Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a Roman writer, speaker, philosopher and politician. His work was closely studied and praised until scholarship in the 19th century revealed that Cicero deftly stole from previous work by Greek philosopher and rhetoricians. Augustine studied him closely, and it is mostly through this scholarship that the writer continued in popularity. He was considered by many to be a “Christian” pagan in his philosophy, so the Roman Catholic Church placed a high value on Cicero’s work.
One must read Cicero with skepticism, since he was an ambitious politician, and his gifted writing represents attempts to achieve his political goals. His skilled writing and philosophy where a means to a political end, which was placement in a high position in the Empire. Though Cicero was born wealthy, he was not of a high enough class to simply enter and succeed in Roman politics. Like many American politicians he studied and practiced law as a way to achieve power in Rome.
Since Cicero was elected to several offices in the judicial system, he became eligible for participation in the Roman senate. Unlike the Greek senate and judiciary process, the Roman senate worked in an advisory capacity. Rome was not a democracy but more closely an oligarchy, where the people are governed by a few in political power, and often these few have inherited power through birthright.
As consul, the most powerful elected office, Cicero unmasked a conspiracy by Caitline, to overthrow the government. He then ordered the death of Caitline and his conspirators without trial, which differs greatly from his previous writings where he appeals for just trials. His decision would later haunt him. He refused to join with Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey to take control of the government. Crassus retaliated by passing a retroactive law, exiling those in Rome who had had Romans executed without trial. Cicero lost not only his estates but also his status as a citizen.
His exile lasted for a little under two years, and represents a time of significant writing in philosophy. Upon returning to Rome, he witnessed the fracture of the relationship between Caesar and Pompey, after the death of Crassus. Cicero felt either ruler would be of tremendous detriment, destroying the oligarchy and instead creating a monarchy with a supreme ruler.
Upon Caesar gaining power, Cicero received a pardon for his mild support of Pompey. However, hewas still unable to return to politics. Cicero witnessed but did not take part in the assassination of Caesar three years later in 44 BCE. His role then became more tainted by political gain. He purposefully pitted Marc Anthony and the Octavian against each other to destabilize the Empire. He felt Octavian should become emperor since he was younger and could be easily influenced by the Senate to restore the Republic.
When Octavian made peace with Marc Anthony, Marc Anthony ordered the deaths of not only Cicero but also his close male relatives. Cicero made an attempt to escape from Italy but he was not successful and was assassinated. His brother and nephew were also killed, but his son escaped and later would hold the office of consul as his father had.
Cicero’s preserved writing is extensive, though it is believed that a few important pieces were lost. He did set up a whole theory of how rhetoric should be taught, greatly derived from Aristotle. His philosophical writings focus on morality, and represent why he was so loved by later Catholic philosophers. Many Romans had come to believe that if the Gods existed, they were impersonal beings that cared little about humans. Cicero held the gods in more esteem, and enjoined others to act in a moral fashion, quite similar to later Christian behavior.
To students of rhetoric, his work is well worth study, particularly his works, “On Invention,” “On the Orator,” and “The Orator.” For philosophers his works, “ On The Nature of the Gods,” and “On Divination,” are of particular interest. His other works are primarily political in nature and may be of interest to those who study politics or rhetoric, since they are classic examples of double speak, with fine noble intentions expressed that were certainly not carried out by the way Cicero lived.