‘The greatest artist who ever played on the strings of men’s hearts’ - Quintilian, Instituto Oratoria
Widely studied by classicists as arguably the greatest Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero hailed from a wealthy, yet distinctly humbler background compared to other Roman politicians around 1st century BCE. Whilst most of the latter followed generations of noteworthy politicians, Cicero ventured into the Roman political scene despite his lack of political ancestry and worked by his own means, cultivating high-level connections based on his talent in speaking – though his eventual success lay majorly in the hands of the despairing and competitive factions of the political elite.
After serving for a short time in the army in his youth, Cicero began his career as a lawyer, earning his fame as a star advocate in the Roman courts. Notably, the trial of Gaius Verres - a corrupt politician and magistrate of Sicily – was a major breakthrough in his career. Cicero’s first brief speech and witness testimonies were so effective that the Verres’ advocate advised him to go into exile, whilst Cicero followed by publishing the ‘Verrine Orations’ and organising an assessment of damages for the Sicilians. The Verrines are not only are modern historians best source for studying Roman administration in the late Roman Republic, but an effective piece of evidence concerning the corruption of senators in the period. Yet his prosecution of Verres was rare, since Cicero preferred to defend on account of the glory he might obtain, and always chose to speak last, rousing the sympathy of judges as he did so.
Cicero’s political speeches remain to be a mine of information into the depths of the most successful oratory ever delivered – at a time where oratory was the centre of the educational system. His central interest was the state, and the protection of the Republic was at the forefront of his mind to the extent that he rated his political role much higher than any other activity he played. Conservatively, he desired to achieve the previous state of stability in the Roman Republic – though his view of his predecessors was romanticised – wherein there was a pursuit of the common good and voluntary submission to a group of common leaders (being the Roman senate). Even so, despite Cicero’s many virtues and talent for persuasive speech, his skill fell short of being able to transform a state corrupted by over-ambitious politicians, reactionary noblemen and the suffering of the growing poor.
Cicero argues that speaking on the most important philosophy, and since philosophy itself was ethical, orators themselves had a great responsibility in society and were the best equipped to preach about the good way to live life. His power emerged from his use of emotion in speeches, which he asserted swayed the audience to decide problems more than reason did. Despite Caesar’s beliefs that a certain man, Quintus Ligarius, was guilty of conspiring to kill Caesar, it was remarked that after Cicero’s speech, Caesar was so overpowered with emotion that he dropped his papers from his hand and acquitted the supposedly guilty Ligarius.
Cicero soon rose to the position of consul, the highest elected political office in the Roman Republic. Each year, the citizens of Rome elected two consuls to serve jointly for a one-year term. In 63 B.C. Lucius Sergius Catilina had failed to be elected consul on multiple previous occasions – partially due to previous charges of extortions which he was later acquitted of. Upon this last defeat, Catiline began to enlist a body of supporters in order to stage an armed uprising and seize control of the government. His proposals for the cancellation of debt and his general championship of the poor and oppressed appealed to a variety of discontented elements within Roman society, and thus the conspiracy grew, with Cicero fully informed of this though unable to act due to Catiline’s popularity and connections. Finally, after receiving proof from his spies in the form of letters, Cicero spoke to the Senate regarding Catiline and they immediately passed the Senatus Consultum Ultimum – the ultimate decree - making Cicero the sole ruler and dictator of Rome until Catiline was dealt with. Catiline withdrew from Rome on November 8 after Cicero’s first Catilinarian – a powerful speech and personal attack made towards the present Catiline in the Senate. The second of these speeches was delivered a month later, asserting Cicero’s confidence that it was for the good of the people that Catiline had left Rome. A month later, after Cicero’s third and fourth speeches, disclosing further letters and proof of the conspiracy, Catiline’s allies in Rome were executed and Catiline himself was later killed in battle.
Aside from the Catilinarian conspiracy, where Cicero was arguably in his prime, there were his famous Philippics, which were written and spoken upon the falling of the great republic. The Second Philippic – a speech not spoken but publicised in the form of letters – follows the famed Julius Caesar’s assassination, wherein the conspirators that Cicero lauds have not taken control of the government - due to Caesar’s public popularity - leaving a power vacuum that Mark Antony and Octavian – Caesar’s nephew and later known as emperor Caesar Augustus – deign to fill. Cicero, the champion of the Republic, views these men as great threats to the system which had been created since the fall of kings. The second Philippic details every instance of Mark Antony’s failings in life, from self-prostitution, bankruptcy and public drunkenness to the more serious nature of his acts as a ‘king-maker’. The label itself was so effective in his speech, since the names of kings were so hated by Romans, that Cicero meets his death a year later by Antony’s executioners. In antiquity, Cicero’s Philippics became regarded as the work whose very quality ensured Cicero’s own demise.
What might we learn from Cicero?
Cicero’s fate itself illustrates the quality of his skill, when his head and hands were nailed to the rostra (a large platform) of the Roman forum. Allegedly, Fulvia – a wife to Antony and formerly to other enemies of Cicero – stuck her hairpin into Cicero’s tongue since it had been this that had so harshly criticised Antony. Cicero’s speeches continue to give us an insight into ancient philosophy and ancient history, and though it appears that he failed in his last task of saving the Republic (that would soon transform into the Roman Empire after his death) Cicero’s rhetorical legacy is one of power and passion that is inspiring to his audience even in the present day.