Marcus Tullius Cicero: A Life in Letters

There is only one figure in Rome during the crucial years at the end of the Republic and the rise of the Empire (c. 146 B.C.E – c. 46 AD) whom we can attempt to know in any significant detail. This only due to a combination of his voracious propensity for correspondence and the care with which one of his great friends took to conserve and later publish his letters.

Novus Homo

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E) was a novus homo (new man i.e someone with no notable ancestors) born at Arpinium, south of Rome, to a reasonably well off family. He studied as a lawyer and, as was the done thing for a Roman barrister, began a political career. Cicero’s time in office would span the crucial years of the end of Roman Republican rule and his own part in these affairs was significant, though in the end not decisive.

Throughout his life he kept in correspondence with his good friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, a wealthy individual who lived variously in Greece and Rome and was well connected with the political elite at the time despite his own refusal to participate in such a career. Through these, and numerous other letters to leading figures of the day, we gain not only an insight into the machinations of the Republican political colossus of the epoch, but also a more personal understanding of the workings of one man’s mind within the system.

The Catiline Letter

In July 65 B.C.E, Cicero wrote Atticus with news that his wife had given birth to a son. However, though obviously important, this was not the reason for the letter. In fact it concerns the trial of Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), a political rival of Cicero’s. The trial itself is clearly a sham with Cicero admitting the collusion of defence, jury and prosecutor but justifying his own participation in the hope that it would place Catiline in debt to him with elections approaching.

Cicero was later to withdraw from the defence team. The consequences of Catiline’s acquittal and Cicero’s refusal to participate would return to haunt him. After Cicero’s victorious election to the post of Consul (the state’s highest), Catiline formed an armed conspiracy in 63 B.C.E with the intent of grabbing power from the Consuls and Senate. Eventually this was crushed; politically by Cicero and militarily by another.

Exile

Despite this victory and his being hailed “Father of His Country”, another rival, Publius Clodius Pulcher (incidentally the prosecutor in Catiline’s earlier trial), looked to take Cicero down. He eventually did so using the treatment of the Catilinarian conspirators, specifically their murder by order of the senate, as the sword with which to bring Cicero down, and had him packed off into exile in 58 B.C.E for the crime of killing Roman citizens without trial.

The Mind of a Man

That the beginning of these tumultuous events in both the life of the individual and state can be seen in a single correspondence between friends remains one of the remarkable qualities of this collection of letters.  In the original communiqué Cicero is merely telling of an interesting, if not uncommon, legal proceeding with which he was involved. When he wrote those words he had no idea of the events about to unfold. Thus, through his ignorance, we can gain a picture of his thoughts and feelings truly without hindsight.

John B. Knight
See also: Cincinnatus – the Hero Who Saved Rome
Biography – a very short history and The Fall of Rome