Western civilization has a handful of individuals who have had immense influence. It’s approximately the 2,057th anniversary of the assassination of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Of all the rhetoricians and orators that WC studied in his mis-spent youth, WC admires Cicero the most. So WC wants to take a brief look at one of the lynchpins of language, politics and law in the Western world.
Cicero was a prominent politician in Rome at the end of the First Century B.C. He was co-consul of the Roman Senate in 63 B.C., and in 60 B.C. then-General Julius Caeser invited him to be the fourth member of a Triumvirate he was creating. Cicero refused, because he suspected it would undermine the Roman Republic. He was right, of course, because Julius Caesar declared himself dictator a little later. Cicero had no role in the assassination of Julius Caesar,1, and in the chaos that ensued tried to restore the Republic and the authority of the Roman Senate. He denounced Marc Antony is a series of Philipics. His efforts against Antony were unsuccessful and, while Antony controlled Rome, Antony had him assassinated.
Such were Cicero’s powers of oratory and persuasion that Antony wasn’t satisfied with murder; he caused Cicero’s head to be cut off and mounted on spike and his hands nailed to the rostrum of the Roman Senate. Antony’s wife, Fulvia, pulled Cicero’s tongue from his decapitated head and repeatedly stabbed the tongue with her hairpin.
It didn’t work. Antony himself was later killed by Octavius, Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar’s adopted heir. Antony is now a footnote in history, largely remembered for being seduced by Cleopatra. Cicero, by contrast, is widely regarded as the greatest Roman orator. His influence on the Latin language was so immense that the subsequent history of prose in not only Latin but all Romantic European languages, emphatically including English, up to the 19th century was said to be either a reaction against or a return to his style. According to Michael Grant, “the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language”.
Sure, as a politician, Cicero made mistakes. And he had a gift or backing the wrong horse, that ultimately, got him killed. “Cut-throat politics” wasn’t a metaphor in the waning days of the Roman Republic. Cicero himself had the members of the Second Cataline Conspiracy murdered. But still. He came that close to stopping the collapse of the Republic, and was admired even by his enemies for his skills and scholarship. It was Cicero’s tragedy to live at a time when the Roman army began to decide who would govern, not the people2 of Rome.
“The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend.” He was right, of course.
But a fellow could do worse than to die defending a republic, and to be renowned two millennia later. Here’s to Marcus Tulius. The greatest Roman of them all.
- Famously, Brutus called out Cicero’s name, asking him to restore the republic when he lifted the bloodstained dagger after the assassination. But the assassination took Cicero completely by surprise. ↩
- Well, adult, male property owners of Roman citizenship, anyway. Women, slaves and barbarians need not apply. ↩