Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1996 R. James Ferguson

Background Briefing:

Cicero: Theory and Practise Revisited


- The New Man

- The Young Lawyer

- Cicero as the Defender of the Republic

- Humanitas as the Latinizion of Philosophy

- Theory and Practise Revisited: the Later Cicero

1. The New Man

Cicero was born in the Italian town of Arpinum in 106 B.C. (died 43 B.C.), and came from a wealthy Italian family which had not previously taken a prominent role in Roman political life. He came from the social class of 'gentlemen' outside the Senate, that is, the equites (Plutarch Cicero 11). He had seen brief military service at the age of 16 or 17 in the Social War with the Italian allies (91-88 B.C.). Immediately following this he had the opportunity to observe some of the more severe aspects of political life under Marius and Cinna, which apparently 'soured' him against the populares factions, elite leaders who used the popular assemblies and the plebeians to gain support, generally in opposition to the more conservative optimates (Samuel 1988, p274; note that these terms indicate political orientations but not parties in any strict sense, see Seager 1972).

Cicero seems to have busied himself in studying philosophy and rhetoric during this early period, being most influenced by Philo of Larissa, the Academic (Plutarch Cicero 3). Opportunities for tuition in this area were improving - the fear generated by the threat of Mithridates of Pontus during the 88-87 B.C. war had driven many Greek philosophers on visits westwards, and apparently the heads of the Stoic, Epicurean and Academic schools visited Rome during this period, where Cicero probably had the opportunity to hear them speak (Samuel 1988, p274).

His studies would be continued in depth when he travelled to Athens after 79 B.C., now a man of 27 years, to spend six months there (Samuel 1988, p275). He would study under the new leader of the Academy, Antiochus, with whom he did not fully agree (Plutarch Cicero 4). From there he visited Rhodes, famous for its rhetorical studies, which he pursued studies under Xenocles of Adramyttium, Dionysus of Magnesia, and Menippus the Carian (Plutarch Cicero 4). Here he met the polymath Posidonius, whose interests included rhetoric, Stoic ethics, geography, physics, history, astronomy and mathematics. Probably at this time he was most heavily influenced by Stoic ethics, as expounded by 'Posidonius and his predecessors' (Samuel 1988, p275).

2. The Young Lawyer

Cicero only felt secure enough to start a career when Sulla gained dominance in the state after 83 B.C., and political affairs had begun to stabilise. Cicero's first legal defence was made on behalf of a certain Roscius, son of one of the men who had been proscribed in the Sullan 'settlement' circa 80 B.C.. He was defended by Cicero against one of the prominent freedmen of Sulla, who had been engaged in selling off the dead father's estate (Plutarch Cicero 3). This defence was both successful and quite bold, helping establish his reputation, though Cicero apparently thought it wise to take a brief sojourn to Greece immediately afterwards, 'for his health' (Plutarch Cicero 3-4).

From this time Cicero was a notable young man, though not one universally approved in the senatorial order or among the equites. It was his fame as an orator, with a powerful delivery and a sure command of both style and argument that made Cicero an extremely useful man to know. These great abilities as a defence lawyer and prosecutor first promoted Cicero's political career. Though he was a 'new man', he was generally more on the conservative side of politics. It was for this reason he soon found himself under the patronage and influence of men such as Cato the younger and Brutus. He managed to achieve the quaestorship when there was a shortage of grain, which he rectified by exactions from Sicily, though according to Plutarch he later on managed affairs there carefully and with justice (Plutarch Cicero 6).

His most important early victory, however, was his prosecution of Verres, who had extorted excessive monies from Sicily while he was governor there as propraetor in 71 B.C. This case is interesting because it was made against a man of prominent rank and connections, who was engaged in activities which were probably quite common during this period. Verres was well-connected in the Senatorial order, and even brought in a 'big gun' like Hortensius to speak at the end of the trial, when the penalty was being set (Plutarch Cicero 7). Hortensius was a prominent lawyer who dominated the Roman law-courts in the 70's with his lush 'Asiatic' style of oratory. It must be remembered that one of the key influences on Roman courts was the status and authority of whoever was defending or prosecuting. The personage of the lawyer made an enormous difference; that a man of dignitas should even consider stepping into court affected its outcome. For this reason speeches by prominent barristers often dwelled on their own contributions to the state and their own character - a defence was often a sign of amicitia (political friendship), or perhaps some level of patronage. A patron, of course, would not normally be expected to act as a witness against his own clients. Verres, no doubt, had expected to be protected by his peers, the senators and knights, in the jury.

Cicero, however, made a withering attack simply through a careful questioning of witnesses. Verres was found guilty, though the fine when it was established was rather light, perhaps due to the sympathy of the jury for a man of their own class, or due to the influence of Hortensius. Plutarch reports that there was even a rumour that Cicero was perhaps acting in collusion with Verres (Plutarch Cicero 8), which seems rather unlikely.

Cicero went on to become praetor in the elections for the year 66 B.C., coming top of the voting poll, and apparently conducted his judicial duties with great fairness (Plutarch Cicero 9). He also earned a reputation for directing the deliberations of juries fairly and wisely, though his quick wit was also used against lawyers who attempted to bully or hurry proceedings (Plutarch Cicero 9). We can see something of Cicero's daring defences and individual style in a later case in favour of the poet Aulus Licinius Archias. This Greek poet, resident in Rome, had probably been attacked because he was a friend of Lucius Licinius Lucullus, which made him a juicy target for the allies of Pompey. The law under which the poet was charged was that of the tribune Gaius Papius (64 B.C.) which expelled non-citizens from Rome, a decree aimed at large street gangs which were beginning to interfere with daily life in Rome. Archias claimed Roman citizenship as a citizen of Heraclea in Lucania, which had been granted the franchise. The prosecution had contested the evidence of Archias' citizenship of either Heraclea or Rome. However, what is interesting, is that most of Cicero's defence is not concerned with the political status of his client. Rather, it is a major defence of Greek culture and literature, and an argument in favour of the influence of Greek culture on Rome (Cicero In Defense of the Poet Aulius Licinius Archias, vii, 15). The ploy here was to work on the sensibilities of the jury in a specific way; although they could be persuaded by the greatness of Greek culture, it was important that prejudices against contemporary 'Greek-lings' should not be allowed to operate. Indeed, Cicero goes so far as to say that if Archias isn't already a citizen, he should immediately be made one: -

The studious seclusion of Archias' life has kept him unacquainted with the hazards of the courts, and it is because of the special nature of his talents that I want to frame my defence in these somewhat novel and unfamiliar terms. If I can but feel that you will have the kindness to concede me this request, I for my part undertake to convince you that Aulus Licinius should not be excluded from the list of Roman citizens; and indeed that he should certainly be made a Roman citizen here and now - if it were not the case that he is one already. (Cicero In Defense of the Poet Aulius Licinius Archias, i-11)

The rhetorical structure is obvious. Cicero at the same times seeks the sympathy of his audience, asserts that Archias is a citizen, and that if by chance the prosecution is right, Archias deserves honorary citizenship in any case. He turns all this back onto the glory of Rome: -

Archias is a Greek poet. But it would be entirely wrong to suppose that Greek poetry ranks lower than Latin in value. For Greek literature is read in almost every country in the world, whereas Latin is understood only within its own boundaries which, as you must admit, are restricted. Our deeds, it is true, extend to all the regions of the earth. But the effect of this should be to inspire us with the determination that every country where the strong arm of Rome has carried its weapons should also be given an opportunity to learn of our illustrious achievements. For literary commemoration is a most potent factor in enhancing a country's prestige. And to those who hazard their lives for the sake of glory, such literature is a vigorous incentive, stimulating them to risk fearful perils and perform noble endeavours. (Cicero In Defense of the Poet Aulius Licinius Archias, ix-x)

Propaganda for a propagandist, perhaps, but the poet seems to have been acquitted. It was these skills the Cicero would later turn to good use in a vigorous, and dangerous, political life.

3. Cicero as the Defender of the Republic

It was quite probable that Cicero became a consular nominee in 63 B.C. in order to exclude Cataline from office, with both the support of Pompey and from Pompey's opponents among the optimates. Nonetheless, when he came to office in 63 B.C., he carried out his mission with force and credibility. He made a strong stand against Catiline, and even if Crassus and the young Julius Caesar had some involvement in the affair, they soon decided to distance themselves from the party of the supposed 'revolutionaries' around Cataline.

Cicero's sure handling can be seen in the way the meeting with Allobroges envoys' was used to entrap the conspirators, while he used the secret correspondence passed on by Crassus to challenge members of the Senate. These envelopes were apparently handed directly onto their addressees in the meeting of the Senate, where they were then obliged to read them out, demonstrating their own guilt (Plutarch Cicero 15). Another clever touch, if true, was the wearing of a breastplate under his toga in such a way as it could be seen (Plutarch Cicero 14), thus indicating to the people that he both feared and was prepared to stand up to an attack on his person, even though he was a consul. Even if the rumours of assassination attempts were merely propaganda, the imputation against he character of Catiline and his party was probably quite effective.

Cicero's earlier confrontation of Cataline in the Senate was also masterful, in that it pushed the young man out of Rome, making it more easy for a man of Senatorial standing to be declared a public enemy. Thus in Cicero's first speech against Catiline: -

But if you leave Rome, as I have long been urging you to do, the city will be released of those copious, pestilential dregs of the community who are your accomplices. Well, Catiline? That is just what you were going to do in any case, of your own accord; so I am unable to see why you take your time in going, when that is precisely the course which I, too, propose that you should adopt. The consul orders a public enemy to leave the city. Into banishment? you ask. That is not part of my order. But, if you ask my opinion, it is what I advise. (Against Catiline i.v)

By leaving the city, Catiline made Cicero's accusations seem quite accurate. Cicero also seems to have managed to persuade the people of Rome of the validity of his actions. Cato would praise him highly as the father of the fatherland (Plutarch Cicero 23). Cicero was temporarily very popular, as noted by Plutarch: -

What seemed so wonderful was not so much the fact that he had put a stop to the conspiracy and punished the conspirators as that he had succeeded in crushing this greatest of all revolutions by such comparatively painless methods, with no disturbances and no civil strife. (Plutarch Cicero 22).

Yet there is one area of the handling of the Catiline affair which was dangerous for Cicero. He proposed the death penalty for Roman citizens, which was beyond the normal penalty, and one not clearly justified under the senatus ultimum consultum. Caesar had spoken against such a penalty, but this brought a vigorous rebuttal from Lutatius Catulus and Cato (Plutarch Cicero 21). In allowing the executions to be conducted under his authority as consul, Cicero would open himself up to a certain political odium at a later date, and to a prosecution by Clodius. Cicero already seemed aware of this danger to his image in the popular mind (Against Catiline i.ix; iii.x). At this stage, however, he was prepared to throw in his career with the more conservative elements in the Senate. If he was now a consular and a hero in the state, this pre-eminence did not last for long. Indeed, people soon wearied of hearing his repeated claims to be the saviour of the state (Against Catiline

The rise of Pompey and Crassus would soon eclipse the power of Cicero. Cicero did not hold major military commands, nor govern provinces with major legionary forces. He was apparently not entirely trusted by Crassus, while he himself had some doubts about the motives of Pompey. It was under these conditions that Cicero found himself unable to support the first triumvirate, which would have liked such an influential consular to help them control the Senate. In doing so he cut himself off from the source of real power in the state, and from the ability to strongly influence subsequent events (Samuel 1988, pp275-6). It was under such conditions that he was attacked by Clodius, perhaps with the support of Caesar and Pompey (Plutarch Cicero 30) and forced into an unhappy exile in 58-7 B.C. He was revived, however, by Pompey, who wished to use him as a counterbalance against Clodius, and perhaps even in 56-5 B.C. began to see tensions within the triumvirate. Cicero, in turn, probably hoped to detach Pompey from his alliance with Caesar (Samuel 1988, p276).

In a sense Cicero had been outplayed by the very great prestige which men such as Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony developed in major military victories overseas. Each of them returned to triumphs or ovations, a patron to soldiers, patron to foreign clients, and for a time the darling of the plebeians. Cicero's own victory over Catiline was too much of a internal victory, a triumph over Roman citizens and Italian allies for it to be really glorious in the memory of the plebeians. Nor was Cicero really adept at building up the strong factional support that was needed to grasp hegemony in Roman political life. He felt too insecure, for instance, to continue his defence speech for Milo, who had killed Clodius in 52 B.C. (see further Lintott 1974). This nervousness seems to have been due to the soldiers posted in the court by Pompey (Plutarch Cicero 35), or perhaps due to the threats made by the followers of Clodius. The fact that Cicero could be intimidated meant that he could be misdirected and forced to limit his criticism of opponents.

Cicero was appointed governor of Cilicia in 51-50 B.C., which he ruled well, and where he undertook some minor military operations against bandits (Plutarch Cicero 36). Nor had he the prestige to avert the impetus towards civil war which had developed in the Senate by 51 B.C. Admittedly, he only returned from his governorship in 50 B.C., when it was probably too late to diffuse the climate of suspicion and fear which had developed. When Cicero finally sided with Pompey against Julius Caesar in the emerging civil war, he knew he was joining the weaker side. Though the state was about to die, he argued that he would abstain from joining in with the forces who 'were about to mutilate its corpse' (Samuel 1988, p277). From this point on he would never be able to enter into a secure alliance with Julius Caesar, though Caesar extended his clemency to him in 47 B.C., and there was a temporary warming of relations in the period of 46 B.C. He remained an orator with limited political influence until 44 B.C.

4. Humanitas as the Latinizion of Philosophy

Cicero is not known as a strong independent philosopher. Most of his ideas are adapted from the Greek culture that preceded him, especially the ideas developed out the Platonic corpus in the 'New' Academy and from Stoic ethics. He is, however, familiar with the general body of philosophical and political theory of the Hellenistic Age, including Platonic, Sceptic, Aristotlean and even Cynic and Epicurean views (the last two schools with which he generally disagrees). He was rather eclectic in his approach, treating philosophy rather as a series of 'topics', rather than as a grand system, but this was due to in part to the didactic purpose of much of his writing (see Striker 1995). This was due not only to the constraints of his audience, most of whom who would not have had the leisure to study philosophy in Athens, but to Cicero's own philosophical views. He followed the mildly sceptical position of Philo of Larissa (Koester, I, p344), that certainty could not be achieved, but statements that were probably true could be discovered, but were always capable of later modification or falsification. Thus in his dialogue called the Academica, Cicero, speaking on behalf of the New Academy states: -

Our arguments have no other objective than, by speaking pro and contra, to draw out and fashion something which is either true or comes as close to truth as possible. Nor is there any difference between ourselves and those who think that they know something except that they have no doubt that their positions are true, whereas we hold many things to be convincing which we can easily follow but scarcely assert. In this respect, moreover, we are more free and unconstrained, because our power of judgement is unimpaired, and we are not compelled by any necessity to endorse all the rules and virtual commands of certain people. (Academica 2.7-8)

Such a disposition, of course, would tend to discourage the attempt to build a grand unified system, where the nature of being and our ways of knowing and experiencing can consistently generate axioms for ethical or political choice.

However, Cicero was much more than a translator. By this stage many elite Romans knew some Greek and some had travelled to Athens, Smyrna, Rhodes or other Greek centres for 'higher' education in rhetoric and philosophy (Koester I, p336, p342). However, most of the Greek treatises still had to be studied in the original, a difficult task, even for later scholars as skilled as St. Augustine. Cicero therefore did a great service in placing many of the central ideas of Hellenism before a wider reading public. Thus, he had a role in the 'Hellenization' of Roman culture, a trend which had started centuries before but become very strong by the first century B.C.: -

Greek influences reached Rome in various ways: first, from the Hellenized cities and Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy, which had already had numerous contacts with Rome in the early centuries of the Roman republic; second, through the influx of Greek education into the Roman upper classes during the time of the conquest of Greece, corresponding to a clearly visible enthusiasm of many Greeks for the constitution and organization of the Roman state; and third, through the mobility of the entire population of the Hellenized eastern provinces, as numerous immigrant came to the Roman Mediterranean as slaves, as soldiers in the army, or in the context of trade and commerce. (Koester 1987, I, p336).

However, Cicero did more than bring Greek learning into Rome. He took key concepts from the Greek and adapted them to the Roman world view, bringing in examples from Roman history and social life to justify these 'new' ideas. During the late Republic Greek thought had high prestige (advanced learning) but was also suspect since it was also viewed as potentially subversive, though Stoicism would emerge as compatible with many Roman values (see Striker 1995, p53). This is a kind of cultural adaptation that gives a greater vigour to a received body of knowledge from a foreign context, though it also at times distorts and simplifies the material. It was in this Roman guise that a most ancient philosophy made its major impact on Europe during the following Christian Age. Thus we find a central Greek text such as Plato's study of justice in the ideal political state being known to us by a Latin title, De Re Publica. Likewise, a range of Greek notions take on added force, and a changed emphasis, in their Roman environment. As we have seen, Tyche (fate in a particular Hellenistic interpretation) can find a new national place as Fors Fortuna, while Roman notions such as humanitas and libertas are given an added force. Cicero is especially known for the promotion of Hellenistic educational ideals, for the development of friendship as an ideal, as found in his dozens of letters, and for a combination of political insights with a clear literary style (Wilkinson 1982, p265). He also argued that rhetoric and oratory needed to be informed by a study of philosophy: -

For Cicero, public oratory was the most important instrument for exercising political influence, a privilege of the aristocracy, whose duty it was to direct the affairs of state, as indeed the republic had always been led by the persuasive words of its leaders. In Cicero's time, education in rhetoric was the most important preparation for public office. Greek teachers of rhetoric had offered instruction in Rome for many years: wealthy families sent their sons to Greece for further study. . . . Cicero clearly saw the deficiencies of this course of study: one borrowed from the Greek tradition whatever could be used successfully in legal and political oratory; the result was superficial education and men striving after effect. Cicero demanded that the orator should have a thorough general education, especially in Greek philosophy. (Koester, I, p343)

Cicero was also a fine stylist, and praised for his humorous, sometimes cutting replies. Thus when a certain elderly Senator, Lucius Gellius, tried to stop land settlements for some of Caesar's veterans, declaring that so long as he lived it would never be done, Cicero replied: 'Let us wait, then, since Gellius does not ask us to postpone things for long.' (Plutarch Cicero 26).

Cicero is not totally unoriginal. He did make some interesting observations, and in particular attempted to test philosophical principles in the area of practise that is, in social and political life. He made major studies of philosophy in this practical context, in such works as his Academicia, completed by 45 B.C., where he compares different views on achieving knowledge. In de Finibus, completed in the same year, he studied different ethical systems, and in the Tusculan Disputations discussed major human 'problems' such as death, pain, virtue and happiness (Samuel 1988, p277). In Book IV of the Tusculan Disputations Cicero defended the essentially Stoic position that much human unhappiness is created by improper attitudes to the pursuit of relatively indifferent matters such as pleasure, money, envy etc., which are based on an incorrect view that such pursuits or their objectives are of benefit to human beings. In Book V he goes on to show that the wise man needs to dispel such disorders from his soul, leading an untroubled, virtuous life which is therefore truly happy (see Samuel 1988, p280).

Cicero then went on to make a major contribution with a series of works on political philosophy completed towards the end of his life, including De Re Publica, De Legibus and De Officiis, which offer a more sustained analysis of political and legal systems than some of his other works (Striker 1995). The connection between Stoic Ethics and political obligations is based on a particular view of a shared, universal dimension of human life, which is both in accord with nature and lived in a social context. Here he also seems to be influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by the direct connection between the individual human condition and the political context, that is, the social, political and communicative context emphasised by both Plato and Aristotle. As noted by Alan Samuel: -

Seeing the contest as one between virtue and pleasure, Stoicism against Epicureanism, he asserts that the virtues are not merely aids to pleasure, nor morality a mere convention. Perhaps most important . . . is his treatment of Stoic sociology and the doctrine of common humanity. From this flow such approved acts as patriotism, the benefiting of others by passing on knowledge, and the service of the strong in protecting the weak. The Stoic idea that 'there are bonds of justice between men', expressed here by Cicero, was important for the future, as were his explications of the principles which lie behind and affect human conduct and relations between individual and society - ideas of law, of political association, of pure love between man and wife, of friendship. (Samuel 1988, p280).

His study De Re Publica may have begun as early as 54 B.C., was probably available in draft form by 51 B.C., but may not have been completed until as late as 44 B.C., when Cicero once again felt some optimist return to public life after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The greater part of this treatise was in fact only rediscovered in the great archives of the Vatican Library in 1820 (Samuel 1988, p278). This work is in part inspired by the great study of politics made by Plato, which we call after the Latin tradition, the Republic. Like Plato, Cicero uses a dialogue form, discusses different types of governments and their problems, lays out issues concerning education and poetry in the state, and closes with a mystic section known as 'Scipio's Dream', just as Plato's work closes with a transcendental fantasy. Both works are critical of the dangers of democracy, where liberty becomes licence and the state can only survive during easy and calm periods (Cicero De Re Publica I.xl.63; I.xliii.66). Both are also deeply concerned with justice. However, the way Cicero argues that justice can be established does not follow the utopian schema developed by Plato: instead he engages in an analysis of the mixed constitution which more closely follows Aristotle's Politics, and the discussion of decay in states as outlined by Panaetius and Polybius. It should not surprise us that such views are represented in this dialogue, set in 129 B.C. with the main speaker being Scipio Africanus the younger. The Scipionic circle had included both Polybius and Stoic philosophers such as Panaetius. Furthermore, the state discussed is a practical one: -

But it is not enough to possess virtue, as if it were an art of some sort, unless you make use of it. Though it is true that an art, even if you never use it, can still remain in your possession by the very fact of your knowledge of it, yet the existence of virtue depends entirely on its use; and its noblest use is the government of the State, and the realization in fact, not in words, of those very things that the philosophers, in their corners, are continually dinning in our ears. (Cicero De Re Publica I.2)

The preferred constitution is a mixture of the three legitimate types of government, i.e. kingship, aristocracy and democracy, a mixture which is held to be both fairer to the citizens and more stable (Cicero De Re Publica I.xxxv.54). Although kingship is the best of the three primary forms of government: -

. . . a moderate and balanced form of government which is a combination of the three good simple forms is preferable even to kingship. For there should be a supreme and royal element in the State, some power also ought to be granted to the leading citizens, and certain matters should be left to the judgements and desires of the masses. Such a constitution, in the first place, offers in a high degree a sort of equality, which is a thing free men can hardly do without for any considerable length of time, and secondly, it has stability. (Cicero De Re Publica I.xlv.69)

It is not surprising that this constitution is modelled on the Roman one, needing only some regulation of its laws to improve its current condition (Cicero De Re Publica I.xlvi.70). The Senate and magistrates in particular, should take on important leadership roles, while the libertas of the people is guarantied (Cicero De Re Publica II.xxxii.56; II.xxxiii.57-8).

One of the main ideas in this dialogue is that any true Republic needs justice: without it is ceases, in fact, to be a genuine community of human beings, and becomes instead a mere collection of individuals. The term re publica in fact refers to things held in common, as in the root meaning of the English word Commonwealth. This is a direct rebuttal to Carneades idea that all major states develop their power on the basis of injustice. It also is an attempt to find a kind of 'social glue' that will hold together the different orders in a state such as Rome, to provide the basis for mediating social conflict (Cicero De Re Publica III.xiii.23) through a concord established by laws rather than through the protracted use of violence. The wise law-maker is held to be the philosopher par excellence. Although equality before the law is a basic principle in such a state, (De Re Publica I.49), this does not mean that Cicero or his spokesperson in the dialogue, Scipio Africanus, are really in favour of what can be called direct democracy (contra Samuel 1988, p283). Democracy involves the notion that real power rests with the people, usually through voting assemblies, and it is exactly the license of such assemblies which Cicero would seek to limit.

His study of moral duties in the De Officiis, likewise, follows a rather more pragmatic line than much of Hellenistic philosophy. Not only does it recommend a combination of Greek and Latin studies, i.e. a combination of philosophy and oratory, (Cicero De Officiis I.1-3), but it uses a definitional approach to lay out a classification of duties owed to society (Plutarch Cicero I.7-8). No one is expected to surrender all self-interest, and one may pursue the personal and rational goals, e.g. for fame, so long as these acts do not hurt others. Here the limit is the idea that the morally wrong is never truly expedient (Samuel 1988, p282). Furthermore, justice must keep human beings from harming others, and must lead 'men to use common possessions for common interests, private property for their own' (Cicero De Officiis I.20; see also I.31). On this criterion Julius Caesar had failed on both counts, forcing the state into civil war, and using the commonwealth and state to enhance his own glory (Cicero De Officiis I.26; III.82). Following general Platonic and Stoic notions, Cicero argued that holding office in the state was a duty and a burden, but one that should be taken up voluntarily by the best and wisest in society. The rest of the book lays out in some detail the proper conduct for officials, largely directed at their character, which should conform to ancient Roman virtues as well as to the demands of reason and nature.

5. Theory and Practise Revisited: the Later Cicero

Cicero came in later periods to be regarded of paragon in various ways. For Christian thinkers he was virtually a pagan saint, laying out in civilised Latin an ethical culture which was held to be virtually identical to that of Christian morality. For thinkers such as Petrarch he was viewed as ideal man, a 'Christian', a republican, a man of action as well as a poet and philosopher. Generally, he has been variously viewed as a man who combined political ability with theoretical knowledge, a champion of the law as an embodiment of justice, an upholder of humanitarian ideals. As a champion of the Republic, he is sometimes regarded as a martyr against the tyranny of men such as Antony and the Caesars. In virtually all these cases, the acclamations tell us more about the age in which they were written than about the man they praise.

Alan Samuel, for example, would argue that we should not be too critical of the limited nature of Cicero's philosophical work. He argued that: -

His philosophical accomplishment, however, is fully understandable only in terms of his whole life: thought and action combined to form his ideas, which in later times were the more influential as the product of both contemplating and doing. (Samuel 1988, p273).

Unfortunately, the way in which Cicero's thought informed his action is not always clear; sometimes dithering and hesitation seem to characterise Cicero the politician. Alan Samuel might argue that it is fitting that Cicero's last book was written on the subject of moral duties, 'for it was his view of his "moral duty" which brought about his death' (Samuel 1988, p277). Although this may be true in a very general sense, Cicero was indecisive and not particularly effective after the assassination of Julius Caesar (Syme 1974, pp182-3). He in fact waited to see which way the wind would blow, not fully trusted by either the followers of Caesar or by the Liberators. He then left Rome to seek safety in Athens until Hirtius and Pansa should become consuls in 43 B.C., but was lulled by a temporary softening attitude on the part of Mark Antony, who seemed to be co-operating with the Senate (Plutarch Cicero 43). Cicero in fact died because he had mercilessly attacked the proconsul Mark Antony in a major propaganda campaign (via the writings know as the Philippics), and had failed to secure the complete loyalty of the young Octavian, probably the one man who could have saved him from the anger of Antony and Lepidus during the negotiations of the triumvirs at Bononia (Plutarch Cicero 46). Cicero's attempt to use the young Octavian was a major miscalculation, one that was transparent to both Octavian (Syme 1974, p186), and even to friendly observers such as Brutus (Plutarch Cicero 45).

The structure of duties in De Officiis nowhere supports the kind of actions he took from 43 B.C. and here I suspect that Cicero may have been making a bid at real power by a more blatant use of political manipulation than before. In the end he delayed his departure from Italy far too long and was caught on the road by Herennius and other agents of Antony, as described by Plutarch:

Cicero heard him [Herennius] coming and ordered his servants to set the litter down where they were. He himself, in that characteristic posture of his, with his chin resting on his left hand, looked steadfastly at his murderers. He was all covered in dust; his hair was long and disordered, and his face was pinched and wasted with his anxieties - so that most of those who stood by covered their faces while Herennius was killing him. His throat was cut as he stretched his neck out from the litter. He was in his sixty-fourth year. By Antony's orders Herennius cut off his head and his hands - the hands with which he had written the Philippics. (Plutarch Cicero 48).

Cicero had been forced to use extra-constitutional means to defend his beloved Republic, i.e his support for the young adventurer Octavian against the legitimate proconsular Mark Antony. This contradiction soon allowed naked force to be used against him in the proscriptions of the second triumvirate. I am not sure that Cicero had kept to the moral high ground during this later period of his life. Plutarch is also correct to note that the man was ambitious for glory, and had a dangerously strong desire for praise from others (Plutarch Cicero 25).

Cicero was a complex mixture of aspiration and the partial execution of ideals. If, politically, he was a 'grand' failure, he was also a man who tried to stand for great philosophical and political ideas, and who was doomed by his own limitations and by the nature of his age not to fully succeed in putting these ideas into practise. His failure was not trivial, and had much more impact and value than the indifferent or trivial successes of the minor writers and pragmatic politicians who surrounded him. It was perhaps for this reason that Cicero as a writer and thinkers was held in the highest regard through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early modern period, and is perhaps worthy for another revival in the current period (see Striker 1995, p54).


Bibliography and Further Reading


CICERO Ad Herennium (Rhetorica ad Herennium), trans H. Caplan, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1981

CICERO De Natura Deorum and Academica, trans. H. Rackham, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1979

CICERO De Officiis, trans. W. Miller, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1975

CICERO Philippics, trans. W. Ker, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1979

CICERO De Re Publica & De Legibus, trans. C. Keyes, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1977

CICERO Selected Political Speeches of Cicero, trans. M.Grant, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972

CICERO Tusculan Disputations, trans. J. King, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1971

LONG, A.A. & SEDLEY, D.N. The Hellenistic Philosophers: Translations of the Principles Source with Philosophical Commentary, N.Y., CUP, 1988

PLUTARCH Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. Rex Warner, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958


BRUNT, P.A. "Cicero and Historiography", in Miscellanea di Studi Classici in honore de E. Manni, Roma, Bretschneider, Vol 1, 1980, pp309-40

GRANT, Michael Greek and Latin Authors 800 B.C. - A.D. 1000, N.Y., H.W. Wilson, 1980

KOESTER, Helmut Introduction to the New Testament: Vol. I, History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, N.Y., Walter de Gruyter, 1987

LINTOTT, A.W. "Cicero and Milo", JRS, 64, 1974, pp62-78

LOEFSTEDT, E. Roman Literary Portraits, Oxford, Clarendon, 1958

McDERMOTT, V.C. "Reflections on Cicero by a Ciceronian", Classical World, 63 no.5, 1970, pp146-153

MEADOR, P.H. "Rhetoric and Humanism in Cicero", Philosophy & Rhetoric, 3, 1970, pp1-12

RAWSON, Elizabeth "Cicero the Historian and Cicero the Antiquarian", JRS, 62, 1972, pp33-45

RAWSON, Elizabeth Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1985

SABINE, George H. A History of Political Theory, 4th ed., Hinsdale, Dryden Press, 1973

SAMUEL, Alan E. "The Consular Philosopher: The Life and Work of Cicero", in The Promise of the West: The Greek World, Rome and Judaism, London, Routledge, 1988, pp272-284

SEAGER, Robin "Cicero and the Word Popvlaris [Cicero and the Word Popularis]", The Classical Quarterly, 22 no. 2, November 1972, pp328-338

STRAUSS, Leo & CROPSEY, J. (ed.) History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1987

SYME, Ronald The Roman Revolution, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974

TAYLOR, Lilly Ross Party Politics in the Age of Caesar, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975

WILKINSON, L. "Cicero and the Relationship of Oratory to Literature", in Kenny, E. & Clausen W. The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Vol II, Latin Literature, Cambridge, CUP, 1982 pp230-267


The Cicero Homepage contains a timeline, Latin texts, the Plutarch biography, a bibliography, and photographs at

The Internet Ancient History Sourcebook has a selection of Cicero translations located at


Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1996 R. James Ferguson