Cicero: Philosophy, Beliefs & Notable Achievements

Cicero, born Marcus Tullius Cicero, was a renowned philosopher, orator and writer who lived in Rome in the first century BC. He used his excellent abilities in writing and public speaking to great effect in the political landscape of Rome. However, his orations, which were sometimes very critical of some leading Roman politicians and generals, got him into a lot of troubles on a number of occasions. The Roman orator was in the end accused of being an enemy of the state and subsequently beheaded in 43 BC on the orders of Roman general and politician Mark Antony.

In the article below WHE explores the life, philosophy and notable achievements of Cicero.

Cicero – Quick Facts

Cicero

Cicero was the famous Roman orator and writer who got beheaded for speaking out against Mark Antony. To many scholars, he was one of the greatest orators and writers of Rome

Born – 106 BC

Place of birth – Arpinum, Italy, Roman Republic

Died – 43 BC

Place of death – Formia, Italy, Roman Republic

Cause of death – beheaded

Mother – Helvia

Brother – Quintus Tullius Cicero

Spouses – Terentia (79-51 BC), Publilia (46-45 BC)

Children – Tullia, Marcus Tullius Cicero Minor (Cicero the Younger)

Notable worksOn the Commonwealth, On the Laws

Positions – Consul (63 BC), Governor of Cilicia (51-50 BC)

Birth and early life

Born in 106 BC just outside of Rome, Cicero is said to have hailed from a reasonably wealthy family. As such he received the very best education in Rome and Athens.

For a few number of years, he was in the military, where he served in the armies of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Pompeius Strabo during the Social War (91-87 BC). It’s said that he had very little interest in pursuing a military career.

Cicero studied law (under Quintus Mucius Scaevola) as he had ambitions of getting into the political environment of Rome. His sharp acumen and excellent oratory abilities enabled him to rise very fast and ultimately become high-ranking consul.

When he was 27, he travelled to Athens to study philosophy with Antiochus of Ascalon, a Greek philosopher and one of the pupils of Philo of Larissa. While in Athens, he had the opportunity to meet many leading thinkers and orators, from he learnt a lot.

Cicero successfully defended Sextus Roscius who was tried for patricide. Still in his 20s, Cicero marshalled the courage and provided a strong defense which helped Roscius get acquitted. He showed the court how Roscius did not stand to gain anything from the death of his father. This was because Roscius was destined to inherit his father’s properties anyway.

Cicero was not afraid to accuse Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus of the murder. Chrysogonus was a close associate of then Roman dictator Sulla. What that meant was Cicero was in effect going against Sulla. That would not be the first time Cicero would go against Sulla. He once criticized Sulla for stripping off the rights of inhabitants of Italian towns.

Major achievements of Cicero

Cicero achievements

Cicero’s works had strong influence on Voltaire, French Enlightenment philosopher, writer and historian | Quote: French philosopher Voltaire on Cicero

Cicero is most remembered for his powerful orations and writings about the social life, politics and military apparatus in ancient Rome. The orator was also once a very important consul in Rome. The following are some notable achievements of Cicero.

Cicero brought a corrupt Sicilian governor to justice

While serving as a quaestor in Sicily, Cicero came to be renowned for his integrity and truthfulness. As such the Sicilians nominated him as the lead prosecutor to bring Governor Gaius Verres to book. Gaius Verres had been accused of embezzlement and other crimes. Cicero went toe-to-toe against Verres’ lawyer Quintus Hortensius Hortalus. His years of practice in oratory and public speaking paid off, as he was able to present a very sound argument to show that Verres was indeed guilty of those crimes. From then onward, Cicero would come to be seen as one of Rome’s greatest orators.

His success in the trial paved the way for him to rise to prominence in the political landscape of Rome. This was also a tremendous achievement considering the fact that he was a member of the equestrian class of Rome. The eques of Rome referred to the second of the property-based classes who were below the senatorial class.

He was elected consul of Rome

Cicero has been described as a novus homo, a term used to refer to someone who is the first in his family to make a huge splash in politics, so to speak. The renowned orator, who came from relatively humble beginnings, was elected consul in 63 BC. Prior to becoming consul, he had served as a quaestor (a Roman public official) (in 75 BC), an aedile (an elected official in charge of maintaining public buildings) (in 69 BC), and a praetor (an elected magistrate) (in 66 BC).

He was around the age of 42 when he became consul of Rome. Consul is the highest elected political office that existed in the Roman Republic. Cicero served in this position with co-consul Gaius Antonius Hybrida.

As consul he fought against a land bill that was designed to introduce commissioners that would have had too much power over land issues in Rome.

Prevented the overthrow of the Roman constitution

In what was a deeply orchestrated move by Roman senator and soldier Lucius Sergius Catilina, the second Catilinarian Conspiracy was aimed at overthrowing the Roman Republic.

It was alleged that Catilina had arranged with foreign forces and individuals to aid in his quest to bring an end to the aristocratic Senate of Rome. After securing permission (senatus consultum ultimum) from the senate, Cicero was able to force Catiline out of the city. The orator gave a series of very powerful speeches (also known as Catiline Orations) to support his actions taken against Catiline. The Catiline Orations did not mince words and vehemently denounced the conspiracy of Catiline and his associates, which included the five conspirators who would later gave their confessions in the Senate.

Cicero was able to convince his fellow senators to slap the conspirators with the highest form of punishment – i.e. the death penalty. He believed that it was the best way to end the rebellion that was brewing. The conspirators, which included former consul Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, were in the end executed via strangling.

A Roman constitutionalist, Cicero was a staunch loyalist to the Republic. For this, he received the support of broad sections of the public, especially the middle classes. Image: Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882–88

For his efforts in preventing the overthrow of the Roman constitution, Cicero was bestowed upon the title of “pater patriae”, which means “Father of the Country” or “Father of the Fatherland”.

Cicero, however, would later be criticized by his political opponents in the senate for executing the Catilinian conspirators without giving them a trial. Some of his political enemies even accused him of fabricating the evidence that was used to incriminate the conspirators. He vehemently denied doing such a thing. He added by saying the gravity of the situation – i.e. treason – needed bold and swift action as the rebels were enemies of the state. In his mind, this was one of his most notable achievements.

Criticism of the First Triumvirate

A staunch supporter of the Roman Republic, Cicero was dismayed when three very influential and wealthy Roman generals/politicians – Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Marcus Licinius Crassus – formed an informal alliance known as the First Triumvirate (60-53 BC). The alliance in effect was to cripple the Republic and make those three men wield tremendous amount of power, almost to the equivalent of a monarchical reign. Cicero was one of the few young politicians at the time bold to condemn Caesar and his associates for banding together to arm twist the Senate into ruling in favor of the three men.

Crassus, Caesar and Pompey formed the First Triumvirate in order to get their policies passed in the Senate. Their secret alliance in effect nullified every form of opposition towards them. Image: First Triumvir (L-R): Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar

His criticism left him a very isolated figure in Rome, as many other politicians and military men had kotowed to the might of the First Triumvirate. Nevertheless, Cicero continued to use his speeches to support the Republic and by extension the Senate.

It is worth mentioning that Julius Caesar invited Cicero to be a member of the First Triumvirate. The famous orator declined the invitation as it was in direct contravention of his republican ideals.

Proconsul in Cilicia

Cicero was proconsul of Cilicia in 51 BC. His moderate policies in the region helped bring about order. He also went after persons and corrupt politicians that had embezzled public assets and resources. He also introduced strong financial discipline into the city’s government. Those measures of his made him beloved by the people.

His term as proconsul in Cilicia also saw him come to the aid of Gaius Cassius Longinus, a Roman general who had been besieged in Antioch by forces from Parthia Empire. He also secured a number of victories against other Parthian forces. He left the proconsul position in July 50 BC.

Cicero had a tremendous influence on the Latin language

Since he was fluent in both Latin and Greek, he was able to take a lot of inspiration from many Greek philosophical works by titans like Plato, Aristotle, Carneades, Philo of Larissa, and many others. With those works, he was able to build a firm foundation in rhetoric. His fluency in Greek allowed him to translate many concepts from Greek philosophy into Latin. He would end up creating a Latin philosophical vocabulary, introducing words like quantitas, humanitas, and evidentia. This is why many historians regard Cicero as one of the most influential writers and thinkers to have a huge impact on the Latin language.

One of the greatest orators of all time

He received much of his training in oratory and public speaking in general from Greek rhetorician Apollonius Molon. Cicero learnt from Molon how to control one’s breath during speeches as well the use of body languages that effectively conveyed one’s message. He would go on to improve those skill sets and rise to immense prominence as a public speaker. It’s commonly agreed that Cicero was the greatest orator of his era. In a list of greatest orators of all time, he often comes behind Greek statesman and orator Demosthenes of ancient Athens. Cicero himself described Demosthenes as “the perfect orator”.

He was a prolific writer on subjects from rhetoric and politics to philosophy

Cicero was not only an excellent orator, he was also an amazing writer, whose works covered many areas, including rhetoric, philosophy and politics. He borrowed an extensive amount of concepts from Greek philosophers, particularly Plato. He once described Plato’s famous dialogues as the language that the Greek god Zeus would use if he were to speak. Cicero was also influenced by the famous Greek philosopher Philo of Larissa, who was the head of Plato’s Academy, a school established by Plato in the 4th century BC. During a visit by Philo to Rome in 87 BC, Cicero is said to have had the pleasure of interacting with the philosopher, from whom he learnt a great deal of things.

US Founding Father and second President John Adams on Cicero

Cicero greatly influenced Western philosophy and European culture in general

The works by Roman orator and writer Cicero had a massive influence on Renaissance thinkers and 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers and political theorist, including John Locke, David Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Edmund Burke. Also German priest and theologian Martin Luther and Dutch Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus were inspired by Cicero’s writings on natural law and inalienable rights. Many Founding Fathers of the United States as well as leading revolutionaries of the French Revolution also drew quite a lot of inspiration from Cicero’s works. 

More on Cicero

  • His name was derived from cicer, the Latin for chickpea. According to Roman historian Plutarch, the Cicero name was given to a distant relative of Cicero who had a cleft lip that looked like a chickpea. Others say that it was because his family had a long tradition of being in the chickpea business.
  • When he first entered into politics, some associates of him urged him to change his name. Cicero refused, stating that he intended to make the family name very great.
  • Roman educator and rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was full of tremendous praise of Cicero. Quintilianus stated that Cicero was the embodiment of eloquence itself. This explains how the English word Ciceronian, which means “eloquent”, came to being.
  • Augustine of Hippo, also known as Saint Augustine, took a great deal of inspiration from the works of Cicero.

The fallout from suppressing the Second Catilinarian conspiracy

Cicero was for very long period of time placed under the microscope for his use of force to end a rebellion known as the Second Catilinarian conspiracy. It was said that Cicero did not even bother to give the instigators and revolutionaries a trial. This action of his came back to bite him a few years later.

In spite of the heavy criticisms he received from Cicero, Roman politician Publius Clodius Pulcher went on to be elected tribune. Therefore it came as no surprise when Clodius introduced and pushed through a bill that was constructed to take away the citizenship of any Roman who killed someone without first giving the person a trial.

As he had completely ran out of people willing to stick their neck out for him, Cicero decided to commit himself into exile. He would stay at Thessalonica for almost two years. His return to Rome was said to have been facilitated by Pompey the Great, one of the three Triumvirs. However, Cicero was forbidden from engaging in politics. The orator then took to his other second passion – writing. He penned down a number of works on philosophy and other subjects. Some those works include On Invention, On the Orator, and On the Republic. His writing and speeches catapulted him to a new level of fame had not seen before.

Cicero and Julius Caesar

During Julius Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BC), a war that saw Caesar fight against another triumvir Pompey the Great, Cicero sided with Pompey. Cicero had to flee Rome when Caesar invaded the region in 49 BC. He made his way to Dyrrachium, Illyria. After Pompey had been defeated by Caesar’s forces at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Cicero was called to take command of Pompeian forces. He declined the offer. Instead he made his way back to Rome. Cicero was ultimately pardoned by Caesar.

Cicero achievements

Julius Caesar on Roman orator and philosopher Cicero

The bitter feud between Cicero and Mark Antony

The politicians (including Marcus Junius Brutus) that murdered Caesar wanted Cicero to restore the Republic. In the slightly unstable period after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero emerged as the leader of Rome. However, he had to contend with Roman general and politicians Mark Antony, who at the time was bent on bringing to justice the people who murdered Caesar. The relationship between Antony and Cicero became even more strained as the two men traded accusations. In his famous speech titled the Philippics, he was quick to denounce Antony. He even tried to get the Senate to name Antony enemy of the state.

How did Cicero die?

Unfortunately for Cicero, Octavian (later future Roman Emperor Augustus), Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and Mark Antony patched things up in order to effectively go after the men who killed Caesar. Against Octavian’s wishes, Cicero was accused of being an enemy of the state. Cicero was left with no other option than to flee. He was later apprehended while leaving his residence in Formiae. The orator had made plans to smuggle himself in a litter to Macedonia.

According to Plutarch, Cicero did not put up any fight against his murderers. He gently stretched out his neck from the litter and gestured to the centurion to do what he had been sent to do. The murderers had been ordered to not only behead Cicero but to also cut off the orator’s hands. Antony would later have the severed head and hands of Cicero nailed to the Rostra in the Forum Romanum. To add further insult to the dismembered body of Cicero, the wife of Antony, Fulvia, pierced hairpins into the pulled out tongue of Cicero. This was Antony’s way of taking a swipe at Cicero’s writing abilities and oratory prowess.

Cicero's death

Cicero’s last words

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