Marcus Tullius Cicero, born on January 3, 106 BC, and dying on December 7, 43 BC, was a prominent Roman statesman, lawyer, academic, philosopher, and one of the era’s most distinguished orators and literary figures. Known for his commitment to the principles of the Roman Republic during its decline, Cicero’s legacy includes a vast array of work spanning rhetoric, philosophy, and politics, marking him as a masterful orator and stylist in Latin prose. His education spanned both Rome and Greece, and he hailed from a well-off family within the equestrian order. In 63 BC, he served as consul.

Cicero’s influence was profound in the development of the Latin language, contributing significantly to Latin literature. His prose set a stylistic standard that influenced European languages well into the 19th century. Cicero was pivotal in introducing Greek philosophical concepts to the Roman world, expanding the Latin lexicon with numerous neologisms.

His tenure in politics, Cicero regarded as his crowning achievement, notably for his role in quelling the Catiline conspiracy. Despite his achievements in law and oratory, Cicero saw his political actions, particularly his efforts to restore the republic and his opposition to figures like Mark Antony post-Caesar’s assassination, as his most significant contributions. His execution by the Second Triumvirate’s decree marked a violent end to his efforts to preserve the republic, with his death symbolizing the definitive shift towards the Roman Empire.

The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters by Petrarch in the 14th century is often celebrated for sparking the Renaissance’s revival of Classical antiquity and humanism. Cicero’s works have remained influential through the Enlightenment and into modern times, providing a rich source for understanding Roman history and the fall of the Roman Republic.

Early life of Cicero

Born in Arpinum, Italy, Cicero came from a family of the equestrian order. Despite his father’s health limiting his public role, the family was well-connected and prosperous. Cicero’s early life in a politically active household laid the foundation for his future career, with his name, Cicero, meaning “chickpea,” highlighting the Roman tradition of meaningful yet humble family surnames.

At fifteen years old in 90 BCE, Cicero began his military service under the commanders Pompey Strabo and Sulla during the Social War, a conflict between Rome and its Italian allies. Amidst the political upheavals of 88 BCE, Cicero witnessed the oratory prowess of Publius Sulpicius Rufus, finding inspiration in his eloquence despite opposing political views. His early years in Rome were marked by an intense engagement with rhetoric, evidenced by his work “On Invention” about rhetorical techniques, and a deep dive into philosophy under the mentorship of Greek scholars escaping the Mithridatic War.

Cicero’s Education

The hallmark of being “well-educated” in Cicero’s time included proficiency in both Latin and Greek, allowing Cicero to immerse himself in the rich traditions of Greek philosophy, poetry, and history. His studies under the Greek poet Archias significantly shaped his understanding of rhetoric. Cicero’s extensive education connected him to Rome’s traditional elite and laid the groundwork for his later efforts to render Greek philosophical thought into Latin, making these ideas accessible to a broader Roman audience.

Cicero’s philosophical pursuits, particularly his interest in the Academic Skepticism of Carneades, greatly influenced his later work, including his creation of a Latin philosophical lexicon. His studies in Athens under Philo of Larissa and in Rhodes with Apollonius Molon refined both his philosophical thought and oratorical skills, positioning Cicero as one of history’s most revered orators, second only to Demosthenes. His dedication to philosophy and rhetoric during this formative period not only enhanced his own intellectual capacity but also significantly contributed to the cultural and philosophical discourse of Rome.

After Sulla’s civil conflict and the lethal purges of his opponents, Cicero was concerned the courts would never open again. Yet, they did resume, only to reveal that many esteemed orators of Cicero’s younger days had either aged away or fallen to political violence. At 26, in 81 BCE, Cicero made his significant legal debut with Pro Quinctio, defending commercial dealings he had previously documented, marking his first major court appearance.

The case that brought Cicero widespread attention was his defense of Sextus Roscius of Ameria against parricide charges in 80 BCE, through the speech Pro Roscio Amerino. In this high-stakes trial, Cicero daringly accused a former slave of Sulla, Chrysogonus, of deceitfully acquiring the Roscius estate via a fraudulent proscription. Cicero navigated the case with such finesse that he acquitted Roscius without implicating Sulla, enhancing his standing as an orator.

Despite Plutarch’s account that Cicero fled Rome fearing Sulla’s retaliation, this narrative is largely discounted today. Cicero’s departure came after Sulla relinquished his dictatorship, a move Cicero later explained was to strengthen his body and refine his oratory skills in Asia. Following his marriage to Terentia in 80 BCE, Cicero, alongside his brother Quintus, his friend Titus Atticus, and others, embarked on an extensive journey to Asia Minor. This journey, lasting from late 79 to early 77 BCE, aimed at broadening his horizons and honing his legal acumen. Upon his return to Rome in 77 BCE, Cicero once again immersed himself in the legal profession, prepared to face the challenges of the Roman courts.

Early political career

In 76 BCE, Cicero secured the position of quaestor at the youngest eligible age of 30, winning the vote in the first count at the comitia tributa. This role automatically granted him membership in the Senate. For his quaestorship in 75 BCE, Cicero was stationed in Sicily, a posting largely focused on fiscal responsibilities to support both the state and provincial governors. His tenure in Sicily was marked by a successful balance of his official duties, notably increasing the grain supply to Rome, while also earning the favor of provincials, local businessmen, and influential locals through his support and advocacy. His efforts led to widespread appreciation among the Sicilians, further highlighted by his initiative to locate and honor the tomb of Archimedes at his own expense.

Cicero’s promise to lend his eloquent support to the Sicilians was realized a few years later when he prosecuted Gaius Verres, the former Roman governor of Sicily, for corruption and abuse of office. At 36, Cicero undertook his first major prosecution, targeting Verres, a symbol of the corrupt elites that had flourished amid the civil war’s chaos. This case against Verres became a defining moment in Cicero’s career, showcasing his forensic prowess. Despite Verres’ defense by the renowned lawyer Quintus Hortensius, Cicero’s meticulous evidence gathering in Sicily and persuasive courtroom tactics led to a decisive victory. This triumph over Hortensius, then considered Rome’s leading lawyer, catapulted Cicero to the forefront of Roman oratory.

Cicero’s ascent in Roman politics, from a background not of nobility but of exceptional oratorical skill, highlights the significance of public speaking in Roman society—a vital means for disseminating ideas and climbing the political ladder. Despite the political instability of his times, including the civil wars and the threat to Roman libertas posed by Sulla’s constitutional revisions, Cicero navigated his way up the political hierarchy. As an eques and novus homo committed to the Republic’s constitutional principles, he sought to balance reform with constitutional preservation. However, his alignment with the Republic’s ideals and his status as an outsider to the ruling optimates faction presented ongoing challenges. Nonetheless, Cicero’s career progression through the cursus honorum, achieving each office at the minimum or near-minimum age, culminating in his consulship at 42, stands as a testament to his dedication to the Republic and his unmatched oratorical and legal talents.


In 63 BC, leveraging the optimate faction’s fear of reform, Cicero ascended to the consulship, garnering unanimous support from the centuriate assembly, fellow members of the post-Sullan political establishment, and leaders from municipalities across Italy post-Social War. His co-consul, Gaius Antonius Hybrida, played only a peripheral role during their joint term.

Cicero’s initial act as consul was to oppose a bill by a plebeian tribune proposing land reform, which aimed at creating a semi-permanent commission for its administration. He further showcased his legal acumen by defending Gaius Rabirius against charges of participating in the unlawful killing of plebeian tribune Lucius Appuleius Saturninus in 100 BC, a case that risked reigniting conflict between the Marian and Sullan factions in Rome. Cicero argued that the use of force in such instances was justified by a senatus consultum ultimum, a stance that paralleled his later actions.

His most celebrated achievement, widely publicized by Cicero himself, was thwarting Lucius Sergius Catilina’s plot to overthrow the Republic with the aid of foreign forces. By procuring a senatus consultum ultimum and delivering four vehement speeches (the Catilinarian orations) against Catiline and his scheme, Cicero effectively expelled Catiline from Rome. The orations, showcasing Cicero’s rhetorical finesse, denounced Catiline’s followers for their licentiousness and depicted them as desperate rogues clinging to a vanishing hope of salvation through Catiline. Following Cicero’s directive, Catiline fled Rome, leaving his conspirators to initiate the uprising from within.

Cicero’s diligent efforts, collaborating with the Gauls to intercept letters incriminating the conspirators, led to their confession before the Senate. The Senate’s subsequent debate on the conspirators’ fate, initially leaning towards life imprisonment on Caesar’s persuasion, ultimately favored execution, swayed by Cato the Younger’s arguments. Cicero oversaw the execution of the conspirators in the Tullianum prison, a decision that, while securing him the title “pater patriae” (father of the fatherland), later exposed him to the risk of trial or exile for executing Roman citizens without trial.

Despite the controversy, Cicero deemed his actions necessary to counter the treasonous threat posed by Catiline’s conspiracy, arguing that it rendered the conspirators enemies of the state and thus outside the protections afforded to Roman citizens. His successful suppression of the conspiracy, coupled with his proactive measures to prevent political exploitation of the situation, underscored his commitment to the Republic’s stability.

Cicero’s pride in his achievements was evident, although his political adversaries suggested that he might have overstated his role in the conspiracy’s suppression. This tendency to overestimate his influence reemerged following his exile and subsequent return to Rome, where he optimistically equated the restoration of the Republic with his personal reinstatement.

In the aftermath of his consulship and to cement his status within the Roman elite, Cicero acquired a prominent townhouse on the Palatine Hill, formerly owned by Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s wealthiest man, through a substantial loan from Publius Cornelius Sulla. This strategic positioning near the Roman Forum not only elevated Cicero’s social standing but also aligned him physically and symbolically with the heart of Roman political life.

Exile and return

In 60 BC, Julius Caesar extended an invitation to Cicero to join him, Pompey, and Crassus in a coalition that would later be recognized as the First Triumvirate. Cicero declined the offer, wary that it might compromise the Republic’s integrity, as he was fundamentally against any unconstitutional acts that would dilute the consular powers in favor of unelected officials.

Throughout Caesar’s consulship in 59 BC, the triumvirate succeeded in implementing several of their proposed reforms including land redistribution, public debt relief, and the validation of Pompey’s military conquests. With Caesar set to depart to govern his provinces, the trio aimed to sustain their political influence. They facilitated Publius Clodius Pulcher’s controversial adoption into a plebeian family, enabling his election as a tribune of the plebs for the following year. Clodius, with the backing of the triumvirate, introduced legislation that both solidified his popularity among the Roman populace and targeted Cicero. Notably, Clodius enacted a law penalizing anyone who executed a Roman citizen without trial, a clear jab at Cicero for his actions against the Catilinarian conspirators.

Despite Cicero’s claims that the senatus consultum ultimum protected him from repercussions, his efforts to secure support from both the Senate and Pompey were in vain. Cicero’s public mourning and protests against Clodius’ harassment did little to sway public opinion in his favor. Ultimately, following Clodius’ successful banishment of Cicero from Rome, Cicero sought refuge in Thessalonica.

The period of Cicero’s exile was marked by personal despair, despite the support of his friend Atticus. His property was confiscated and desecrated by Clodius, who erected a temple of Liberty on the site of Cicero’s former home. However, political shifts and the intervention of tribune Titus Annius Milo facilitated Cicero’s return to Rome, where he was warmly welcomed and managed to reclaim his property.

Upon his return, Cicero attempted to navigate the political landscape as an independent entity, challenging parts of Caesar’s legislation with limited success. The solidification of the triumvirate at the Luca conference compelled Cicero to reluctantly endorse their dominion over Roman politics, leading him to publicly laud Caesar’s victories and ensure his continuing governance of Gaul. Cicero’s subsequent years were characterized by a withdrawal from the forefront of political activism, focusing instead on his literary and philosophical pursuits.

Governorship of Cilicia

In 51 BC, he reluctantly assumed the role of proconsul in Cilicia, as there were few other former consuls eligible due to a legislative requirement set by Pompey in 52 BC, stipulating a five-year interval between consulships or praetorships and provincial commands. He commenced his term as proconsul of Cilicia in May 51 BC, arriving in the province approximately three months later, around August.

In 53 BC, the defeat of Marcus Licinius Crassus by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae left the Roman East vulnerable to a Parthian invasion, leading to unrest in Syria and Cilicia. Cicero, through his moderate governance, restored stability. He uncovered significant embezzlement of public assets by corrupt former governors and their associates, and diligently worked to recover them, greatly improving the state of the cities. He pardoned and protected those who returned the misappropriated property, fostering goodwill among the locals. Additionally, he demonstrated exceptional frugality in his expenditures for personnel and personal expenses during his governorship, earning widespread popularity among the indigenous population.

Apart from his efforts to alleviate the financial woes of the province, Cicero also made commendable contributions in the military realm. Early in his governorship, he received intelligence that Prince Pacorus, son of Parthian King Orodes II, had crossed the Euphrates, causing havoc in Syria and besieging Cassius, the interim Roman commander, in Antioch. Cicero swiftly marched to Cassius’s aid with two weakened legions and a sizable auxiliary cavalry force. He engaged and defeated Pacorus’s army, which had abandoned the siege of Antioch and was plundering the countryside. Subsequently, Cicero’s cavalry routed another large contingent of Parthian horsemen encountered while scouting. He then tackled a group of bandits headquartered in Mount Amanus, earning acclaim as imperator from his troops. Later, he led his forces against independent Cilician mountain tribes, ultimately capturing their stronghold of Pindenissum after a 47-day siege, concluding in December. Cicero departed the province on 30 July 50 BC, leaving governance to his brother Quintus, who had served as his legate during his term. En route back to Rome, Cicero paused in Rhodes and Athens, where he reunited with his old friend Titus Pomponius Atticus and engaged with renowned scholars.

During Julius Caesar’s civil war, Cicero returned to Rome on 4 January 49 BC, staying beyond the pomerium to retain his proconsular authority, either in anticipation of a triumph or to uphold his independent command during the impending conflict. Although favoring Pompey as a defender of the senate and Republican ideals, Cicero initially refrained from openly opposing Caesar. However, upon Caesar’s invasion of Italy in 49 BC, Cicero fled Rome and joined Pompey’s forces in Dyrrhachium. He accompanied them to Pharsalus in Macedonia in 48 BC, though his confidence in the Pompeian cause waned rapidly. After Caesar’s decisive victory at the Battle of Pharsalus on 9 August, Cicero declined to assume leadership of the Pompeian forces and opted to return to Rome as a proconsul with his lictors in 47 BC, dismissing them upon reentering the city and relinquishing his command.

In a letter to Varro circa April 20, 46 BC, Cicero outlined his approach under Caesar’s dictatorship. However, he was caught off guard by Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March, 44 BC, despite the conspirators’ assumption of his sympathies. Marcus Junius Brutus invoked Cicero’s name, urging him to aid in restoring the republic after the deed. Cicero, in a letter to Trebonius, one of the conspirators, in February 43 BC, expressed regret for not being involved in the assassination plot. Amidst the ensuing instability, Cicero emerged as a prominent figure, displaying disdain for Mark Antony’s vengeful machinations against Caesar’s assassins. He negotiated amnesty for the conspirators in exchange for the Senate’s agreement not to declare Caesar a tyrant, thereby ensuring lawful support for Caesar’s reforms and policies.

Opposition to Mark Antony and death

In April 43 BC, there were indications that staunch supporters of the republic were considering reinstating the ancient position of princeps senatus (leader of the senate) for Cicero. This position, once highly esteemed, had lost much of its significance following Sulla’s constitutional reforms in 82–80 BC.

On the opposing side, Antony held the consulship and led the faction aligned with Caesar’s legacy, essentially becoming the unofficial executor of Caesar’s public will. Cicero’s relationship with Antony was consistently strained and deteriorated further when Cicero accused Antony of taking liberties in interpreting Caesar’s intentions. Meanwhile, Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, returned to Italy, prompting Cicero to strategically align himself with Octavian against Antony. Cicero praised Octavian, contrasting him favorably with his father and launched a series of scathing speeches known as the Philippics, inspired by Demosthenes’s denunciations of Philip II of Macedon. At this juncture, Cicero enjoyed unparalleled popularity as a public figure.

Cicero threw his support behind Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus as governor of Cisalpine Gaul (Gallia Cisalpina) and urged the Senate to label Antony as an enemy of the state. However, the speech of Lucius Piso, Caesar’s father-in-law, delayed legal actions against Antony. Antony’s refusal to lift the siege of Mutina, controlled by Decimus Brutus, led to his designation as an enemy of the state. Despite Cicero’s efforts to expel Antony, his plan faltered as Antony reconciled with Octavian, forging an alliance with Lepidus to establish the Second Triumvirate following the battles of Forum Gallorum and Mutina. The alliance was formalized with the lex Titia on 27 November 43 BC, granting each triumvir consular imperium for five years. The Triumvirate promptly initiated a proscription of their adversaries, reminiscent of Sulla’s purge in 82 BC. Cicero and his associates were marked as enemies of the state, despite Octavian’s two-day advocacy against Cicero’s inclusion on the list.

Cicero found himself relentlessly pursued among the proscribed individuals. Despite widespread sympathy from the public, many refused to betray his whereabouts. However, he was apprehended on 7 December 43 BC while attempting to flee his villa in Formiae. Philologus, a freedman of Cicero’s brother Quintus, disclosed his location to Cicero’s pursuers. According to Seneca the Elder, Cicero’s final words, as recounted by historian Aufidius Bassus, expressed his resignation to fate and a plea for a swift execution.

Cicero’s end was marked by a gladiatorial gesture of submission, baring his neck to his captors, signifying his acceptance of his fate. According to Plutarch, Herennius, one of his captors, first killed Cicero before severing his head, while Antony ordered the removal of Cicero’s hands, which had penned the Philippics, to be displayed alongside his head on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum. Cicero was the sole victim of the proscriptions to be subjected to such public display. According to Cassius Dio, mistakenly attributed to Plutarch, Antony’s wife Fulvia further desecrated Cicero’s remains in a final act of vengeance against his eloquence.

Cicero’s son, Marcus Tullius Cicero Minor, serving as consul in 30 BC, partially avenged his father’s death by announcing Mark Antony’s naval defeat at Actium in 31 BC to the Senate.

In later years, Octavian acknowledged Cicero’s patriotism and intellectual contributions within his family circle, yet it was Octavian’s tacit approval that facilitated Cicero’s demise, as Cicero was condemned by the new triumvirate.

Cicero’s political career was marked by fluctuating allegiances and a tendency to adapt to prevailing political circumstances. His vacillation can be attributed to his sensitive and impressionable nature, often leading to exaggerated reactions in response to political and personal upheavals.

C. Asinius Pollio, a contemporary statesman and historian, lamented Cicero’s inability to maintain equanimity in both prosperity and adversity, suggesting that greater self-control and fortitude might have served him better.