Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Cicero's legacy began forming even before his death. Caesar is said to have said of Cicero, 'it is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman Empire.'
Cicero was considered 'the father of Roman eloquence'. His engaging style and accessible prose made his writings a staple of the classical curriculum. Even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, students of law, rhetoric and philosophy would all be compelled to read Cicero.
Cicero did not just bring Greek philosophy to the Romans. He is, in large part, responsible for transmitting Greek philosophy to medieval Europe. Cicero was one of the few classical authors to survive the Dark Ages. Like Virgil, Cicero was considered a virtuous pagan, and his works were not proactively destroyed like so many others. His impact on medieval scholarship is quite clear.
St. Jerome followed Cicero's example of translation from Greek to Latin by translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. St. Ambrose's book, On the Duties of Ministers, was based, in title and content, on Cicero's ethical book On Duties. St. Augustine credited Cicero with his conversion to Christianity. St. Erasmus was hailed as the greatest writer since Cicero, despite living more than 1,500 years after Cicero's death.
After creating his own movable-type printing press, Gutenberg first published a copy of the Bible. The second work he published was a book of Cicero's. 18th century Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Hume and Montesquieu would all look to Cicero when framing their own arguments. And the Founding Fathers of the United States would borrow heavily from Cicero's philosophy of natural law when designing their own novel form of government.
To review, Cicero was a Roman orator, philosopher, lawyer and politician. His political career spanned the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the principate. Throughout his career, Cicero took on his political opponents with scathing orations, most notably the Catiline Orations and the Philippics. Cicero's philosophical role was mostly limited to transmitting the Greek philosophical tradition to Rome, and by extension, to medieval Europe. Yet he did have a few original ideas, mostly centered on natural law and the essential rights of man.
Cicero's prolific writing made up the core of Western education for centuries. His writing inspired early church fathers like Ambrose and Augustine, as well as later Enlightenment thinkers, like Locke and Montesquieu. Finally, Cicero's work on natural law would inspire the Founding Fathers of the United States to create their own nation, based on Ciceronian principals of justice and equality under the law.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets