Marcus Tullius Cicero was Rome’s preeminent statesman and master of Latin prose. No other Roman has made a larger contribution to ancient Rome but to the Western literary tradition, and it is not coincidental that his floruit marks the beginning of the Golden Age of Latin nor that his death marks the end of the Roman Republic.
Cicero was born in 106 BCE at Arpinum, a town in the south-east of Latium. His father, also M. Tullius Cicero, was wealthy noble of Arpinum and even had a house in Rome. His mother Helvia was said by his brother Q. Cicero to be a strict but careful housewife.
As a young man, he studied in Rome under the orator L. Licinius Crassus, among other distinguished names. There he met T. Pomponius Atticus, who would be his lifelong friend and with whom Cicero would exchange hundreds of letters.
His early career was interrupted by the Social War, and Cicero grudgingly served under the command of Pompeius Strabo, the father of Pompey the Great. After the war, he returned to his legal practice, and thereupon became celebrated for his oratorical skill, successfully defending Sextus Roscius in 80 against charges of parricide. He won the case by exposing corruption of Sulla’s cronies, who, had this been a few years earlier, would have added his name to the list of proscripti, those who were proscribed as enemies of the state, killed, and had all their property confiscated.
Shortly thereafter Cicero left for Greece to study rhetoric and philosophy. Upon returning, he married Terentia and began his career properly. He successfully climbed the cursus honorum, served as quaestor in Sicily in 75, and eventually was elected consul suo anno “in his year,” i.e. in his forty-second year (the minimum age to do so). This was a distinction well-regarded enough for patricians in Rome, let alone for someone of municipal origin.
As a quaestor in Sicily, Cicero was a model of integrity and honesty. Many Romans saw governing a province as a way to enrich themselves, but Cicero proved himself so honest to the Sicilians, that they asked him to take up their cause against C. Verres, the current governor, who was cruel and corrupt in governing, forcing landowners to pay bribes for unjust and made-up charges.
Upon Verres’ return to Rome in 70, Cicero launched a prosecution against him. So damning was the first day’s opening statement that Verres did not stay for the end of his trial; he went into a self-imposed exile to Massilia, precluding a punishment by the jurors, which would have have seen his house and possessions stripped from him. Though the second speech was never delivered, both survive as the Verrines (or In Verrem I & II).
Cicero’s victory was all the more impressive seeing that he not only won against someone who was “in” with the nobles, but also that he bested his oratorical rival, Q. Hortensius Hortalus. Hortensius, almost a decade Cicero’s senior, had established himself as the best orator in Rome at the time. He was also closely connected to the Optimates and thus a favorite of the nobles who ran the court. Though Cicero did not count himself among the Populares, the trial appeared as a fight between the corrupt nobles and a downtrodden people. His winning secured not only his dominance in oratory, but also a secured track to political eminence.
Cicero was keenly aware of his quasi-outsider status. In his speech against P. Servilius Rulla’s agrarian law, he paid special attention to the fact that he was a novus homo—the first of his lineage to become a senator—especially since it had been decades since the last novus homo. At times, he was combative of the established nobility, though after Verres’ trial he mostly he tried to ingratiate himself in with the Optimates, even if he was often forced to take a middle ground position between the camps. To the Optimates, he was an outsider who sought reform, but to the Populares, he was too close to the Optimates, and did not desire revolution enough.
Still, his legal work made him famous and popular, and he was elected consul in 63 suo anno, as mentioned earlier. As consul, he saw his popularity rise even further, especially thanks to actions taken at the end of the year. He had uncovered and the put down a conspiracy by Catiline (L. Sergius Catilina), who ran for consul that year and lost, to overthrow the Senate and bring in radical democracy. He outed Catiline who fled Rome. Cicero put to death some of the conspirators who stayed in Rome, and the army put down the rest of Catiline’s rebellion.
If Cicero was popular after Verres’ trial, he was now idolized. He earned the title of pater patriae (“Father of the Fatherland”), only the second time in Roman history the title was bestowed. He also asked to be a part of what turned out to be the First Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. Their aim was to gather the leading men of the day—Cicero would have been the fourth—attempting to overcome the reactionary nobility in order to pass much needed reform. Though Cicero refused, to even be asked shows how high an opinion of him was among the movers and shakers of Rome.
However, because of his moving closer to the Optimates and his advocacy of the death penalty without trial for Catiline and his supporters—who had held support from ardent Democrats in Rome—he fast gained enemies. In particular, he drew the ire and opposition of P. Clodius Pulcher, a gang leader for the Populares and a prosecutor in a case that Cicero defended (Pro Murena). In 58, Clodius had a law enacted to exile anyone who executed a Roman without a trial and made it retroactively applicable to deliberately target Cicero. The motion passed; Cicero was exiled, and his house was confiscated and turned into a makeshift temple to Libertas (goddess of liberty).
The Triumvirate recalled Cicero from exile only a year and a half later, but Cicero failed to regain his former status. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus were not firmly in control of Roman politics, and Cicero was rebuked for going after some of Caesar’s more radical land policies.
Diminished by the growing tyranny of the Triumvirate, Cicero retreated to the study of philosophy. During this period, he composed rhetorical and political works, including the De Oratore, De Re Publica, and De Legibus.
He was not completely removed from political life, though. In early 56, he successfully defended M. Caelius Rufus from charges of murder of an Egyptian ambassador and attempted murder of his ex-wife, Clodia, sister of the aforementioned Clodius Pulcher.
In January 52, Clodius and gang leader rival Titus Annius Milo clashed along the Via Appia, resulting in Clodius’ death. Here too Cicero defended Milo, but he was unsuccessful, and Milo fled in exile to Massilia (although, unlike Verres, he was convicted in absentia).
On the eve of civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Cicero had a successful stint as governor of Cilicia, once again displaying integrity and honesty with the inhabitants. He even put down a band of robbers, for which his troops hailed him imperator (general).
But when Cicero returned to Rome, he found himself in the cross hairs of a Triumvirate. Crassus had been killed in Parthia earlier, and relationships between Caesar and Pompey soured. When Caesar crossed the Po with his troops to invade Italy in 49, Cicero, vacillating at first, fled with Pompey and other opponents of Caesar (notably Cato the Younger) to Greece. After the war, Caesar, now dictator for life, pardoned Cicero, but Cicero had become entirely irrelevant to politics.
Cicero again withdrew to his studies. His relationship with Terentia turned bitter, and he divorced her in 47. He remarried in 46, but divorced her, too, after the death of his daughter in childbirth a few months later. The loss of Tullia was a severe blow to Cicero, as he sincerely cherished her perhaps more than anything. He fell into a great depression, and friends wrote him letters attempting to console him.
It was this period that saw his greatest creative output, writing numerous treatises (disguised as dialogues) from 46 to 44, including his most introspective and philosophical (as opposed to the rhetorical and political which he composed a decade prior).
In 44, Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who wished to restore the Republic from its tyrannical turn since Marius’ seven consulships. One was even said to call out Cicero by name to help do so. However, in the aftermath of the assassination, Mark Antony, Caesars’s right-hand man, and C. Octavius, Caesar’s nephew and heir, fought over Caesar’s legacy, with both vying for absolute power.
Since Mark Antony was older and was seen as far more brutish, Cicero supported C. Octavius, now C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian) after receiving Caesar’s inheritance. Cicero seized the opportunity to deliver the vitriolic Philippics against Mark Antony. His luck ran out when Octavian and Antony joined forces. Antony, back in power, ordered his execution.
Cicero died in 43 BCE with his head and hands placed on spikes and displayed in the forum. Dio Cassius relates the legend that Antony’s wife Fulvia took a pin and stabbed Cicero’s hanging tongue with it, symbolizing the destruction of his most powerful weapon, his words.
His family, though, would have the last word in the matter. Cicero’s son, M. Cicero Minor, won the favor of Octavian after the relationship between Antony and Octavian fell apart. When Octavian triumphed over Antony and Cleopatra (the last ruler of Egypt before it became a Roman province), Cicero Minor had all the statues and honors of Antony removed. Plutarch remarks that the will of the gods “entrusted to the family of Cicero the final acts of Antony’s punishment.”
Cicero was one of the most prolific writers of ancient Rome. His surviving output includes 50 orations, 21 philosophical works, and 37 volumes of preserved letters, but many more are lost, with only their titles known. Because of the large number of works, the best known will be discussed, while a complete list of works follows at the end.
Cicero’s earliest literary career centered around his legal speeches. Some of his most famous include: (N.B. in means “against”, pro means “defending”, and de means “on, about, or concerning”):
- Pro Roscio, defending Sextus Roscius from the charges of parricide;
- In Verrem, charging Gaius Verres with plundering Sicily while governor there;
- Pro Archia Poeta, noteworthy for being a perfect example of the dispositio;
- Pro Caelio, defending Caelius Rufus from the charge of attempting to poison Clodia, sister of Clodius and Caelius’ (and Catullus’) former lover;
- De Domo Sua, defending his right to get his house back after Clodius, who had him exiled, turned it into a temple to Libertas and erected a statue of a prostitute in it;
- Pro Milone, his unsuccessful attempt at defending Milo against the charge of murdering Clodius (Milo and Clodius were rival gang leaders who accidentally met on the Via Appia).
Additionally, a number of Cicero’s speeches concern the political actions of the Senate. Two of the more well-known ones include:
- In Catilinam, a series of speeches directed at fellow Senator Catiline, whom Cicero, as consul of Rome, suspected of planning a rebellion against Rome;
- Philippicae, fourteen speeches denouncing Mark Antony (M. Antonius) and his power grab in 44 BCE; named after the speeches of Demosthenes denouncing Philip of Macedon’s attempt at conquering all of Greece.
Cicero’s style was a blend of both the Atticist and Asianist school. His earlier orations were full of ornament and short, pithy figures. Over time, though, he slowly acquired more Atticist tendencies, with some of the periods in, e.g. the Res Publica being quite long with several layers of hypotaxis. Over the course of his career, he refined the construction of his works in favor of symmetry and elegance, placing him high above almost everyone else in eloquence.
Eloquence can only get one so far in ancient Rome, and Cicero excelled in other areas. Most notably, Cicero was highly famed for his portraiture abilities. He was most successful in creating a realistic portrait of both those he defended and attacked, using every poetical device in his oratory to make the jury actually feel as if they knew the person well. It was so effective that after only one day of presenting evidence in his corruption case, Gaius Verres, a favorite among the elite, immediately went into self-imposed exile, sure of Cicero’s success.
Early non-oratory works by Cicero either deal with the art of oratory and rhetoric (De Inventione & De Oratore) or with politics (De Re Publica & De Legibus).
The De Inventione is a minor book of Cicero’s youth. It was supplanted by his De Oratore (and later his Brutus and Orator). Written in 55 BCE, it’s the first of Cicero’s works written as a dialogue. It featured the great orators L. Licinius Crassus (who taught Cicero) and M. Antonius, the grandfather of the infamous Mark Antony.
The work is a somewhat Cicero’s defense of himself. The two orators, as Cicero imagined them, discussed how orators are both masters of eloquence and great men who ought to steer the country rightly with use of good words. M. Antonius argues contra Crassus that they do not need to be philosophers, but they ought to be introspective and careful listeners, able to put to use good argumentation. This echoes Aristophanes’ and Plato’s charge that the sophists did not care to what end their rhetoric served so long as they were payed; true philosophers, like true orators, cultivated learning and morals together.
Aside from works on his specialty, Cicero delved into works on religion, moral duties, and the ideal state. In works like De Divinatione and De Natura Deorum, his characters emphasized the importance of religion to the community, even if were based on tall tales and exaggerated legends.
Cicero contributed little to the overall development of philosophy; however, his importance lies in translating Greek ideas into Latin for a Roman audience, injecting some Roman sensibilities along the way. Works of his like the De Natura Deorum provided neat summaries of philosophical schools for Roman readers while still tackling questions that would have been more pertinent to Roman readers than Greek ones; for example, a major focus of De Natura Deorum concerns the problem of private atheism in a system (like the Romans’) which demanded public worship.
Moreover, Cicero’s works like De Re Publica and De Legibus are far cries from simple translations of the corresponding Platonic works, but rather are complete reworkings, replete with major Roman figures like Scipio introducing complex theological constructs to Cicero and his contemporaries.
After the death of Tullia, Cicero’s philosophical output intensified. He published a flurry of works on ethics that had seemingly been planned for a few years, and his final works were deep and introspective, focusing much more on old age (Cato Maior), friendship (Laelius), and the afterlife.
Thanks to efforts of Atticus and Tiro, a former-house slave whom Cicero freed who doubled as his secretary and amanuensis, we also have hundreds of letters of Cicero’s correspondence. These are primarily written to Atticus (with none of Atticus’ preserved), but also quite a few to Brutus, his brother Quintus, and many political figures with whom Cicero interacted.
These letters are fascinating for showing the private life of one of Rome’s greatest citizens. The letters detail Cicero’s inner joys, doubts, and demons which he shared with Atticus, as well as authentic examples of diplomacy and problems in governance from the exchange of letters with other prominent senators and leading figures in Rome.
Cicero also tried his hand at poetry, too, though none of it is very good. We have two titles, the De Consulatu Suo (On His Own Consulship), of which a few lines survive, and the De Temporibus Suis (On His Own Times), none of which survive.
Style and Legacy
Cicero was recognized as one of the greats even in his own lifetime. Before he began his career, the preeminent orator at Rome was Quintus Hortensius Hortalus. The two squared off at the trial of Verres, but following Cicero’s devastating attack on Verres’ character and Verres’ voluntary exile to Massilia, Cicero’s reputation had permanently eclipsed his former mentor’s. It did not hurt that Cicero brought integrity and empathy to a downtrodden people while Hortensius defended a smug pillager.
Cicero did not win every case, and Asconius points that some speeches like the Pro Milone were greatly altered before publication. His style though was seen exemplary of excellent Latin, with very few orators capable of matching him. Not a full generation afterward Velleius Paterculus and Seneca the Elder praised his compositions as Latin par excellence, with the latter ruing the fact that he never had the chance to see Cicero declaim.
Cicero did have his detractors, though. As a middle of the way orator, Atticists derided his Asianic tendencies and Asianists mocked his periodic structure. Others like Asconius Pedianus and Sallust thought it too degenerate of Latin; Sallust himself preferred a polished version of Cato the Elder’s style. Asinius Gallus, grandson of the great orator Asinius Pollio, who had labeled Cicero’s oratory “effeminate,” vigorously defended his grandfather’s style over Cicero’s, an opinion that Quintilian derides.
Cicero’s style of oratory fell out of style with the fall of the Republic and the rise of the practice of declamatio under the empire. For many decades Seneca’s oratory—ornate, jagged, pithy—was in vogue However, learned authors like Asconius and Quintilian defended Cicero; Quintilian stated outright that Cicero’s Latin is the definition of eloquence. His reputation slowly returned so that Apuleius in the third century would emulate Cicero’s style very closely in his own speech defending himself from charges.
Cicero’s influence on the west far outweighed any other Classical writer. Even after the supremacy of Christianity and the Latin Bible, Cicero remained extremely popular. In a letter (22), Jerome relates a dream he had in which God chastised him for “being a follower of Cicero and not Christ.” His Latin style more than anyone else’s became the model for good Latinity following the Renaissance, and he remains canon for all students learning the language today.
Aside from his contribution to Latin style, Cicero the man has been the subject of numerous debates. In particular, critics see Cicero in his private letters not as a man of great stature in the state, but as an insecure yet self-congratulatory, annoyingly self-praising man who desired more than anything to be an important and well-respected member of the noble class. Shackleton Bailey, in his 1971 biography on Cicero, summed him up thus:
Alongside the image of the patriot which he tried to project into posterity has arisen the counter-image of a windbag, a wiseacre, a humbug, a spiteful, vain-glorious egotist. And that is because, as some of his admirers have urged, the survival of his private correspondence has placed him at a disadvantage. […] The living Cicero was hated by some, but not despised. His gifts, matching the times, were too conspicuous. And many opponents were disarmed; Mommsen himself might have capitulated to a dinner-party at Tusculum.
Even while Cicero the man is criticized for his letters, he still began—unwittingly—the literary tradition of the gentleman’s letter collection. Pliny the Younger appears to be directly modeling his epistolary correspondence off Cicero’s.
- Silent enim leges inter arma. “The law is silent in time of war.” (Pro Milone 4.11)
- Vi victa vis. “Violence conquered by violence.” (Pro Milone 11.30)
- O tempora, o mores! Oh, the times! Oh, the values! (In Catilinam I)
- Nihil tam absurde dici potest, quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosophorum. There is nothing so absurd that has not been said by some philosopher. Book II, chapter LVIII, section 119
- Omnium rerum principia parva sunt. “The beginnings of all things are small.” (De Finibus 5.58)
- Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit. “If you have a garden in a library, you lack nothing.” (Epist. ad Fam. 9.4)
- Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? “Just how long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?” (In Cat. I 1)
- Est enim unum ius quo deuincta est hominum societas et quod lex constituit una, quae lex est recta ratio imperandi atque prohibendi. Quam qui ignorat, is est iniustus, siue est illa scripta uspiam siue nusquam. “For there is one right which is essentially for society and which one law establishes. This law is right reasoning in ordering and prohibiting. Whoever ignores this right is unjust […].
- Noxia poena par esto. “Let the punishment fit the crime.” (De Leg. 3.11)
- Nec vero superstitione tollenda religio tollitur. “Religion isn’t destroyed just because superstition is.” (De Div. 2.72.148)
Complete List of Works
Extant or Mostly Extant
(In chronological order)
Pro Quinctio, Pro Roscio Amerino, Pro Roscio Comodeo, de Lege Agraria, Contra Rullum, In Verrem, de Imperio Cn. Pompei, Pro Caecina, Pro Cluentio, Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo, In Catilinam I-IV, Pro Murena, Pro Sulla, Pro Flacco, Pro Archia Poeta, Post Reditum in Senatu, Post Reditum in Quirites, de Domo Sua, de Haruspicum Responsis, Pro Cn. Plancio, Pro Sestio, In Vatinium, Pro Caelio, de Provinciis Consularibus, Pro Balbo, Pro Milone, In Pisonem, Pro Scauro, Pro Fonteio, Pro Rabirio Postumo, Pro Marcello, Pro Ligario, Pro Deiotaro, Philippicae.
Other Prose Works
Extant or Mostly Extant
(In chronological order; dates taken from Conte.)
De Inventione (c. 54), De Oratore (54), Partitiones Oratoriae (c. 54), De Re Publica (c. 54—51), De Optimo Genere Oratorum (52), De Legibus (c. 52), Brutus (46), Paradoxa Stoicorum (46), Orator (46), Academica (46), De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (45), Dispurationes Tusculanae (45), De Natura Deorum (45), De Devinatione (44), De Fato (44), Cator Maior de Senectute (44), Laelius de Amicitia (44), Do Officiis (44), Topica (44).
Consolatio (45), Hortensius (45), Laus Catonis (45), De Gloriis (44), De Virtutibus, De Auguriis De Consiliis Suis, Chorographica (possible title), Admiranda, and translations of Plato’s Timaeus and Xenophon’s Economicus.
De Consulatu Suo, De Temporibus Suis, Juvenilia (poetry written in his youth), Aratea, Marius, Limon.
16 books Ad Familiares, 16 books Ad Atticum, 27 letters Ad Quintum Fratrem, 2 books Ad Marcum Brutum.
Latin: PHI Latin Texts
Latin: Forum Romanum
Latin: The Latin Library
Books and Articles
- John Richard Dugan 2005. Making a New Man: Ciceronian Self-Fashioning in the Rhetorical Works. Oxford.
- D. R. Shackleton Bailey 1971. Cicero.
- D. R. Shackleton Bailey 1980. Cicero: Select Letters. Cambridge.