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Cicero: History & Philosophy

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  • 0:05 Cicero: The Greatest…
  • 0:44 Biography: Early Career
  • 3:41 The Death of Cicero…
  • 6:20 Cicero's Philosophy
  • 8:03 Cicero's Legacy
  • 10:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson recounts the life and accomplishments of Cicero. We follow his political career through the collapse of the Roman Republic. We take a look at his philosophy. Finally we examine his legacy in western civilization.

Cicero: The Greatest Mind of His Age

Meet Cicero, the greatest mind of his age. Cicero was a Roman politician, orator, lawyer and philosopher. His political career spanned some of the most turbulent times in Roman history. His speeches are considered some of the greatest examples of oration to this day. His philosophy brought the Greek philosophical tradition to Rome, and through the Romans, transmitted Greek philosophy to medieval Europe. More than 2,000 years after his death, Cicero remains one of the most influential writers in Western history.

Biography: Early Career

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BCE. His father was a member of Rome's growing middle class, known as Equestrians. A weak and sickly youth, Cicero was ill suited to military service, so he sought to expand his mind instead. He learned Greek at an early age and studied in Athens for several years.

Cicero's focus on improving his mind, rather than his might, proved a wise choice. The Rome of his age would see the rise of many great military leaders, but no one of an intellectual caliber to match Cicero.

Cicero was a great thinker and speaker and one of the most influential writers in Western history
Cicero thinker, writer, speaker

Yet Cicero was not just a great thinker; he was also a great speaker. Cicero's life is an example of that age-old adage, 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. With his pen, Cicero destroyed his enemies and did all he could to protect the Republic from the series of ambitious generals who sought to rule Rome as tyrants.

Cicero's political career began in 75 BCE, when, at age 31, he served as quaestor for the province of Sicily. During his time there, the people of Sicily persuaded Cicero to bring charges against their old governor Gaius Verres, who had used his position to plunder the populace. For his defense, Gaius Verres hired Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, then the greatest lawyer of his age. Cicero's case for the Sicilians was so solid, his speeches so persuasive, that he defeated Hortalus completely, earning him great fame and making him one of the most sought-after lawyers in Rome.

His fame bolstered, Cicero climbed the Roman political system with surprising speed. He served as an aedile in 69 BCE (age 37), and praetor in 66 BCE (at age 40). And in 63 BCE, he attained the highest honor a Roman citizen could hope for, being elected consul at the incredibly young age of 43.

As consul, Cicero had to deal with the Catiline Conspiracy, an attempt to overthrow the Republic with a foreign army. He rallied the Senate against Catiline and his co-conspirators in a series of speeches called the Catiline Orations, which survive to this day. After assembling a mountain of evidence against the conspirators, Cicero had them all summarily executed.

The execution of Roman citizens without trial led the Senate to exile Cicero to Thessalonika in Greece, but the same Senate brought him back the next year. The Senate found themselves dealing with another political powerhouse, Julius Caesar, who also seemed to be threatening to overthrow the Republic.

The Death of Cicero and the Republic

If the Senate had hoped Cicero would help deal with Caesar, they were sadly mistaken. Caesar was far too popular at that point and had powerful allies in Pompey and Crassus. Though Cicero tried to rein in Caesar, his measures were defeated, and Cicero retreated to the literary life. When Caesar brought his army to Rome, Cicero fled with the other senators and Pompey.

Yet Cicero need not have fled, since Caesar was actually very keen on having Cicero as an ally. In 60 BCE, Caesar had invited Cicero to join his alliance with Pompey and Crassus, but Cicero refused, seeing this triumvirate as a danger to the Republic. Before Cicero's flight in 49 BCE, Caesar again tried to court the great orator's support. Upon Cicero's return to Rome in 47 BCE, Caesar pardoned him without reservation, hoping to bring Rome's great orator into his camp.

Cicero worked with Caesar to rebuild the Republic; later, the divide of Rome would lead to his death
Cicero and Julius Caesar

Cicero did his best to rebuild the Republic under Caesar, but his fellow senators could not bring themselves to make the same compromises. They murdered Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BCE.

After Caesar's assassination, Rome divided into two camps: the Senatorial camp, who supported the aristocracy and strove to restore the Republic, and the Caesarian camp, who supported Caesar and his many reforms. Cicero became the foremost representative of the Republic and the Senate, while Caesar's right hand man, Mark Antony, led the Caesarian camp. This marks the height of Cicero's political power.

When Caesar's heir, the young Octavian, came on the scene, Cicero attempted to turn Octavian and the Republic against Mark Antony, with a series of speeches known as the Philippics. Cicero succeeded at first. He got Mark Antony declared an enemy of the state, and sent Octavian with an army to defeat him. But Octavian and Antony eventually united and turned against the Senate. Antony returned Cicero's dislike with interest, and had the great orator labeled an enemy of the state.

Cicero's name was added to the list of proscriptions, and in 43 BCE, Cicero was dragged from his litter and summarily executed at the age of 63. Upon his murder, his hands were nailed to the rostrum of the Roman Forum.

Cicero's Philosophy

Though Cicero played an important role in Roman political life, his greatest impact on Rome was in his philosophical writings. Cicero's philosophy was largely derivative. Clearly, he was heavily influenced by Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, though he did differ with the Stoics on the importance of public service.

In this respect, Cicero's main contribution was not any great philosophical innovation. Instead, Cicero's role in the history of philosophy was in transmitting the philosophical tradition of Greece to Rome. To express Greek philosophy in the largely utilitarian language of Latin, Cicero needed to invent new words like Humanitas, Qualitas and Quantitas. In this light, Cicero formed the vocabulary of thought that carries on to this day.

The Founding Fathers were inspired by the philosophy of natural law
Natural Law

Cicero's only really original philosophical concept was that of natural law. Cicero held that the laws of nature were more important than the laws of men and governments. He believed that any leader who defied natural law was, by definition, a tyrant. In Cicero's own words, 'natural law is right reason, consonant with nature, common to every man, constant, eternal. Religion forbids us to make enactments infringing on this law. It may not be repealed even in part, nor do we have the power through the Senate or people to free ourselves from it.' This take on natural law as granting inalienable rights, common to every man, would provide inspiration to the Founding Fathers of America.

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