Episode 46: The Republic at Twilight

Cicero (106-43 BCE) was the undisputed master of the Latin language. During his first thirty years, he witnessed events that heralded the Republic’s end.

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Cicero’s Early Career and the Financial Corruption of the Late Republic

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 46: The Republic at Twilight. This program is the first of three shows we’ll do on the Roman orator and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. When Cicero was born in 106 BCE, the Roman Republic was beginning to reveal signs of structural weakness – a firebrand populist here, an illegally long term in office there, a murdered tribune here, a headstrong celebrity general there. And 63 years later, when Cicero was murdered 43 BCE, a casualty of the cash hungry purges of Mark Antony and Octavian, the Republic was finished. For almost all of his adult life, Cicero lived at the center of the Roman world. And as a succession of populist politicians began to scorn the rule of law in the Late Republic, fanning the flames of popular unrest for their own gain, Cicero tried his best to reform and preserve the traditional government of Rome, a government that, just as it had assumed sovereignty over the Mediterranean, began to decay from within.

Cicero - Musei Capitolini

A bust of Cicero at the Capitoline Museum. Photo by Glauco92.

There are topics, and works of literature that we’ve studied together in this podcast that seem distant from our lives and experiences today. We might have a historical and anthropological interest in, for instance, the sacrificial rites of seventh-century BCE Judah, or the contemporary historical allusions of Pindar, or the funerary spell books of Ancient Egypt. But we don’t sacrifice pigeons any more, nor do we hire bards to sing about Olympic athletes, nor do we lay our loved ones to rest alongside mystical incantations and mummified cats. In short, a lot of what we’ve explored together so far in Literature and History has been a reliquary of ancient customs that are interesting in their own right, but don’t really have much to do with us today.

When we come to the life and times of Cicero, however, we find a man, and a story, that are relevant to almost any period of history. The legacy of Cicero, and what he tried to do in the last days of the Roman Republic, invite us to ask what kind of a state system can best serve the interests of the widest possible number of citizens, what kind of a state system can endure, and whether any kind of state system can do both.

Cicero has been admired and derogated in almost equal parts over the 2,000 years that we’ve been reading his works and learning about his life. His proponents have seen him as an ingenious wordsmith who fought for the preservation of the Roman Republic, a great friend and father, and in almost all cases a pacifist who, at the summit of his career, saved the city of Rome from a murderous coup, and later in life died heroically for his long stand against autocracy. Cicero’s critics have seen him quite differently – an oligarch, a windbag, a vain, fussy, petulant man who bullied his political opponents and their families with great cruelty, whose later collaborations with Caesar and Octavian revealed the ultimate inconstancy of his political beliefs.

We’re not going to take sides on this debate – on whether Cicero was a hero, or an aggravating and self-serving clarion for a lost cause. The facts that would go to support either side of that discussion, which is still going on today, are too convoluted for an overview like this one. But we can be certain – totally certain – of one thing that makes Cicero unique. We know more about Cicero than any of his more famous contemporaries. Cicero wrote widely on philosophy and oratory, and of the two dozen books on these subjects that he produced – mostly toward the end of his life – the majority of them survive. A large corpus of interdisciplinary work was not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world, and we possess similar ones from Plato and Aristotle. But Cicero left more behind him than philosophical and scientific compositions. A lawyer by profession, and increasingly a political dynamo at the hub of the senate, Cicero left behind 58 speeches, some of which have been standard curriculum in Latin grammar and rhetoric for two thousand years. Even more uniquely, more than 800 letters survive that Cicero wrote to friends, family and acquaintances, plus nearly a hundred more that he received.1 Now, Julius Caesar may have a month and an American pizza chain named after him, and Cleopatra may still be a standard Halloween costume, but neither of these more famous figures from the ancient Mediterranean left behind documents revealing the experiences of their everyday lives – their friendships, their hopes, their losses, their moments of heroic resolution, and their hours of self deception and failure.

Cicero writing letters in german woodcut

A German woodcut of Cicero writing his letters, from a 1547 edition of Epistulae ad familiares (Letters to His Friends.

We’ve met a lot of writers in this podcast, from Enheduanna of Ur down to Terence and Lucretius. Some of the most important figures in ancient literature are mysteries – Homer, Isaiah, Sappho – we know who they are only by hearsay and supposition. But the life and works of Cicero, contrastingly, present a juncture at which the experiences and thoughts of one person from antiquity shine a vivid light on an especially eventful place and time in world history. So, while some scholars have found Cicero to be the last best champion of the ailing Republic, and others a selfish grandstander, any Roman historian worth her weight in sesterces is familiar with the basics of Cicero’s life and works. By the end of these shows on Cicero, I hope to offer you these basics.

Rome isn’t exactly underserved in the world of contemporary history podcasts – those interested in the subject have Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome and Professor Rhiannon Evans’ Emperors of Rome, and a number of others. But in survey histories of Rome, Cicero is often a second string character, hanging out in the shadows behind Caesar and Octavian and Pompey and Antony, only emerging briefly into the limelight during his consulship of 63 BCE, shortly before the rise of the first triumvirate. There are several reasons for Cicero’s relative obscurity next to the triumvirs. One is that the republic that Cicero championed failed, and historians since the Age of Augustus have often seen Cicero as the boatswain of a sinking ship, vociferous and energetic but all the same doomed by seemingly ineluctable forces. Relatedly, Cicero stayed off the battlefield for his adult life, and in the superficial historiography that teaches late republican history as strongmen pitting armies against one another, the orator doesn’t even show up. But there’s another reason I think Cicero gets sidelined in this pivotal period of Roman history, and that is the extremely complex nature of his career and background. He wrote literally dozens of books, in addition to hundreds of thousands of words worth of defense speeches, prosecutions, defamations, and letters. For each of Cicero’s orations and court cases, there is a dense and often obscure background to learn and understand; oftentimes, for each book that he wrote, there is a philosophical or rhetorical or historical backdrop that precedes Cicero’s own contributions to a subject. Thus, amidst his militaristic contemporaries who ultimately sought absolute power, Cicero can seem merely the noisiest of the senators, a voluble champion of the republican status quo, quite prolific but also diffuse in his output, intellectually forceful but indisposed to picking up a sword, a man either ahead of or behind his times. But I think that Cicero’s complexity, and the way that he fits in to the last act of the republic, is precisely why he needs some extra coverage in our podcast.

This will be the first sequence in Literature and History that will mainly be a biography. I will be quoting from some of Cicero’s speeches so that you can hear some of his most famous zingers, diatribes, insults, rhetorical maneuvers and moreover turns of phrase. I’ll be quoting from some of his later book length works, so that you can learn about his views on religion and philosophy. But overall, we will look at his life and career, both of which were shaped, and eventually terminated, by the firestorm of events in the Late Republic.

While most of what we’ll discuss in these three shows will deal with the life of Cicero, who again lived from 106-43 BCE, before we talk about this remarkable Roman, we need to go over some of the events that led up to his birth, and the political organization of Rome in the late 100s BCE. Now, you may have heard of the cursus honorum, or “course of offices” – and how the most ambitious Roman men could ascend from quaestor, to aedile, to praetor, and finally to consul, as Cicero himself did. To understand Cicero’s life, we need to review the basics of that system – how it was supposed to work, how it actually worked, and how its increasing dysfunctionality in the late 100s BCE was evident at least a generation before the life of Cicero and his contemporaries. [music]

Polybius and His World

The Greek historian Polybius was born about a hundred years before Cicero – some time around 200 BCE, back when Plautus was staging plays and Roman literature was getting its bearings. Polybius was a noble from a town in the central Peloponnese about thirty miles northwest of Sparta. When Polybius was in his early 30s, Romans were winding up the Third Macedonian War, and Polybius was taken to Rome as an aristocratic hostage in 167 BCE. Hostage taking was a common practice in Roman military tactics, ensuring that ruling families had compelling reasons to comply with the Romans who held their sons and daughters captive, and at the same time making sure that these sons and daughters went home partially Romanized. This was exactly what happened to Polybius.

Polybios cicero predecessor

A statue of Polybius on the steps leading up to the Greek Parliament in Athens. Photo by Walter Maderbacher.

An educated and genteel Greek, Polybius ended up in the household of a prominent family, serving as the tutor of Scipio Aemilianus and his brother Fabius, the friends of the playwright Terence whom we met a couple of episodes ago. Polybius thus knew some of the most important and famous and important aristocrats and generals on both sides of the Adriatic, and when Rome went down to besiege and eradicate the city of Carthage in the early 140s, Polybius accompanied his pupil Scipio Aemilianus, who led the campaign to finish off North Africa. In 146 BCE, Polybius probably witnessed the burning of Carthage, and that same year Polybius would have also heard of the final Roman conquest of what was called the Achaean League, a confederation of Greek cities that banded together to halt Rome’s expansion to the east, and failed.

As he passed middle age, the historian Polybius travelled throughout Greece, a bilingual emissary of Roman culture who tried to ease his territory’s transition to Roman rulership. And, importantly for our purposes, Polybius began work on a large history that spanned the years from 264-146 BCE – a work that today is our most valuable and reliable source on the Mediterranean world during this period. Beginning with the First Punic War, and ending with the dual sacks of Carthage and Greece in 146, Polybius purportedly traveled widely to visit the sites he was writing about, interviewing veterans and eyewitnesses, and using their reports as his source material. In the same tradition of Thucydides two and a half centuries before him, Polybius generally writes with balanced consideration of international relations and documentary evidence.

There is, however, a well known bias in Polybius’ Histories. When discussing the life and times of his pupil Scipio Aemilianus, Polybius is understandably partisan, glorifying the younger man’s deeds while turning a more critical eye on Scipio Aemilianus’ contemporaries. Moreover, Polybius’ Histories is written in Greek, intended for a Greek audience still reeling under a recent Roman conquest. Although Polybius doesn’t discount Greece’s glorious past – particularly the era of Philip II of Macedon, Polybius presents Rome’s ascension as an inevitable result of its superior state system and military. To his Greek contemporaries who knew nothing of Rome, Polybius was a powerful cultural ambassador, telling his countrymen that however humbling Greece’s military defeat had been, Rome’s conquest of the lower Balkans had been historically inevitable, and thus nothing to be too resentful about.

Polybius, whose lifespan stretched from about 200 to 118 BCE, was on the ground to witness a number of landmark events in Roman history, just as Cicero would be a hundred years later. An apologist for Roman conquest, Polybius famously prefaced his work with the words, “There can surely be nobody so petty or so apathetic in his outlook that he has no desire to discover by what means and under what system of government the Romans succeeded in less than fifty-three years in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world, an achievement which is without parallel in human history.”2 This might be the most famous sentence in Polybius’ Histories, and it captures the generally nonpartisan spirit of the work in its entirety – whether you like the Romans or loathe them, Polybius indicates, they overpowered almost everything in the Mediterranean in a little more than a generation, and it behooves you to know about who the Romans are, and how they operate.

The period in which Polybius wrote the Histories – some time between 146 and his death in about 118 BCE – this period was the high water mark of the Republic, and in some ways the high water mark of all of Roman history. Rome was not yet mired in perennial civil wars. Its recent acquisition of gigantic new territories – North Africa, Spain, the lower Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor, had not yet resulted in any major uprisings from conquered peoples, excepting a war in Spain that Polybius’ illustrious pupil Scipio Aemilianus won handily in 133. Toward the very end of Polybius’ life, Rome saw the tribunates of the Gracchi brothers, which we’ll talk about later. But almost everything that Polybius saw during his lifetime seemed to indicate that Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean was the result of a nearly faultless political architecture, martial discipline, and veneration of tradition. Let’s talk about Polybius’ famous explanation of what the Republic was, and how it worked. [music]

Monarchy, Oligarchy, Democracy, Monarchy. . .

In Book Six of the Histories, Polybius goes into detail about Rome’s state apparatus – how it works, and why it works so well. Polybius, being a student of Greek history, had a fascinating, and deeply cynical perspective on how states form and evolve in general. Put briefly, he saw a natural evolution from autocracy, to aristocratic oligarchy, to democracy – and this is the really interesting part – then back to autocracy, and on and on. A civilization’s government, then, was a wheel, turning inevitably, and often violently, from era to era due to the greed and amnesia of each new generation. To offer you a bit more detail, Polybius believed that state formation worked as follows.

Scipion Emilien et Polybe devant les ruines de Carthage après la destruction de la ville

A 1797 engraving of Polybius and Scipio Aemilianus in the ruins of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War.

To Polybius, a fundamentally disorganized state, whether it was very primitive, or whether it was catastrophically ravaged by wars and political revolutions, would eventually find that a single leader was an acceptable alternative to having no state structure at all. Gradually, that single leader’s reign would be institutionalized into a kingship, and over time, as prosperity and resources spread throughout the kingdom, that kingship, jealously guarding its power against a newly ascendant aristocracy, would devolve into a tyranny. This tyranny would eventually prove toxic to the aristocracy and the commoners alike, and for the sake of everyone’s prosperity, the tyrant would be overthrown, and a government run by aristocrats would rise in its wake. For the next part of the narrative, I want to quote Polybius himself, and this is the Ian Scott-Kilvert translation, published by Penguin Classics in 1980. Again, the Greek historian Polybius, probably some time in the 130s or 120s BCE, writing on the second phase of a state’s evolution, just after a monarchical tyranny has been overthrown.
At first the aristocrats gladly accepted this charge [being powerful men who’d overthrown the monarchy, and] made it their supreme concern to serve the common interest, and handled both the private and public affairs to the people with the greatest care and solicitude. But here again the next generation inherited the same position of authority as their fathers. They in turn had no experience of misfortunes and no tradition of civic equality and freedom of speech, since they had been reared from the cradle in an atmosphere of authority and privilege. And so [the aristocrats who’d overthrown the monarchy] abandoned their high responsibilities, some in favour of avarice and unscrupulous money-making, others of drinking and the convivial excesses that go with it, and others the violation of women and the rape of boys. In this way they transformed an aristocracy into an oligarchy, and soon provoked the people to a pitch of resentment similar to that which I have already described, with the result that their regime suffered the same disastrous end as had befallen the tyrants.3

So, Polybius writes that after some generations of rule by aristocrats, the aristocrats themselves become just as greedy and self-serving as the tyrant whom their great grandparents overthrew, and they themselves are overthrown by commoners. What comes next is democracy. And while we today tend to hope that democracy will endure all of the coming challenges that will confront our nations, Polybius was less optimistic. After the bloody revolution that enabled a new democracy, Polybius writes, commoners would still have some ancestral memory of tyranny, and thus be disinclined to setting up a new king. But soon, the same sort of invidious greed, selfishness and ambition that hamstrings an aristocratic oligarchy corrodes a democracy. To quote Polybius again, after some generations of democratic rule, citizens

have become by this time so accustomed to equality and freedom of speech that they cease to value them and seek to raise themselves above their fellow-citizens, and it is noticeable that the people most liable to this temptation are the rich. So when [the avaricious oligarchs] begin to hanker after office, and find that they cannot achieve it through their own efforts or on their merits, they begin to seduce and corrupt the people in every possible way, and thus ruin their estates. The result is that through their senseless craving for prominence they stimulate among the masses both an appetite for bribes and the habit of receiving them, and then the rule of democracy is transformed into government by violence and strong-arm methods. By this time the people have become accustomed to feed at the expense of others, and their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors; then as soon as they find a leader who is sufficiently ambitious and daring, but is excluded from the honours of office because of his poverty, they will introduce a regime based on violence. After this they unite their forces, and proceed to massacre, banish and despoil their opponents, and finally degenerate into a state of bestiality, after which they once more find a master and a despot. (4904)

And that is Polybius’ view of the cycle of a region’s governing structure, an ouroboros serpent driven by desperation, avarice, and selfishness. It is, as I said, a dark and cynical theory of how we choose to govern ourselves. But the next century and a half of Roman history saw exactly what Polybius described taking place – a mixture of democracy and aristocratic oligarchy degenerating into corrosion and bribery, a period of civil wars, and then a sequence of cunning strongmen who butchered one another until the state was too exhausted to remember its ancestral aversion to monarchs, and a new autocrat rose up from the rubble.

Let’s not jump forward to the ages of Caesar and Augustus, though. Earlier, I said that Polybius’ Histories generally present Rome’s ascendancy as an inevitable result of its state structure. To Polybius, again writing some time between 146 and 118, the Roman state system was “the best of all existing constitutions” (4937).4 Put simply, to Polybius, Rome’s governmental apparatus was a triangle that was at once monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic, with each branch liable to the others. The monarchical branch was the consuls, those two state leaders elected for a year at a time who wielded the most power. The aristocratic branch was the senate, that body of 300 wealthy men whose ratifications were necessary for military campaigns and the distribution of the state’s resources. And the democratic branch were the free male citizens over the age of 17, whose votes partially decided the outcomes of state elections. Several sections of Polybius’ Histories are detailed examinations of the checks and balances system that existed in the Middle Republic at its best moments, down to the construction contracts awarded to entrepreneurial citizens by the senate, and in turn, the citizen’s prerogative to reduce property rights of the senate, and in turn, the consular military authority over the common citizen, and in turn, the senate’s unique right to approve or disapprove the triumph of a returning consul who has been on a military campaign. To Polybius, and later Cicero, the Roman Republican government at its apex was an interdependent system of shared power, neither monarchy, nor oligarchy, nor democracy, possessing the various strengths of these three systems and none of their vulnerabilities. In Cicero’s own words, at its height, the Republic was “[A]n even and judicious blend of the three simple forms [of statehood] at their best.”5

This vision of the Roman Republic, whether drawn by the pen of Polybius, or Cicero almost a hundred years after him – is very important for the purposes of understanding Cicero’s career and ideology. To Cicero, the Republic was the sacred and superior form of statehood, neither monarchy, nor aristocracy, nor democracy, but a perfectly designed triptych of all three. It was through the use of this political machine, Polybius makes clear, that Rome “succeeded in less than fifty-three years in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world.” And for the duration of Cicero’s life – while he was not naive to the political corruption and historical changes around him – for the duration of Cicero’s life, Cicero stood for the preservation, and later restoration of this august and time tested form of government.

To return one last time to Cicero’s predecessor in political thinking, Polybius, we should remember that the earlier Greek historian lived through some of Rome’s greatest victories. Although Polybius clearly saw the Republican government as a superior hybrid of monarchy, aristocratic oligarchy and democracy, Polybius did not believe that Rome’s government – or any state, for that matter – could, or would endure. At the outset of his long chapter on the Republic’s government, Polybius writes that “this method of examination will give us the clearest insight into the process by which [the Republic] was formed, grew, and reached the zenith of its achievement as well as the changes for the worse which will follow these” (4908). We need to talk about some of these changes, now. Because the Republican government under which Cicero was born was not a jointly interknit triad of executives, aristocrats, and commoners. It was a plutocracy, characterized from top to bottom by a general atmosphere of reckless ambition and fiscal corruption. In reviewing the work of Polybius, we have had a brief look at how the Republican system worked, or was supposed to have worked during its pinnacle. Now it’s time to talk about how the Republic was actually functioning in the decades leading up to Cicero’s birth, when the twin conquests of Carthage and Greece had made almost the entire Mediterranean into a Roman lake. [music]

Economic Imbalances and Financial Changes in the Late Republic

Romans, around the time that Greece was conquered in 146 BCE, and Greek intellectuals like Polybius began tutoring their children, became anxious about the influence of Greek culture on Roman youths. Looking back into the past, Romans fretted that the great wars that had led to their domination of the Mediterranean had been won by a generation whose heirs would slide into degeneracy and ingratitude. This trope is common in Roman literature and historiography – this sense that manly, valorous Rome was being seduced by the wanton and degenerate east. We’ve seen the story before, in the writings of Jeremiah and in Lamentations – this sense that a proud, insular culture had committed the sins of miscegenation and cultural open mindedness, and in doing so doomed its purity and longevity. We talked about Republican Rome’s version of the Jeremiad back in our episode on Terence’s The Brothers – this narrative of social degeneration born around the beginning of the Late Republican period that endured long afterward.

The nostalgia for a manly and stouthearted past drove second century BCE writers like Cato the Elder just as much as it did Cicero’s contemporaries a century later. And something did change in Rome over the 100s BCE. There may have been some qualitative change in the national character over the course of the 100s BCE that led to the civil wars of the next century. But much more tangibly, in the late 100s Romans were faced with economic shifts that the old venerated Republican system wasn’t quite equipped to handle. What happened after 146 BCE wasn’t so much a collective lapse in Roman moral virtue under foreign vice as it was a series of changes resulting from class conflict and the restructuring of the military. With their immediate hostile neighbors dead or conquered, the lower classes of Rome began to agitate for a redistribution of wealth. Late Republican Rome had its one percent, and as in many other periods of history, an inside track of blue bloods married one another, enjoyed near monopoly on land ownership, and guarded their ancestral prerogatives combatively. Commoners, on the other hand, on the back of spectacular military victories, saw that for the deaths of their sons, brothers, and husbands, they were to be rewarded with nothing whatsoever other than inflation and rising rents. And Roman commoners, over the early to mid 100s, faced something else that exacerbated their already centuries long economic disadvantages.

In several programs leading up to this one we’ve talked about how wars during the Hellenistic period created slaves. A city was conquered, and depending on the resistance it had offered, its coffers were looted and its people were sold into slavery. These practices were nothing new, but the sheer quantity of military victories being won by Rome from, say, 240-140 BCE meant that a cataract of slaves was filling the Roman capital and provinces with inexpensive labor for several generations. If you were an urban laborer in 140 BCE, the glut of inexpensive slaves was likely to replace your work gang. Worse, if you were a provincial farmer in 140, the goods you were able to bring to the market from your ancestral plot were likely to be undersold by those from huge plantation farms, owned by rich patricians in Rome and staffed by subordinate overseers and slaves.6 And even worse still, if you were a provincial farmer in 140 BCE who’d returned from serving as a soldier in the wars in Greece or North Africa, you would find that the profit that you’d helped win for your republic – the bounty of manpower you had risked your life to earn for your commander – was being used to end your way of life. The Hannibalic War of 218-201 damaged the Italian countryside and drained it of able bodied men, and the further wars against Macedonia, Selucia, the Lusitanians of modern day Spain and Portugal, and finally, Carthage and the Achaean League of Greece, which collectively dragged on for almost sixty years afterward, meant that men of multiple generations spent year after year on campaign. While they were gone, their farms were bought up by investors in Rome, and their employment opportunities were devastated by the new population of foreign slaves.7 Many of them, for want of employment opportunities in the Italian countryside, came to the city of Rome.

As the 140s BCE dragged into the 130s, the groundswell of urbanization and popular unrest in Rome led to the rise of demagogues who used the people’s support, and manipulations of the Popular Assembly, in order to empower themselves. These demagogues understood the plight of the common citizen. Considering the disenfranchised soldier farmer, the Tribune of the Plebs Tiberius Gracchus, according to Plutarch, said this to an assembly in 133 BCE:
The wild beasts that roam over Italy. . .have their dens and holes to lurk in, but the men who fight and die for our country enjoy the common air and light and nothing else. It is their lot to wander with their wives and children, houseless and homeless over the face of the earth. And when our generals appear to their soldiers before a battle to defend their ancestors’ tombs and their temples against the enemy, their words are a lie and a mockery, for not a man in their audience possesses a family altar; not one out of all those Romans owns an ancestral tomb.8

Tiberius Gracchus, a reformer who aligned the interests of the agrarian poor with his own ambitions, used extreme tactics to try and break up land monopolies, going so far as to have his co-tribune forcibly removed so as to push his land ownership reforms through the Popular Assembly in 133 BCE. This was the beginning of the end of the Republic. A shrewd politician had perceived the imperatives of the disenfranchised masses and used these imperatives as an excuse to take extralegal measures, and later, to extend his stay in office beyond its single year limit. Tiberius Gracchus, seeing the senate’s ratifications as an obstacle, simply bypassed the senate. Many more would follow him in doing so in the century to come.

The Architecture of the Cursus Honorum

A minute ago we talked about Polybius’ view of the tripartite nature of the Republican government, and how the consuls, the senate, and the citizens all kept one another’s power in check. To Polybius, the greatest period of the republic was when the consuls, the aristocrats, and the citizenry all locked together, forming a system so impeccable that it was as though the wheel that normally grinded violently from autocracy to oligarchy to democracy and back was frozen in time. The problem that had begun to unfold by the 130s was, put simply, that the balance – if it had ever existed in the first place – was broken.

Cursus honorum of tiberius claudius candidus

The cursus honorum of Tiberius Claudius Candidus, c. 195/6 BCE.

The most obvious difference between Polybius’ description of Rome at its summit, and the practice of politics in Cicero’s day a hundred years later was the way that the Roman “course of offices,” or cursus honorum worked. Let’s talk about that, for a minute. Every class on Roman history includes an explanation of the cursus honorum, and I want to go over this now. An ambitious young Roman who wanted to begin the ascent up the four rung ladder of political power would begin by running for the office, or magistracy of quaestor. Quaestors, both in the capital and provinces, oversaw the financing of the Roman military, and more generally, how public funds were spent, and how revenue would come back into the treasury. Cicero was elected as one of twenty quaestors in 76 BCE, at the age of 30, and he went to Sicily the next year to monitor the economic health of the province, protect the rights of locals, and at the same time maximize the Sicilian grain export back to Rome from abroad. A man who had been a quaestor was admitted into the senate for life, and so holding even just a quaestorship was a tremendous achievement for a determined young Roman. The next rung of the Roman course of offices was the aedile. Aediles were magistrates – two of them patrician and two of them plebeian, who, according to Cicero himself, oversaw city building and public works projects, games and festivals, along with the inspection and care of provisions that came into the city.9 Cicero was elected as one of four aediles in 70 BCE, at the age of 36, and in his role as aedile, he used his connections with Sicily to help keep grain prices that came into the city low, which certainly didn’t hurt his popularity with the common Roman on the street. In general, actually, aedileships allowed up and coming Roman politicians to associate themselves with new temples and temple restorations, with lavish public games and holidays, and with high import volumes and low import prices, thus solidifying their reputations with the voting public.

So those are the first two of the Roman republic’s offices, or magistracies – the quaestor, and the aedile, the first of which, by Cicero’s day, offered the coveted lifetime membership to the senate, the second of which afforded opportunities for winning popular support, and both of which offered a young man a chance to make political connections and secure favors for the period after which he left office. Let’s talk about the loftiest two rungs on the cursus honorum. The second highest magistracy in the Republic was that of the praetor. Praetors oversaw Rome’s law courts, and, importantly, a man who had been a praetor was legally allowed to command an army or govern one of Rome’s provincial territories. In the summer of 67 BCE, at the age of 39, Cicero was made one of eight praetors. The role fit Cicero’s skills as an orator wonderfully, as it offered him the authority opportunities to speak in support of key policy measures and make public some of his own political alliances, most notably with the popular general Pompey. Cicero had spoken and been heard at Rome’s open law courts in the forum before as a lawyer, but as a praetor he was expected to address the citizens of Rome directly, which was something he was very good at.

The top of the Republican political ladder was the office of consul. Two consuls held executive power each year, and as consuls, they could lead armies. Now, the further up the cursus honorum you went, the more difficult it was to get elected, and the more it cost to run an election campaign. While the consulship was nominally open to plebeians, or common citizens, as well as patricians, the general practice was that the sons and grandsons of ex-consuls became new consuls. Cicero, who had no consulships in his ancestry, was elected at the age of 42 as one of the two consuls for 63 BCE. A political outsider, a person like Cicero was called a novus homo, or new man, as he’d climbed the ladder of offices with neither senatorial status, nor familial precedents. As consul, Cicero’s most famous accomplishment was stopping a conspiracy to set fire to Rome and murder a number of Rome’s leading senators, and when Cicero finished his consulship, he was, like all consuls, entitled to govern a province or lead an army. So that’s the cursus honorum as Cicero knew it – quaestor, aedile, praetor, consul, or, as I like to remember it, “qapc.”

Cicero’s journey up the cursus honorum, or again the course of offices, was again unusual in that he was not from an old political dynasty, which speaks to his unique intelligence and diplomatic instincts. And Cicero was not only an outsider breaking in – he also held each of his four magistracies as early as a man could in the Roman Republic, meaning that his ascent was accomplished without a single electoral defeat. We’ll talk a lot more about the specifics of Cicero’s career soon – what I want to do now is talk about some of the systemic problems surrounding the cursus honorum, and Roman politics more generally, that were becoming painfully apparent by the beginning of the first century BCE. [music]

The Equestrians and Tax Farming

Quaestors, aediles, praetors, and consuls, all elected for a year of service, were the men who ran the republic. The system was structured such that by the time a consul reached office, he already had some degree of experience with Rome’s economy, its regulation of imports and exports, its public works projects, and its judiciary branch, and thus he brought with him a breadth of knowledge and experience indispensable to his role as an executive. All of this seems like a pretty clever arrangement of roles and responsibilities – even, perhaps, a well oiled meritocracy in which the best statesmen emerged as leaders, year after year. By the time Cicero climbed the ladder of offices, though, some crippling problems were occurring.

roman provinces at their apex after cicero

The provinces of the Roman Empire at its height. For our purposes, note the location of Cilicia (southeastern Anatolia), where Cicero spent his proconsular governorship; Sicily, where he spent his quaestorship, and then the Po Valley in the north of Italy (around Cremona on the map) – in Cicero’s day a province called Cisalpine Gaul, or “Gaul on this side of the Alps.”

One of these problems was propelled by the commercial rise of a social group called the equestrians. The equestrians were the Republic’s secondary aristocracy – a sort of “business class” who got their name from an era when they’d once supplied the Roman state with cavalry troops and officers. The equestrians in Cicero’s day had become far more than horsemen, though. By the time of Cicero’s career, the equestrians were a socially elite group whose money earned them access to Rome’s loftiest circles, and from these circles, they influenced politics and law courts with cash. Cicero was an equestrian, and not of senatorial rank, and his family’s story was the story of many equestrian dynasties. Way back in 218 BCE, a law had been passed that limited how large a ship could be owned by a senator or his son. This law, the Lex Claudia, essentially kept the Roman senate from engaging in any commercial or business practices other than owning land – Roman senators were not, for instance, allowed to set up shipping companies, or profit from mining or manufacturing or timber harvesting. At its inception, the 218 BCE Lex Claudia may have been designed to keep men of senatorial rank like consuls and praetors from starting overseas wars or sowing domestic discord that would benefit their corporations – in essence, to prevent conflicts of interest at the executive level. By the age of Cicero, the senate had long been barred from entrepreneurial moneymaking in commerce and trade – they were landholders, and senate’s money and power came from their control of often gigantic ancestral estates.

The equestrians, on the other hand – those like Cicero and his family – were free to engage in a wide array of economic opportunities offered by the newly expanded Roman world, and the fortunes that they earned in this way helped them run for magistracies and gain seats in the senate. Equestrians became merchant shippers, and slave traders – they ran manufacturing businesses, purchased gold and silver mines, and became fantastically rich through their innovations in the private sector. By the time Cicero was born, old money senators were watching warily as their equestrian counterparts sailed around the Mediterranean and made millions. Put briefly, in Rome, by the first decades of the final century BCE, a feudal economy based on agriculture and hereditary property transfer was smashing into a free market economy based on trade and innovation, and the senators and equestrians, respectively, embodied these two spheres of activity.

Unfortunately for the average Roman, the collision of these two spheres did not produce a trickle down of wealth. Especially for inhabitants of Rome’s provinces, living, for instance, in Sicily, or Italy north of the Apennines, or the eastern part of Asia Minor – and Cicero was involved with all of these provinces in his career – inhabitants of these provinces fell prey to the joint mismanagement of the senate and equestrians.

One of the most lucrative businesses in which equestrians were engaged was what historians call “tax farming.” Now, this is absolutely bonkers if you haven’t heard it before. If you were a high up equestrian – again, a member of that noble caste just below the senate, that caste that freely engaged in private sector business – if you were an equestrian with some upfront capital, and some ships, and you had two or three hundred thugs working for you, or could subcontract them, you could go to the Roman senate and engage on a bid for the right to tax a province. Let’s say you wanted to tax, for instance, Cisalpine Gaul, the province at the top of the Italian boot that includes the Po Valley, home to the poets Catullus and Virgil. If you wanted to tax this province, you would travel to the senate, and, alongside other equestrian tax farmers, you would bid, competitively, for the right to tax Cisalpine Gaul during the coming year. After a bit of research and some asking around, you’d bid, let’s say, three hundred thousand sesterces. If this were the highest bid, you’d hand over the cash to the senate, who would consider Cisalpine Gaul’s taxes for the coming year paid. And then, when the new tax year began, you would go out with your little militia of thugs, and, working with Cisalpine Gaul’s provincial governor and his staff, venture forth into the cities and towns of Cisalpine Gaul with your certification paperwork, and extract money and resources from every man, woman and child in the province, using force and perhaps shady subcontractors at your discretion. If you were lucky, you could double or triple your initial investment, making your shareholders happy, hiring more legbreakers, and perhaps even pouring money into the next year’s election cycle so that high level decision makers would favor your tax farming business over others.10

Clearly, the sketchy contractual system that existed between the senate and equestrian tax farmers shows a general disregard of the wellbeing of Rome’s provincial inhabitants. Rome during the life of Cicero had institutionalized the overtaxing of conquered territories, and often paid a high price for doing so, as they did in the 80s BCE when the Anatolian king Mithridates first massacred a large population of Romans and then dragged the Republic’s legions eastward for a quarter of a century to fight a costly series of wars. At first glance, then, hiring contractors to tax provinces seems a careless shortcut – a lazy move on the part of the senate to get their tax payday quickly and not worry about the granular matter of journeying out to far flung territories to collect goats and chickens. But in actuality, by the time Cicero was born in 106 BCE, the practice of predatory tax farming was essential to the functioning of Rome’s highest offices.

Running a political campaign in the late republic was cripplingly expensive. Large scale bribery, though nominally illegal, pervaded Rome’s election cycle, so much so that citizens who travelled to Rome on election day to vote and watch festival games also visited in expectation of receiving money at the ballot box.11 Whether an aspiring officeholder was paying money to plebeian voters, bankrolling public games or buildings to drum up votes, regaling fellow aristocrats with gifts, hiring orators to sing his praises in the forum, or paying lawyers to defend the cases of potential political allies, becoming a quaestor, or aedile, or especially a praetor or consul cost a lot of money.

Praetorships and consulships were especially expensive for a very disconcerting reason. Following a praetorship or a consulship, it was customary for an officeholder to move onto a propraetorship or a proconsulship. Propraetors and proconsuls had unique opportunities for moneymaking, because they could govern provinces and command armies, and in doing so recover from the debts they’d amassed while campaigning. This meant that many of the Republic’s propraetors and proconsuls, whether they were at the helm of an army or in the command room of a province, tended to make a lot of money through their wars and governorships. A propraetor’s army might sack a region that had committed a slight offense and profit by selling its citizens into slavery; a proconsul serving as governor of a province might raise taxes to swell his profits, and the more remote a province was, and the more ethnically dissimilar that province was from Rome itself, the more extortion and graft were tolerated. There were, I should add, provisions in place against flagrant abuses of provincials and allied kingdoms, and one of Cicero’s early cases involved prosecuting a particularly abusive ex-governor of Sicily, and we’ll talk about that case. Some proconsular governors were deft administrators who improved their lives of their subjects. But too often, the provinces, and even unconquered territories around them, were by the late republic thought of as sheep to be fleeced by the most powerful Romans. To offer an obvious example, Caesar’s motivations for his campaigns in Spain in 61 BCE, and more famously his conquest of Gaul in the 50s, came partly from a desire to expand Rome’s territories, but also, largely, from a frenzied search for cash to pay off his debts.

As campaigns grew more and more expensive, and provinces reeled correspondingly under destructive tax farming, another problem emerged – a problem that Cicero, by the time of his consulship, understood very well. This problem was that aspiring praetors and consuls who lost their elections accrued huge amounts of debt. These men, most notoriously, Cicero’s would-be-murderer Catiline, were particularly dangerous for the stability of the republic. The losers of major elections had all the debts of the winners, but no quick ticket back to solvency. They were bankrupt, bitter, and increasingly willing to use the clout and political traction that they did have to incite popular support and mob violence.

A little while ago, we talked about the earlier historian Polybius’ take on the Roman Republic’s government – that it was a perfectly balanced three prong system where executives, and aristocrats, and commoners all kept one another in check. The problem, by the lifetime of Cicero, was that if this balance had ever existed at all, it had devolved into a general rule by the wealthy. The consuls and senate, which for some reason Polybius understands as fundamentally different in interests, were in practice very often partners in the search for personal cash. The equestrians and rising citizens who could realistically be elected to the positions of tribune, aedile and consul – these were all men of substantial financial resources whose interests were increasingly intertwined with those of the senate.12 The checks and balances system that Polybius believed characterized the Republic was, by the early first century BCE, unchecked, and imbalanced. From the highest patrician to the lowliest citizen receiving an election day bribe at the ballot box, Romans of the Late Republic saw campaigning, electioneering, and voting as opportunities to acquire money, and power. The corrosion of the Republican government, then, and the final disenfranchisement of the Republic’s commoners, were not caused by some ineffable weakening of Roman character under eastern influences. The Republic collapsed because an antiquated landholding elite began to join interests with a newly ascendant sect of wildly laissez faire capitalists, and laws were not written or enforced fast enough to safeguard the stability of the social order or the wellbeing of the common citizen. [music]

The Early Life of Cicero

Well, that was a great deal of history up front, but I think it will serve to make our journey through the life and times of Cicero a lot easier. To understand Cicero, you do need to know about the cursus honorum, how it worked, and how it didn’t work, because ascending the magistracies of Rome was his central ambition for the first four decades of his life. Further, you need to know a bit about the senate – those 300 or so power brokers who advised and helped fund Rome’s annual magistrates, and the equestrians, Rome’s capitalists and tax farmers whose financial operations became increasingly interwoven with those of the senate. And finally, you need to know about how propraetorships and proconsulships worked – how Rome’s top political candidates acquired huge debts, gambled that they’d win their elections, and if they did, were awarded with the opportunity to extort provincial territories through governorships and military commands. Now, let’s bring Cicero into our story.

The Young Cicero Reading

Vicenzo Foppa’s The Young Cicero Reading, c. 1464. Isn’t he adorable?

Cicero was born on January 3, 106 BCE in the town of Arpinum – about sixty miles southeast of Rome as the crow flies. He was, again, an equestrian, the son of a wealthy father of non-senatorial rank. Cicero’s family may have been involved in the cultivation of chickpeas, and a famous anecdote from Plutarch tells us that cicer- “is the Latin word for chick-pea, and this ancestor of Cicero no doubt got the name because he had a kind of dent or nick at the end of his nose like the cleft in a chick-pea.”13 Whether this was the case, or whether some of Cicero’s ancestors were engaged in the chickpea trade, Cicero retained his name and carried it with him proudly through his career. Cicero and his brother Quintus received excellent educations from their father, and their childhoods in Arpinum must have been relatively happy, as Cicero travelled there often later in life, and references the countryside of Arpinum fondly throughout his writings.14

When Cicero was a child, and teenager, the hilly country of Arpinum had a special significance to Romans. In Cicero’s own words, “if you ever fall in with a citizen of Arpinum, you are forced, whether you will or no, perhaps, to hear. . .something about [Gaius] Marius.”15 Gaius Marius, the famous general and military reformer, had been born fifty years before Cicero, and Marius bent and broke the Republic’s laws after serving as consul in 107, when he held five consecutive consulships from 104-100 BCE. When Cicero was having his diapers changed, and toddling around in the shade of oak trees in Arpinum, his parents would have been talking, probably a bit uneasily, about Marius, and the precedent he was setting.

While champions of the old Republican order have always viewed Marius a bit queasily, there’s no question that he was a military prodigy. Marius’ most far reaching legacy was a package of reforms he made to the Roman military in 107 BCE – the year before Cicero was born. The most important of these reforms were permitting commoners into the military, supplying them with standard arms and armor, and having them serve and drill year around, rather than just in times of war. Prior to Marius’ reforms, only men who owned a certain amount of property could serve in the military, and these men had to bring with them their weaponry, armor, and mounts. After Marius’ reforms, far more men of fighting age could enlist, and they were given standard arms and armor, and trained throughout the year. The army, in other words, was professionalized in 107 BCE under Marius, and afterward served as a path to a pension and plot of land for new enlistees, and even a road to Roman citizenship to men from the Italian peninsula who were not citizens already.

Marius’ reforms to the military, at the simplest level, resulted in a more professional and efficient fighting force. While Marius himself was able to wrap up a messy conflict in modern day Algeria in 105, the real test of the Marian reforms came in 102. Marius was in the third of his five consecutive consulships, and Rome was in trouble. Two powerful Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, had migrated southward a decade before and begun carving away at the northern fringes of Roman territory. Aristocratic mismanagement had led to an almost unprecedented loss of 80,000 men in the autumn of 105, and in 102 it was left to Marius and his co-consul to fend off the Germanic invasion. When the tribes split their forces in half in the campaign season of 102, Marius used his newly organized cohorts to crush an army of 100,000 Teutones near the southeast coast of modern day France. During the next campaign season, Marius joined his co-consul in the summer of 101 BCE about fifty miles west of modern day Milan, in the northwest of Italy. For his indispensible military leadership, as Plutarch tells it, Marius was called “the third founder of Rome; he had saved the city, they said, from a danger just as great as had been the invasion of the Gauls.”16 Marius began a sixth consulship in 100 BCE, but by this point the senate was wary of the military mastermind. While Marius always sought senatorial support, he also needed large tracts of land to settle his troops, and favored populist measures like lowering grain prices.17 For several reasons, Marius travelled east in 98 BCE, leaving Rome after his unheard-of five consecutive consulships.

Mario vincitore dei Cimbri cicero early life

Mario vincitore dei Cimbri (Marius’ Victory over the Cimbri), by Francesco Saverio Altamura, painted in 1863.

So during Cicero’s earliest years, as his tutors in Arpinum taught him Greek and Latin, and as he saw the birth of his younger brother Quintus, the talk of the town would have been Marius, Marius, Marius. Marius shared Cicero’s equestrian social status and geographical background, and Roman senators from old families would, as Cicero himself rose in the world of Roman politics, be skeptical about a brilliant outsider from Arpinum, just as they had once been with Marius.

Cicero’s father wanted his sons to have all the opportunities available to prosperous equestrians, and so after Marius finished his long tenure of consulships, Cicero’s family made the sixty mile journey up to the northwest to relocate to Rome some time in the 90s BCE. In school in Rome, Cicero met his best friend Titus Pomponius, nicknamed “Atticus” or “The Athenian,” due to his affection for Greece. Cicero’s hundreds of letters to Atticus make up much of his surviving correspondence.

At an early point, Cicero did not reveal any interest in a military career, the path that had led Marius to glory. There were limitations placed on a man who did not hail from a venerated patrician family, which might be circumvented through an exceptional military record, but Cicero’s general aversion to military life and penchant for pacifism discouraged him for taking that path. Some time in the 90s, Cicero began thinking seriously about his career, and looked around for other men who had ascended the cursus honorum in spite of a disadvantageous birth. One such person was an ex-consul named Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, a man who had risen to the position of consul back in 115 BCE. Decades later, while giving a speech in defense of Scaurus’ son, Cicero remembered the impression that Scaurus made on him as a young man. “I did not merely admire that famous man [Scaurus], as all have done,” Cicero wrote, “but I was particularly fond of him. When I was burning with a keen desire for glory, he gave me the first impulse to hope that, without the backing of a fortune, I could arrive at my goal by hard work and constant application.”18

Hard work was not something that daunted Cicero, but he also seems to have had an exceptional natural ability as a writer and orator from a very young age. Before he was even thirty, an incident occurred which made Cicero’s extraordinary talent clear to him. This is one of those stories in Plutarch’s Lives that, even though you know it’s probably written with poetic license, is still fun to read. Cicero travelled abroad to study in his late 20s, some time in the early 70s BCE. His last stop was the island of Rhodes, where he studied with an orator named Apollonius Molon, not to be confused with the Apollonius who wrote Jason and the Argonauts, who lived two hundred years before him. Anyway, Cicero went to study oratory with Apollonius Molon, and this venerable teacher of oratory, unfortunately, didn’t know any Latin, and so Apollonius asked Cicero to deliver a speech in Greek. And to quote Plutarch,
So [Cicero] made his declamation and, when it was over, the other listeners were amazed at the performance and vied with each other in the warmth of their congratulations; but Apollonius [Molon] had shown no particular excitement while was listening, and now that Cicero had stopped speaking [Apollonius] sat for a long time lost in thought. Cicero was distressed at this, but finally Apollonius said: “Certainly, Cicero, I congratulate you and I am amazed at you. It is Greece and her fate that I am sorry for. The only glories that were left to us were our culture and our eloquence. Now I see that these too are going to be taken over in your person by Rome.”19

The story may be exaggerated or based on some earlier spurious biography, but by all accounts Cicero, bilingual at a young age, had a huge facility with oratory, whether in Latin or Greek. This ability, rather than a military record, or a faultless pedigree, or a stockpile of ancestral cash, would be Cicero’s main propulsion up the cursus honorum. Yet once – briefly – between the ages of 16 and 18, Cicero did endure a military term of service. The circumstances of this service are important to Cicero’s life, and an understanding of the final decades of the Republic. [music]

The Social War

Between 91 and 88 BCE, Rome fought what historians call the Social War, which one scholar describes as “a peril such as the republic had not faced since the Hannibalic War.”20 The root cause of the Social War was a measure called the Lex Licinia Mucia, which was passed by the consuls of 95 BCE. This law sought to cull Rome’s list of citizens, chopping out other Italian locals from Rome’s citizenship records. A few years later, in 91 BCE, a tribune of the plebs, or primary representative of Rome’s class of commoners, pushed back, urging for the senate to be enlarged, for state lands to be partitioned, and most importantly, for all free citizens of the Italian peninsula to receive Italian citizenship. This tribune, whom Cicero admired, was assassinated, sparking the beginning of the Social War.21

Ritratto maschile, grimani, 50-100 dc ca

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE), the most powerful person in Rome in the late 80s. Photo by Sailko.

The Social War saw Rome facing a backlash for generations of demoting its immediate neighbors on the Italian Peninsula to impoverishment and legislative mistreatment. These neighbors, most famously the Samnites, sought to confederate and secede into a state called Italica, which would include a number of Italian peoples historically maltreated by Roman policy. This was the second, and not the last time that large scale hostilities would unfold on the Italian peninsula during Cicero’s lifetime. Up in the north, the old warhorse Gaius Marius advised one consul, and in the south, a younger general named Lucius Cornelius Sulla helped the other. By 89, Sulla had taken sole command of the volatile southern front and defeated the Samnites, and Cicero, though he surely would have rather been reading, served in Sulla’s army.

The Italian tribes that had risen up against Roman exclusivity had been defeated, but nonetheless Rome’s long practice of segregating the peninsula into Romans and non-Romans was clearly an unsustainable one. Toward the end of the Social War, Roman legislators introduced the lex Iulia de civitate Latinis et sociis danda, a law which granted Roman citizenship to the powerful and militarily organized communities that shared the peninsula with Rome. As these laws passed in 90 BCE, Cicero was 16, the general Sulla was 48, and the great Marius was 67. Over the next decade, as young Cicero continued his studies, Marius, and increasingly the brawny and resourceful general Sulla, would dominate Roman politics. [music]

Mithridates, Marius, Sulla

Just as Cicero watched the city of Rome and its neighbors stabilize following the close of the Social War in 88 BCE, that same year, King Mithridates began waging war on Rome’s eastern provinces. Mithridates was a Greco-Persian monarch based in the northeast of modern day Turkey. Mithridates began his incursions into Asia Minor while Rome was busy with the Social War, and, in 88 BCE, organized a massive slaughter of Roman and Italian citizens of Anatolia, purportedly murdering 80,000 of them in a single day. Mithridates wasn’t done either. From there, he steered his forces toward Greece. This belligerence was not going to stand for Rome. The republic had been distracted by the Social War, but in 88 BCE, it turned its full attention toward the destruction of Mithridates. The consul in 88 was Cicero’s former commander, Sulla. No stranger to war, Sulla prepared to lead an army eastward and seize the glory of eradicating Rome’s eastern foe. There was a small problem, though. Old Marius, now about seventy, still felt like he had a few good fights left in him. And Marius collaborated with a tribune to get himself ratified as the expedition’s commander. Sulla, not to be denied his day in the sun, ignored the assembly’s appointment of his elder rival, journeyed down to meet the legions stationed near modern day Naples, and, against the directive of the Roman assembly, took control of the expedition. And to the shock of everyone, rather than crossing the Adriatic and Balkans to meet Mithridates, Sulla marched on Rome.

Cicero, then aged 18, was probably there to witness the awful sight of a Roman army bearing down on Rome itself. Old Marius attempted to defend the city, but ended up fleeing, and, with his right to command the military seized by force, Sulla then steered his legions eastward to face Mithridates. Marius fled to Africa.

The next year, as Sulla campaigned against Rome’s powerful new foe in the east, Cicero witnessed more chaos and infighting in the capital city. The year was 87 BCE. One of that year’s consuls backed Sulla. The other backed Marius. Marius himself returned from his exile and entered Rome with an army. Supporters of Sulla were murdered, including one of the consuls, and Roman heads were spiked in the forum. Under pressure from Marius and his cronies, the senate passed a law exiling the absent Sulla.

Cicero, at 19, saw his old countryman from Arpinum Marius growing increasingly bloodthirsty in his purges. Plutarch, in a rather dour and unsympathetic biography of Marius, writes that
Marius’ rage and thirst for blood increased from day to day as he kept on killing all against whom he had even the remotest suspicion. Every road and every city was full of men pursuing and hunting down those who were trying to escape or who had gone into hiding. And it was made evident that in such a situation as this no security was to be found in the trust that men have in a host or in a friend; for there were few indeed who did not betray those who fled to them for shelter.22

We don’t know exactly how bad things got over the course of 87 BCE – whether Cicero saw the kind of purge in which he himself would be murdered 44 years later. Whatever the extent of the political persecutions, Marius did assume ascendancy, awarding himself with a seventh consulship, which he began in January of 86. Marius died less than a month after beginning his term in office, however, and Sulla at the time would have been too busy to pay much attention.

In his early 50s, now, the younger general Sulla was engaged in a massive war in Greece. Sulla’s ranks swelled with Romans fleeing the purges of Marius. Over the course of 87, Sulla first besieged and crushed a puppet king in Athens, then won a fight with much more sizable army in the hilly country 30 miles northwest of Thebes, and the next year finished off Mithridates’ principal forces in another underdog victory – one which sent the eastern king scrambling home with orders not to venture into Roman provinces again.

Then, Sulla turned his forces toward Rome. In the spring of 83 – Cicero was 23 years old – in the spring of 83 Sulla made landfall on the peninsula. Now, of all the military details of this civil war are all worth knowing, but for telling the story of Cicero we can say first that Pompey, the famous Roman general who was exactly Cicero’s age and would generally receive Cicero’s support over the course of his life, sided with Sulla, and also, that on November 1, 82 BCE, Sulla beat Marius’ supporters, including Marius’ son, at the Battle of the Colline Gate, which ended with the deaths of 50,000 Romans.

Later in 82, and over the course of 81, Sulla assumed the position of dictator for a period with no specified end. The angry general then began a strategic massacre of those who had stood against him over the past decade. Just as Marius had hounded and executed Sulla’s supporters five years prior, Sulla did the same to Marius’, and Plutarch provides us with a comparably lurid account of this second round of political murders. As Cicero celebrated his 26th birthday, Plutarch writes,
Sulla now devoted himself entirely to the work of butchery. The city was filled with murder and there was no counting the executions or setting a limit to them. Many people were killed because of purely personal enmities; they had no connection with Sulla in any way. . .Then immediately, and without consulting any magistrate, Sulla published a list of eighty men to be condemned. Public opinion was outraged, but, after a single day’s interval, [Sulla] published another list containing 220 more names, and next day a third list with the same number of names on it. And in a public speech which he made on the subject he said that he was publishing the names of all those whom he happened to remember: those who escaped his memory for the moment would have their names put up later.23

Plutarch adds, and we have evidence from Cicero himself, that the purges were used as an opportunity to steal property from the prosperous. “In fact,” writes Plutarch, “it became a regular thing to say among the executioners that ‘So-and-so was killed by his big mansion, so-and-so by his gardens, so-and-so by his hot-water installation.’”24

So this was the Rome in which Cicero grew to adulthood. His first years saw a massive Germanic invasion and a populist general holding five consecutive consulships. At sixteen, he witnessed and participated in the Social War between Rome and its Italian satellites. At eighteen, he heard of a colossal eastern army bearing down on Roman territories in Greece and Asia Minor, and at nineteen saw Sulla’s first march on Rome. At twenty, he saw Marius’ bloody purges sweeping through Rome in Sulla’s absence, and between the ages of 23-5 Cicero watched two factions of Rome slaughter one another in Rome’s first full scale civil war, after which the purges of Sulla and his cronies ravaged those who had survived the recent violence and hoped for something better. At twenty-six, having witnessed lawlessness and atrocity in the capital city for some time, Cicero began to practice law.

His first major case, in 80 BCE, was a murder trial. Some of Sulla’s minions had killed a man in order to seize his property, and, somehow even more malevolently, blamed the man’s murder on his own son. Cicero served as the defense attorney on this case, and found himself in a fraught position. On one hand, the killing of innocent rich men for financial gain had become the status quo during Sulla’s dictatorship. Sulla had stepped down from the position of dictator, public opinion was ready for a conviction, and Cicero had the talent to go after the innocent man’s murderers with guns blazing and commence a return to law and safety. On the other hand, Sulla still held the position of consul in 80 BCE. The innocent man’s killers were no pushovers, dirty money always clogged the legal system, and implicating Sulla’s henchmen in a murder trial would put Cicero’s career, and life, at great risk.

Moving On to Cicero’s Career as an Orator

I think that for the present, we should leave Cicero in the year 80 BCE. We’ve had a lot of background in this program, from Polybius’ cyclical view of political history, to the cursus honorum, to the financial corruption of the late republican political system, how proconsular governorships and tax collection worked out in the provinces, and the bumpy period of executive leadership that stretches from Marius down to Sulla. All of this will be useful in understanding the course of Cicero’s career, but I hope that much of the background I’ve offered in this program is of interest in and unto itself. In studying Roman history, we often see the first century BCE as orchestrated from the top by a procession willful generals-turned-dictators, but it’s important to remember that the careers of Marius and Sulla and those who followed them were made possible by the increasing corrosion of the republican political system. This corrosion was a gradual process that took many generations, beginning with the slow rise of a merchant class in the 200s and 100s and culminating with the increasing influx of this class’ money into the Roman legislature and election cycle. The Roman senate had previously been a relatively stable old boy’s club staffed by wealthy landowners and accessible to the occasional outsider. By the life of Cicero, however, it had turned into a fundamentally volatile organization – one in which old and new money fought for primacy, far too often ignoring the generals who were winning wars abroad and incurring the absolute loyalty of their newly professionalized armies. In the next two programs, we’ll learn about how the republic continued to unspool after Sulla’s dictatorship 80 BCE. But much more so, we’ll learn about how Cicero’s career – specific cases that he worked on, and decisions he made while in various offices, fit into the closing decades of the Roman republic.

I’d like to thank Cicero biographer Kathryn Tempest of the University of Roehampton for editing drafts of this and the next two episodes prior to my recording them. If anything in here is well done, you can thank her, and if anything is less so, the responsibility is mine. I would also like to recommend, with deep enthusiasm, her book on Cicero. The book is called Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome, published in 2011 by Continuum and reprinted by Bloomsbury in 2013. It’s a literary biography, and at the same time a vivid social history of the late Republic. The years between Cicero’s birth and death contain many of the blockbuster historical events that led to Rome tumbling back into autocracy in 27 BCE. By reading Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome, you can learn about Cicero’s life, but you’ll also learn about the cursus honorum, the rise of the equestrians, tax farming, the Marian reforms, the Social War, and the dictatorships of the 80s BCE, all in a lot more detail than we’ve managed in this program, plus the main part of his career, which we’ll cover in the next two. I’ve read some great literary biographies in my day – Richard Ellman’s on Joyce, Kathryn Hughes’ on George Eliot, Michael Meyer’s on Ibsen, and I think that Kathryn Tempest’s Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome ranks with the very best of them. You can find this in the featured books section of literatureandhistory.com.

Next time, we’ll explore the main part of Cicero’s career – his thrilling early court cases, his ascent through the Roman course of offices, his famous role in the attempted coup historians call the Catiline Conspiracy, and the beginnings of his complex relationships with Pompey and Julius Caesar. I am especially excited for you to actually hear the texts of some of Cicero’s most famous defense and prosecution speeches – the fire and energy of his writing style, the way that he can set a convoluted situation into cold, clear logic for a jury, and at the same time the way that he can obfuscate and distract and vilify in order to sway a verdict. Hearing about Cicero’s legal work, we will meet a morally ambiguous character – one who had scruples, and fought for the peace and the preservation of the republic, but at the same time one who sought to enlarge his own reputation and wealth, and often took cases in order to do so. Amidst the general moral murk of the late republic, then, Cicero was no lone hero for the common man, but Cicero’s writings are, as we’ll see in Episode 47: O Tempora, O Mores!, absolutely extraordinary. So thanks for listening to Literature and History – take the quiz on this episode at literatureandhistory.com and see how much you remember the names and dates we went over. I’ve got a song coming up if you want to hear it, and otherwise, I’ll see you next time.

Still listening? Okay, well, here goes. I got to thinking about the mindset of the median Roman senator over the course of the late republic. While all of the stuff we talked about in this episode was going on, Roman elites since the mid-100s had been blaming the decay of the republic on foreign influences – especially the influence of Greek culture on the Italian peninsula. I was thinking about that, and I decided to write a song, sung by the Roman senate of Cicero’s generation, in which the singers analyze why the republic is falling apart. So this one’s called “Roman Senate Barbershop,” and it’s an a capella number with me doing a four part harmony thing. I hope it’s funny, and it helps you remember some of the contradictions of the late republic, and I’ll see you next time.


1.^ The numbers from this inventory are taken from Tempest, Kathryn. Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome. London: Bloomsbury, 2011, p. 3.

2.^ Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, and with an Introduction by F.W. Walbank. London and New York: Penguin Classics, 1980. Kindle Edition, Location 641.

3.^ Ibid, Location 4895. Further references noted parenthetically.

4.^ Cicero later wrote, “I hold, maintain, and declare that no form of government is comparable in its structure, its assignment of functions, or its discipline, to the one which our fathers received from their forebears and have handed down to us.” Cicero. The Republic and The Laws. Translated by Nial Rudd Oxford and New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993, p. 33 (1.70).

5.^ Ibid, p. 32 (1.69).

6.^ Kathryn Tempest writes that “Rome’s expansion did not bring a fair share of benefits to the rich and poor alike. In fact, the results were disastrous for the Roman and Italian peasants, who could not compete with the volume or variety of produce generated by these great estates.” See Tempest, Kathryn. Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome. London: Bloomsbury, 2011, p. 15.

7.^ See Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H. A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1975, p. 186-7.

8.^ Plutarch. Makers of Rome. Translated and with an Introduction by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 162.

9.^ Cicero. The Republic and The Laws. Translated by Nial Rudd Oxford and New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993, p. 151 (Laws 3.7).

10.^ At their worst, tax farmers, working under the auspices of the Roman senate and provincial governors, were little more than raiders. Some provinces, however, were taxed with fairer policies than others. Historians M. Cary and H.H. Scullard remind us that some particularly sensational stories about provincial overtaxing – stories that we know from Cicero himself, may have negatively distorted our view of how provincial taxation worked in the Republic, and that “While we must admit that the provincials were exposed to a harassing uncertainty. . .we may doubt whether avaricious or feeble magistrates outnumbered energetic and upright ones; and given a moderately efficient administration . . .the provinces passed form a condition in which warfare was a normal experience to one in which it was a rare incident.” Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H. A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1975, p. 176.

11.^ See Tempest (2011), p. 39.

12.^ Plebeians were eligible for two of the annual aedileships and one of the annual consulships.

13.^ Plutarch. The Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Rex Warner. Revised by Robin Seager. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 324.

14.^ This is the case with Laws, in which Cicero describes the “beauty of the scenery and the salubrity of the air” (2.4) at Arpinum, and Tusculan Disputations, in which Cicero describes Arpinum as “surrounded on every side by cooling streams” (5.36) and in his correspondence. Letter 11, for instance, describes how Arpinum has “A rugged soil, yet [is] nurse of hardy sons: No dearer land can [ever] my eyes behold.” Quoted in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Hastings, East Sussex: Delphi Publishing, 2014. Kindle Edition, Locations 44673, 54155, 89384.

15.^ Cicero. Pro Plancio (20). Quoted in Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, location 23641.

16.^ Plutarch. The Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Rex Warner. Revised by Robin Seager. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 32.

17.^ “Had he now set himself to create a New Model state to match his New Model army,” observed historian M. Cary back in 1935, “he could have carried a larger programme of reform than either of the Gracchi. But Marius was as devoid of political ideas as Africanus, and the self-assurance which never deserted him on the battlefield failed him disastrously in the Senate-house.” Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H. A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1975, p. 220.

18.^ Cicero. Speeches on Behalf of Marcus Fonteius and Marcus Aemilius Scaurus. Translated by A.R. Dyck. Oxford UP 2012, p. 101 (Fragment 5).

19.^ Plutarch. The Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Rex Warner. Revised by Robin Seager. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 327

20.^ Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H. A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1975, p. 223.

21.^ Cicero calls Drusus “admirable” and “that most illustrious tribune of the people” (On His House, 50, 120), although he also describes Drusus as “a most influential man, but one who was causing great disturbances in the republic” (Pro Plancio, 14). Quoted in Cicero. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Hastings, East Sussex: Delphi Publishing, 2014. Kindle Edition, Locations 19398, 23760, 23670.

22.^ Plutarch. The Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Rex Warner. Revised by Robin Seager. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 2005, 51.

23.^ Ibid, p. 97.

24.^ Ibid, p. 98.