Tuesday, January 03, 2006


One of the most rapidly rising stars within the Roman Republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero -- born on this day in 106 B.C. near Arpinum -- was also perhaps the Republic's last and most stubborn republican.

The son of an upper-class family which had enjoyed no political power and had never been represented in the Roman Senate, Cicero climbed the political ladder in much the same way that many modern American politicians do -- through attachments to important people and with a dynamic public career as a legal advocate. After an extraordinarily good education in philosophy and rhetoric in Rome and Greece and a brief stint in the Roman army under the father of Pompey, at 26 he gained immediate fame in his maiden trial, a defense of Sextus Roscius against a politically-motivated charge of parricide brought by Sulla, then the Roman leader. Cicero's disarmingly direct arguments impressed the crowds that gathered in the open air court, and Roscius was acquitted of the charge. Fearing Sulla's wrath, however, Cicero fled to Athens and Rhodes, where he continued his studies in rhetoric.

After Sulla's retirement, Cicero returned to Rome and leveraged his fame as an advocate, winning election to the offices of quaestor (financial officer) of western Sicily at age 30 (the youngest age of eligibility) and praetor (judicial officer) at age 40 (again, the youngest eligible age). As a prosecutor, Cicero was quickly hailed as Rome's best lawyer after his victory against Rome's best defense lawyer in the trial of a corrupt former governor of Sicily.

In 63 B.C., he faced Lucius Catiline, the former governor of Africa, in the election for consul, the highest ranking political office in the Republic. As a "new man" with no family political heritage, Cicero was the underdog; but Catiline, who had twice lost in bids for the office, was known as a treacherous thug, and Cicero won the election. Shortly after he took office, Cicero exposed Catiline's conspiracy to hijack the Republic by force, convinced the Senate to enact martial law and ordered five of the conspirators to be put to death without a trial.

Although some applauded Cicero for saving the Republic, Cicero's draconian maneuvers also gained him a few enemies. In 60 B.C., the triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus took over Roman politics and attempted to bring the popular Cicero to their side; but Cicero rebuffed their advances, seeing the triumvirate as a threat to republican government.

Although Caesar personally respected Cicero, one of his followers succeeded in getting a law passed which retroactively banished anyone who killed a Roman citizen without a trial -- a measure aimed squarely at Cicero. Cicero's property was confiscated and he was banished to Greece, where he resumed his studies of rhetoric and philosophy and concentrated on his writing. After a year and a half, the triumvirate permitted Cicero to return to Rome, which he did to popular acclaim, but he was still prohibited from engaging in political activity. The period (55 to 51 B.C.) was his most productive as a writer, the period during which he wrote On the Orator (a treatise on the ideal orator and the importance of rhetoric), On the Republic (a defense of the philosophical underpinnings of the Roman Republic) and On the Laws (on the source of laws in the ideal republic).

When the triumvirate collapsed with the death of Crassus in 53 B.C., Cicero supported Pompey; but Caesar's forces won in 48 B.C., and Caesar was installed as dictator for life. Caesar pardoned Cicero in 47 B.C., but Cicero remained on the political sidelines until after the murder of Caesar in 44 B.C., when Cicero began his rhetorical campaign against the rule of Mark Antony (a series of scathing speeches in the Senate known as the Philippics). He threw his support to the teenager Octavian, believing that if Octavian prevailed he could easily be tossed aside in favor of the old republican institutions. Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus agreed to terms of shared authority, however, and Mark Antony called for the murder of Cicero. Cicero made a half-hearted attempt to flee his death warrant, but upon being captured he boldly held out his neck before the sword. On Mark Antony's orders, Cicero's head and hands were nailed to the podium in the Senate as a warning to others who might try to revive the Senate's authority.

Cicero believed strongly, even quixotically, in the power of language, and for centuries after his death, Cicero's writing was held out as the model of Latin style and vocabulary in the precise and ordered service of persuasive action -- the tricks of the trade for politicians and publicists. Augustine credited Cicero's Hortensius (now lost, a defense of an artist/philosopher against a threatened loss of citizenship) with turning him to philosophical pursuits and eventually to Christianity, despite the fact that Cicero was an agnostic; and though his writing dazzled many great minds throughout the centuries, Cicero's works also inevitably became the bane of the schoolboy's Latin lesson, hard work for their austere content by contrast with the horsey legends spun by Virgil or the intimate instructions of Ovid.



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