Cicero: A Lover Of His Country

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When Plutarch sought to describe Cicero, he used the term “φιλόπατρις”, a word translating roughly to a sense of patriotism. Indeed, this seems to be an appropriate way to consider Cicero – a fierce constitutionalist and defender of the Republic at a time when it was succumbing to corruption and conspiracy. Yet our memory of Cicero has become increasingly disassociated with the political turmoil of his time. Instead, the Enlightenment scholars who repopularised his work idealised Cicero merely as an academic, whose work may be read as a model for Latin prose or as the pinnacle of legal eloquence, and someone we might admire for introducing Greek philosophy to the Roman public. This image neglects the fact that Cicero was not merely a commentator, some ancient sceptic journalist; he was a political animal, a highly ambitious man who endured adversity, personal trauma, assassination attempts and conspiracies and who, despite a comparatively humble upbringing, managed to ascend to the pinnacle of power, before ultimately falling in his attempt to hold back the fall of the Roman Republic.

Cicero was born on 3 January 106 B.C. in Arpinum, a town 100 km southeast of Rome. The Ciceros were local nobles, but had no strong ancestral ties to the senatorial elite, despite the fact that the people of Arpinum had received Roman citizenship in 188 B.C. Although Rome was a Republic, it was these senatorial elites (the patricians) who dominated public life and possessed a virtual monopoly on the highest offices. While a homo novus (literally, a new man – a politician without ancestors in the Senate) such as Cicero could succeed in Rome, it was an exhausting uphill battle impossible to all but the most ambitious. 

From a young age, Cicero studied Greek as a gateway into the Roman elite, who were then fascinated by the language and its literature. He was a talented youth, and those who studied with him noted his intellectual precociousness. Before he could begin the political career he craved, however, Cicero had to serve in the legions. He loathed this experience, and his serious aversion to violence forced him to pursue other opportunities to gain public acclaim – namely a career in the courts. He began his legal career in 81 B.C., defending Publius Quinctius in a minor dispute, but his first major break came the next year, when he defended Sextus Roscius on a charge of patricide.

Roscius’ father had been murdered by his neighbours and his property had been seized by Chrysogonus (a freedman of Sulla, then the Dictator of Rome who had seized power for himself in a bloody coup). At his freedman’s request, Sulla then had Roscius’ father retroactively deemed an outlaw, legalising the murder and meaning his property (valued at around 6 million sesterces) was seized and sold at auction. Chysogonus then purchased this property for the ridiculous price of 2,000 sesterces, something Roscius was so enraged at that he publicly denounced Sulla’s freedman. In response to these allegations, Chysogonus prosecuted Roscius on charges of patricide. Roscius struggled to find an advocate who was willing to risk angering Sulla, and so he found himself at the door of the relatively unknown Marcus Cicero.

This was a risky case for Cicero to take – Sulla was known to have killed men for lesser offences – and defending a man accused of patricide, considered one of the most heinous crimes a Roman could commit, was unlikely to garner much public support. Yet Cicero accepted, and managed to secure Roscius’ acquittal by arguing the defendant had nothing to gain by killing his own father, but that those prosecuting him had both the motive and opportunity to commit the crime.

Although Sulla took no action against him, Cicero sensed it would be wise to flee to Greece in 79 B.C., though he insisted it was merely out of a desire to study philosophy and oratory. It was not uncommon for aspiring politicians to study in Athens under Greek rhetoricians, and Cicero became one of their finest pupils; indeed, one of his tutors apparently fell very solemn after hearing a speech of Cicero, reflecting that the Romans, having already conquered Greece with arms, would now be able to surpass Greece in their oratory.

Cicero would go on to become a master of the middle style of oratory; a compromise between the flamboyant, elaborate and highly dramatic Asiatic style and the bluntly factual plain style. In that same year, Cicero married Terentia, supposedly because he needed her wealth to meet the financial qualifications for entry to the Senate. Her exact endowment was 400,000 sesterces, precisely the amount one needed to be eligible for public office.

Aged thirty, Cicero was enrolled in the Senate and spent a year in Sicily as a financial administrator (a quaestor). At a time when most Roman governors of the provinces were cruelly exploitative, Cicero established a reputation for himself as a capable, conscientious and incorruptible bureaucrat and earned the gratitude of the Sicilians. There could not have been a greater contrast between Cicero and Verres (the Governor of Sicily), who was, even by Roman standards, comically corrupt. 

The Sicilians asked Cicero to bring a lawsuit against Verres. Such lawsuits were not uncommon, but the defendants were usually able simply to bribe their way to a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Despite this, Cicero agreed to begin his prosecution in 70 B.C. He found himself opposed by Quintus Hortensius, then considered the finest orator and lawyer of the day. Cicero’s key advantage was that the trial’s judge, Glabrio, was an incorruptible magistrate, and therefore could not be bought with Verres’ ill-gotten gains. Due to a quirk of the Roman legal system, however, Glabrio would be replaced as judge if the trial lasted past the New Year, and his replacement was known to be a close friend of Verres. Furthermore, a number of festivals and public holidays were scheduled near the end of the year, meaning Cicero was working with little time.

Hortensius therefore employed a series of delaying tactics and seemed set to cruise to another legal triumph. But Cicero had no intention of falling into Hortensius’ trap. Instead of making the customarily extremely long-winded speeches which could last days at a time, Cicero simply ignored precedent and presented the jury with the plentiful testimony of the witnesses he had gathered. Verres panicked at the last moment, fled Rome and was pronounced guilty in absentia. Having defeated Hortensius, Cicero saw his reputation skyrocket. He enjoyed substantial popular support, and was elected to a series of important political positions with the support of every voting unit – something no homo novushad achieved before. In these years, Cicero became increasingly associated with Pompey the Great, then the Republic’s most popular and successful general, and helped grant him a series of powerful commands.

To crown his career, Cicero was elected one of the two consuls (the Roman heads of state, tasked with chairing the Senate, proposing legislation and otherwise leading the Republic) for the year 63 B.C., defeating the populist patrician Catalina. Cicero was first homo novus to do so in three decades, and, aged forty-two, he had achieved his life’s ambition. But the Republic he now headed was in crisis: just two decades ago, the general Sulla had marched on Rome and seized power and, although he had later restored the Republic and died, his veterans remembered their previous successes and were hungry for another opportunity to rule Rome once again. At the same time, an economic crisis meant Rome was filled with the urban poor, workless, unemployed and prospectless.

These men had provided Catalina with a political base of support, but not enough support to defeat Cicero in the elections for the consulship of 63 B.C. Roman elections were held about halfway through the year, several months before the elected took office. Accordingly, in the year 63 B.C., Catalina attempted to win the consulship (this time for the year 62 B.C.), but he was, again, defeated. Realising that his popularity was only eroding with time and that he would never have the opportunity to gain power legitimately, Catalina dispatched Gaius Manlius (a former centurion of Sulla) to Etruria raise an army in Central Italy. Meanwhile, he began plotting in Rome itself, and planned on causing chaos by means of arson, murdering a number of senators and then joining Manlius as his army marched on Rome. 

The first step in Catalina’s conspiracy was sending Gaius Cornelius and Lucius Vargunteius to assassinate Cicero early in the morning of 7 November 63. However, Quintus Curius had heard about the intended assassination from his mistress, Fulvia, and warned Cicero. Cicero acted swiftly; he surrounded himself with bodyguards, foiled the assassination attempt and headed to the Senate house. Despite having attempted to murder a sitting consul, Catalina attended that day’s Senate meeting. Cicero savagely denounced him, listed the debaucheries of his followers and demanded he stop polluting Rome with his presence and leave the city. Catalina fled that night to Manlius’ camp. 

But Cicero had not succeeded entirely. He had hoped Catalina’s followers would flee Rome with him, but they had instead remained in the city to continue their conspiracy. At that time, there was a delegation from the Allobroges, a Gallic tribe, present in Rome. One conspirator, Umbrenus, contacted the Gauls and offered them concessions if they rose up in revolt to aid Catalina. These envoys feigned interest, then immediately warned Cicero. Cicero asked the Gauls to obtain some evidence condemning the conspirators, and they managed to coax Catalina’s followers into writing and signing a letter outlining their plot. 

Cicero then managed to ambush the conspirators at the Milvian Bridge, hauled them before the Senate and presented his case. The Senate responded by passing the senatus consultum ultimum (effectively declaring a state of emergency and permitting the consuls to use any means necessary to defend the Republic). Cicero proceeded to argue that the conspiracy presented a mortal danger to Rome, and that this chaos called for a show of strength and a quick end to the conspiracy. The Senate, after a heated debate, agreed, followed Cicero’s advice and condemned the conspirators to death. Cicero had them strangled in the Tullianum (the prison in Rome) and announced their demise to the public by declaring “vixere” – “they have lived” , a euphemism to avoid the misfortune that supposedly came from speaking of death in the Forum.

This was a bold move by Cicero. The conspiracy was crippled, with around 7,000 of the 10,000 men in Manlius’ army deserting immediately. At the Battle of Pistoia, the remnants of Catalina’s forces were crushed with ease and the conspiracy’s leader went down fighting. Yet Cicero had broken an ancient precedent; custom dictated that no Roman citizen could be executed without a trial, but there had not been sufficient time to go through such a process in the chaos of the conspiracy. Cicero claimed that his actions were justified both by the vote of the Senate and the powers the senatus consultum ultimum vested him with, but the issue would come to haunt him. 

For his role in quelling Cataline’s conspiracy, Caesar was named Pater Patriae – Father of the Fatherland. Unfortunately, Cicero did not accept this honour with grace. Instead, he grew boastful and apparently spent so much time describing the details of his consulship that he came to be viewed as tiresome. At one point, he wrote an epic poem in the style of the Iliad, in which the gods described the suppression of Catalina’s conspiracy. Cicero’s behaviour may have been politically motivated, since, unlike most of his rivals, he lacked great ancestors with achievements that he could praise. Accordingly, he was forced to exaggerate his own accomplishments, much to the annoyance of those around him. Despite the fact he was becoming an irksome individual, however, Cicero was then at the height of his political prominence. 

Unfortunately, disaster struck. A patrician named Publiuc Clodius Pulcher was caught (in transvestite garb) attempting to break into a sacred religious festival which could only be seen by women, and was immediately hauled before a court. Although he did not bring charges against the young man, Cicero served as a witness for the prosecution, and so still earned the eternal enmity of Clodius. Around this time, Pompey, a long-time ally of Cicero, formed an alliance with the up-and-coming politician Julius Caesar and his old enemy Crassus. All three had grown frustrated with the political gridlock which then plagued Rome, and sought to overwhelm senatorial opposition to their efforts. This alliance, known as the First Triumvirate, dominated the Republic and made its three members the masters of Rome.

Cicero was deeply concerned with what this concentration of power meant for the Republic, and spoke out vocally against the Triumvirs. Caesar reacted swiftly, and began backing Clodius. Newly empowered, Clodius formed violent street gangs and used these to bully the Senate into passing a law which retroactively made it illegal to execute a Roman citizen without a trial. Cicero was the clear target, and, despite the fact his actions in quelling the Cataline conspiracy were perfectly legal, was unable to muster enough support to defend himself. The patricians were unwilling to politically expose themselves for an outsider homo novus and risk losing support of their peers, and Pompey was willing to sacrifice his old ally for his new, more powerful, acolytes. Cicero fled Rome. In his absence, Clodius rammed through another bill, denying Cicero the right to ‘fire and water’ within 640 km of Rome and confiscating his property. Cicero’s house on the Palatine was subsequently sacked by Clodius’ gangs, and replaced with a temple to Liberty.

Cicero was devastated by his exile – he had never enjoyed spending time in the provinces, and could not abide the thought that the political career he had devoted his life to would end in such ignominy. Betrayed, isolated from his friends and overwhelmed by his enemies, Cicero contemplated suicide, but was talked out of doing so. Exile also put a strain on his marriage, and Cicero sent progressively fewer letters to Terentia the longer he spent away from Rome. The two eventually divorced in 51 B.C. In order to solve his financial difficulties (only worsened by having to repay Terentia’s dowry), Cicero married Publilia, a rich woman several decades his junior. The marriage did not last long; Publilia felt overlooked due to Cicero’s great affection for his daughter Tullia and, when she expressed joy a few months after Tullia’s death at the prospect of receiving more attention, Cicero ended the marriage. 

Eventually, Pompey grew infuriated by Clodius’ actions. Milo, another enemy of Clodius, began forming street gangs of his own with which to battle Clodius’ private army. Together, Milo and Pompey were able to organise the overturning of Cicero’s exile, and, on 5 August 57 B.C., the Senate passed a resolution restoring his property and paying reparations for the damages done to him. But Cicero had returned to a Rome in tumult. Every day, Milo did battle with Clodius in the streets of Rome, eventually murdering him in public. Cicero defended his ally in the courts, but Milo was found guilty and exiled.

The First Triumvirate collapsed not long after the death of Crassus, and Caesar and Pompey went from being allies to enemies. Cicero, remembering the horrors of the last civil war and fearing that the Republic (as unstable as it was then) would not survive the domination of one man, desperately tried to broker a compromise between Pompey and Caesar. Yet his efforts were in vain, since neither man was willing to offer the concessions the other demanded.

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, invaded Italy and declared Civil War, Cicero fled from Rome with the Pompeian forces. He was hardly enthusiastic about choosing a side, but, since the overwhelming majority of the Senate was against Caesar, Cicero felt obligated to back Pompey, who most assumed would win the conflict. But Cicero grew increasingly disenchanted; he quarrelled with the commanders, lost faith in their competence and worried that they were greedily anticipating purging their rivals after the war’s conclusion. 

They would not get the opportunity. Pompey was decisively defeated at Pharsalus, and Cicero capitulated. Caesar, following a policy of clementia, offered any of those who had opposed him total amnesty, and allowed Cicero to remain a member of the Senate. However, Caesar now dominated the Republic and, although Cicero was publicly rehabilitated, it was clear that neither Cicero nor the Senate wielded any true influence over Rome.

Then, Caesar was assassinated. The events of the Ides of March supposedly shocked Cicero, and he later expressed a wish that he had been invited into the conspiracy. Though Brutus and Cassius had not asked for Cicero to join their plot, they soon began to rely on him as an elder statesman in their attempts to rebuild the Republic. Reportedly, Brutus even called to Cicero to “restore the Republic” as he lifted the bloodied dagger which he had used to stab Caesar. Unfortunately, the assassination of Caesar was one of the least coordinated conspiracies in history and, by allowing key members of the Caesarean regime to survive the Ides, the self-declared ‘Liberators’ quickly lost the initiative and found themselves on the political back-foot.

Chaos dominated these years, and a complex cicil war broke out. On one side sat Cicero and the Senate, backed by Brutus, Cassius and other assassins. The Caesarean faction was split between Antony, Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) and Lepidus (Caesar’s deputy), all of whom had armies and all of whom were just as eager to fight one another as they were to avenge the dead Dictator. Cicero, seeing this as the last best chance to restore the Roman Republic, devised a risky stratagem. Cicero saw in Antony another aspiring tyrant and the greatest danger facing the Republic. Accordingly, he denounced Antony in a bitterly personal series of speeches known as the Philippics, and, having sufficiently savaged his reputation, had the Senate declare Antony was their primary foe. Cicero then began allying with Octavian, believing that he could use the nineteen-year-old to dispose of his main opponent, before then dispensing of the son of Caesar – he famously declared Octavian could be ”praised, raised and erased.”

For a time, it seemed Cicero may yet turn back the tide of history and succeed. But he had monstrously underestimated Octavian, who saw through Cicero’s plan and combined with Antony and Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate. Octavian then marched on Rome, forced the Senate at sword point to make him consul and declared war on Brutus and Cassius, who had since fled to the East. 

Octavian, Antony and Lepidus then began to purge Rome of their opponents. According to some accounts, Octavian attempted to persuade his fellow Triumvirs not to harm Cicero, but was forced to give him up. Cicero was still much admired by the public, and many citizens refused to report seeing him, allowing the great orator to cheat death for a while. Inevitably, however, he was caught on 7 December 43 B.C. whilst attempting to escape to Macedonia. In a final moment of defiance, Cicero allegedly announced to the men sent to murder him “there is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.”

He was decapitated and his hands were cut off. Antony, still indignant over the Philippics, had his head and severed hands displayed on the Rostra (the public speaking platform) in the Roman Forum. Antony’s wife, Fulvia, who at one point had been married to Clodius, pulled out Cicero’s tongue and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin – a final act of frustration at the unconquerable oratory of Cicero. 

Octavian came to regret his role in the death of Cicero. Decades later, after he had eliminated all his rivals and cemented his power, he caught one of his grandchildren reading the works of Cicero. Rather than growing enraged, he took the book and recited a large portion of it back to his grandson. After much time, he commented that the author was “A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.”

There was clearly much more to Cicero than the Enlightenment caricature which is largely accepted even today. He was indeed a scholar and philosopher, but we cannot forget that he was at times a grieving father, a despondent exile, a fierce patriot, an ambitious politician, a victim both of his own success and of others’, and a man who suffered deeply due to his pacificism and emotional sensitivity. While all are aware that Cicero was indeed a learned man, we should not forget the second part of Augustus’ description.

Abbott, F., 1975. Commentary on Selected Letters of Cicero. Oklahoma Press

Cicero., Letters in Exile

Cicero., Letters to Friends

Everitt, A., 2003. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. Random House

Plutarch., Life of Cicero