Commemoration of Cicero (2021)

On December VII, 43 BCE Cicero was finally discovered by the forces of the Second Triumvirate after being designated an enemy of the state by Mark Antony and Octavian. I’m commemorating him today with some words about his life and death.

Cicero was born into rural nobility in a small villa southeast of Rome (a member of the equites like Seneca and Musonius Rufus after him— not a member of the Patrician class). He struck a balance between being ambitious (though not as much as his friend, Julius Caesar) and being a scholar (though not as much as his friend Atticus). He was a student of philosophy and history and dedicated much of his time to these subjects while he was either exiled or semi-retired. But he was equally dedicated to elevating the name “Cicero” in Roman politics. He advanced quickly through the Roman cursus honorum —the “ladder of offices” that afforded opportunities to those that were not born into aristocracy. At 30 years old, he was elected Quaestor (and, thus, granted a lifetime membership in the senate). At 39, he was elected Praetor. At 43, he became—in effect—the sole consul of Rome (the highest public office in the Republic). With all that power and with his great oratorical ability for exposing the poor character of his political opponents (and sometimes of his allies), he made a lot of enemies. Reading his biography, I was stuck that he survived as long as he did.

My other takeaways, briefly: he loathed Roman militarism and violence. Although he was forced to punish those who conspired against the government while he was consul, he expressed remorse over his actions. Later in life, his political opponents cited his sidestepping of habeas corpus to justify his exile … and Cicero obliged them. He was—perhaps naively—an ardent conservative (a so-called optimas). This lead him to push back against dictators, but also to push back against reform. Because his own political status was always tenuous owing to his lack of both aristocratic ancestry and any military record, he made many compromises that some would find distasteful. In this respect, he reminded me of Seneca and how he was accused of hypocrisy and unscrupulous political maneuvering. Perhaps in the future I could write about the different ways philosophers tried to navigate the corrupt and complex political terrain of Ancient Rome… for another time.

Cicero was not a Stoic. He claimed to be a disciple of Academic Skepticism (specifically, of Philo of Larisa), which may have suited his temperament as an orator, who needed to argue all sides of a case. He was certainly sympathetic to Stoicism (he studied it with the help of a man named Diodotus) and was especially sympathetic to the Stoic doctrine of duty (appropriate action), civic engagement, and the unity of God and Nature. Two aspects of Stoicism might have rubbed him the wrong way: A) the doctrine that fortune—both political and personal— is indifferent to happiness (this was contrary to his uncompromising political views and his personal ambitions) and B) the doctrine that extreme emotions are unhealthy (this was contrary to his apparent belief that skilled emotional rhetoric can be a force for good).

Regardless, it’s often illuminating to look at how someone died in order to understand the quality of their character. LONG story short: After the assassination of Julius Caesar, there was a power vacuum that was ultimately occupied by more of Julius Caesar’s allies—specifically, Octavian (the Caesar’s heir), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. Historians call this the “Second Triumvirate”, a prelude to the Roman Empire which would be founded by Octavian a.k.a. Emperor Augustus… Before all that though, the Second Triumvirate had to wipe the slate clean and so they began a proscription— a long list of official enemies-of-the-state that could be killed on site by anyone looking to get a reward. Cicero and his family made the top of the list since he applauded Julius Caesar’s assassination and implied that it should have gone further, taking out Antony and Octavian as well. After a brief chase, Cicero was caught on his way to Macedonia. Once he realized there was no escape, he calmly stretched out his neck in order to ease his executioner’s task (as reported by Seneca the Elder and the historian Aufidius Bassus).

Is this enough to commemorate Cicero? I think so. Not only did he dedicate much of his later life to writing great doxographies on the different philosophical schools, including Stoicism. He acted like a real person when it came to politics. He did his best in the worst of circumstances. After learning more about him, I think he would have been better suited in a more politically stable time like today. The second best option: we have his vision for a well-working democratic republic, for prudent statesmen, and for engaged citizens. It’s up to us to take his vision and actualize it the best we can.

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