Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cicero's ideas influenced Europe, America

It is the birthday of the Roman philosopher Cicero (106 BC), one of ancient Rome's greatest writers and orators. He had a profound influence on European literature and thinking as well as the writings that lead to the French Revolution and American Revolution. His work is considered a primary source for the study of the last days of the Roman Empire. He excelled as a lawyer and an orator but he considered his political career to be his greatest achievement. He put down a plot to overthrow the government and had five of the perpetrators executed without a trial.

A talented student, Cicero translated Greek philosophical tracts into Latin, thus attracting attention of Rome's elite. He studied to become a lawyer. Cicero was a great admirer of the Greek philosopher Plato, and studied under the head of Plato's school who visited Rome. A fellow student, Pomponius (nicknamed Atticus) became a lifelong friend. Cicero's letters to Atticus are among the most studied documents of ancient Rome. Cicero was a fearless young lawyer. In his first case, he defended a man accused of killing his father. Cicero risked being murdered by accusing an ally of the then-dictator of Rome of the crime. Nevertheless, Cicero's client was acquitted. However, Cicero subsequently went on an extended trip abroad, possibly to avoid retribution.

Later, in a series of dramatic trials, Cicero successfully prosecuted the governor of Sicily for plundering, and in the process became admired as the greatest orator in Rome. He was a staunch defender of the Roman Republic and even resisted an offer from Julius Caesar to form a triumvirate to rule the empire. In 63 BC, Cicero was elected to Consul, Rome's highest elected office.

During his one-year term, Cicero foiled a conspiracy to murder him and overthrow the republic. His vociferous speeches before the Roman Senate led to the hasty exodus from the city by a rival politician who was behind the conspiracy. The politician's allies were detained, and Cicero argued for a decree from the Senate declaring martial law, which he was granted. Under martial law, Cicero had the conspirators strangled. Five years later, another rival successfully sponsored a law threatening to exile anyone who had killed a Roman citizen without due process. Cicero knew the law was aimed at him and he left Rome, exiling himself in Greece. While he was in exile, he wrote to his friend Atticus about his ordeal.

Upon is return to Rome, Cicero became a popular leader in the Senate once again, but eventually made a bitter rival of Mark Antony, who argued to have him declared an enemy of the state. Cicero was hunted down as he tried to escape to Macedonia, and murdered. His head and hands were cut off and displayed in the Roman Forum. Mark Antony's wife is said to have pulled Cicero's tongue out of his severed head and jabbed it with a hairpin to revile his talent as an orator.

Cicero's speeches, writing in rhetoric and philosophy, and letters to friends and relatives have been preserved. Among the best known are On the Commonwealth (six books published between 54 and 51 BC), On The Laws (publication year unknown), On Duties (44 BC), and letters to Atticus (68-43 BC). Cicero was admired during the Dark Ages by Medieval philosophers, and his ideas led to the Renaissance. His On Duties was the second books (after Gutenberg's Bible) to be published after the invention of the printing press. John Adams wrote 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."

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