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This Week In History

Cicero: Orator, Lawyer, Politician – December 7, 43 BC

Marcus Tullius Cicero came from a wealthy family of the equestrian order in the ancient Roman Republic. His prose influenced European languages through his Latin for thousands of years and is considered one of the greatest orators of Roman times. His letters, rediscovered in the 14th century, are often cited as the spark for the renaissance of public affairs and Roman culture. Coupled with all of his linguistic abilities, Cicero was also an accomplished politician and successful lawyer. This is a catgory of  roman republic coins.

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His political career began in 75 BC as quaestor in western Sicily. He was honest and trustworthy in this position accounting for the public treasuries, and as such was pleaded by the public to take up a case against Gaius Verres, a local corrupt governor (some things never change). Verres, quite wealthy, hired as his defense attorney the best lawyer in Rome – Quintus Hortensius Hortalus. It took some time for Cicero to gather the evidence and convince whistleblowers to come forward, but he was able to build his case and took the fight to Rome, where he was victorious in a series of dramatic court battles. The speeches during the court case are documented and can be found today as “In Verrem”. His success in the case promoted him to be then considered the “greatest orator in Rome.”

All while this was going on, the Republic was in a time of civil unrest. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, the Roman general, won a series of battles in the civil war and constructed a new constitutional framework for Rome that undermined liberty. However, this new framework also strengthened the equestrian class, of which Cicero was a member. Cicero was loyal to the Republic and the middle classes knew they could count on him. Again, because of his oratory skills and trustworthiness, he was able to continue to rise politically, holding each successive position nearly at the earliest legal age. He was 31 when attaining his position as quaestor, 37 when he was given the title of aedile in 69 BC and 40 when he became praetor in 66 BC.

In 63 BC, he rose to the elected position of consul. During this year, Cicero uncovered a plot by Lucius Sergius Catalina to assassinate him and overthrow the government with assistance from foreign forces. Cicero attained a decree for martial law from the Senate and through a series of speeches known as the Cataline Orations, drove the conspirators from Rome. This was partially successful as Cataline was forced to flee, but members of his following stayed behind to stage a revolt. Cataline attempted to involve the gallic tribe, Allobroges, but Cicero intercepted the letters and used them to incriminate the conspirators. The criminals were forced to confess in front of the Senate and await their punishment. During deliberations, Decimus Silanus argued for the most extreme penalty. Julius Caesar suggested life imprisonment scattered through various towns. But it was Cato the Younger who won out with his argument for the death penalty. Cicero had the conspirators taken to the prison and was personally there for the strangulation of the former consul, Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura. Although Cicero received the honor of pater patriae for his exposure of the plot, he was now guilty of putting five Roman citizens to death without a trial, even though it was under martial law.

Although Julius Caesar invited Cicero to join his partnership with Crassus and Pompey in 60 BC, he declined as he thought it would undermine the Republic. With only the three partners, it would become that year known as the First Triumvirate. A new law, passed in 58 BC, introduced by Publius Clodius Pulcher, exiled those who executed a Roman citizen without a trial. Even though ex post facto from the Cataline Conspiracy four years previous, Cicero knew it was designed to target him. He fled to Thessalonica, after failing to get immunity by Pompey. He remained in exile until the following year, when the newly elected tribune Titus Annius Milo put forth a vote to have Cicero return. Clodius submitted the only dissenting vote.

Cicero returned to Rome and attempted to reenter the political scene. Things didn’t go quite as he had hoped, however, when he attacked a bill presented by Julius Caesar. He recanted his objection and somewhat defeated, turned toward his literary passions. Because of his previous positions, under Roman law with respect to term limits and when subsequent positions could be held, he was forced to reluctantly accept proconsul of Cilicia in May, 51 BC.

The Triumvirate was breaking down and Cicero took the side of Pompey, as Pompey was more for the Republican way of life and defending the Senate, but avoided open hostilities against Caesar. When Caesar invaded Italy in 49 BC, Cicero fled to Pompey’s forces in Epidamnos, Illyria. He remained with the Pompeian faction into 48 BC, but was losing faith in their adherence to their beliefs. After Caesar’s victory over Pompey’s forces at Pharsalus in 48 BC, Cicero cautiously returned to Rome, where Caesar pardoned him.

Cicero continued to work in Rome and when Brutus and Cassius assassinated Julius Caesar on the floor of the Senate in March, 44 BC, Brutus implored Cicero to restore the Republic, while holding the bloody dagger. Cicero became a popular leader after the coup and he convinced the Senate to not declare Caesar to have been a tyrant, which allowed the Caesarian faction to remain and his laws intact, which was the compromise against the wishes of Marc Antony, who wanted to exact revenge on Brutus and Cassius.

The relationship between Cicero and Antony was never good and when Cicero declared to Octavian that Antony was taking too many liberties interpreting the public will of Julius Caesar, he actively worked to pit the two against each other. Cicero also attacked Antony in a series of speeches known as the Philippics. Cicero’s streak of backing the wrong horse continued and Antony and Octavian reconciled and formed the Second Triumvirate with Lepidus. The Triumvirate began their brutal proscriptions and although Cicero had backed Octavian in the past, and in fact Octavian did argue for two days to exclude Cicero from the list, his public animosity against Antony won out and Antony’s forces hunted him down.

On December 7, 43 BC, Antony’s centurion, Herennius, and his tribune, Popilius, successfully tracked down Cicero leaving his villa in Formiae. They first slew him, then cut off his head and hands. These were nailed to the Rostra in Roman Forum – the only one of the victims of the proscriptions to have been so treated. Ironically, Cicero’s son was the consul for 30 BC to announce to the Senate, Marc Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, in which he participated.

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