The Cicero You Never Knew

Name me a great Roman.

Julius Caesar.

Good.  Name me another one.

Um.  Some gladiator—no, I know: Pontius Pilate.

And Cicero?  Do you know what one scholar says about him?
“The influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language.” (Michael Grant)

But is that true?  He was just some orator, wasn’t he?

cicero-bustBust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license photo by Glauco92)

He is quoted (or was) in most of the controversies on law, politics, religion, education, literature, and philosophy that there ever were.

What do they quote?

His speeches such as Against Verres (an attack on misgovernment), the Philippics (an attack on tyranny). But even more, his essays like On Duties, On Old Age, and On the Nature of the Gods.
All the great thinkers and writers of Europe studied and imitated those for more than a thousand years. St. Augustine, St. Isidore, Thomas of Aquinas.

Yes, but now…

And then on a spring morning in 1345 Petrarch rediscovered his letters. And started the Renaissance.
“The Renaissance was above all things a revival of Cicero, and only after him and through him of the rest of Classical antiquity.” (Zielinski)

What the devil was so great about his letters?

“We may search history until quite modern times without finding either a personality so intimately known to us as Cicero or a period so vividly real as the years that led up to the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC,” says L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters. “Both of these facts are due to the survival of nearly eight hundred of Cicero’s letters, together with more than a hundred written to him by others.”

But why didn’t somebody ever tell us about him?

Until the twentieth century high-school and college students all knew him. They called him Tully. They read  Contra Catalinam and On Old Age in Latin class and On Duties (“Tully’s Duties”) in philosophy.
In our time Cicero was thrown out  with the rest of classical studies.

But that was right, wasn’t it?  That’s all so far back. Those old subjects are of little relevance anymore. Philosophical speculation seems like just a word game.
In any case, I don’t want someone to tell me what my duties are.  I want to be free.

Then you might read Tully to see how best to do that.

How to be free?

Exactly. That was the biggest concern of his life. He lived through a civil war and couldn’t decide what to do—exactly the same dilemma people have had all through our last century in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, and many still have today.  The one between inefficient freedom and efficient dictatorship.  Cicero finally stood up to the tyrant and got himself killed for it, knowing that might happen.

You might also read his letters.  There’s nothing like them.  They shocked old Petrarch when he found them; they turned him off. They show such flagrant shortcomings and were so different from the saintly Cicero legend.  “THIS was the real Cicero?  But we thought he was perfect?”

See The Cicero You Never Knew 2 and meet one of the most fascinating men who ever lived. He was so vain he was funny; a brilliant wisecracker but he never knew when to shut up; a hero who was a scaredy-cat; Rome’s greatest orator but he sometimes got so nervous he shook when he had to speak.  He was so effective a speaker that he could spellbind great audiences, win hopeless cases, and bring tough men like Julius Caesar to tears.


Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari (1840–1919) public domain photo



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11 Responses to The Cicero You Never Knew

  1. Pingback: The Cicero You Never Knew 2 | Great Names in History

  2. Pingback: The Cicero You Never Knew 2 « Great Names in History

  3. 100swallows says:

    Chump: Three examples of Cicero’s good old oratorical punch in the Second Philippic:

    “You [Anthony] are a drink-sodden, sex-ridden wreck. Never a day passes in that ill-reputed house of yours without orgies of the most repulsive kind.”

    “Let us turn to meaner kinds of misbehavior. With those jaws of yours, and those lungs, and that gladiatorial strength, you drank so much wine at Hippias’ wedding, Anthony, that on the next day you had to be sick in full view of the people of Rome. It was a disgusting sight…”

    “And at one point you tried to be witty. Heaven knows this did not suit you. And your failure is particularly blameworthy, since you could have acquired some wit from that professional actress known as your wife…[a reference to Anthony’s mistress, Volumnia, an ex-slave).”

    A prize goes to the guy who could sit there, hold out there, longest while this speech was being delivered (enacted), intriguing as it would be to see the crowds and hear the model delivery of the great orator. At his country home meanwhile Cicero was writing his famous essay On Friendship.

  4. chump says:

    The nastiness in many of Cicero’s speeches (like the second Phillipic) is rather breathtaking to our delicate modern ears. “My honorable opponent” is more to our taste than reflections on that opponent’s parentage or private, usually sexual, amusements. But this kind of ritual vituperation had a long history in Rome and Roman legal advocacy. It may have simply evolved from more “primitive” practices of organized crowds following an accused/convicted around town calling him names as a “shaming” punishment. Hawthorne would have something to say about this. It surely drew in the crowds to the law courts when a Great Vituperator like Tully was to perform. And the appreciative courtroom audiences were also the voters whom Cicero (et alia) were courting in court–success at the “bar”, then as now, being a preferred route to political success for a non-aristo, “new man” like our Tully.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Andreaskluth: Thanks, Andreas. No I haven’t seen that film but I wish I had. It would be interesting to see how Cicero is portrayed. He’s had great ups and downs over the years. That usually depended on whether biographers considered Caesar the good guy or the bad guy of the story, since Cicero opposed him (though you can’t really say “stood up to him”). Cicero was probably awed by Caesar, just as he was finally disgusted with Pompey. That foxy Caesar kept him soft with flattery too. Once he was gone and Mark Anthony became the next tyrant, Cicero saw more clearly what he should do and felt braver taking on smaller fry. He himself called his speeches against Mark Anthony “Philippics”—joking at first, or half-joking, since he probably believed he was the equal of Demosthenes. The second Philippic is incredibly strong and mean too and it is no wonder Anthony never forgave him.

  6. andreaskluth says:

    Did you see the portrayal of Cicero in the HBO series Rome? I’m curious if that’s how you pictured him…

  7. expat21 says:

    Do you happen to know anything about Cicero in his private life? What sort of a guy was he if you were a friend of his?

    Expat 21

  8. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Here is a link to the complete letters.

    You know about letters—that they don’t read like a novel. There are hundreds of allusions to things and names a general reader wouldn’t know. I suggest getting one of the collections of selected letters with little introductory explanations every so often, and the occasional footnote. Otherwise, even if you know the events of the time well, you might get lost. So much depends on the translation too. Cicero is almost impossible to translate; so the English versions around are really prose creations of the translator.
    One good short selection is The Letters of Cicero, translated by L.P. Wilkinson; another, longer selection with good explanations, is Cicero, Selected Works; translated by Michael Grant. I got them both used from Abebooks for a dollar.

  9. erikatakacs says:

    How to be free? – you really got me interested now. Are his letters available on the net?
    Well, I think it’s a shame to just throw out the window the classics. Maybe present them in a modern, more accessible way, but there are lessons to be learned for today’s and tomorrow’s generations. I just got a book about Greek-Roman mythology for children, the stories are retold in a simple language, beautifully illustrated, my son enjoyed some of the stories.

  10. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Madame Monet. In the Middle Ages they had turned Cicero into a kind of pre-Christian saint since he believed in the brotherhood of man. To their minds he had also somehow become an intrepid knight.
    Plutarch did mention some of Cicero’s faults but still presents him as a great leader. Petrarch couldn’t believe his eyes when he read the letters and saw a weak, vain, vacillating man.

  11. Madame Monet says:

    I love this painting! So what WAS the real Cicero like; how was he different from how people imagined?

    Madame Monet

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