CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Rights in Action
Fall 2007 (Volume 23, No. 3)
Cicero was a Roman orator, lawyer, statesman, and philosopher. During a time of political corruption and violence, he wrote on what he believed to be the ideal form of government.
Born in 106 B.C., Marcus Tullius Cicero came from a wealthy landowning family. But he was not from one of the old patrician families that held most of the political power in the Roman Republic. He studied law and rhetoric (public speaking and writing) under a celebrated Roman orator and statesman.
As a young man, Cicero witnessed many great orators speaking at trials in the outdoor Roman Forum. They inspired him to seek fame and glory as a trial advocate (a type of early lawyer) and political leader.
Cicero along with boyhood friends like Julius Caesar, grew up as political crises began to overwhelm the Roman Republic. Revolutionaries had established the republic over 400 years earlier when they overthrew the last Roman king.
The Roman Republic, as it evolved over the centuries, attempted to satisfy the political demands of two major groups of citizens. First were the old aristocratic families and their upper-class allies, which included Cicero. The second group included everyone else, the commoners. Together they made up "the people."
The Roman Republic had an elaborate system of checks and balances to prevent one man or one class from controlling the government. For example, while important government officials usually belonged to the upper classes, an assembly of "the people" elected them for one-year terms.
Instead of a king, the republic installed two "consuls" to rule. In theory, they replaced the king as heads of state. Their main job, however, was to enforce the will of the Senate. Each consul could veto an act of the other. Most important, they took charge of the army in wartime.
The Senate was the center of power in the Roman Republic. Every man who served as one of the major elected officials became a lifetime member of the Senate. Senators set government policies and debated proposed laws. But when the Senate passed legislation, a people's assembly had to approve it before it became law.
In one more check on power, 12 elected tribunes represented the interests of the commoners. The tribunes could propose laws before the Senate and veto any of its actions.
This was how the Roman Republic was supposed to work. By Cicero's time, however, a number of fatal weaknesses had undermined the system. Rich Romans commonly bribed voters and trial jurors. Provincial governors (usually retired consuls) extorted money from people in their provinces. Military men periodically used their armies to back up political demands.
One feature of the Roman Republic worked in favor of power falling into the hands of one man. During wartime and other emergencies, the Senate could appoint a dictator with absolute powers for a six-month period. After this period, the dictator's power ended. In 83 B.C., however, Sulla, a Roman general, forced the Senate to appoint him dictator indefinitely. He then executed thousands of upper-class Romans to secure his power.
The 24-year-old Cicero witnessed it all.
Savior of the Republic
In the year 81, Cicero launched his career as a trial advocate. In most of his trials, he argued for the defense in criminal cases. Cicero studied the gestures and speaking patterns of actors to give him an edge. Soon, his skills as an orator made Cicero the leading court advocate in Rome. Grateful clients made Cicero a rich man.
At age 27, Cicero married a woman from a wealthy family, but then left Rome to study philosophy and polish his oratory in Greece. When Cicero returned in 77, Sulla had resigned his dictatorship and soon after died.
At age 30, Cicero decided to begin a political career. His goal was to become a consul. Politicians usually had to climb a political ladder, winning election to several government positions in a certain order before running for consul.
Cicero won all his elections and then campaigned for one of the consul positions in 64. He ran as a "New Man," meaning he did not have the advantage of coming from one of the old patrician families. He depended on his oratory, reputation as a court advocate, and honesty. Cicero's chief opponent, an arrogant patrician named Catilina, ran on a platform of canceling all debts, including his own. Many believed he had participated in several murders. Cicero accused him of being "soaked in blood."
Cicero won by a big margin. Catilina was so angry that he plotted to stage a violent take-over of the government. When Cicero took office, he learned of the plot and secured "emergency powers" from the Senate to defend the Republic. Catilina fled the city, but his top lieutenants stupidly wrote down the details of their plan to kill all the senators. When this fell into Cicero's hands, he arrested five plot leaders.
Cicero wanted to execute the five leaders immediately because of the emergency then in force. Roman law, however, normally required a trial before imposing the death penalty. Caesar, a general and member of the Senate, said execution without trial would set a bad precedent. But most senators finally agreed with Cicero. He personally supervised the execution of the men, and the Senate proclaimed him savior of the Republic. Cicero thoroughly enjoyed the glory.
Caesar, elected a consul for the year 59, allied himself with two other army generals, Pompey and Crassus. With thousands of soldiers behind them, the three military men, called the "Triumvirate," intimidated the Senate with their political demands. They also asked Cicero to join them, but he refused, believing the Triumvirate was a threat to the Republic.
After completing his year as consul, Caesar took his troops to fight uprisings in Gaul (which encompassed today's France, Belgium, and northern Italy). Even so, the Triumvirate remained a powerful force in Roman politics.
Cicero's Ideal Government
Cicero resumed his trial work, but his political career had stalled. He decided to turn to writing as a way to influence public affairs.
In 56, Cicero wrote two important books on government, known today as The Laws and The Republic. He wrote these books in the form of dialogues, discussions among friends, modeled after earlier works by the Greek philosopher Plato. Cicero wrote on papyrus scrolls and published his writings by using the common practice of having slaves copy them.
In these two books, Cicero wanted to restore the republic to its uncorrupted and truest form, which he believed had existed several generations earlier. He intended to persuade good and honorable men to participate actively in public affairs. Politics, he argued, was the most honorable of all professions. His ideas were not new. He relied on Greek and Roman writings, many of which were later lost.
In The Laws, Cicero explored his concept of natural law. "Law is the highest reason," he wrote, "implanted in Nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite." Thus, natural law is the guide for right and wrong in human affairs.
Since reason "is certainly common to us all," Cicero asserted, the law in nature is "eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times upon all peoples." Cicero warned that it was "never morally right" for humans to make laws that violate natural law.
Without laws, Cicero reasoned, there can be no state or government. More important, he continued, there must be equality under the law with no special exceptions. This is essential, he said, for justice, which in turn is necessary for a successfully functioning government.
In The Republic, Cicero argued that laws are not enough for a just state. There also must be liberty. "But if liberty is not equally enjoyed by all the citizens," he declared, "it is not liberty at all." Therefore, liberty cannot exist unless "the people have the supreme power" in government.
Cicero looked into the ideal form of government for upholding natural law, establishing justice, and ensuring liberty. He started by examining three "good states" and their perverted forms, described earlier by the Greek historian Polybius.
Cicero believed the best of the good states was a monarchy, but the king could turn into a tyrant. Cicero also approved of an aristocracy, rule by the best men, but it was vulnerable to conspiracies by factions intent on grabbing power (an oligarchy). In Cicero's view, the worst of the good states was a democracy, where all the people participated directly in running the government. It eventually led to mob rule.
Cicero went a step further than Polybius to describe a cycle of government forms. "The government is thus bandied about like a ball," Cicero wrote, "tyrants receive it from kings; from tyrants it passes either to aristocrats or to the people; and from the people to oligarchs or tyrants." Therefore, he concluded that all three good states were flawed and unstable.
Even so, Cicero recognized each good state had its merits. A king could act quickly and decisively in an emergency. The people in a democracy enjoyed liberty with equal rights. The aristocrats possessed experience and wisdom.
Cicero proposed that the ideal government "is formed by an equal balancing and blending" of monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy. In this "mixed state," he argued, royalty, the best men, and the common people all should have a role.
Unlike many of the political philosophers before him, Cicero was an experienced politician and had a working model for his "mixed state." This was the Roman Republic, with its consuls (co-kings), Senate (aristocrats), and democratic assemblies (commoners).
To achieve his ideal government, Cicero argued that Romans only had to restore the republic to its previous perfect form. He proposed strengthening the aristocratic consuls and Senate at the expense of the democratic assemblies. But Cicero's reforms did little to address the mounting forces endangering the existence of the republic.
The Fall of the Republic
The greatest threat facing the Roman Republic was ambitious military men, especially the Triumvirate. When Crassus died in a disastrous war in the eastern empire, Pompey and Caesar each plotted to become master of Rome, and civil war erupted.
In 49, Caesar led his legions into Italy from Gaul to confront Pompey. Fearing Caesar, the Senate made Pompey sole consul. Pompey, however, fled to Greece followed by Caesar and his close ally, Mark Antony. Cicero, who at first wanted to be a neutral mediator between the two generals, finally decided to join Pompey since he had the backing of the Senate.
In 48, Caesar destroyed Pompey's legions in battle. Pompey sought refuge from the Egyptians, but they executed him, thinking it would please Caesar.
The frightened Senate made Caesar dictator, but many feared he wanted to become king, which would end the republic. Cicero reconciled with Caesar, but was depressed about the fate of the republic. He turned to writing works on philosophy influenced by the Stoics and other Greek thinkers.
On March 15, 44 B.C., a conspiracy of up to 60 senators led by Cassius and Brutus stabbed Caesar to death in the Senate. Cicero was not a conspirator, but he witnessed the assassination. Afterward, Brutus congratulated Cicero for once again having a free Republic. Cicero believed the murder of Caesar had saved the Republic.
Caesar's friend Mark Antony, who was a consul, began to take charge and turned public opinion against the conspirators, forcing Cassius and Brutus to flee Italy. Soon, it became clear that Antony was using Caesar's name to take control of Rome.
At age 60, Cicero again took center stage in the Senate and launched a series of more than a dozen speeches against Antony, calling for the Senate to declare war on him. "I defended the republic as a young man," he exclaimed, "I shall not desert her now that I am old."
Caesar's adopted 19-year-old son and heir, Octavian, was recruiting an army and offered to side with Cicero and the Senate against Antony. Cicero leaped at this chance to save the republic once again. He thought he could use the teenager and then dismiss him. Cicero remarked to a friend, "The young man should be praised, honored, and then gotten rid of."
But Octavian ended up using Cicero and the Senate to maneuver his way into an alliance with Antony and another general, creating the Second Triumvirate. They agreed to divide the western empire among themselves and placed hundreds of senators and other nobles on an execution list. Antony insisted that Cicero be included.
In November 43, Cicero retreated to his seaside villa, intending to sail to Greece. A band of armed men sent by Antony caught up with him and slit his throat. Antony ordered Cicero's head and hands nailed to the speaker's rostrum in the Forum.
Octavian eventually defeated Cassius, Brutus, and Antony in battle. Taking the title Emperor Caesar Augustus, he ruled as a king. The Roman Republic was dead.
Augustus banned Cicero's works. One day, according to the Roman biographer Plutarch, Augustus caught his grandson reading one of Cicero's books. Augustus took the book from the boy and read from it for a long time. He then said, "My dear child, this was an eloquent man, and a patriot."
For Discussion and Writing
1. What do you think was Cicero's greatest achievement? Why?
2. Compare Cicero's concept of a "mixed state" with the United States' form of government.
3. Write Cicero a letter, discussing where you think he went right and where he went wrong in trying to save the Roman Republic.
For Further Reading
Everitt, Anthony. Cicero, The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician. New York: Random House, 2002.
Williams, Rose. Cicero the Patriot. Wauconda, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2004.
A C T I V I T Y
A. Listed below are six quotes from Cicero's speeches and writings. Form six groups to each discuss one quote and answer the following questions about it:
1. What does Cicero mean?
2. Are Cicero's words relevant today? Why or why not?
3. Do you agree or disagree with Cicero? Why?
B. Each group should report its answers to the rest of the class.
Quotes from Cicero's Works
1. "Nothing rarer can be found in the race of man than an accomplished orator."
2. "No place is so strongly fortified that money cannot capture it."
3. "The laws are silent in times of war."
4. "Nothing is more unreliable than the people."
5. "We are all attracted by praise, and the best men are especially motivated by glory."
6. "There is indeed, no uglier kind of state than one in which the richest men are thought to be the best."