The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist

Cicero, the Greatest Orator

Perhaps you’re reading Robert Harris’ marvellous trilogy on Cicero (Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator), after getting them for Christmas?  It’s a wonderful insight into an astonishing time in history, when the Republic of Rome was pregnant with change, and the Imperial Age was about to be born.  The transition was painful, bloody and violent, filled with names that remain familiar to us: Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Mark Antony and the scheming Catiline.  Cicero belonged to a time full of traditional values and, as such, he strove to be the first and best, eventually becoming Consul in 63 BC – the leader of Rome.  But would the Rome that followed be a world that had no place in it for a man such as he?

Here’s an outline of Cicero’s story to steer you through the rapidly changing times full of so many personalities:  cicero-public-domain

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born into a non-aristocratic family.  As a novus homo (new man/new money) he had to claw his way up. Discovering that he wasn’t suited to the army left him with a career through law.  Thanks to his father moving the family to Rome and a great education, and through skill and determination, Cicero worked his way through carefully selected, if highly risky, law cases in which he made his name and contacts, and on, through the cursus honorum of political offices.

He became consul (one of two leaders of Rome) in 63 BC.   An aristocrat, Catiline, conspired against him and the Roman senate, leading an army to the outside of Rome; Cicero was given, by the senate, extraordinary powers to make decisions; he had Catiline’s associates killed without trial.  As they were Roman citizens, this was illegal and highly unpopular.

Cicero’s stunning career – his legal brilliance, and political success to the top of his profession – was blighted by his decision to execute the conspirators and by his years of foolishly crowing about his success during his consulship and the conspiracy. He even wrote poetry about it (not his strongest genre).

In 58 BC, Cicero’s enemy, Clodius, enacted a retrospective law that anyone who put to death a Roman citizen without trial must be sent into exile.  Cicero left for Macedonia and wept for 1 ½ years, far from the action and the beating heart of Rome.

As a young man, Cicero had grown up inspired by the values of the Republic and by the duties and gravitas of a Roman.  He lived through the Social Wars (Sulla vs. Marius), Sulla’s dictatorship, and the Civil War (70-30 BC). 

He watched as the Republic and its traditional values and ways crumbled into powerful military individuals’ searches for imperium (power to command).   Despite Cicero’s reservations about so much power in such men, he had supported Pompey, who returned in 62 BC from his wars in the East to unequalled Triumphal celebrations.  When Pompey, in 60 BC, became one of the first Triumvirate (with Caesar and Crassus), Cicero’s friendship paid off; Pompey brought Cicero back to Rome in 57  BC but he was expected to stay out of politics.

Cicero busied himself with a few speeches and a few legal cases and writing philosophy, until he was sent to Asia Minor as governor of Cilicia for a year in 51 BC. Others would have seen this as a chance to make a fortune; Cicero simply missed Rome and felt side-lined.

Cicero’s ally, Pompey, was killed at the Civil War’s Battle of Pharsalus in  48 BC which left Julius Caesar in sole command of Rome.  As the freedom of the Senate continued to be compromised in the public world, Cicero’s private life ended in divorce, remarriage and rapid divorce.  Cicero then fell apart when his daughter, Tullia, died prematurely in 45 BC. He retired to his Tusculum villa and wrote philosophy to console himself.  The works he wrote are our greatest insight into Roman philosophy; a vast encyclopaedia of ancient philosophy (Roman philosophy as well as the Greek philosophy that gave rise to it), as well as such touching, human sentiments that echo down the millennia.

But he rejoiced when the dictator Julius Caesar, such a threat to the ideas of the Republic, was assassinated in 44 BC; he began to plan to publish his letters although it would have to wait for his slave/secretary (later freedman) Tiro to publish these after Cicero’s death.


For Cicero began to attack Mark Antony, one of the second Triumvirate (with Octavian and Lepidus), saying he should have been killed when Caesar was assassinated.  Cicero’s Philippics were speeches that repeatedly savaged Antony . Although Cicero had cultivated a friendship (bound with duties and political alliances) with the teenage Octavian, Octavian remained disappointingly silent when Antony proscribed Cicero and his family, condemning them to death.



Octavian and Antony coin 41 BC


On 7 December 43 BC, Cicero, worn out and aware that Rome no longer had room for a Republican with integrity like himself, submitted his neck to the soldiers who pursued him as he half-heartedly tried to leave Italy.  Antony had Cicero’s head and hands displayed on the speakers’ rostrum.

 Cicero had chosen legal cases carefully; he had created and advertised his public integrity through his speeches and writing that were in such perfect Latin that two millennium would talk of the perfection of ‘Ciceronian Latin’; he exchanged letters prolifically with his family and friends and also with the great and mighty and with the potentially mighty, he set out his thoughts on philosophy (a crucial driving force in politics as well as the rest of life).  He had shown courage in standing up for values he treasured and he had both marched and tiptoed through the complex and dangerous world of other powerful men.   As a lawyer, politician, orator and philosopher, he was remarkable.  And the writings  he left behind give us an unparalleled glimpse into one of the most remarkable periods of history, as Rome battled and bled its way from its Republic into the Imperial Age.


Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist, is leading courses on Cicero, the Greatest Orator, in Harrogate and North Stainley in the Spring Term 2017


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