On December VII, 43 BCE Cicero was finally overtaken by the forces of the Second Triumvirate after being designated an enemy of the state by his bitter rival Mark Antony and his once-friend Octavian. Let’s commemorate 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 equitēs 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 colleague Gaius Julius Caesar) and being a scholar (though not as much as his lifelong friend Titus Pomponius Atticus). Cicero 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 honōrum —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 membership to 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.
Takeaways from his life
A couple more takeaways from his biography, briefly:
- Cicero loathed Roman militarism and violence. Although he was forced to punish those who conspired against the government while he was consul, he seemed to express remorse over his actions. Later in life, his political opponents cited his sidestepping of habeas corpus to justify his exile. Cicero obliged them.
- He was—perhaps naively—an ardent conservative (a so-called optimās). 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.
It seems like 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.
Cicero and Stoicism
He was certainly highly sympathetic to Stoicism (he studied it with the help of a man named Diodotus) and was especially fond of three Stoic doctrines:
1) the necessity of duty or “appropriate action” (Lt.. officium, Gr. kathêkon) in the ethical life;
2) the importance of civic engagement (as opposed to Epicurean quietism) in the ethical life; and
3) the unity of God and Nature.
It seems like he moved closer to the Stoic position after the death of his daughter, Tullia, in 45 BCE and as his ability to survive the new political regime became more precarious. But, for most of his life, it does seem that two aspects of Stoicism likely rubbed him the wrong way:
1) that fortune—both political and personal—is indifferent to happiness. This was contrary to his strong political views; his personal ambitions; and his tendency to display his prosperity in the form of large estates within Rome and country villas.
2) that extreme emotions are unhealthy. This was contrary to his apparent belief that skilled emotional rhetoric can be a force for good. He also had a tendency to indulge in his grief, depression, and anger: when his daughter died, he mourned for months; when he lost favor with the Senate, he grew out his beard and wore black robes in public; when his once-friends turned their backs on him, he would rant about it in his correspondences with Atticus.
Despite these things that I would consider flaws, I think he did better than most in such a dangerous political climate.
But I’ve always thought that I it’s most illuminating to look at how one dies in order to really understand and appreciate the quality of their character. To that end, we should put more weight on his last moments.
The death of Cicero
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, there was a power vacuum that was ultimately occupied by more of Julius Caesar’s allies—specifically, Octavian (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 (later known as “Augustus Caesar”)… Before all that though, the Second Triumvirate had to wipe the slate clean of political rivals and Republican hardliners. 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 list since he applauded Julius Caesar’s assassination and implied that it should have gone further, taking out Antony and Octavian as well (oops). Octavian might have been willing to forgive Cicero, since the latter was Octavian’s mentor prior to his ascension. But Antony was certainly not willing to forgive; twenty years prior, Cicero ordered the execution of Antony’s step-father, Lentulus Sura and, more recently, Cicero said some very nasty things about Antony’s wife, Fulvia. So Cicero was proscribed (basically given the death penalty without a trial) and, after a brief chase, he was caught in Formia. He was headed to the shore in attempt to escape Italy, but once soldiers captured him and he realized there was no escape Cicero calmly stretched out his neck in order to ease his executioner’s task (as reported by Livy and Aufidius Bassus).
Takeaways from his death
So how do the circumstances of his life and death speak to Cicero’s character?
While it is possible to be “perfect” according to Stoicism if we define the parameters of that word appropriately—this is the Stoic “sage”—Cicero was no sage. But, as I said above, I think he did better than most in such a dangerous political climate. Though he wasn’t as heavy-handed and uncompromising as Cato (a Stoic), he certainly did not sit on the sidelines like Atticus (an Epicurean).
But when his political career was clearly over and near death was inevitable, his character became more clear. Only two details of his last days are known and these two details offer evidence of his moral growth.
First, he prudently attempted to leave Italy (to Sicily or perhaps to Greece and Macedonia). If he killed himself right away or if he stormed into Rome recklessly, it would have called into question his good sense. Second, he courageously accepted his fate when he was finally caught. The few sources we have all say that he calmly exposed his neck to as to ease the executioner’s task. This is the mark of someone who does not fear death once it has arrived.
All this to say that he deserves to be recognized and commemorated for his contributions to philosophy—both in through his literary works and his life.