son, Marcus, shortly before his consulate.
Cicero began his political career as a homo novus or “new man” (no one in his family held political office in Rome): he naturally began his honorary career as a quaestor, becoming a quaestor in western Sicily (in Lilibia) in 75 B.C.
He became famous in August 1970 when he defended the Sicilians in their trial against Caius Verres, the former governor of Sicily, who was involved in corruption and established a system of looting of works of art.
Cicero’s accusation is so vigorous that Verres, who however will be defended by the greatest orator of the time (the famous Hortensius), exiles in Marseilles immediately after the first speech (the actio prima).
However, Cicero published all the speeches he had planned (the Verrines), in order to establish his reputation as a committed anti-corruption lawyer.
After this event, which truly marked his entry into judicial and political life, Cicero followed the stages of the honorary curriculum by becoming a councillor in 69 BC, and then a praetor in 66 BC.
That year he defended the bill of the tribune of the plebeian Manilio, which proposed to name Pompey commander in chief of the operations in the East, against Mithridatos VI; his speech De lege Manilia thus marked a distancing of the conservative party from the optimists, who were opposed to this project.
From this moment on, Cicero thought of embodying a third way in politics, that of the “good men” (viri boni), between the conservatism of the optimists and the increasingly radical “reformism” of the popular.
However, from -66 to -63, the appearance of personalities such as Caesar or Catilina, in the field of the popular, who advocated radical reforms, led Cicero to approach the optimists.
Already close to the conservative party, Cicero is elected consul against Catilina for the year 1963 thanks to the advice of his brother Quintus Tullius Cicero – he is the first homo novus consul for more than thirty years (elected without a consul among his ancestors), which displeases some.
The nobles considered that the consulate would be desecrated if a new man, however illustrious he was, managed to obtain it (Salluste, Catiline Conjuration, XXIII).
During his consulate, he opposed Tribune Rullus’ revolutionary project for the constitution of a ten-member commission with broad powers, and the massive subdivision of ager publicus.
Cicero gains the neutrality of his colleague Consul Antonio, friend of Catilina and supporter of the project, by giving him the post of proconsul of Macedonia, which he will occupy the following year. His speech De lege agraria against Rullum obtained the rejection of this proposal.
Cicero unmasks Catiline, painting by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919)
“Everyone left the bench where I was sitting.”
(Plutarch, Cicero, XVI)Catilina, having failed again in the consular elections of October 63, prepares a coup d’état, of which Cicero is informed by leaks.
On December 3, he violently apostrophized Catilina in the middle of the Senate session: the first sentence of the first Catilinian’s exordium is often quoted.
What do you want to do, Catilina, patientia nostra? (Until when, Catilina, will you abuse our patience?), and it is in this same passage – although it is not the only place in Cicero’s work – that we find the proverbial expression O tempora! Oh, more! (What times! What customs!).
Discovered, Catilina leaves Rome, to foment an insurrection in Etruria, entrusting her accomplices the execution of the coup d’état in Rome.
The next day, Cicero informs and reassures the Roman crowd by pronouncing his second Catilinar, and promises amnesty to the factionalists who will abandon their criminal plans.
He then gets the Roman Senate to vote a senatus consultum ultimum (an exceptional procedure voted during serious crises, and which gives in particular its beneficiary(s) the right to form an army, to make war, to contain by all means the allies and fellow citizens, to have within and without the supreme authority, military and civil.
But a political scandal suddenly complicates the crisis: the consul appointed for 62, Lucio Licinio Murena is accused by his unfortunate competitor Sulpicio of having bought the voters, and the accusation is supported by Cato of Utica.
For Cicero, it is out of the question in such a context to cancel the elections and organize new ones.
Thus, he defends Murena (pro-Murena) and makes him relax, in spite of a probable guilt, ironically pointing out the stoic rigor that leads Cato to disproportionate and inopportune positions.
Because if all faults are equal, every fault is a crime; strangling his father is not more guilty than killing a chicken without need (pro Murena, XXIX).
Meanwhile, the conspirators who remained in Rome organized themselves and recruited accomplices.
By chance, they contact the delegates of Allobroges, promising to accept their tax complaints if they provoke a revolt in Gaul in Narbonne. The suspicious delegates warned the senators.
Cicero suggested that they demand written commitments from the conspirators, which they obtained.
Having recovered this indisputable material evidence, Cicero publicly mistook five conspirators (Third Catilinaire, December 3), including the former Consul and Praetor P.
Cornelio Lentulo Sura. After the debate in the Senate (fourth Catiline), he had them executed without a public trial, approved by Cato but against the advice of Julius Caesar, who proposed life imprisonment. Catilina was killed shortly after with her supporters in a futile battle in Pistoia.
Since then, Cicero strives to present himself as the savior of the fatherland (he was called “Pater patriae”, “Father of the fatherland” by Cato of Utica) and not without vanity does he ensure that no one forgets this glorious year 63.
Cicero became a member of the Roman Senate, the top of the social hierarchy, an aristocratic and rich milieu.
It is interesting to know its wealth, essentially based on a land inheritance as for any senator.
Cicero owned four buildings in Rome itself, and a sumptuous domus in the Palatine, the ancient patrician quarter, which he bought in 62 BC from Crassus for 3.5 million sesterces.
Moreover, in the Italian countryside there are ten farms (villae), which are sources of income, plus six deversorias, small pied-à-terre. After his purchase of 62, he jokes with his friend Sestius about his financial situation:
“Know that I am so loaded with debt that I would like to enter into a conspiracy, if you would consent to receive me there” (Ad Fam, V, 6).
Although his fortune is far from that of the rich Lucullus or Crassus, Cicero can and wants to live luxuriously.
In his villa in Tusculum, he had a gymnasium and pleasant walks on two terraces, which he called Academy and High School, evoking Plato and Aristotle.
He decorated his villa in Arpinum with an artificial cave, his Amaltheum, evoking Amaltheus who took care of Jupiter as a child.
His activity as a lawyer is the only honorable activity for a senator, forbidden from commercial or financial practice.
This does not prevent him from frequenting the business community, investing his surplus money or borrowing from his banker friend Mr. Pomponius Atticus.
Sometimes he invests through his bankers, for example, by placing 2.2 million sesterces in a publishing company.
Among these interested relations, Cicero also tells us about Vestorius, “a specialist in borrowing, whose culture is only arithmetic, and whose frequenting for this reason is not always pleasant to him.
“Cicero also speaks of Cluvius, a financier who bequeathed to him in 45 B.C. a portion of his properties, including stores in Pompeii, in very poor condition, but Cicero is a philosophical investor:
“… two of my stores have fallen; the others are threatening to be ruined, so much so that not only do the tenants no longer want to stay there, but the rats themselves have abandoned them.
Others would call it a disgrace, I don’t even call it a concern, O Socrates and you Socratic philosophers, I can never thank you enough
Following the idea suggested to me by Vestorius to rebuild them, I can later take advantage of this momentary loss (ad Atticum, XIV, 9)”.
After the outbreak of the Catiline affair, Cicero’s political career continued in a moderate way, withdrawing from a political life dominated by the ambitious and demagogues.
After the formation of a secret association between Pompey, Caesar and Crassus (the first triumvirate) in 60 B.C., Caesar, consul in 59 B.C., proposed to associate Cicero as commissioner in charge of the allocation of lands in Campania to the veterans, which he considered convenient to reject.
In March 1958, his political enemies, led by Consul Pison and the tribune of the commoner Clodius Pulcher, who hated him tenaciously since he mistook him in 1962 for the Bona Dea cult, had him exiled under the pretext of illegal proceedings against Catilina’s supporters, who had been executed without appeal.
Appointed liquidator of his property, Clodio had his house on the Palatine destroyed and a temple to Liberty consecrated in its place. As for Cicero, he was depressed in his forced retreat to Dyrrachium.
Supported by the new tribune of the plebeian Titus Antonio Milon, Cicero was able to return triumphantly to Rome a year and a half later, in 56 B.C.
The Senate compensates him with 2 million sesterces for the destruction of his house. Stubborn, Cicero wants to rebuild it, but to recover his land is problematic; he will have to destroy a consecrated temple.
Cicero succeeds in getting the pontiffs to break the consecration because of a defect in form (Pro domo sua speech), but Clovis, elected alderman, accuses him of sacrilege before the assembly of the elections, his bands harass the workers who have started the work, they set fire to the house of Cicero’s brother, they attack that of Milo.
Pompey must intervene to restore order and allow the reconstruction of Cicero’s house.
In exchange for this protection of one of the triumvirs, Cicero pronounced in the Senate that of Provinciis Consularibus obtaining the extension of Caesar’s pro-consular power over Gaul, which allowed him to continue the Gallic War.
The political struggles degenerate into violent clashes between groups that support the popular and the optimists, preventing the normal holding of elections.
Clodio is killed in early 52 B.C. in one of these encounters; Cicero naturally takes up the defense of his killer Milon.
But the tension is such during the trial that Cicero, frightened, cannot plead effectively and loses the case. Milon anticipates a probable conviction by going into exile in Marseilles. However, Cicero will publish the defense in his famous Pro Milone.
Recognition of the aristocratic party? Do you want to keep it away from Rome? Cicero obtains by a mandate of proconsul in Cilicia, a small Roman province of Asia Minor that governs with integrity according to Plutarch (Life of Cicero, XXVI).
Upon his return in 50 B.C., an acute political crisis confronts Caesar with Pompey and the Conservatives in the Senate.
Cicero sided with Pompey, while trying to reach a compromise acceptable to Caesar, without success.
When the latter invaded Italy in 49 B.C., Cicero fled from Rome like most of the senators and took refuge in one of his country houses.
His correspondence with Atticus expresses his dismay and doubts about what to do. He considers the civil war that is beginning to be a calamity, no matter who the victor is.
Caesar, who wishes to bring together the neutrals and moderates, writes to him and then visits him, and proposes that he return to Rome as a mediator. Cicero refuses and declares himself a member of Pompey’s party. Caesar lets him think about it, but Cicero ends up joining Pompey in Epirus.
According to Plutarch, Cicero, not well received by Cato, who told him he would have been more useful to the Republic if he had stayed in Italy, behaved like a dead weight and did not take part in any military action led by Pompeians; after Caesar’s victory in Pharsale in 48 b.C., he left the Pompeians’ party and returned to Rome, where he was well received by Caesar.
He takes advantage of this to obtain from Caesar the grace of several of his friends.
In a letter to Varron dated April 20, 46 B.C., he gives his view of his role under Caesar’s dictatorship:
“I advise you to do what I intend to do myself: avoid being seen, even if we don’t avoid talking about it If our voices are no longer heard in the Senate and the Forum, let us follow the example of the wise elders and serve our country through our writings, focusing on issues of ethics and constitutional law. (Ad Fam., IX, 2)”.
Cicero puts this advice into practice, residing more often in his residence at Tusculum and devoting himself to his writings, to the translation of Greek philosophers, and even to the writing of poetry.
However, his private life is disrupted: he divorces Terentia in 46 B.C., and marries the young Publilia shortly afterwards.
In February 45 B.C., his daughter Tullia died, causing him a deep sorrow expressed in his de Consolatione. He divorced Publilia after this death, because she had rejoiced over Tullia’s death.
Cicero is surprised by Caesar’s assassination on the ides of March 44 BC, because the conspirators had left him out of confidence due to his excessive anxiety.
In the political turmoil that follows, Cicero tries to bring the Roman Senate together, and a general amnesty is approved that disarms tensions while Marcus Antony, consul and executor of Caesar’s will, takes power for a hesitant moment. But the two men did not agree.
When young Octavian, Caesar’s heir, arrives in Italy in April, Cicero thinks of using it against Mark Antony, without success.
In September he begins to attack Mark Antony in a series of increasingly violent speeches, the Filipinos. Cicero describes his position in a letter to Cassius, one of Caesar’s assassins, the same month:
I am glad that the Senate likes my proposal and the speech that accompanies it… Anthony is a madman, corrupt and much worse than Caesar whom you declared the most despicable man when you killed him. Anthony wants to start a bloodbath.
But the political situation is no longer that which prevailed in 63 B.C., Cicero cannot reproduce with his Philippians the effect of his catilinears.
The Senate, decimated by the civil war and reconstituted by Caesar with many newcomers, is undecided and refuses to declare Mark Antony a public enemy.
The following year, after a brief confrontation in Modena, Octavian and Mark Anthony reconcile and constitute with Lepidus the Second Triumvirate, which receives full powers.
The three men soon reached an agreement against their personal enemies. Despite Octavian’s attachment to his former ally, he allows Mark Antony to outlaw Cicero.
Cicero was killed on December 7, 43 B.C.; his head and hands are exposed in the Rostres, in the forum, by order of Mark Anthony.
His brother Quintus and his nephew were executed shortly afterwards in their hometown of Arpinum. Only his son escaped this repression.
The cult of “honorable” and heroic death was very strong in ancient Rome and every man knew that he would also be judged by his attitude, his poses or his words in the last moments of his life.
Depending on their political interests or their admiration for Cicero, his biographers sometimes considered his death as an example of cowardice (Cicero was killed while fleeing) or more often, on the contrary, as a model of stoic heroism (he stretches his neck before his executioner who cannot stand his gaze).
Plutarch’s version of the event skillfully combines these two visions:
“At that moment the assassins arrived; they were the centurion Herenius and the military tribune Popilius, whom Cicero had once defended on a charge of parricide.
The tribune, carrying some men, went ahead… Cicero heard him coming and ordered his servants to put their litter there.
Cicero himself, with a familiar gesture, with his left hand on his chin, looked at his killers.
He was covered in dust, his hair was disheveled and his face was shrinking in anguish […]. reached for the killer’s neck outside the sandbox. He was sixty-four years old.
Following Antonio’s order, they cut off his head and hands, the hands with which he had written the Philippians.
After his death, his son, Marcus Tullius the second, had a rather blurry life. A friend of Brutus, Cicero’s son was to serve as an officer on many occasions, but, unlike his father, he remained almost unknown in the political sphere
Cicero’s best quotes.
Sicknesses of the soul are more deadly than those of the body.
If we are guided by nature, we will never get lost.
The one who is used to lying also has the habit of perjury.
Thanks to our partner Citation Célèbre who offered to share his catalog of Cicero’s sentences. You can consult the best quotes, proverbs, short sentences and thoughts of Cicero on the site Citation Célèbre.
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