The rise of the Roman Republic was a tempestuous drama that was markedly different from the Greek experiment. The Etruscans, Sabines and other peoples of central Italy were somewhat familiar with the Greek polites through colonial cities on the peninsular coasts and in Sicily, though imported elements were given a uniquely Italic flavour. Ancient, but untrammelled by the tarnished civilizations of Egypt and the Middle East, they nurtured their own versions of the ageless Mysteries. Originally a modest city among many, Rome expanded with an energy that outdistanced its imagination. Through amalgamation and conquest, a variety of peoples found themselves welded together in a country whose masters were committed to cloistered virtues well-earthed in the home and hearth, even as they forged an extended empire. Their institutions and structures were hurried, if often ingenious, inventions of necessity, yet revealing a respect for simplicity, dispassion and devotion to duty. Perhaps the polis was better suited to encourage the excellences of individual character – the ideals of courage, justice, balance in action, a sense of the sacred and philosophic wisdom – since the city-state was sustained by civic virtue in at least a few leading exemplars. The Roman Republic emerged from a mixture of mores and from the first had more of the character of a nation. Personal virtue, though admired, stood second to those public virtues which nurtured and nourished the state – honesty, integrity, conscientiousness and, above all, humanitas, an authentic interest in human beings engendering sympathetic understanding of the culture of the mind and tact of manner.
With the Republic, two social strata emerged, patrician and plebeian, and within the nobility a sharp social distinction was made between the optimates of the old Roman aristocracy, and the equestrian order of the respected families from rural society. The Senate was the bastion of the urban patricians and the highest offices of state seldom passed out of their hands. The plebeians made their voice heard through occasional strikes, frequent demonstrations and popular assemblies, but they were often the willing pawns of popular figures struggling for political advantage. The equestrians held lesser offices in Rome itself, but occupied important posts throughout the empire. The rapid and unpremeditated growth of the empire, under ambitious men who saw in foreign conquest the surest route to power in Rome, severely strained the social and political institutions of the state. The gap between rich and poor became immense, so that slaves in the urban villas lived in luxury almost unimaginable to commoners plying their simple trades. The poison of disharmony and blind self-interest seeped into the old orders, and the Senate showed all the flaws of collective rule without common solidarity. Loyalty to tradition and to ancestral values decayed into petty conservatism and the politics of obstruction, and Rome drifted towards perfunctory despotism. More than any other statesman, Cicero saw in the trend of events the tragedy they foretold, and he struggled relentlessly to deflect if not reverse the downward current.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on January 3, 106 B.C., at Arpinum some sixty miles southeast of Rome. His studious father, always in poor health, descended from an established equestrian family that maintained ties with Rome while shunning political involvement. Devoting himself to the education of his sons, Marcus and Quintus, and encouraging them to enter public life, he purchased a home in a fashionable district of Rome where Cicero could receive the best education. As a young man, Cicero studied law under Scaevola, the greatest constitutional jurist of his day. He also became accomplished in rhetoric, the art of public presentation of a compelling line of reasoning. He was intensely attracted to philosophy, as the foundation of conduct rather than as a self-enclosed abstraction, and his initial studies were under the direction of Phaedrus, an outstanding exponent of the Epicurean school. In 88 B.C. Philo of Larissa, the head of the Platonic Academy in Athens, fled to Rome as a political refugee, and Cicero took the opportunity to study under him. Entranced by Philo's urbane scepticism and philosophical tolerance, Cicero devoted the remainder of his life to practising the principles he espoused. General Marius had rooted out much corruption in Rome but at the cost of running roughshod over Roman laws and customs, unfortunately showing less scrupulous men how to use the power of the army to win their way in the Senate. The subsequent war with Sulla, a rival general, had, as Cicero thought, destroyed the legal system, and so he resolved to concentrate all his attention on philosophy. From Philo he learnt to oppose dogmatism in philosophy, and since he saw no gap between philosophical contemplation and public service, he opposed despotism in government. In this he was Rome's last effectual republican.
In 87 B.C. Philo died and the prominent Stoic teacher Diodotus moved into the home of Cicero's father, remaining with the family until his death in 59 B.C. Without abandoning the teaching of Philo, Cicero discovered the depth and relevance of Stoic ethics. If the Epicurean call for withdrawal from public affairs was inimical to the needs of the Republic, Cicero thought Stoic moral theory suited it better, providing its incipient materialism could be countered by the teaching of the Academy. Superbly trained in rhetoric, philosophy and law, Cicero entered the public arena and quickly established himself as a brilliant rising star. In 81 B.C. he successfully defended Roscius of Ameria against charges of murder brought by a freedman of Sulla, then virtual dictator of Rome. The case brought him fame fraught with ominous political implications, and in 79 B.C. he embarked on a long holiday in Athens. Cicero pointed to his overstrained voice and general ill health, but Plutarch suggested that the threat of retaliation by Sulla made the journey prudent. While in Athens, Cicero studied under Antiochus of Ascalon, Philo's successor in the Academy, whose fastidious thought and penetrating insight left a deep impression upon him. A much greater mark was made in Cicero's consciousness when he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Therein he learnt the joyous service of the Divine during life and faith in immortality beyond death.
When news of Sulla's death reached Athens, Cicero travelled to Rhodes to study rhetoric under the eminent teacher Mob. There he had the opportunity to study philosophy with Posidonius, "the greatest of the Stoics". In 77 B.C. he returned to Rome to become the leading republican advocate in the Forum, widely hailed as the best orator and poet in Rome. Through his poetry, little of which survives, and in his many essays and orations, Cicero began to shape the Latin language into an instrument of grace and beauty, abstraction and subtlety. Upon reaching the qualificatory age, he set out upon the cursus honorum, the path to the highest offices of the Republic. Elected quaestor in 76 B.C., he became a member of the Senate and was posted to Sicily to supervise grain shipments from there to Rome. Elective offices were held for one year, and when his term expired he returned to Rome. Several years later he prosecuted Verres for corrupt administration in Sicily, a post Cicero had learnt at first hand. Coming at the top of the poll, he was appointed aedile in 69 B.C. Aediles were responsible for city services and were expected to curry favour by funding public festivals out of their own assets. Frowning upon wasteful expenditures, Cicero relied entirely upon his oratorical skills to secure his public reputation in office. He was rewarded in 66 B.C. with the post of First Praetor of Rome, a judicial governorship of the city. At the minimum legal age of forty-two, he was elected consul, the highest office in the state. This office was the province of 'old men', those whose ancestors had held the post, and Cicero was the first 'new man', from a family which had never produced a consul, to be elected in decades. He was so highly esteemed that he defeated his formidable rivals, Mark Antony and Catiline.
Cicero used his high office to promote "the Concord of the Orders", an appeal for the social orders of the city to work together for the sake of the Republic, even as he, an equestrian holding an aristocratic post, had done. He caught Catiline fomenting a rebellion to seize the government, and though Catiline escaped punishment temporarily, five of his associates were brought to trial and condemned. Horrified by this shameless disregard of Roman law and public welfare, Cicero was prevailed upon to order their execution without the customary right to appeal. Having done so, he was hailed by the Senate as the Father of the Fatherland, Saviour of Rome. But his fidelity to the governing principles of the Republic threatened the ambitions of men anxious to overthrow it, and this act, moot in Roman law, provided an opening for attack. Pompey had already achieved fame by defeating the followers of Marius on behalf of Sulla and suppressing the slave revolt led by Spartacus. Seven years before Cicero, Pompey had been consul even though under legal age. Receiving a commission, despite Senatorial opposition, to clear the Mediterranean of pirates, his success was rewarded with an Eastern command. He established Roman control over a large region of Western Asia. Returning to Rome in 62 B.C., he respectfully disbanded his army and asked the Senate for land for his veterans. Though the request was reasonable, the Senate had become suspicious of men who achieved great power outside the oligarchical structure. When it balked at fulfilling his request, Pompey formed an alliance with Julius Caesar and the wealthy Licinius Crassus.
Cicero was invited to join the first triumvirate, but he declined because he could not participate in good conscience in the systematic undermining of the Republic. Caesar as consul gave himself a command in Gaul, and Pompey closed his eyes when Clodius the Tribune pushed a retroactive law through the Senate which made execution without appeal a crime. Cicero fled to Greece. Within a year Pompey fell out with Clodius and invited Cicero back. Though he returned in triumph, he found little comfort in a Rome securely under control of the triumvirate. Pompey and Crassus were consuls in 55 B.C. and gave themselves commands in Spain and Syria. The death of Julia, Pompey's wife and Caesar's daughter, in 54 B.C. and the death of Crassus at the hands of the Parthians in 53 B.C., as well as Caesar's victories in Gaul and Britain, led to a collapse of the triumvirate. Pompey became sole consul in 52 B.C. at the behest of the Senate to restore order in Rome. Cicero was made governor of Cilicia against his will in 51 B.C., but he bore the responsibility with grace and efficiency. His skilful campaigns against marauding hill peoples won him the title 'Imperator' from his troops and a special vote of thanks from the Senate. By the time he returned to Rome, Caesar and Pompey were on the verge of civil war. Cicero desperately pleaded for peace, for he knew the existence of the Republic was at stake. When war did break out, Cicero sided with Pompey, not because Pompey had much respect for the law, but because Caesar had even less. With the defeat and death of Pompey, Cicero went to Brindisium to await his fate. In 47 B.C. Caesar met with Cicero and invited him to return to Rome.
While Caesar remained on cordial social terms with Cicero, he ignored republican advice and Cicero withdrew from public life. When his daughter Tullia died in 45 B.C., he was grief-stricken to the point of collapse and found consolation only in writing. Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., an event which Cicero did not anticipate even though he was a close friend of Marcus Junius Brutus. Soon it became clear that Mark Antony intended to take Caesar's place, and Cicero made one last attempt to prevent the eradication of the Republic. He denounced Mark Antony in a series of brilliant speeches, offered his support to the young Octavian, whose interest in the constitution seemed genuine, and found himself the acknowledged centre of the Senate's resistance to despotism. While factions struggled with one another across the empire, Cicero tried to focus their unreliable loyalties on the Senate and make peace. Octavian routed Mark Antony, only to demand the consulship at the age of nineteen. Cicero protested but could not prevent the Senate from acquiescing. Suddenly Octavian allied himself with Mark Antony, and the Senate found itself utterly powerless. A proscription of Mark Antony's enemies was declared, meaning that all their property was forfeited to the state and they could be killed if found in Italy.
Cicero fled to Formiae south of Rome to take ship into exile. Strong winds prevented the ship from leaving the harbour, and Cicero realized that his work was finished. He ordered a litter to carry him back to his villa, saying, "I may as well die in the country I have so many times saved." Troops caught up with the party before it arrived at the villa. On December 7, 43 B.C., Cicero carefully laid aside the copy of Medea by Euripides which he was reading, silently stretched forth his neck, and was dispatched by the sword of the centurion in charge. Octavian eventually became Caesar Augustus, the first de facto emperor of Rome, bringing to an end the Republic Cicero loved and laboured for, and the principles that had vitalized the state lingered only as shadows along a road of splendour and ruin. Plutarch wrote:
Cicero wrote for the same end he pursued in public life: the edification of the Roman people. He saw clearly that the expanding Roman state would permanently and profoundly affect the Mediterranean world and have consequences for all humanity beyond its borders. He saw that the basic goodness and rectitude of the ancient Italic peoples had provided the elusive structure and informing breath of the Republic. Yet the process of expansion severs people from their ancestral roots and unleashes undirected energies and personal ambitions that can subvert the spirit that gave them birth. For Cicero, only the self-conscious rerooting of fundamental values within the social fabric can truly prevent inner corruption and decay. He inaugurated a programme far more ambitious than his critics charged, and more consistent than his friends realized. He set himself the task of instructing and educating the Roman people.
Latin was a language of tillers and traders, devoid of abstractions. The Romans produced no philosophies or sciences, and written literature and poetry was not to be found among them. As the composite state grew, Romans delighted in Greek culture and were titillated and intrigued by things Egyptian. Culture is not created from crude imitation, but rather from self-cultivation, and this Cicero intended to provide. Waiving any claims to originality of thought, Cicero set about transmitting in encyclopaedic form the whole body of Greek thought in a form congenial and challenging to the Roman mind. Where language failed, he invented it, coining dozens of words which soon became part of ordinary speech, among them moralis, essentia and qualitas, creating a language that would be used centuries later for the most subtle and abstruse discussions. Believing that what is worthy of saying must be said well, he fashioned the rhetorical rules and metrical forms used by later orators and poets. Though he came to intensely dislike Epicurean thought, his wish to make Greek philosophy accessible to Romans led him to edit and publish the great poem of Lucretius, De Return Natura. In a series of books he set out various philosophical positions so that the reader might contemplate their merit.
Cicero firmly believed that the composite state is best, for it draws into one human community the vast diversity of peoples. The state can survive and prosper under law alone, and civil law must be drawn from nature itself. This is possible when legislators and those who administer the law have a transparent understanding of the ethical dimension in man and nature. Law is the purposive activity of Deity. Human legislation is consonant with natural law when it mirrors the highest human morality, itself a reflection of divine action within the individual. The composite state cannot rely on custom for its governing principles since venerated practices vary from community to community. The ethical core of all human beings is God in nature and therefore vera lex, true law, is a universal canon determined by universal reason, effectively distinguishing good and evil. Iustitia, justice, has the same origin and is the cardinal principle of the state because it bids each individual to consider the interests of all men. Thus it should be sought for its own sake. When it is, aequitas and fides, equity and faith, follow spontaneously. Once the origin of law is located in noumenal nature, it is evident that the world is the true state, the archetypal pattern and paradigm of every historical commonwealth.
Law in nature is divine activity; laws are the workings of the mind of Deity. If materialistic pantheism were sufficient to account for natural law, human beings would be creatures of fate and fortune, and the idea of ethical conduct would be meaningless. Similarly, if affirmation of the Divine amounts to no more than superstitious supernaturalism, then the idea of law is again vitiated. Only the concept of divine law, the manifestation of the Unmanifest operating through the gods, whose natures embody supreme reason, secures for human beings the dignity of destiny and the possibility of choice. The individual incarnates reason and the state justice, so humanity becomes fully human only within the just state. From this perspective, Cicero appears in his true nobility, not simply as an orator or essayist, but as a sensitive witness, striving for civilization itself, for the emergence and preservation of humanity.
The unspoken spirituality that led him to the sanctuaries of Eleusis is expressed in the moral continuity of his purposive action in life and in his philosophic convictions concerning states after death. In "The Dream of Scipio", which is a cousin to Plato's Myth of Er, Cicero portrays the younger Scipio falling into a deep slumber. In his dream he meets his deceased namesake in some immortal realm in the Milky Way. The elder Scipio teaches:
Cicero consecrated his life to aiding every impulse towards the establishment of a social order that could provide optimal conditions for the human soul to emerge, exist and prosper in its true nature. Seeing no separation between contemplation and action, philosophy and rhetoric, this world and the next, he lived in readiness for death, and died with the assurance of renewed life.