Born in Arpinum (a town that received full Roman citizenship in 188) in 106, Cicero became the most famous Roman orator, arguably the best, and enjoyed a successful political career. He was born into a prominent and wealthy local family of equestrian rank. Traditionally this has designated those who could afford their own horse for the cavalry, but by Cicero’s time was a mark of economic status. The equestrians were Rome’s lower upper class, the non-senatorial upper class. Cicero possessed the advantage of being from a wealthy family, but lacked the political springboard of a history of successful office-holding that noble (the term being nobiles) families such as the Metelli could boast. The meaning of the term nobilis is somewhat disputed, but it as a minimum referred to families with a history of senatorial offices, some argue specifically the consulship. Individuals who entered the political scene without such a background were novi homines, new men. Among them was Cicero. However, the path to political success in Roman politics was certainly not closed to such men, as the careers of Cato the Elder and more recently Marius demonstrate. In c.90 Cicero began his rhetorical training under Q. Mucius Scaevola, who was one of the foremost advocates in Rome of his day. Those training for a career in the courts did not go to ‘law school’ as such, but were entrusted to the tutelage of a prominent advocate. Caelius was entrusted to Cicero and M. Licinius Crassus for his training.
Military success was particularly valued at Rome as a means to achieving glory and renown, especially as a prerequisite to anyone planning on embarking on a political career. Clodia’s husband (dead by the time of pro Caelio), Q. Metellus Celer had been a highly successful general before his consulship in 60. Cicero completed military service under Cn. Pompeius Strabo during the Social War (90-88) between Rome and various of her Italian allies. However, it was not his strong. He enjoyed a highly successful career, nevertheless, but one can occasionally detect a certain self-consciousness about his lack of military prowess, for example, in his defence of Murena for bribery in 63, when he passionately defends the toil and skill demanded by oratory (11-13). Following the Social War, Cicero sought to further his education even writing his first treatise, de invention rhetorica. It was at the end of the 80s that Cicero delivered one of the most impressive speeches of his career – pro Roscio Amerino, in which he achieved the acquittal of a young man charged with his father’s murder (parricide). In this speech Cicero displays a great skill in walking a careful line between not offending dictator Sulla but blaming those who abuse his system. He argues that Roscius’ cousins falsely inserted his name on the proscription list to seize his father’s estate and then frame him for the murder.
The early 70s saw Cicero undertaking further study in Greece and Asia Minor, focusing on improving his technique and philosophical knowledge. He claimed his place on the ladder of curule offices in 76 as quaestor and served in Sicily in 75, where he earned a reputation for integrity in his dealings with provincials, and, therefore, also won the good will of the Sicilians. These connections proved useful in 71 when he undertook to prosecute the undeniably corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Prosecuting Verres was no easy task for Cicero. The juries of the corruption court were staffed by senators, whose track record for convicting their manifestly guilty fellows was rather less than impressive. Moreover, with a defence team composed of Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius, Scipio Nasica, Lucius Cornelius Sisenna, and Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, the foremost orator of his day, Cicero, a relative newcomer in comparison, faced something of an uphill task. He succeeded. Cicero only needed to deliver the first speech and Verres went into exile.
Cicero’s career continued to flourish in the 60s. He was praetor in 66 and secured the consulship for 63. All political offices in Rome had a minimum age at which they could be first held. It is testimony to Cicero’s achievement that he achieved election at the first possible opportunity for the posts he held. However, his consulship also left him on shaky ground politically. Catiline himself had been declared a hostis by the senate and died fighting in battle. With his death, there was no issue. However, the matter was not quite so straightforward regarding the five alleged conspirators within Rome, who were executed without trial with Cicero supporting the move. He was left vulnerable to being tried for executing Roman citizens without trial. He was prevented from making his closing speech as consul by two tribunes at the end of 63. When in the following year, 62, he made an enemy of Clodius, brother of Clodia, he had more or less guaranteed revenge would follow. The questionable execution would be Clodius’ route of attack. Clodius had been charged with sacrilege for allegedly attending the Bona Dea festival, a religious occasion for women only, led by the wife of the then Pontifex Maximus, Julius Caesar, dressed as a woman. Cicero agreed to appear as witness for the prosecution. Clodius was acquitted by a mixture of bribery and intimidation via his gangs. His letter to Atticus in 60 (II.1) betrays his worries about Clodius, although he praises the consul of the year, Metellus, for resisting him stoutly.
The political alliance between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus created a tense political atmosphere at Rome, as Cicero recounts to Atticus. [ref] Political alliances were fluid and the so-called ‘First Triumvirate’ was no exception. At first, Clodius seemed to be against the three of them, but later Caesar and Pompey took his side, with Caesar presiding over Clodius’ transfer to plebeian status and without opposition from Pompey. Cicero, it seems, had proven rather outspoken against the three when defending C. Antonius (Wiseman 64). The transition took place soon after. The move made Cicero’s exile for his execution of the Catiinarian conspirators certain. Cicero loathed exile. Clodius continued his vendetta in Cicero’s absence. In the pro Caelio, Cicero hints at ‘injuries’ his family suffered at the hands of Clodius and his sister, while he was away from Rome. It did not last long and he was recalled the following year. During the 60s, Cicero had carefully cultivated Pompey, then the hero of the hour after his victories over the Cilician pirates and then king Mithradates of Pontus, a thorn in the side of the Roman empire since the 80s. However, Pompey did not return Cicero’s lavish (more accurately excessive – see ad Fam. V.7) admiration and regard. He did little to prevent Cicero’s exile, although, perhaps fearing Clodius, he seems to have played a role in securing his return. Cicero continued his public support of Pompey, only to realise that Pompey’s loyalty was not reciprocated and superficial. With the renewal of the alliance between him, Crassus, and Caesar at the so-called Lucca conference, Cicero found himself forced to keep a low profile and, politically, he went rather quiet. Realising he had been used, Cicero candidly acknowledges to Atticus (ad Att. 4.5) that he has been ‘a real idiot’ (me asinum germanum fuisse). It was during this period that he turned to the writing of philosophy, perhaps as a vent for his pent-up political views. Nevertheless, he remained very active forensically. He successfully defended L. Calpurnius Bestia on a charge of bribery on 11th February. The prosecutor was M. Caelius Rufus. Caelius at once began preparing fresh proceedings against Bestia. By 4th April the same year, it was Caelius on trial with his tutor and mentor Cicero was defending him. Although Cicero might have been compelled to become a little less vocal in the political arena, pro Caelio attests to his great rhetorical talents and he gives a jury dragged into court on a festival day a spectacle worthy of the comic stage.
The rest of the 50s saw Cicero more engaged in writing three of his most famous theoretical and philosophical works: de re publica, de oratore, de legibus. It is as if they became the outlet for his somewhat pent up political views and frustrations. He was a highly well-read and learned man, familiar with Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, early Roman poetry and drama, and he was highly proficient in Greek. He channelled his frustrations and scholarly nature into fascinating and thought-provoking works that still resonate with us today. Montesquieu, Locke, and Voltaire were all strongly influenced by Cicero, not to mention the current Prime Minister in his oratorical skills. Cicero was not entirely absent from the courtroom. However, he had had his wings clipped, his wrist slapped and he had learnt his lesson. In 52 BC, he once again witnessed the violence that was bringing the Republic to a standstill. Milo, a tribune of 57 BC, who had campaigned for Cicero’s return and was bitterly hostile to Clodius, was charged with murdering Clodius. The furious plebs had turned their beloved Clodius’ funeral pyre into a conflagration that symbolically consumed the senate house. Pro Milone is an outstandingly skilled speech…except that Cicero didn’t deliver it. Clodius’ angry thugs, supported by some of Caesar’s veterans, aggressively heckled around the courtroom, and poor old Cicero’s courage failed him. Milo is reported as having read the speech while in exile in Marseilles and responded, ‘well if Cicero had given this speech, I should not now be enjoying the great wines of Marseilles’ (other versions have it as fish sauce).
In 51 BC, Cicero finally went off to govern a province. His letters show that he strove to emulate those governors of honourable reputation. He would not take money from the locals and worked hard to hear grievances. Nevertheless, Cicero still managed to betray his vanity. A minor military victory became a stuck record-like plea for a triumph, very similar to his desperate quest for a biographer who could immortalise his consulship of 63 BC. There was one episode, however, where Cicero seems genuinely to have wanted to ‘do the right thing’, but was prevented from doing so by the situation’s connection to the politics back in Rome which left him between a rock and a hard place. He was appalled by an extortionate loan that been given to the Salaminians and seems to have been hoping to achieve some kind of relief for them. However, Brutus, who was clearly involved with the loan, rather backed him into a corner and, at that time, Cicero could not afford to lose friends. He had to let it go, but with much regret.
When the civil war finally erupted in 49 BC (in reality, it had been inevitable from 50, even 51 BC, when Caesar’s return from Gaul loomed onto the horizon), Cicero slipped out of Italy to join Pompey’s forces. Disillusioned with the forces both in terms of their motivation and their conduct, following the Pompeians’ defeat at the battle of Pharsalus, he returned to Rome and gave up his command. Caesar pardoned him. His respect for Cicero was sincere, even though they were at quite different ends of the political spectrum. Cicero hoped that Caesar would revive the Republic, and he drops a subtle hint to this in the following line from pro Marcello:
“All things, O Caius Caesar, which you now see lying cast down as is inevitable through the violence of war, must now be raised up again by you alone. The courts must be re-established, trust must be restored, licentiousness must be repressed, the increase of population must be encouraged, everything which has collapsed and flowed away, must be shored up and fastened by strong laws.”
He is hinting that Caesar has the power to set the republic, as Cicero loved it, back in a strong position. Of course, it did not happen.
A certain friendship remained between the two men. In 45 BC, Cicero suffered his worst grief yet. His beloved daughter died from a fever following childbirth, as did the son she bore. Cicero was inconsolable, although Caesar, similarly distraught at his own daughter, Julia’s death in 54 BC, offered Cicero words of sympathy. It comes as a heart-warming surprise to readers, who have previously only seen the arrogant Cicero of 63, that he was capable of such genuine care and affection. In his letters, she is generally ‘his darling little Tullia’ (even when she was in her thirties). In charming letter to Atticus, when Tullia would have been about nine, Cicero reports that ‘my little Tullia is pestering me for your little present. But I have not yielded just yet.’ She was the apple of her father’s eye (as Everitt notes in his terrific biography of Cicero) and he never really got over her passing.
Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Cicero hinted at his support for the conspirators, who were swiftly forced to flee for their lives from Rome after Antony’s public reading of Caesar’s will, in which as substantial grant for the urban poor of Rome was announced. The backlash was a violent one. The people had adored Caesar. Enter Octavian. Antony was trying to claim that he was Caesar’s true heir, and Octavian realised he may have to fight Antony to gain control. Rather strangely, at first, he made overtures to Cicero and his pro-senate group. Believing they had a loyal ally, Octavian was granted positions and commands (remember, he was only 19 on his return), raised up the political ladder. All this strengthened his position against Antony. During this time, Cicero unleashed his vitriolic Philippics against Antony, even mocking his drunken state at a festival, when he had vomited all over the rostrum. It was a bridge too far. Events culminated in the battle of Mutina in April 43 BC. Both consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, were killed, and author Suetonius reports a rumour that Octavian was behind their deaths. Whatever the truth of it. Antony was defeated, but the pro-senate party were without leaders. Octavian was in a strong position. He turned his back on Cicero and co and threw in the towel with Antony. Why? I don’t accept the traditional explanation that he was miffed at only receiving an ovatio (lesser triumph) for Mutina, whereas conspirator Decimus Brutus received a full triumph. Was it opportunistic? He saw alliance with Antony as a stronger prospect? Could well have been, but I personally think he had always been intending to ditch the Republican side, who, as Caesar’s son and heir, were hardly his natural bedfellows, so to speak. But he won over a supportive alliance that helped him achieve the bargaining position he needed against Antony, and then dropped them like a lead brick. Such was the canny mind that triumphed as supreme citizen in 30 BC and maintained power until AD 14.
When Octavian marched into Rome after Mutina, Antony’s status as a public enemy was repealed and soon their Sullan styled proscriptions were unleashed. On the list was Cicero. It would not surprise me if part of Antony’s price for an alliance with Octavian had been the orator whose Philippics had been so offensive. The centurion and tribune who would execute Cicero, caught him attempting to flee from his villa at Formiae on December 7 43 BC. Cicero gave up his resistance and bowed his neck in acceptance of his fate. Cassius Dio reports a gruesome story that Fulvia, Antony’s assertive and angry wife, pierced the tongue of Cicero’s severed head with her brooch pin, the tongue that spoke the Philippics (see the article on Fulvia under ‘Remarkable Women of Antiquity).
Cicero was not, however, a victim of damnatio memoriae damned post-mortem. Quite the contrary. Plutarch tells the following story.
Augustus, while visiting one of his grandsons, noticed that the boy was a reading a book of Cicero’s works. Terrified his grandfather would be angry, the boy hid the book. However, Augustus had seen it. But he was not angry, he took up the book and read a great part of it. He then returned the book to they boy saying:
‘a learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.”