Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Born: 106 BC. Died: 43 BC.


Marcus Tullius Cicero, an orator and statesman of Rome, was born on January 3, 106 BC.

His life coincided with the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, and he was an important actor in many of the significant political events of his time, and his writings are now a valuable source of information to us about those events.

Cicero was, among other things, an orator, lawyer, politician, and philosopher. Making sense of his writings and understanding his philosophy requires us to keep that in mind. He placed politics above philosophical study; the latter was valuable in its own right but was even more valuable as the means to more effective political action. The only periods of his life in which he wrote philosophical works were the times he was forcibly prevented from taking part in politics

Cicero's political career was a remarkable one. At the time, high political offices in Rome, though technically achieved by winning elections, were almost exclusively controlled by a group of wealthy aristocratic families that had held them for many generations. Cicero's family, though aristocratic, was not one of them, nor did it have great wealth. But Cicero had a great deal of political ambition; at a very young age he chose as his motto the same one Achilles was said to have had: to always be the best and overtop the rest. Lacking the advantages of a proper ancestry, there were essentially only two career options open to him. One was a military career, since military success was thought to result from exceptional personal qualities and could lead to popularity and therefore political opportunity (as was the case much later for American presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower). Cicero, however, was no soldier. He hated war, and served in the military only very briefly as a young man.

Instead, Cicero chose a career in the law. To prepare for this career, he studied jurisprudence, rhetoric, and philosophy. When he felt he was ready, he began taking part in legal cases. A career in the law could lead to political success for several reasons, all of which are still relevant today. First, a lawyer would gain a great deal of experience in making speeches. Second, he could also gain exposure and popularity from high-profile cases. Finally, a successful lawyer would build up a network of political connections, which is important now but was even more important in Cicero's time, when political competition was not conducted along party lines or on the basis of ideology, but instead was based on loose, shifting networks of personal friendships and commitments. Cicero proved to be an excellent orator and lawyer, and a shrewd politician. He was elected to each of the principle Roman offices (quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul) on his first try and at the earliest age at which he was legally allowed to run for them. Having held office made him a member of the Roman Senate. This body had no formal authority - it could only offer advice - but its advice was almost always followed. He was, as can be imagined, very proud of his successes.

During his term as consul (the highest Roman office) in 63 BC he was responsible for unraveling and exposing the conspiracy of Catiline, which aimed at taking over the Roman state by force, and five of the conspirators were put to death without trial on Cicero's orders. Cicero was proud of this too, claiming that he had singlehandedly saved the commonwealth; many of his contemporaries and many later commentators have suggested that he exaggerated the magnitude of his success. But there can be little doubt that Cicero enjoyed widespread popularity at this time - though his policy regarding the Catilinarian conspirators had also made him enemies, and the executions without trial gave them an opening.

The next few years were very turbulent, and in 60 BC Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus (often referred to today as the First Triumvirate) combined their resources and took control of Roman politics. Recognizing his popularity and talents, they made several attempts to get Cicero to join them, but Cicero hesitated and eventually refused, preferring to remain loyal to the Senate and the idea of the Republic. This left him open to attacks by his enemies, and in January of 58 BC one of them, the tribune Clodius (a follower of Caesar's), proposed a law to be applied retroactively stating that anyone who killed a Roman citizen without trial would be stripped of their citizenship and forced into exile. This proposal led to rioting and physical attacks on Cicero, who fled the city. The law passed. Cicero was forbidden to live within 500 miles of Italy, and all his property was confiscated. This exile, during which Cicero could not take part in politics, provided the time for his first period of sustained philosophical study as an adult. After roughly a year and a half of exile, the political conditions changed, his property was restored to him, and he was allowed to return to Rome, which he did to great popular approval, claiming that the Republic was restored with him. This was also treated by many as an absurd exaggeration.

Cicero owed a debt to the triumvirate for ending his exile, and for the next eight years he repaid that debt as a lawyer. Because he still could not engage in politics, he also had time to continue his studies of philosophy, and between 55 and 51 he wrote On the Orator, On the Republic, and On the Laws. The triumvirate, inherently unstable, collapsed with the death of Crassus and in 49 BC Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, entering Italy with his army and igniting a civil war between himself and Pompey (Caesar's own account of this war still survives). Cicero was on Pompey's side, though halfheartedly. He felt that at this point the question was not whether Rome would be a republic or an empire but whether Pompey or Caesar would be Emperor, and he believed that it would make little difference, for it would be a disaster in either case. Caesar and his forces won in 48 BC, and Caesar became the first Roman emperor. He gave Cicero a pardon and allowed him to return to Rome in July of 47 BC, but Cicero was forced to stay out of politics. Most of the rest of his life was devoted to studying and writing about philosophy, and he produced the rest of his philosophical writings during this time.

Caesar was murdered by a group of senators on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Cicero was a witness to the murder, though he was not a part of the conspiracy. The murder led to another power struggle in which Mark Antony, Marcus Lepidus, and Octavian (later called Augustus) were the key players. It also gave Cicero, who still hoped that the Republic could be restored, the opportunity for what is considered his finest hour as a politician. With Caesar dead, the Senate once again mattered, and it was to the Senate that Cicero made the series of speeches known as the Philippics (named after the speeches the Greek orator Demosthenes made to rouse the Athenians to fight Philip of Macedon). These speeches called for the Senate to aid Octavian in overcoming Antony (Cicero believed that Octavian, still a teenager, would prove to be a useful tool who could be discarded by the Senate once his purpose was served).

However, Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian were able to come to terms and agreed to share power. Each of them had enemies that he wanted eliminated, and as part of the power-sharing deal each got to eliminate those enemies. Antony put not only Cicero but also his son, his brother, and his nephew on the list of those to be killed (the Philippics are not very nice to him at all, especially the Second Philippic). Though Octavian owed his success in part to Cicero, he chose not to extend his protection to Cicero and his family. Cicero, his brother, and his nephew tried somewhat belatedly to flee Italy. His brother and nephew turned aside to collect more money for the trip, and were killed. Cicero kept going. Plutarch describes the end of Cicero's life: "Cicero heard [his pursuers] coming and ordered his servants to set the litter [in which he was being carried] down where they were. He…looked steadfastly at his murderers. He was all covered in dust; his hair was long and disordered, and his face was pinched and wasted with his anxieties - so that most of those who stood by covered their faces while Herennius was killing him. His throat was cut as he stretched his neck out from the litter….By Antony's orders Herennius cut off his head and his hands." Antony then had Cicero's head and hands nailed to the speaker's podium in the Senate as a warning to others. Cicero's son, also named Marcus, who was in Greece at this time, was not executed. He became consul in 30 BC under Octavian, who had defeated Antony after the Second Triumvirate collapsed. As consul, the younger Marcus got to announce Antony's suicide to the Senate.

Major Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero

- Collected Works
- De Inventione
- De Optimo Genere Oratorum
- Topica
- De Oratore
- De Fato
- Paradoxa Stoicorum
- De Partitione Oratoria
- Brutus
- Orator
- De Re Publica
- De Consulatu Suo
- De Legibus
- De Finibus
- Tusculanæ Disputationes
- De Natura Deorum
- Academica
- Cato Maior de Senectute
- Laelius de Amicitia
- De Divinatione
- De Officiis
- Commentariolum Petitionis

Speeches of Marcus Tullius Cicero

- Selected Political Speeches
- Pro Quinctio
- Pro Roscio Amerino
- Pro Roscio Comodeo
- De Lege Agraria Contra Rullum
- In Verrem
- De Imperio Cn. Pompei
- Pro Cæcina
- Pro Cluentio
- Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo
- In Catilinam I-IV
- Pro Murena
- Pro Sulla
- Pro Flacco
- Pro Archia
- Post Reditum in Senatu
- Post Reditum in Quirites
- De Domo Sua
- De Haruspicum Responsis
- Pro Cn. Plancio
- Pro Sestio
- In Vatinium
- Pro Cælio
- de Provinciis Consularibus
- Pro Balbo
- Pro Milone
- In Pisonem
- Pro Scauro
- Pro Fonteio
- Pro Rabirio Postumo
- Pro Marcello
- Pro Ligario
- Pro Deiotaro
- Philippics

Quotes from Marcus Tullius Cicero

- "Advice is generally judged by results, not by intentions." (from "Ad Atticum")

- "Where could one settle more pleasantly than [in] one's home?." (from "Ad Familiares")

- "To bear each other's burdens, never to ask each other for anything inconsistent with virtue and rectitude, and not only to serve and love but also to respect each other." (from "De Amicitia")

- "To give and receive advice-the former with freedom and yet without bitterness, the latter with patience and without irritation-is peculiarly appropriate to genuine friendship." (from "De Amicitia")

- "Nothing is so absurd as not to have found an advocate in one of the philosophers." (from "De Inventione")

- "Now whence arises this distinction between true dreams and false ones? and if true dreams come from God, from whence come the false ones?" (from "De Inventione")

- "The magistrate is a speaking law, and the law a silent magistrate." (from "De Legibus")

- "No one should give or receive a present either during a candidacy or during or after a term of office." (from "De Legibus")

- "The punishment shall fit the offense." (from "De Legibus")

- "The safety of the people shall be their highest law." (from "De Legibus")

- "I only wish I could discover the truth as easily as I can expose falsehood." (from "De Natura Deorum")

- "A great many people do many things that seem to be inspired more by a spirit of ostentation than by heartfelt kindness. ... Such a pose is nearer akin to hypocrisy than to generosity or moral goodness." (from "De Officiis")

- "The chief way to gain good will is by good deeds." (from "De Officiis")

- "For the most part, people are led to wrongdoing in order to secure some personal end; in this vice, avarice is generally the controlling motive." (from "De Officiis")

- "The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory." (from "De Officiis")

- "I do not ... find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody, but unjust acquisition of it is always to be avoided." (from "De Officiis")

- "Knowledge of the universe would somehow be ... defective were no practical results to follow." (from "De Officiis")

- "No greater curse in life can be found than knavery that wears the mask of wisdom." (from "De Officiis")

- "Promises are not binding which were extorted by intimidation or which we make when misled by false pretenses." (from "De Officiis")

- "There are many things which in and of themselves seem morally right, but which under certain circumstances prove to be not morally right." (from "De Officiis")

- "There is nothing so characteristic of narrowness and littleness of soul as the love of riches." (from "De Officiis")

- "The highest ambition of our magistrates and generals was to defend our provinces and allies with justice and honor. And so our government could be called more accurately a protectorate of the world than a dominion." (from "De Officiis")

- "Of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man." (from "De Officiis")

- "Though the whole world grumble, I will speak my mind." (from "De Oratore")

- "[In a dream a voice identified as Scipio's said:] The spirit is the true self, not that physical figure which can be pointed out by the finger. Know, then, that you are a god ... which rules, governs, and moves the body over which it is set, just as the supreme God above us rules this universe." (from "De Re Publica")

- "A strong argument that men's knowledge antedates their birth is the fact that mere children, in studying difficult subjects, so quickly lay hold upon innumerable things that they seem not to be ... learning ... for the first time, but to be recalling." (from "De Senectute")

- "After the manner of the Pythagoreans-to keep my memory in working order-I repeat in the evening whatever I have said, heard, or done in the course of each day." (from "De Senectute")

- "No one is so old as to think he cannot live one more year." (from "De Senectute")

- "The wise man loves not to thrust himself of his own accord into the administration of public affairs, but ..., if circumstances oblige him to it, then he does not refuse the office." (from "On the Commonwealth")

- "To live according to nature is the highest good; that is, to lead a life regulated by conscience and conformed to virtue and temperance." (from "On the Laws")

- "How large an income is thrift!" (from "Paradoxa Stoicorum")

- "A limb may be lost in preference to the whole body." (from "Philippics")

- "Any man is liable to err, but only a fool persists in error." (from "Philippics")

- "The most important events ... are often determined by very trivial [things]." (from "Philippics")

- "The sinews of war, money in abundance." (from "Philippics")

- "The philosophers themselves, even in those books in which they tell us to despise fame, inscribe their names." (from "Pro Archia Poeta")

- "When arms speak, the laws are silent." (from "Pro Milone")

- "Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people considered the wisest and most conscientious of judges, was in the habit of asking repeatedly in trials, "who has profited by it." Such is the way of the world: no man attempts to commit a crime without the hope of profit." (from "Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino")

- "He is the best orator who ... teaches and delights, and moves the minds of his hearers." (from "Treatise on the Best Style of Orators")

- "It is a trait of fools to perceive the faults of others but not their own." (from "Tusculanae Disputationes")

- "Freedom is participation in power." (from "Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" by Martin Luther King, Jr.)

- "There is no better way to convince others than first to convince oneself." (from "Table Talk" by Martin Luther)

- "The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn." (from "Of the Education of Children" by Montaigne)

- "This most valuable of arts, the art of living." (from "Of the Education of Children" by Montaigne)

- "O fortunate Roman State, born in my great Consulate." (from "Satires" by Juvenal)


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