Marcus Cicero


Born on January 3, 106 BC, Cicero is sometimes anglicized as Tully. He was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, political theorist, and Roman consul. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists. He introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary distinguishing himself as a linguist, translator, and philosopher. 

With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure. He does not deserve this fate and it is time to restore him to his proper place in the pantheon of our common past. One powerful  motive for doing so is that, nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives. For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Cicero were the foundation of their education. John Adam's first book and proudest possession was his Cicero. 

Cicero wrote about how a state should best be organized and decision-makers of the eighteenth century read and digested what he had to say. His big idea, which he tirelessly publicized, was that of a mixed or balanced constitution. He favored not monarchy nor oligarchy nor democracy, but a combination of all three. His model was Rome itself, but improved. Its executive had quasi-royal powers. It was restrained partly by the widespread use of vetoes and partly by a Senate, dominated by great political families. Politicians were elected to office by the People. 

This model is not so very distant from the original constitution of the United States with the careful balance it set between the executive and the legislature, and the constraints, now largely vanished, which it placed on pure, untrammeled democracy. When George Washington, meditating on the difficulty of ensuring stable government, said, "What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious," he could have been quoting Cicero.

During the years of 88 and 84 B.C., there was much massacre going on in Italy led by a ruthless dictator named Sulla and Marius who led his own attacks. The killings became so indiscriminate that one of the young Senators complained to Sulla, "We are not asking you to pardon those you have decided to kill; all we ask is that you free from suspense those you have decided not to kill." The Dictator took the point and agreed to put some order into the mayhem. He post proscription lists on white tablets in the Forum, which gave the names of those he wanted dead. A cousin of Cicero's the Praetor Marcus Marius Gratidianus, was one of those who suffered. At the time of the proscriptions, Cicero was twenty-four and his friend Pomponius was three years older. Julius Caesar was only eighteen. The terrible events of the War of the Allies and the bloodlettings of Marius and Sulla had taken place during their formative years. Their reactions to what they saw hardened over the years into mature political positions which, as it happened, covered the whole spectrum of the possible. Defense of Republican traditions, withdrawal from direct political activity, and commitment to radical reform - these were the various ways in which three very different personalities came to terms with the breakdown of the constitution and the decimation of the ruling class. 

Good also came from bad. A benefit of the ongoing war was that many intellectuals and thinkers fled to Rome. One of these was Philo of Larisa, head of the Academy in Athens, founded by Plato three hundred years before. He inspired Cicero with a passion for philosophy, and in particular for the theories of Skepticism, which asserted that knowledge of the nature of things is in the nature of things unattainable. In his early twenties, Cicero wrote the first two volumes of a work on "invention" - that is to say, the technique of finding ideas and arguments for a speech; in it he noted that the most important thing was "that we do not recklessly and presumptuously assume something to be true."
 
Toward the end of his life, Cicero distinguished himself in his battle to save the Roman Republic. Through sheer force of character he took charge of the state during the months following Julius Caesar's assassination, despite the fact that he held no public office, and organized a war against the dead Dictator's friend and supporter, Mark Antony. He became Antony's enemy in the ensuing power struggle after Caesar's death and would attack him in a series of speeches. Cicero came to stand for future generations as a model of defiance against tyranny - an inspiration first to the American and then the French revolutionaries. 

Cicero merits our attention not just for his influence, but because he was a fascinating man who lived through extraordinary times. One reason why he still speaks to us across a vast interval of time is that we know so much about him. Uniquely in the classical world, hundreds of his letters survive, many written to his dear friend Atticus. Anyone who reads the letters will be sure to warm to his nervous, self-regarding, generous personality. He was an introvert who led the most public of lives, a thinker and intellectual who committed himself to a life of action. We see him live his life from day to day and sometimes from from hour to hour. Cicero was one who dined with Julius Caesar, detected  the incorruptible Marcus Brutus in a financial scam and helped put a stop to a sexual escapade of the teenage Mark Antony. In Cicero's own words, noble Romans are flesh and blood, not marble. In other words, they should treat others like they are themselves, humans. 

Cicero's consistency and effectiveness as a politician is too often undervalued. His tactical suppleness has been judged to be indecisiveness. His perspective was narrower and less imaginative than that of Julius Caesar, but Cicero had clear aims and very nearly realized them. He was unlucky, a defect for which history has no mercy but for which historians are entitled to offer a discount. Before we're really able to understand Cicero, we have to see how different a world the Roman Republic was from ours, but at the same time, the motives of human behavior do not change. 

A telling fact of why Cicero would become great is that throughout his life, while others would take part in pursuit of pleasure, he would be occupied with literary pursuits. A line that stuck with him is the classic expression from Homer's Iliad, in which Glaucus says to Diomedes that he still hears his father's urgings ringing in his ears: "Always be the best, my boy, the bravest, and hold your head high above the others." It was a text that also inspired Alexander the Great and, once Homer appeared on their curriculum, many Roman boys were equally impressed, among them Marcus Tullius Cicero. Years later he told his brother that the lines had expressed his "childhood dream." He was determined to be the best and the bravest, to join the ranks of the Republic's greatest heroes. He planned to excel, however, not on the battlefield, but in Rome's sacred center, the Forum. 

The triumphs and catastrophes of Cicero's stormy career were not the end of his story, for he enjoyed a long life until he was proscribed as an enemy of the state by the Second Triumvirate which included Antony, Lepidus and Caesar's son, Octavian. Even so, Cicero could have escaped. News of his proscription reached him well in advance of the bounty hunters. Typically, however, he panicked and vacillated over what to do. Rather than setting sail to join Brutus and Cassius, who were even then recruiting a massive army of liberation in the East, he instead flitted despairingly from villa to villa, haunted, as he had been for so long, by the shadow of exile. After all, as Cato taught him, there were nightmares worse than death. Trapped by his executioners at last, Cicero leaned out from his litter and bared his throat to the sword. This was the gesture of a gladiator, and one he had always admired. Defeated in the greatest and deadliest of all games, he unflinchingly accepted his fate. He died as he would surely have wished: bravely, a martyr to freedom and to freedom of speech. Even after his death, his speeches and philosophical writings have had an incalculable influence on western civilization throughout its history, as his great contemporary Julius Caesar foresaw. 



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