Biography of Cicero, Roman Statesman and Orator

Cicero: 19th C. Statue, Palace of Justice in Rome, Italy
Cicero the greatest orator of the Ancient Rome, marble statue in front of the Old Palace of Justice in Rome (19th century).

Crisfotolux / Getty Images

Cicero (January 3, 106 BCE–December 7, 42 BCE) was a Roman statesman, writer, and orator renowned among the great speakers and prose writers at the end of the Roman republic. His hundreds of surviving letters discovered over 1,400 years after his death made him one of the best-known individuals in ancient history. 

Fast Facts: Cicero

  • Full Name: Marcus Tullius Cicero
  • Known For: Roman orator and statesman
  • Born: January 3, 106 BCE in Arpinum, Italy
  • Parents: Marcus Tullius Cicero II and his wife Helvia
  • Died: December 7, 42 BCE in Formiae
  • Education: Tutored by the leading philosophers of the day in rhetoric, oratory, and law
  • Published Works: 58 speeches, 1,000 pages of philosophy and rhetoric, more than 800 letters
  • Spouses: Terentia (m. 76–46 BCE), Publilia (m. 46 BCE) 
  • Children: Tuillia (died 46 BCE) and Marcus (65 BCE—after 31 CE)
  • Notable Quote: "The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience, the stupid by necessity and the brute by instinct."

Early Life

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on January 3, 106 BCE at the family residence near Arpinum. He was the third of that name, the eldest son of Marcus Tullius Cicero (died in 64 BCE) and his wife Helvia. Their family name is derived from the Latin for "chickpeas" (Cicer), and was pronounced "Siseroh" or, in classical Latin, "Kikeroh." 

Education 

Cicero received one of the best educations available in the Roman republic, spending time with many of the best Greek philosophers available. His father was quite ambitious for him and at an early age, he took Cicero and his brother Quintus to Rome, where they were tutored by (among others) the celebrated Greek poet and grammarian Aulus Licinius Archias of Antioch (121–61 BCE). 

After Cicero assumed the toga virilis (the Roman "toga of manhood"), he began studying the law with the Roman jurist Quintus Mucius Scaevola Augur (159–88 BCE). In 89 BCE, he served in the Social Wars (91–88 BCE), his only military campaign, and that was likely where he met Pompey (106–48 BCE). During the Roman dictator Sulla's (138–76 BCE) first civil war (88–87 BCE), Cicero supported neither side, returning to his studies with Greek philosophers from the Epicurean (Phaedrus), Platonic (Philo of Larissa), and Stoic (Diodotus) schools, as well as the Greek rhetorician Apollonius Molon (Molo) of Rhodes. 

First Speeches

Cicero's first profession was as a "pleader," a person who drafts pleadings and defends clients in a court of law. His earliest surviving speeches were written during this period, and in 80 BCE, one of those put him in trouble with Sulla, who was dictator of Rome (ruled 82–79 BCE). 

Sextus Roscius of Amerina was murdered by his neighbors and kinsmen. After he was dead, the freedman (and friend of Sulla) Chrysogonus arranged to have Roscius' name placed on the list of proscribed outlaws—condemned to death. If he was condemned to death when they killed him, that meant that the murderers were off the hook for his murder. It also meant that his goods were forfeit to the state. Sextius' son was disinherited, and Chrysogonus arranged to prosecute him for the murder of his own father. Cicero successfully defended the son.

Travel Abroad, Marriage, and Family

In 79 BCE, Cicero went to Athens to avoid Sulla's displeasure, where he completed his education, studying philosophy with Antiochus of Ascalon and rhetoric with Demetrius Syrus. There he met Titus Pomponius Atticus, who would be a close friend for life (and eventually receive over 500 of Cicero's surviving letters). After staying in Athens for six months, Cicero traveled to Asia Minor to study again with Molo.

At the age of 27, Cicero married Terentia (98 BCE–4 CE), with whom he would have two children: Tullia (78–46 BCE) and Marcus or Cicero Minor (65–after 31 BCE). He divorced her about 46 BCE, and married his young ward, Publilia, but that didn't last long—Cicero didn't think that Publilia was upset enough over the loss of his daughter. 

A Political Life

Cicero returned to Rome from Athens in 77 BCE, and quickly rose in the ranks and made an orator in the forum. In 75 BCE he was sent to Sicily as a quaestor, returning to Rome again in 74 BCE. In 69 BCE he was made a praetor and, in that role, sent Pompey to the command of the Mithridatic war. But in 63 BCE, a plot against Rome was discovered—the Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina (108–62 BCE) was a patrician, who had a few political setbacks and worked his bitterness into an uprising against the ruling oligarchy in Rome, dragging along other discontents in the Senate and out of it. His primary political goal was a radical program of debt relief, but he threatened one of his opponents in an election in 54 BCE. Cicero, who was consul, read four inflammatory speeches against Catiline, considered to be among his best rhetorical speeches.

Cicero Denouncing Catiline, engraved by B. Barloccini, 1849
Cicero Denouncing Catiline, engraved by B. Barloccini, 1849. After C.C Perkins / Getty Images
When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? ...You ought, O Catiline, long ago to have been led to execution by command of the consul. That destruction which you have been long plotting against us ought to have already fallen on your own head.

Several of the conspirators were captured and killed without trial. Catiline fled and was killed in battle. The impacts to Cicero were mixed. He was addressed in the Senate as "father of his country," and there were suitable thanksgivings sent to the gods, but he made implacable enemies. 

The First Triumvirate

Around 60 BCE, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus combined forces to form what Roman scholars call "The First Triumvirate," a type of coalition government. Cicero might have formed a fourth, except that one of his enemies from the Catiline Conspiracy, Clodius, was made tribune and created a new law: anyone who had been found to put a Roman citizen to death without proper trial should himself be put to death. Caesar offered his support, but Cicero turned him down and instead left Rome to take up residence in Thessalonica in Macedonia.

From there, he wrote despairing letters back to Rome, and his friends eventually obtained his recall in September of 57 BCE. He was compelled to support the triumvirate, but he wasn't happy about it and was sent to be the governor of Cilicia. He returned to Rome and had barely arrived on January 4, 49 BCE, when a civil war between Pompey and Caesar broke out. He threw in with Pompey, despite Caesar's overtures, and after Caesar won at the Battle of Pharsalia, he returned to his home in Brundisium. He was pardoned by Caesar but mostly retired from public life.

Death

Although unaware of the plot against Julius Caesar that ended in his assassination, Cicero, ever conscious of the republic, would have approved. After Caesar died Cicero made himself the head of the republican party and spoke vehemently against Caesar's assassin, Marc Anthony. It was a choice that led to his end, because when the new triumvirate was established between Anthony, Octavian, and Lepidus, Cicero was placed on the list of proscribed outlaws. 

He fled to his villa in Formiae, where he was captured and killed on December 7th, 42 BCE. His head and hands were cut off and sent to Rome, where they were nailed to the Rostra. 

Legacy 

Cicero was renowned for his oratorical skills, rather than his spotty statesmanship. He was a poor judge of character and used his ample gifts to get rid of his enemies, but in the toxic environment of the waning Roman republic, it also brought about his end. 

14th Century Medieval Miniature with Cicero Illustrating On Old Age
Gaius Laelius Sapiens, Atticus, Scipio Africanus and Cato the Elder. Miniature from De Senectute (On Old Age), by Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero), 1470. Musee Conde, Chantilly, France. Leemage / Getty Images Plus

In 1345, the Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374 and known as Petrarch) rediscovered Cicero's letters in the Cathedral Library of Verona. The 800+ letters contained a wealth of detail about the end of the republican period of Rome and cemented the importance of Cicero. 

Sources and Further Reading