Politician and writer; b. 106 BC (Arpinum, Latium), d. 7 December 43 BC (Formiae)
Cicero came from a wealthy family. He was educated in Rome and Greece and served in the military when he was 17 years old. On his return to Rome he trained as a lawyer. His outstanding abilities as a defence council, combined with his brilliant speaking style, brought him public acclaim and opened the path to a public career, which began in 75 with the position of quaestor (financial administrator) of Sicily.
Cicero was the best orator of his time, and his speeches were powerful political instruments. He made his first major political speech in 66 and was elected consul in 63. It were turbulent times, in which Cicero tried to uphold the constitution and protect the republic against all attempts to usurp power. He presided over the elections wearing armour under his toga.
Shortly after his election Cicero urged the senate to act against a military coup and managed to have martial law (the decree Senatus consultum ultimum) proclaimed. He survived an assassination attempt and collected enough evidence to have the conspirators executed.
Three years later Cicero was invited by Julius Caesar to join his political movement, but Cicero declined, sensing correctly that it would again lead to an attack on the republic. To avoid another attempt at his life he left Rome in 58. When his friends in the senate submitted a bill forbidding the execution of a Roman citizen without trial, Cicero's opponents managed the strip Cicero of his citizenship.
Cicero left the country but was recalled when conditions had stabilized in 57. He landed in Brundisium (today's Brindisi) and was greeted by a public ovation all along the 500 km route to Rome. In the capital he tried unsuccessfully to undermine Caesar's political alliance. He was talked into working as defence lawyer for the group, but in 54 he withdrew from politics and concentrated on writing.
In 51 Cicero accepted the position of governor for the province of Cilicia. When he returned after completion of his term Caesar was just crossing the Rubicon river to start the civil war. After Caesar's victory Cicero set conditions for his acceptance of a public position under the self-declared emperor. His conditions were refused, and Cicero returned to private life.
After Caesar's assassination in 44 Cicero placed his hopes on Caesar's adopted son Octavian, who he hoped to use as a tool for a return to republican rule. His careless remark that "the young man should be given praise, distinctions, and then be disposed of" was reported to Octavian, and Cicero came on the list of wanted persons. He was caught in the country and murdered on the spot; his head and hands were placed on display at the Forum in Rome.
Cicero's writings contain some of the most thorough analysis of the Roman political system and situation and include extensive theoretical works on the best organization of state and public life. Cicero also published poetry and in his later life wrote extensively on philosophy, transmitting Greek thought to Rome and to later generations.
Cicero himself did not think highly of his writing and remarked: "They are transcripts; I only supply words, and I got plenty of those." His gift was in the area of public speech, particularly as defence council, for which he prepared himself meticulously. He followed neither the florid, grandiose style of the Greek tradition, nor did he adopt the simple and direct Roman speech; he constructed his sentences carefully, planned the correct balance of phrases and the right amount of subordinate clauses and ended each argument in a cadence of perfect rhythm.
According to Cicero a good orator requires a thorough knowledge of literature, a sound background in philosophy, knowledge of history, the ability to induce the jury to laugh, intuition when to digress or rouse emotions. On occasions his desire to succeed in a case got the better of him even when he was defending a dubious case, and he was then satisfied with "throwing dust in the jury's eyes."
Portrait bust: Prado, Madrid; public domain (Wikipedia)