Cicero: greatness and a grisly end

January 3rd marks the anniversary of the birth in 106BC of a man called Marcus Tullius Cicero. I have to admit that prior to today, I had only heard the word Cicero mentioned in the context of the song ‘Cell Block Tango’ from the musical Chicago. In the song, though, it refers to the city Cicero, Illinois, not to a person. So, ashamed of my ignorance, I thought I’d better look him up. And I’m glad I did.

So here he is, may I introduce Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist. That’s quite a CV!

Portrait of Marcus Cicero, Wellcome Library, CC-BY-NC

‘Portrait of Marcus Cicero’, Wellcome Library, CC-BY-NC

Cicero’s life story involves ancient Rome, the Caesars,  a profound impact on Europeana literature, and murder.

According to author 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.’ His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for the writing and revision of Roman history, especially the last days of the Roman Republic. Despite it occurring 1,500 years after his lifetime, the 14th century European Renaissance was inspired by Cicero. His letters were discovered by an Italian scholar and poet called Petrarch and it was this rediscovery that prompted the Renaissance, which some say was largely a revival of Cicero’s ideologies.

Plenty of Cicero’s work is available on Europeana. Browse Cicero’s texts, try a little philosophy/rhetoric with his De Oratore, or how about the letters he wrote in 43BC to Brutus? Or the Philippicae speeches in original Latin that spoke out against Mark Antony?

‘But what of the murder?’ I hear you cry. Well, to cut a long story short, Cicero became a prominent spokesman for the senate in Rome, as was Mark Antony. Cicero spoke out in a series of speeches against Mark Antony, disliking the way he took liberties with Caesar’s wishes and urging the senate to make him an enemy of the state. At the same time, Cicero spoke highly of another man, Octavian, Caesar’s heir, in the hope that he would take over from Caesar when the time came. But Cicero’s plans to drive Antony out failed. Antony and Octavian formed an alliance and in their turn named Cicero and his associates as enemies of the state. Cicero was caught on December 7th 43BC. He did not resist capture when the time came, and his head was cut off followed by his hands. Rather grimly, Antony’s wife then supposedly tore out Cicero’s tongue to avenge his power of speech.

So rather bizarrely, that brings me back to Chicago’s ‘Cell Block Tango’, a song of violence, murder and revenge. Maybe I wasn’t quite so far off the mark to begin with!

'Cicero and Marcus Varro engaged in discussion' (2nd of 2), National Library of the Netherlands, Public Domain

‘Cicero and Marcus Varro engaged in discussion’ (2nd of 2), National Library of the Netherlands, Public Domain


One thought on “Cicero: greatness and a grisly end”

  1. In my opinion, you should have mentioned his works on friendship and on old age. Even today, they are amazing, and potential readers certainly have a lot to learn with them both.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.