3 January 2021

Cicero - politician and philosopher

Roman writer and orator revered by Renaissance scholars

Cicero was a powerful orator and a  renowned expert in Roman law
Cicero was a powerful orator and a 
renowned expert in Roman law

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman lawyer, politician, philosopher and great orator whose rediscovered works were an important driver of the Renaissance in the 14th century, was born on this day in 106BC in Arpinum, a hill town about 100km (62 miles) southeast of Rome known today as Arpino.

A loyal supporter of the Roman Republic, Cicero’s brilliance as a student of Roman law and his effectiveness as a speaker led to his rapid rise in Roman politics, which saw him become the youngest citizen to attain the rank of consul, the highest political office of the republic, without hailing from a political family.

Although his political career foundered after his opposition to the secret alliance between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus known as the First Triumvirate, forced him into exile, Cicero turned to writing, producing many works relating to philosophy, as well as hundreds of letters and speeches. 

Much of his work disappeared after his death, but was rediscovered by 14th century scholars, most notably Francesco Petrarca - Petrarch - as academics sought to enhance their knowledge by seeking out ancient Greek and Roman texts. As well as providing the modern world with an insight into the politics and culture of his times, Cicero’s philosophical observations became a model for many of the ideals of the Renaissance, while many writers sought to emulate his elegant and precise vocabulary.

Although Cicero did not come from a patrician - noble - background, neither was he from plebeian - working class - stock.  He was born into the equestrian class, which was originally rooted in the military but evolved to include wealthy businessmen and bankers.  It meant his family had the wherewithal to give him an education in Greek history and philosophy and the Latin language, which were the hallmarks of a cultured person.

Renaissance scholar Petrarch studied Cicero's work
Renaissance scholar Petrarch
studied Cicero's work
Cicero believed strongly in the fairness of the Roman Republic, the constitution of which was modelled to ensure no one man could revert to ruling as effectively a monarch. He was driven by powerful political ambitions and aimed to climb through the ranks of office as quickly as possible.

After a short military career, he made his name as a lawyer, known for his willingness to take on difficult, high-risk cases, which he often won.

One of the most notable of these - and his first major case - was to defend a Roman citizen called Sextus Roscius against a charge that he had murdered his father, which at the time was seen as one of the most serious crimes. Despite the threat to his own safety, Cicero produced evidence that Roscius was falsely accused in order that corrupt supporters of the ruthless Sulla, dictator of Rome, could acquire his father’s estate at a fraction of its value. Cicero won the case.

He married Terentia, who came from a family of comparable class, at the age of 27 and attained each of the levels of magistracy at or near the youngest possible age, becoming quaestor at 30, aedile at 36 and praetor at 39. He was then elected consul at the age of 42.

As consul, Cicero’s time in office was notable for his thwarting of a conspiracy led by Lucius Sergius Catilina to overthrow the Roman Republic with the help of foreign armed forces.  Cicero quickly passed a law to permit the use of force in response and drove Catilina and his supporters from the city, backing up his actions with powerful speeches that cemented his reputation as a great orator.

But this victory was to have a sting in the tail later when he made it clear that he could not support the First Triumvirate, which he saw as in direct opposition to the principles of the republic and undermining the authority of the Senate. 

Ambitious consul Mark Antony ordered Cicero to be killed
Ambitious consul Mark Antony
ordered Cicero to be killed
By refusing to join this alliance, Cicero made political enemies, including the tribune Publius Clodius, one of whose earliest acts on being elected was to introduce a bill that revoked the citizenship of anyone who killed a Roman citizen without granting them a trial. 

This law was deliberately framed so that Cicero could be retrospectively banished for his role in putting down the Catilina uprising, which included the execution of the revolutionaries without a trial.

After first going into hiding, Cicero fled the city and went into exile in Thessalonica. After Pompey’s intervention, he was allowed to return after a year and a half but only on condition that he stayed out of politics.

He turned instead to writing, producing great works of philosophy such as On the Republic, On Invention, and On the Orator. He made many speeches and wrote letters that would come to light in the Renaissance. 

However, he could not resist political interventions.  He fled Rome again when Caesar prevailed over Pompey in a civil war but returned when Caesar was assassinated and tried to re-establish the republic.

This brought him into conflict with Mark Antony, the consul who had his eyes on power after the demise of Caesar. Cicero had acquired huge popularity again and did not hold back in speaking out against Mark Antony, whose reaction was to declare his rival a public enemy.

Mark Antony’s soldiers hunted Cicero down and he was captured and beheaded in December, 43 BC, seized outside his villa in Formiae, having planned to embark on a ship to Macedonia.

Arpino sprawls spectacularly along a ridge in the province of Frosinone in Lazio
Arpino sprawls spectacularly along a ridge
in the province of Frosinone in Lazio
Travel tip:

Arpino, the town that evolved from the Roman city of Arpinum, sits high in the hills between Rome and Naples in the province of Frosinone, spread out spectacularly across a ridge near the Lazio-Abruzzo border. It is an attractive town with narrow lanes, pretty piazzas and ancient ruins. Apart from its Roman history, evidence of which can be seen in the remains of the ancient Roman roads, Via Latina and Via dell'Aquila Romana, Arpino was the seat of both the Colonna and Boncompagni families, prominent Roman nobility. The Renaissance-style Palazzo Boncompagni is a symbol of the wealth of the period. Below Arpino, in the Liri valley, the church of San Domenico marks the site of the villa in which Cicero was born. 

Modern Formia is a busy ferry port on the coast of Lazio between Naples and Rome
Modern Formia is a busy ferry port on the coast of
Lazio between Naples and Rome
Travel tip:

The town of Formiae, where Cicero was killed outside his villa on the Via Appia, is now known as Formia.  Situated on the coast of the Lazio region, between Rome and Naples, in Roman times it was one of a string of resorts favoured by the Roman elite. After the collapse of the Roman civilisation, much of their legacy of sumptuous villas disappeared and it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the area enjoyed a substantial revival as another wave of wealthy Romans invaded the coastline to build holiday homes.  Many of these were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War and the Formia of today is more of a modern port than a seaside resort, a departure point for ferries to Ponza, Ischia and Ventotene.  Some ruins remain, including the Tomba di Cicerone, a mausoleum built to house the remains of the great orator, and the Cisternone Romano, an enormous cistern built by the Romans to draw water from an underground reservoir.

Also on this day:

1698: The birth of librettist Pietro Metastasio

1920: The birth of singer-songwriter Renato Carosone

1929: The birth of director Sergio Leone

1952: The birth of politician Gianfranco Fini


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