A room without books is like a body without a soul.
― Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero, the greatest of Roman orators and the chief master of Latin prose style, was born at Arpinum, January 3, 106 B.C. His father, a man of property, belonged to the class of the “Knights.” The future statesman received an education in rhetoric, law, and philosophy, studying under the most noted teachers of the time.
Cicero began his career as an advocate at the age of twenty-five, and was recognized both as a man of brilliant talents and as a courageous upholder of justice in the face of grave political danger. After two years, he left Rome to travel in Greece and Asia to study his art under distinguished masters. Returning to Rome in 77 B.C., Cicero married Terentia, a rich woman with a domineering temper.
Elected quaestor, Cicero was assigned to the province of Lilybaeum in Sicily. At the request of the inhabitants, Cicero undertook the prosecution in 70 B.C. of Verres, who as praetor had subjected the Sicilians to incredible extortion and oppression. Cicero’s successful conduct of this case, ending in the conviction and banishment of Verres, launched him on his political career.
In 64 B.C. Cicero was elected consul. The most important event of the year of his consulship was the conspiracy of Catiline. This notorious criminal of patrician rank had conspired to seize the chief offices of the state and to plunder the city. The plot was unmasked by the vigilance of Cicero. Five of the traitors were summarily executed. In the defeat of the army that had been gathered in their support, Catiline himself perished. Cicero regarded himself as the savior of his country, and his country, for the moment, seemed to give grateful assent.
During the first triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus, the radical P. Clodius proposed a law aimed at Cicero, banishing “anyone who had put Roman citizens to death without a trial.” To avoid trial, Cicero left Rome. Then a law was passed banishing Cicero by name, and his property was plundered and destroyed. During his exile, Cicero sought the protection of officials against assassination, writing letters urging his supporters to advocate for his recall. In 57 B.C., the decree passed for his restoration. Rome enthusiastically welcomed him home.
Shut out from any leading part in politics, Cicero resumed his activity in law courts, his most important case being the defense of Milo for the murder of Clodius. The oration is ranked as among the finest specimens of the art, though it failed to secure Milo’s acquittal. Cicero devoted much time to literary composition and his letters show great dejection over the political situation. In 51 B.C., Cicero went to Cilicia in Asia Minor as proconsul, an office that he administered with efficiency and integrity, and returned to Italy the following year.
War between Caesar and Pompey broke out in 49 B.C., when Caesar led his army across the Rubicon. Cicero after much irresolution cast his lot with Pompey, who was overthrown the next year in the battle of Pharsalus and later murdered in Egypt. Cicero returned to Italy where Caesar treated him magnanimously. Although Cicero was not a sharer in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, he seems to have approved of the deed. Cicero supported the cause of the conspirators against Antony. Agents of Antony killed Cicero on December 7, 43 B.C. The most important orations of the last months of his life were the fourteen “Philippics” delivered against Antony, the price for which he paid with his life.
Cicero’s influence was particularly strong in the 18th century, among important figures such as Hume, Jefferson, Burke, Gibbon, and Johnson. Cicero stand out as a Roman patriot, who gave his life to check the inevitable fall of the commonwealth to which he was devoted. The evils that undermined the Roman Republic bear so many striking resemblances to those that threaten America today that the interest in the period is by no means historical.