Cicero was the greatest speaker among the many famous statesmen of ancient Rome. He practiced law and studied philospohy in Greece before holding a rising sequence of important jobs in the Roman Empire. In 64 BCE he became Consul, the highest office in Rome. As Consul he won fame for his orations against Cataline, the head of a secret conspiracy to seize the government. Always a staunch supporter of the Republic, Cicero was eventually forced from office by his enemies, and when Julius Caesar consolidated his power in 48 BC, Cicero went into political retirement. During this time he wrote his famous essays on happiness, on old age, and on friendship. Upon Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Cicero returned to public life and delivered a series of scathing speeches (the “Phillipics”) against Marc Antony. This proved to be Cicero’s undoing: when Antony took power in a triumvirate with Octavian and Marcus Lepidus, Cicero was declared an outlaw and killed by Antony’s men in 43 BCE.
Cicero was a gifted and energetic writer, with an interest in a wide varieties of subjects in keeping with the Hellenistic philosophical and rhetorical traditions in which he was trained. The quality and ready accessibility of Ciceronian texts favored very wide distribution and inclusion in teaching curricula. This influence increased after the “Dark Ages” in Europe, from which more of his writings survived than any other Latin author. Medieval philosophers were influenced by Cicero’s writings on natural law and innate rights. Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited as what initiated the 16th century movement called Renaissance. His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for the writing and revision of Roman history.
While Cicero the humanist deeply influenced the culture of Renaissance, Cicero the republican inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States and the revolutionaries of the French Revolution. John Adams said of him “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.” Camille Desmoulins said of the revolutionaries that they were “mostly young people who, brought up on reading of Cicero at school, were fired by them with the passion for freedom.”
Likewise, no other antique personality has inspired venomous dislike as Cicero especially in more modern times. Cicero has faced criticism for exaggerating the democratic qualities of republican Rome, and for defending the Roman oligarchy against the popular reforms of Caesar. Friedrich Engels, one of the fathers of communist theory, notably referred to him as “the most contemptible scoundrel in history” for upholding republican ‘democracy,’ while at the same time denouncing land and class reforms. His vain, pompous personality revealed from his letters also often led to negative characterization in modern popular depictions.
His extant works include 58 orations and more than 900 letters, as well as many poems, philosophical and political treatises, and books of rhetoric. He is remembered as the greatest Roman orator and the innovator of what became known as Ciceronian rhetoric, which remained the foremost rhetorical model for many centuries.