M arcus Tullius Cicero, the foremost orator of ancient Rome, one of her leading statesmen, and the most brilliant and accomplished of her men of letters, lived in those stirring later days of the Roman republic, that age of revolution and civil wars, in which an old and decaying order of things was passing away. It was the age of great and daring spirits, of Catiline, Cęsar, Pompey, Antony, with whose history Cicero's life is so closely intertwined.
Born 106 b.c. , at an old Italian town, Arpinum in Latium, of a good family, and inheriting from his father, who was a man of considerable culture, a moderate estate, he went as a boy to Rome, and there, under the best teachers and professors, he learned law and oratory, Greek philosophy, and Greek literature, acquiring in fact the universal knowledge which he himself says in his essay "On the Orator" (De Oratore), an orator ought to possess. An orator in the ancient world, we should bear in mind, was first and chiefly a pleader of causes, causes both legal and political—speaker alike, as we should say, at the bar and in parliament. Hence the necessity for knowledge and information of every kind. Cicero's first important speech, in his twenty-sixth year, was the successful defence in a criminal trial of a client against one of the favorites of the all-powerful Sulla, then dictator. After a visit to Athens, and a tour in Asia Minor, where he profited by the society of eminent professors of rhetoric and men of letters, he returned to Rome, and at thirty years of age he was in the highest repute at the Roman bar.
In 76 b.c. , having been elected quęstor (a financial secretary, as we may say) by a unanimous popular vote, he held an appointment in Sicily, where he won the good opinion of two highly important interests, apt at times to conflict, the traders and the revenue collectors. To this he owed the glory of his successful impeachment of the infamous Verres, in 70 b.c. , which he undertook at the request of the Sicilian provincials. The bad man who had so hideously misgoverned them, felt himself crushed by Cicero's opening speech, and went into voluntary exile. Cicero was now a power in the state, and his rise up the official ladder was sure and rapid; in 66 b.c. he was prętor, and supported in a great political speech (Pro Lege Manilia) the appointment of Pompey to the conduct of the war with Mithridates, which in fact carried with it the supreme control of Asia and of the East. In 63 b.c. , at the age of forty-four, he was consul, the highest dignity attainable to a Roman; in that memorable year he foiled by a bold promptitude, the revolutionary plot of Catiline, in which many distinguished Romans—Cęsar it was even said among them—were implicated. He was now at the height of his fame; "father of his country" he was actually called; for a brief space he was with all classes the great man of the day. But the tide soon turned; Cicero might have saved the country, but in saving it, it was said he had violated the constitution, according to which a Roman citizen could not be capitally punished but by the sentence of the people in regular assembly. As it was, Roman citizens guilty of complicity with Catiline had, at Cicero's instigation, been put to death simply by an order of the senate; this, it was said, was a dangerous precedent and Cicero must be held responsible for it. His bitter enemy, Clodius, now tribune, pressed the charge against him in inflammatory speeches specially addressed to the lowest class of citizens, and Cicero in despair left Rome in 58 b.c. , and took refuge at Thessalonica. That same year saw the "father of his country" condemned to exile by a vote of the Roman people, and his house at Rome and his country houses at Formię and Tusculum plundered and ruined.
But in those revolutionary days the events of one year were reversed by those of the next; in 57 b.c. , with new counsels and new tribunes, the people almost unanimously voted the recall of the exile, and Cicero was welcomed back to Rome amid an outburst of popular enthusiasm. But he was no longer a power in the world of politics; he could not see his way clearly; and he was so nervously sensitive to the fluctuations of public opinion that he could not decide between Pompey and the aristocracy on the one hand, and Cęsar and the new democracy on the other. His leanings had hitherto been toward Pompey and the senate and the old republic; but as time went on, he felt that Pompey was a half-hearted man, who could not be trusted, and that he would have ultimately to succumb to his far abler and more far-sighted rival, Cęsar. The result was that he lost the esteem of both parties, and came to be regarded as a mere trimmer and time-server. There was all that political indecision about him which may be often observed in eminent lawyers and men of letters. The age wanted strong men such as Cęsar; this Cicero certainly was not. He was gentle, amiable, very clever, and highly cultivated, but the last man in the world to succeed in politics. The later years of his life were spent chiefly in pleading at the bar and writing essays. In 52 b.c. he composed one of his finest speeches in defence of Milo, who had killed Clodius in a riot, and was then standing for the consulship; in this he was acting quite against the wishes of Pompey. In the following years (5150 b.c. ) he was in Asia, as governor of the province of Cilicia, and here the best side of his character showed itself in his just and sympathetic treatment of the provincials. In 4948 b.c. he was with Pompey's army in Greece to fight for the old cause, of which, however, he well-nigh despaired, and after the decisive battle of Pharsalia, at which he was not present, he threw himself on the conqueror's mercy. Cęsar, who had certainly nothing to fear from him, received him kindly, and was a great friend to him from that day; but Cicero was not a happy man now that he could no longer make speeches in the senate or in the courts; to all this Cęsar's victory had for the time at least put at end. In the years 46, 45, 44 b.c. , he wrote most of his chief works on rhetoric and philosophy, living in retirement and brooding mournfully over his griefs and disappointments. In 43 b.c. , the year after Cęsar's death, he had once again the delight of having his eloquence applauded by the senate. In that year his famous speeches against Antony—Philippics, as he called them after the title of Demosthenes's orations against Philip of Macedon—were delivered. These cost him his life. As soon as Antony, Octavius (afterward the Emperor Augustus), and Lepidus had leagued themselves together in the so-called triumvirate for the settlement of the state, they followed the precedent of former revolutions, a proscription-list of their political enemies. All such were outlawed and given up to destruction. Cicero's name was in the fatal list. Old and feeble, he fled to his villa at Formię, pursued by the soldiers of Antony, and was overtaken by them as he was being carried in a litter down to the shore, where it had been his intention to embark. With a calm courage (which, to quote Macaulay's words) "has half redeemed his fame," he put his head out of the litter and bade his murderers strike. He died in the December of 43 b.c. , in the sixty-third year of his age.
As an orator and a pleader Cicero undoubtedly stands in the first rank. Many of his speeches have come down to us. Of these the most famous, and perhaps the finest, are his speeches against Verres and against Catiline. Eloquence in those days of furious faction and revolution was a greater force than it is with us. As a politician he failed because he did not distinctly realize to himself that the old republic, the government of the senate and of the nobles, had been tried and had been found wanting. He had not the courage to face the great changes which he felt were impending. Pompey, the champion of the old order, was not a leader to whom he could look up with confidence. And so he wavered, and half acquiesced in Cęsar's triumph, even though he suspected that with that triumph the Rome which he had known and loved would pass away. To us it is as an essayist and as the writer of a multitude of letters to friends, full of miscellaneous information, that Cicero is particularly attractive; there is a gracefulness and refinement and elevation of tone about his writings which cannot fail to incline the reader to say with Erasmus, "I feel a better man for reading Cicero." His essays on "Old Age" and "on Friendship," his De Officiis, or "Whole Duty of Man," as we may paraphrase it, are good and pleasant reading such as we can all enjoy. There is no fairer picture in literature than of him sitting in the garden of his villa at Tusculum, surrounded by admiring friends, and engaged upon his "Tusculari disputations;" while his treatises on the " Nature of the Gods," and on the "True Ends of Human Life" (De Finibus), if they do not show any very deep and original thought, at least give us an insight into the teachings of the various philosophical schools.