Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) is widely considered Rome’s greatest orator and verse writer but he was also an influential statesman, successful lawyer and philosopher. He has greatly influenced the Western thought and philosophy despite the fact that his own contribution to the discipline is generally considered of lesser importance. However, thanks to Cicero, Western philosophers gained access to many important ancient philosophical works that would otherwise be lost forever.
Cicero was born in 106 BCE to a wealthy landowner who had good connections with the social elites in Rome but he was prevented from entering the public life due to a physical disability. Cicero is said to have been a talented student which enabled him to study law under Quintus Mucius Scaevola, one of the greatest authorities on Roman law. Around 83 BCE, he started practising law and won his first major case during Sulla’s dictatorship. He got his client acquitted of murder by accusing Sulla’s favourites for his client’s crime which was very risky because the dictator could easy had at the time unknown Cicero assassinated.
In 79 BCE, Cicero went to Greece to study and probably also to avoid Sulla’s counter-measures for his accusations in the court. He returned to Rome in 76 BCE, got married. One year later, he became quaestor which got him a chair in the Senate. Victory in the case of Gaius Verres against the best advocate at the time in 70 BCE increased his prestige and by 63 BCE, he held the office of consul which was the highest political position he could legally hold in his age. However, his political career soon brought him into trouble. He exposed the Catilina conspiracy which foresaw his assassination and overthrow of the Roman Republic. He was awarded the Pater Patriae honour but feared a trial or exile for having the conspirators put to death without trial.
In 60 BCE, Cicero was invited by Julius Caesar to join him, Pompey and Crassus as the fourth triumvir. He refused Caesar’s offer and publicly spoke against Caesar. This earned him an exile in Macedonia but he was recalled to Rome after 16 months. After returning to Rome, he tried to return to politics but he failed to turn Pompey against his co-triumvirs. He dedicated himself to writing and occasionally defended the triumvirate. He did not interfere in the war between Pompey and Caesar, and did not try to return to politics after Pompey’s death. Instead, he throw himself into writing rhetoric and philosophy.
Although Cicero disliked Caesar’s dictatorship and approved conspiracy against him, he was not involved in his assassination. After Caesar’s death, he tried to reconcile his assassins and Mark Antony but he soon concluded that the latter is threat to the Republic. He began to speak publicly against Mark Antony on behalf of Octavian (later Augustus). However, before the two started a war for the rule over Rome, they reached an agreement and together with Lepidus set up a three-man dictatorship. Both Octavian and Mark Antony started eliminating their enemies as the enemies of the state and in 43 BCE, Cicero was assassinated on Mark Antony’s order.
Cicero’s Philosophical Works
Although Cicero is considered one of the most important Western philosophers, he did not make any major contributions to the discipline as such. All his works are written in outstanding Latin prose, proving his brilliance with words but do not offer much originality. However, it is important to note that Cicero was primarily a politician and considered politics a priority. Ironically, he turned out to be the least successful in politics which was directly responsible for his premature death. Cicero’s philosophical works are mostly reproductions of the prominent Greek philosophers, mostly stoic. However, his works “De amicitia” (On Friendship), “De senectute” (On Old Age), “De officiis” (On Duty), “De natural deorum” (On the Nature of the Gods), to mention only a few are a priceless source of ancient Greek philosophy, while rediscovery of Cicero’s letters by Petrarch in the 14th century is by some thought to gave rise to Renaissance. Cicero’s writings also had a major influence on the Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Montesquieu, John Locke and David Hume.
Cicero is best known for his speeches (of which 57 have survived) and political philosophy. He is also known to have been a highly respected poet, however, none of his poetry survived. The works that did survived including hundreds of letters he wrote to various correspondents came to be regarded as a synonym for Latin as well as a priceless source for history of the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire.