Today in History: The Death of Rome’s Greatest Orator.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was the greatest orator of the late Roman Republic. In his capacity, as a statesman, lawyer, scholar and writer, he tried desperately to champion Republican principles and justice in the final civil wars of the Republican period.

In his early years, he exposed much corruption, first earning himself the scorn of Sulla, which caused him to flee Rome for the safety of Athens. Eventually when he did return back to Rome, after Sulla’s death, he vowed to do whatever he could in the name of the republic. A decade or so later in the year 66 B.C, Cicero’s greatest moment came as co-consul, when he viciously denounced the decadent Catiline in the Senate. His speeches aroused the Senate to take action against Catailine’s plot to overthrow the republic. As a result of the support he received from the Senate, Cicero had Catine and his conspirators arrested and put to death without trial or exile.

To most Romans Cicero was considered a hero following the Catalonian rebellion. However, not everyone was pleased with Cicero’s political rise. He managed to alienate many important figures in the Senate, who feared his growing self-importance. Therefore, in an attempted to curtail Cicero, a bill was drafted that revoked the citizenship of any Roman citizen who killed another without affording them with a trial. As a result charges were specifically raised against Cicero for ordering the unlawful killing of those involved in the Catalonian rebellion. And so, in fear for his life, Cicero was forced to flee Rome. He would eventually return to Rome about a year and a half later at the invitation of Pompey. However, he would not be allowed to regain his political influence. To add further insult to injury, he was forced to use his oratory skills by his new overlords, Pompey and Caesar, to favour their own political agendas.

Unhappy that his beloved Republic was further buckling under the strain of the First Triumvirate, he left Rome again, taking on a governorship in Cilicia. But when news broke of a civil war between Pompey and Caesar, and probably against his better judgement, Cicero took Pompey’s side and returned to Rome. That said, he was extremely fortunate to not find himself on Caesar’s ‘hit list’ following Pompey’s defeat. With Caesar in a surprisingly forgiving mood, Cicero was pardoned and allowed to watch events unfold from the sidelines. 

In the year 44 B.C, Cicero world was again turned on its head with Caesar’s murder in the Senate. Interestingly, he apparently took delight in Caesar’s undoing and decided to throw himself back into politics. But his return to politics would not last long. Cicero’s contemptuous rhetoric in the post-Caesar years, especially against Mark Anthony, openly urging the Senate to name Anthony an enemy of the state, would lead to his own downfall. It opened the way for Anthony to plot his revenge against Cicero. He did it by demanding that if Octavian (later Augustus) wished to align himself in an alliance with him, the price he had to pay was silencing Cicero for good. At first, Octavian protested, but eventually reluctantly agreed, and in a dogged chase, Cicero was captured at one of his villas.

On December 7th 43 B.C, the great statesman Cicero was beheaded, his hands cut off and displayed in the forum. To add insult to injury, Anthony’s wife Fulvia, pierced the tongue of the dead Cicero, as a final revenge against Cicero’s ‘power of speech’. But in a curious twist of fate, even in death Cicero’s words and legacy would outlast Mark Anthony, never waning in influence over the centuries.

Photo credit: The header image of Cicero denouncing Catiline in the Senate is a fresco painted by Cesare Maccari, 1888.

Robert Horvat is a Melbourne based blogger. He believes that the world is round and that art is one of our most important treasures. He has seen far too many classic films and believes coffee runs through his veins. As a student of history, he favours ancient and medieval history. Music pretty much rules his life and inspires his moods. Favourite artists include The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garbage and Lana Del Rey.

1 comment on “Today in History: The Death of Rome’s Greatest Orator.

  1. Wow…talk about revenge!

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