Biography of Cicero - Roman Intellectual & Politician

Cicero at 60. Marble bust of Cicero.
Cicero at 60. Photogravure from a marble bust in the Prado Gallery at Madrid. Public Domain

Detailed Account of Cicero
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Cicero was born on 3 January 106 BC. His family was from the town of Arpinum, about 70 miles south-east of Rome. The name Cicero means chickpea, and stemmed from an ancestor who had a wart at the end of his nose, which looked like a chickpea. Cicero studied literature, philosophy and law in Rome. His studies were interrupted by a spell of military service under Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo during the Social War (the war Rome fought (90-88) against its Italian allies which ended with the extension of Roman citizenship to the whole of Italy south of the Po). He claims to have supported Sulla in the upheavals of the 80s without actually taking up arms.

In 80, Cicero appeared as the advocate defending Sextus Roscius of Ameria against a charge of parricide. He defended Roscius by turning the accusation of murder back on one of Roscius' accusers, his relation Titus Roscius Magnus, and another relation, Titus Roscius Capito. What caused a sensation was Cicero's claim that Chrysogonus, one of Sulla's freedmen, had assisted in covering up the murder and, for his pains, had bought the lion's share of the dead man's property at a rock bottom price a claim that could easily be seen, despite all Cicero's protestations to the contrary, as an attack on Sulla himself. Sextus Roscius was acquitted and Cicero was famous.

Soon afterwards, Cicero took on another politically sensitive case, that of a woman from Arretium, in which he criticised Sulla for depriving the people of Arretium of their citizenship. Cicero then left for Greece, perhaps for health reasons (his digestion was never good), or perhaps because he felt a discreet absence might be wise, or perhaps a bit of both.

He used this time to continue his studies of philosophy in Athens. Here he renewed his acquaintance with Titus Pomponius Atticus, who was to become a life-long friend and correspondent. Although he was attracted by Antiochus of Ascalon's lecturing style, Cicero's own philosophical leanings were towards the sceptical position of the philosophers known as the New Academy. Cicero did consider settling in Athens, but after the death of Sulla (78), he left for the Roman province of Asia (now Western Turkey) and Rhodes where he studied oratory. On his return to Rome (77) he resumed his career as an advocate.

In 75, he became quaestor and served in Sicily, securing the grain supply. The Sicilians' gratitude for his fair, if strict, administration led to their approaching Cicero to undertake the prosecution of Verres, who had just completed his term of office (73-71) as governor of Sicily, for extortion. Cicero did so (70), although he first had to argue before the courts that he, and not Quintus Caecilius Niger, who had been quaestor under Verres and was expected to put up only a token prosecution to ensure Verres' acquittal, should be the prosecutor.

Verres' strategy was to draw out the proceedings to the next year when Hortensius, Verres' defending advocate, would be one of the consuls, and one member of the Metelli family, who were supporters of Verres, would be the other consul and another the praetor presiding over the court where Verres was to be tried.

Cicero gathered his evidence more quickly than anyone expected despite the efforts of yet another Metellus, who succeeded Verres as governor of Sicily. Nevertheless, because of the great number of festivals coming up, during which the courts would be closed, Cicero had to adopt an unusual strategy in court. The normal procedure in cases of extortion was for the prosecution to give an introductory speech and then one or more speeches arguing for the defendant's guilt. The defending advocates would then reply, and then witnesses would be called. After a two-day adjournment, the prosecution and defence would each give further speeches, and then the jury would vote by secret ballot.

Cicero's opening speech laid great stress on the political aspects of the case. Only senators could be jurors, but there were moves afoot to turn the courts over to the equites (rich non-senators) on the grounds that the senatorial juries were notoriously corrupt. Cicero warns the jury that if they do not convict Verres, who had frequently boasted that his money would guarantee an acquittal, they should not be surprised if the senate's privilege of sitting on juries is taken away. Rather than making speeches arguing for Verres' guilt, Cicero then just presented his witnesses. Verres chose not to contest the case and went into voluntary exile from Italy. Cicero published the speeches he would have given if Verres had stuck it out. The next year the senators lost their exclusive right to sit on juries. Henceforth, juries were made up of 1/3 senators, 1/3 equites, and 1/3 treasury tribunes (tribuni aerarii) (we don't know who exactly the treasury tribunes were).

In the same year as Verres' trial, Cicero had been elected aedile at the youngest age it was legally permissible. He followed up this success by winning the greatest number of votes among the candidates for the eight praetorships for the year 66. During his praetorship he served as the presiding judge for the extortion court where he had prosecuted Verres. Cicero also showed himself to be a supporter of Pompey (the son of his commanding officer in the Social War) by his speech in favour of the law introduced by one of the tribunes, Gaius Manilius, transferring the command of the war against Mithridates to Pompey.

Although it was usual for a praetor to take up a foreign posting, a propraetorship, as governor on finishing his term of office, Cicero declined the opportunity in order to concentrate his efforts on gaining the consulship. He stood in 64, the earliest year in which he was eligible. Of the other candidates, the most dangerous for his chances were Gaius Antonius Hybrida and Lucius Sergius Catilina.

Cicero and Antonius were elected.

The second and first centuries BC saw a shift in rural land holding from small estates of a size sufficient to support a landowner capable of military service and his household in an idealised simple lifestyle to enormous estates (latifundia) owned by city-dwellers and worked by chain gangs of slaves. This meant increasing levels of rural poverty, as the small landowners were unable to compete with the large estates, and a drift to the cities, and Rome in particular, with a corresponding increase in urban poverty as well. Many of the latifundia had been built up by rich and influential people quietly taking over state land. Not surprisingly there were frequent calls for the redistribution of state land. This tied in with another problem. Marius had reorganised the army at the end of the second century BC, transforming the soldiers from a militia who would serve their time and then go back to their farms to a professional force dependent on their general being able to arrange a grant of land for them to retire on.

Just before the beginning of Cicero's consulship, one of the new tribunes of the plebs, Publius Servilius Rullus, proposed the establishment of a commission of ten men holding office for five years who would have complete control of state revenues and would be able to enquire into the legality of land holdings and distribute past and future conquests (the land of the conquered became state land) through, if necessary, compulsory purchase and re-sale. Cicero's first speeches as consul were against this proposal.

Another remedy often proposed for social ills was taken up by Catilina, who was standing again for election as consul: the cancellation of debts. Catilina had a certain amount of support from those who had been dispossessed or proscribed under Sulla, and from some of Sulla's veterans who had not adjusted well to civilian life. Although they came to Rome to vote for Catilina in the elections, he was again defeated after Cicero reported some of Catilina's more rabble-rousing speeches to the Senate and then started ostentatiously wearing a breastplate to the forum as a security measure against possible assassination attempts by Catilina or his followers.

Catilina's supporters then started gathering an army in Etruria under Gaius Manlius. At a midnight meeting at Cicero's house, Crassus [] brought some anonymous letters he had received warning him and others to get out of Rome to avoid a forthcoming massacre. Cicero called a dawn meeting of the Senate where he ordered the addressees of the letters to read out the contents. The same meeting also heard reports of the rising in Etruria under Gaius Manlius and in other parts of Italy. Forces were dispatched to take care of the uprisings, but so far there was no evidence to link Catilina with them. The Senate passed a decree ordering the consuls to see that the state came to no harm (the senatus consultum ultimum basically the declaration of a state of emergency).

Cicero's colleague, Antonius, was sent to oversee operations outside Rome, while Cicero remained stationed inside the city. There was, in fact, an assassination attempt against Cicero by two of Catilina's followers, but Cicero was warned by Fulvia, the mistress of Quintus Curius, one of Catilina's followers who was a double agent working for Cicero.

When the would-be assassins came to Cicero's house under the pretext of making an early morning call they found the house barred against them.

Cicero called a meeting of the Senate, and delivered the first of his speeches against Catilina. None of the Senators would sit anywhere near Catilina, who decided to join Manlius in Etruria. He left Cornelius Lentulus, one of the praetors, in charge of his supporters in Rome.

Lentulus had plans to kill the Senate and set fire to Rome during the Saturnalia festival in December, and then take over the city during the ensuing chaos. He approached the ambassadors from the Allobroges, a Gaulish tribe, to ask them to help by starting a revolt in Transalpine Gaul. The Allobroges informed their patron in Rome, Quintus Fabius Sanga, who passed on the information to Cicero. On Cicero's orders, the Allobroges pretended to fall in with the plot and asked for more information. They were being taken to Catilina's camp by Titus Volturcius with letters of introduction, but instead they lead Titus Volturcius into a trap. Lentulus and other leaders of the conspirators, Gaius Cornelius Cethegus, Statilius, and Gabinius, were arrested and a meeting of the senate ordered that they be placed under house arrest in the houses of other senators while it was decided what to do with them. Crassus [] was also accused of being involved in the conspiracy, but the Senate decided to ignore the testimony against him.

Crassus himself spread the story afterwards that this evidence had been trumped up against him by Cicero.

The main speakers at the next meeting of the Senate were Julius Caesar, who was in favour of life imprisonment and forfeiture of the conspirators' property, and Marcus Porcius Cato and Cicero (in the fourth of his speeches In Catilinam), who favoured death. The senate voted in favour of the death penalty, and Cicero led the arrested conspirators one by one to the jail, where they were executed. When Catilina's forces heard of this, many of them deserted him. The remainder were defeated by Marcus Petreius, who was in command of Antonius' forces, since Antonius was ill at the time.

Although Cicero was hailed as "the father of his country" (pater patriae a title later used by Augustus), there were signs of trouble to come. It was possible to argue that his execution of Lentulus and the other conspirators was illegal in that execution of a citizen needed a vote of the whole people rather than just the senate. The counter argument was that the senatus consultum ultimum suspended the normal operation of law. Two of the new tribunes, who took office on 10 December while Cicero's term of office did not expire till 31 December, refused to allow Cicero to make any speeches to the people but only to take the oath customarily taken by consuls when their term expired. Cicero agreed, but changed the wording of the oath to include the fact that he had saved the country.

Towards the end of 62, news of a juicy scandal broke. A man was caught at the rites of Bona Dea (the Good Goddess), which were for women only, disguised as a woman. The man in question was Publius Clodius Pulcher, a young patrician (a descendent of the original Roman aristocracy) and the leader of a gang of street toughs who broke up public meetings that attempted to pass legislation Clodius disagreed with. His motive for sneaking into the rites of Bona Dea was said to be that he was in love with Pompeia, the wife of Julius Caesar, at whose house they were being held. Whether or not anything had happened between Clodius and Pompeia, Julius Caesar divorced her with the famous phrase that the wife of Caesar must be above suspicion. Clodius was charged with sacrilege, and at his trial he put forward an alibi that he was in Interamna, some 90 miles from Rome, that day. Cicero broke Clodius' alibi with evidence that he had met Clodius in Rome only three hours before the incident. Although Clodius was acquitted through wholesale bribery and intimidation of the jury, he never forgave Cicero.

Four years later, Clodius had his chance. In 59 he renounced his patrician status and had himself adopted by a plebeian (i.e., a non-patrician). He was now eligible for election as a tribune of the plebs, a post open only to plebeians. He was elected, and in 58 brought in a law that anyone who had put Roman citizens to death without a trial should be exiled. This was of course specifically aimed at Cicero's execution of Lentulus and the other Catilinarians. This was the time when Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey were the unofficial rulers of Rome in the league usually called the first triumvirate. When they first united they had invited Cicero to join them, but he refused, so they were in no mood to help him now.

Cicero went into voluntary exile and Clodius had a vote passed that no-one should give Cicero shelter within 500 miles of Italy. Despite this, many communities helped Cicero on his way to Greece. Although Cicero had said on his previous sojourn in Athens after his defence of Roscius that he would be perfectly happy staying there studying philosophy if he could not have a public career, now that the opportunity to live a life of study had arisen, it turned out that he could not wait to get back to Rome.

In the meantime, Clodius had Cicero's villas and his house in Rome burnt down. Clodius had a temple to Liberty built on the site of Cicero's house so that if by any chance Cicero returned he would not be able to take the site back, and he also tried to sell Cicero's other property, but there were no takers. Clodius managed to alienate Pompey, and his gang of toughs were generally promoting disorder. The Senate refused to transact public business unless Cicero was recalled. In the ensuing street fighting Cicero's brother Quintus was nearly killed and lay in a heap of bodies for some hours. Sixteen months after he left Rome, Cicero was able to come home. He argued that Clodius' assumption of plebeian status had been flawed and his acts as tribune, including the consecration of the site of Cicero's house, were therefore void. The Senate duly decreed that Cicero's house and villas be rebuilt at the state's cost, but the valuation they put on the property was considerably less than Cicero had actually paid for it.

Cicero had a chance of partial revenge in 56, when Marcus Caelius Rufus was charged with, among other acts of violence, attempting to poison Clodia, Clodius' sister. As one of the defending advocates, Cicero took the opportunity to launch a blistering attack on Clodia's credibility], accusing her of general sexual immorality, and specifically incest with Clodius.

Cicero had always made a regular practice of publishing his speeches, although in revised form. Indeed, he published the speeches he would have given if Verres had continued with his case back in 70. He now began writing more theoretical works on oratory and political philosophy. His De Oratore (The Orator) appeared in 55, and his De Republica (The State) in 54. He started his De Legibus (The Laws), but what we have of this is incomplete, and we do not know whether it was ever in fact finished.

In the meantime, Titus Annius Milo had formed another gang of street toughs and clashes between his gang and Clodius' became more and more frequent.

In 53 Clodius was standing for the praetorship and Milo for the consulship. Because of the continual brawls and riots between the two rival gangs the elections could not be held and the year 53 opened without any magistrates. The clashes culminated in a brawl on the Appian Way, one of the main roads out of Rome, where Milo leaving Rome for the country met Clodius on his way back to Rome. Clodius was killed in the fighting. His body was brought back to Rome, and his followers insisted on cremating it in the senate house, which then caught fire and burned down.

Pompey was appointed sole consul for the year by the senate, and he introduced a law on violence under which Milo was tried. The law laid down specific procedures. Witnesses were to be heard first, and then one day would be given over to speeches from the prosecuting and defending advocates. The prosecution and defence would then each have the right to reject 15 of the 81 jurors, who would then vote. Cicero was one of the defending advocates.

Marcus Marcellus was shouted down by a howling mob of Clodius supporters when he tried to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, and to keep order Pompey posted soldiers round the Forum, where the trial was being held. In these circumstances Cicero did not give of his best. Milo was found guilty and he went into exile. This could have been because of Cicero's poor performance or because Milo refused to wear mourning as was customary for defendants. Cicero later published a heavily revised version of his speech. In the speech as given he seems to have relied on the argument that Milo killed Clodius in self-defence, but in the version revised for publication, which is what has come down to us, he also used the argument that Clodius' death was in the public interest.

What is interesting is that we also have a neutral account of what actually happened from Asconius, who wrote commentaries on some of Cicero's speeches in the first century AD. Asconius' account is rather different from Cicero's.

According to Asconius, Milo's and Clodius' parties met on the road by chance. Two gladiators at the rear of Milo's party started a shouting match with Clodius' slaves, and when Clodius looked back in irritation, wounded him with a spear. Clodius was taken to an inn to recover, but in the ensuing brawl, Milo had Clodius thrown out of the inn and beaten to death. According to Cicero, Clodius deliberately waylaid Milo in an attempt to kill him, but Milo ended up killing Clodius in self-defence. This was the reverse of the story Clodius' supporters had been putting about, that Milo had deliberately waylaid Clodius in order to kill him.

In an attempt to deal with the problem of massive electoral corruption, Pompey introduced a law that consuls and praetors should not take up provincial governorships until five years after their consulship or praetorship. The idea behind this was that by making candidates wait before they could hope to recoup their outlay on electoral bribery, corruption in the hope of a lucrative posting would become less financially attractive. In the meantime, however, there was a shortage of people qualified to serve as governors. As Cicero had not taken up a governorship after his praetorship or consulship, he was obliged to accept one now, and he was allotted the province of Cilicia, on what is now the southern coast of Turkey (50-51).

There was a real danger of an invasion from Parthia after the defeat of Crassus in 53 [], but this did not transpire. Cicero made a good and fair governor, refusing to accept 'presents' from local rulers and putting down some bands of outlaws, but his heart was back in Rome.

As soon as he possibly could he returned to Rome (49), to find it on the verge of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Cicero's support was wooed by Caesar, but Cicero thought Caesar had put himself in the wrong by invading Italy. On the other hand, Cicero did not have much confidence in Pompey, who he thought had made a major error in abandoning Italy for Greece. After dithering for some time, he crossed to Greece to join Pompey. Once there he was unable to make himself useful, and after Pompey's defeat at the battle of Pharsalus (48), Cicero withdrew his support from those who were determined to continue the struggle and returned to Italy to await Julius Caesar's return (47).

He spent the following years composing philosophical dialogues in Latin, coining new Latin words where necessary to translate Greek philosophical terms. He also planned a history of Rome, but did not carry it out. He divorced his wife because of her lack of support during the war, and her extravagance, which had only worsened his already tricky financial position at this time.

Not long after the divorce, he married Publilia, who was his ward and very rich. The marriage did not last long, however: Cicero divorced her soon afterwards because she was insufficiently grief-stricken by the death in childbirth of Tullia, Cicero's much loved daughter from his first marriage. It was in an attempt to come to terms with Tullia's death that Cicero wrote a work called "Consolation", which has not survived.