Cicero : Roman Literature – Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements

Governments and Laws : Greek and Roman Jurisprudence
The Fine Arts : Architecture, Sculpture, Painting
Ancient Scientific Knowledge : Astronomy, Geography
Material Life of the Ancients : Mechanical and Useful Arts
The Military Art : Weapons, Engines, Discipline
Cicero : Roman Literature
Cleopatra : The Woman of Paganism
Pagan Society : Glory and Shame

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements
John Lord

Topics Covered
Condition of Roman society when Cicero was born
His education and precocity
He adopts the profession of the law
His popularity as an orator
Elected Quaestor; his Aedileship
Prosecution of Verres
His letters to Atticus; his vanity
His Praetorship; declines a province
His Consulship; conspiracy of Catiline
Banishment of Cicero: his weakness; his recall
His law practice; his eloquence
His provincial government
His return to Rome
His fears in view of the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey
Sides with Pompey
Death of Tullia and divorce of Terentia
Second marriage of Cicero
Literary labors: his philosophical writings
His detestation of Imperialism
His philippics against Antony
His proscription, flight, and death
His great services
Character of his eloquence
His artistic excellence of style
His learning and attainments; his character
His immortal legacy

Cicero : Roman Literature

106-43 B.C.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is one of the great lights of history, because his genius and influence were directed to the conservation of what was most precious in civilization among the cultivated nations of antiquity.

He was not a warrior, like so many of the Roman Senators, but his excellence was higher than that of a conqueror. “He was doomed, by his literary genius, to an immortality,” and was confessedly the most prominent figure in the political history of his time, next to Caesar and Pompey. His influence was greater than his power, reaching down to our time; and if his character had faults, let us remember that he was stained by no crimes and vices, in an age of violence and wickedness. Until lately he has received almost unmixed praise. The Fathers of the Church revered him. To Erasmus, as well as to Jerome and Augustine, he was an oracle.

In presenting this immortal benefactor, I have no novelties to show. Novelties are for those who seek to upturn the verdicts of past ages by offering something new, rather than what is true.

Cicero was born B.C. 106, in the little suburban town of Arpinum, about fifty miles from Rome,–the town which produced Marius. The period of his birth was one of marked national prosperity. Great military roads were built, which were a marvel of engineering skill; canals were dug; sails whitened the sea; commerce was prosperous; the arts of Greece were introduced, and its literature also; elegant villas lined the shores of the Mediterranean; pictures and statues were indefinitely multiplied,–everything indicated an increase of wealth and culture. With these triumphs of art and science and literature, we are compelled to notice likewise a decline in morals. Money had become the god which everybody worshipped. Religious life faded away; there was a general eclipse of faith. An Epicurean life produced an Epicurean philosophy. Pleasure-seeking was universal, and even revolting in the sports of the Amphitheatre. Sensualism became the convertible word for utilities. The Romans were thus rapidly “advancing” to a materialistic millennium,–an outward progress of wealth and industries, but an inward decline in “those virtues on which the strength of man is based,” accompanied with seditions among the people, luxury and pride among the nobles, and usurpations on the part of successful generals,–when Cicero began his memorable career.

He was well-born, but not of noble ancestors. The great peculiarity of his youth was his precocity. He was an intellectual prodigy,–like Pitt, Macaulay, and Mill. Like them, he had a wonderful memory. He early mastered the Greek language; he wrote poetry, studied under eminent professors, frequented the Forum, listened to the speeches of different orators, watched the posture and gestures of actors, and plunged into the mazes of literature and philosophy. He was conscious of his marvellous gifts, and was, of course, ambitious of distinction.

There were only three ways at Rome in which a man could rise to eminence and power. One was by making money, like army contractors and merchants, such as the Equites, to whose ranks he belonged; the second was by military service; and the third by the law,–an honorable profession. Like Caesar, a few years younger than he, Cicero selected the law. But he was a new man,–not a patrician, as Caesar was,–and had few powerful friends. Hence his progress was not rapid in the way of clients. He was twenty-five years of age before he had a case. He was twenty-seven when he defended Roscius, which seems to have brought him into notice,–even as the fortune of Erskine was made in the Greenwich Hospital case and that of Daniel Webster in the case of Dartmouth College. To have defended Roscius against all the influence of Sulla, then the most powerful man in Rome, was considered bold and audacious. His fame for great logical power rests on his defence of Milo,–the admiration of all lawyers.

Cicero was not naturally robust. His figure was tall and spare, his neck long and slender, and his mouth anything but sensual. He looked more like an elegant scholar than a popular public speaker. Yet he was impetuous, ardent, and fiery, like Demosthenes, resorting to violent gesticulations. The health of such a young man could not stand the strain on his nervous system, and he was obliged to leave Rome for recreation; he therefore made the tour of Greece and Asia Minor, which every fashionable and cultivated man was supposed to do. Yet he did not abandon himself to the pleasures of cities more fascinating than Rome itself, but pursued his studies in rhetoric and philosophy under eminent masters, or “professors” as we should now call them. He remained abroad two years, returning when he was thirty years of age and settling down in his profession, taking at first but little part in politics. He married Terentia, with whom he lived happily for thirty years.

But the Roman lawyer was essentially a politician, looking ultimately to political office, since only through the great public offices could he enter the Senate,–the object of ambition to all distinguished Romans, as a seat in Parliament is the goal of an Englishman. The Roman lawyer did not receive fees, like modern lawyers, but derived his support from presents and legacies. When he became a political leader, a man of influence with the great, his presents were enormous. Cicero acknowledged, late in life, to have received what would now be equal to more than a million of dollars from legacies alone. The great political leaders and orators were the stipendiaries of Eastern princes and nobles who wanted favors from the Senate, and who knew as well how to reward such services as do the railway kings in our times.

Before Cicero, then, could be a Senator, he must pass through those great public offices which were in the gift of the people. The first step on the ladder of advancement was the office of quaestor, which entailed the duty of collecting revenues in one of the provinces. This office he was sufficiently influential to secure, being sent to Sicily, where he distinguished himself for his activity and integrity. At the end of a year he renewed his practice in the courts at Rome,–being hardly anything more than a mere lawyer for five years, when he was elected an Aedile, to whom the care of the public buildings was intrusted.

It was while he was aedile-elect that Cicero appeared as the public prosecutor of Verres. This was one of the great cases of antiquity, and the one from which the orator’s public career fairly dates. His residence in Sicily had prepared him for this duty; and he secured the conviction of this great criminal, whose peculations and corruptions would amaze our modern New Yorkers and all the “rings” of our great cities combined. But the Praetor of Sicily was a provincial governor,–more like Warren Hastings than Tweed. For this public service Cicero gained more éclat than Burke did for his prosecution of Hastings; since Hastings, though a corrupt man, laid, after Clive, the foundation of the English empire in India, and was a man of immense talents,–greater than those of any who has since filled his place. Hence the nation screened Hastings. But Verres had no virtues and no great abilities; he was an outrageous public robber, and hoped, from his wealth and powerful connections, to purchase immunity for his crimes. In the hands of such an orator as Cicero he could not escape the penalty of the law, powerful as he was, even at Rome. This case placed Cicero above Hortensius, hitherto the leader of the Roman bar.

It was at this period that the extant correspondence of Cicero began, which is the best picture we have of the manners and habits of the Roman aristocracy at the time. History could scarcely spare those famous letters, especially to Atticus, in which also the private life and character of Cicero shine to the most advantage, revealing no vices, no treacheries,–only egotism, vanity, and vacillation, and a way that some have of speaking about people in private very differently from what they say in public, which looks like insincerity. In these letters Cicero appears as a very frank man, genial, hospitable, domestic, witty, whose society and conversation must have been delightful. In no modern correspondence do we see a higher perfection in the polished courtesies and urbanities of social life, with the alloy of vanity, irony, and discontent. But in these letters he also evinces a friendship which is immortal; and what is nobler than the capacity of friendship? In these he not only shines as a cultivated scholar, but as a great statesman and patriot, living for the good of his country, though not unmindful of the luxuries of home and the charms of country retirement, and those enjoyments which are ever associated with refined and favored life. We read here of pictures, books, medals, statues, curiosities of every kind, all of which adorned his various villas, as well as his magnificent palace on Mount Palatine, which cost him what would be equal in our money to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. To keep up this town house, and some fifteen villas in different parts of Italy, and to feast the greatest nobles, like Pompey and Caesar, would imply that his income was enormous, much greater than that of any modern professional man. And yet he seems to have lived, like Bacon and our Webster, beyond his income, and was in debt the greater part of his life,–another flaw in his character; for I do not wish to paint him without faults, but only as a good as well as a great man, for his times. His private character was as lofty as that of Chatham or Canning,–if we could forget his vanity, which after all is not so offensive as the intellectual pride of Burke and Pitt, and of sundry other great lights who might be mentioned, conscious of their gifts and attainments. There is something very different in the egotism of a silly and self-seeking aristocrat from that of a great benefactor who has something to be proud of, and with whose private experiences the greatest national deeds are connected. I speak of this fault because it has been handled too severely by modern critics. What were the faults of Cicero, compared with those of Theodosius or Constantine, to say nothing of his contemporaries, like Caesar, before whom so much incense has been burned?

At the age of forty Cicero became Praetor, or Supreme Judge. This office, when it expired, entitled him to a provincial government,–the great ultimate ambition of a senator; since the administration of a province, even for a single year, usually secured an enormous fortune. But this tempting offer he resigned, since he felt he could not be spared from Rome in such a crisis of public affairs, when the fortunate generals were grasping power and the demagogues were almost preparing the way for despotism. Some might say he was a far-sighted and ambitious statesman, who could not afford to weaken his chances of being made Consul by absence from the capital.

This great office, the consulship, the highest in the gift of the people,–which gave supreme executive control,–was rarely conferred, although elective, upon any but senators of ancient family and enormous wealth. It was as difficult for a “new man” to reach this dignity, under an aristocratic Constitution, as for a commoner a hundred years ago to become prime minister of England. Transcendent talents and services scarcely sufficed. Only generals who had won great military fame, or the highest of the nobles, stood much chance. For a lawyer to aim at the highest office in the State, without a great family to back him, would have been deemed as audacious as for such a man as Burke to aspire to a seat in the cabinet during the reign of George III. A lawyer at Rome, like a lawyer in London, might become a lord chancellor or praetor, but not easily a prime minister: he would be defeated by aristocratic influence and jealousies. Although the people had the right of election, they voted at the dictation of those who had money and power. Yet Cicero obtained the consulship, probably with the aid of senators, which he justly regarded as a great triumph. It was a very unusual thing. It was more marvellous than for a Jew to reign in Great Britain, or, like Mordecai, in the court of a Persian king.

The most distinguished service of Cicero as consul was to ferret out the conspiracy of Catiline. Now, this traitor belonged to the very highest rank in a Senate of nobles; he was like an ancient duke in the British House of Peers. It was no easy thing for a plebeian consul to bring to justice so great a culprit. He was more formidable than Essex in the reign of Elizabeth, or Bassompierre in the time of Richelieu. He was a man of profligate life, but of marked ability and boundless ambition. He had a band of numerous and faithful followers, armed and desperate. He was also one of those oily and aristocratic demagogues who bewitch the people,–not, as in our times, by sophistries, but by flatteries. He was as debauched as Mirabeau, but without his patriotism, though like him he aimed to overturn the Constitution by allying himself with the democracy. The people, whom he despised, he gained by his money and promises; and he had powerful confederates of his own rank, so that he was on the point of deluging Rome with blood, his aim being nothing less than the extermination of the Senate and the magistrates by assassination, and a general division of the public treasure, with personal assumption of public power.

But all his schemes were foiled by Cicero, who added unwearied activity to extraordinary penetration. For this great and signal service Cicero received the highest tribute the State could render. He was called the savior of his country; and he succeeded in staving off for a time the fall of his country’s liberties. It was a mournful sight to him to see the ascendency which demagogues had already gained, since it betokened the approaching destruction of the Constitution, which, good or bad, was dear to him, and which as an aristocrat he sought to conserve.

Cicero’s evil star was not Catiline, but Clodius,–another aristocratic demagogue whose crimes he exposed, although he failed to bring him to justice. Clodius was shielded by his powerful connections; and he was, besides, a popular favorite, as well as a petted scion of one of the greatest families. Clodius showed his hostility to Cicero, and sought revenge by artfully causing the people to pass or revive a law that whoever had inflicted capital punishment on a citizen without a trial should be banished. This seemed to the people to be a protection to their liberties. Now Cicero, when consul, had executed some of the conspirators associated with Catiline, for which he was called the savior of his country. But by the law which was now passed or revived by the influence of Clodius, Cicero was himself a culprit, and it would seem that all the influence of the Senate and his friends could not prevent his exile. He appealed to his friend Pompey, but Pompey turned a deaf ear; and also to Caesar, but Caesar was then outside the walls of the city in command of an army. In fact, both these generals wished him out of the way, although they equally admired and feared him; for each of them was bent on being the supreme ruler of Rome.

So it was permitted for the most illustrious patriot which Rome then held to go into exile. What a comment on the demoralization of the times! Here was the best, the most gifted, and the most accomplished man of the Republic,–a man who had rendered invaluable and acknowledged services, that man of consular dignity and one of the leaders of the Senate,–sent into inglorious banishment, on a mere technicality and for an act which saved the State. And the “magnanimous” Caesar and the “illustrious” Pompey allowed him to go! Where was salvation to a Republic which banished its savior, and for having saved it? The heart sickens over such a fact, although it occurred two thousand years ago. When the citizens of Rome saw that great man depart mournfully from among them, and to all appearance forever, for having rescued them from violence and slaughter, and by their own act,–they ought to have known that the days of the Republic were numbered. But this only a few far-seeing patriots felt. And not only was Cicero banished, but his palace was burned and his villas confiscated. He was not only disgraced, but ruined; he was an exile and a pauper. What a fall! What an unmerited treatment!

Very few people conceive what a dreadful punishment it was in Greece and Rome to be banished; or, as the formula went, “to be interdicted from fire and water,”–the sacred fire of the hearth, the lustral water which served for sacrifices. The exile was deprived of these by being forced to extinguish the hearth-fire,–the elemental, fundamental religion of a Greek and Roman. “He could not, deprived of this, hold property; having no longer a worship, he had no longer a family. He ceased to be a husband and father; his sons were no longer in his power, his wife was no longer his wife, and when he died he had not the right to be buried in the tombs of his ancestors.” [4]

Is it to be wondered at that even so good and great a man as Cicero should bitterly feel his disgrace and misfortunes? Is it surprising that, philosopher as he was, he should have given way to grief and despondency. He would have been more than human not to have lost his spirits and his hopes. How natural were grief and despair, in such complicated miseries, especially to a religious man! Chrysostom could support his exile with dignity; for Christianity had abolished the superstitions of Greece and Rome as to household gods. Cicero could not: he was not great enough for such a martyrdom. It is true we should have esteemed him higher, had he accepted his fate with resignation: no man should yield to despair. Had he been as old as Socrates, and had he accomplished his mission, possibly he would have shown more equanimity. But his work was not yet done. He was cut off in his prime and in the midst of usefulness from his home, his religion, his family, his honor, and his influence; he was utterly ruined. I think the critics make too much of the grief and misery of Cicero in his banishment. We may be disappointed that Cicero was not equal to his circumstances; but we need not be hard on him. My surprise is, not that he was overwhelmed with grief, but that he did not attempt to drown his grief in books and literature. His sole relief was in pathetic and unmanly letters.

Marcus Tullius Cicero From the bust in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The great injustice of this punishment naturally produced a reaction. Nor could the Romans afford to lose the services of their greatest orator. They also craved the excitement of his speeches, more thrilling and delightful than the performance of any actor. So he was recalled. Cicero ought to have anticipated this; it seems, however, he had that unfortunate temperament which favors alternate depression and exhilaration of spirits, without measure or reason.

His return was a triumph,–a grand ovation, an unbounded tribute to his vanity. His palace was rebuilt at the expense of the State, and his property was restored. His popularity was regained. In fact, his influence was never lost; and, because it was so great, his enemies wished him out of the way. He was one of the few who retain influence after they have lost power.

The excess of his joy on his restoration to home and friends and property and fame and position, was as great as the excess of his grief in his short exile. But this is a defect in temperament, in his mental constitution, rather than a flaw in his character. We could have wished more placidity and equanimity; but to condemn him because he was not great in everything is unjust.

On his return to Rome Cicero resumed his practice in the courts with greater devotion than ever. He was now past fifty years of age, in the prime of his strength and in the height of his forensic fame. But, notwithstanding his success and honors, his life was saddened by the growing dissensions between Caesar and Pompey, the decline of public spirit, and the approaching fall of the institutions in which he gloried. It was clear that one or the other of these fortunate generals would soon become the master of the Roman world, and that liberty was about to perish. His eloquence now became sad; he sings the death-song of departing glories; he wails his Jeremiads over the demoralization which was sweeping away not merely liberty, but religion, and extinguishing faith in the world. To console himself he retired to one of his beautiful villas and wrote that immortal essay, “De Oratore,” which has come down to us entire. His literary genius now blazed equally with his public speeches in the Forum and in the Senate. Literature was his solace and amusement, not a source of profit, or probably of contemporary fame. He wrote treatises on the same principles that he talked with friends, or that Fra Angelico painted pictures. He renewed his attempts in poetry, but failed. His poetry is in the transcendent rhythm of his prose compositions, like that of Madame de Staël, and Macaulay, and Rousseau.

But he was dragged from his literary and forensic life to accept the office of a governor of a province. It was forced upon him,–an honor to him without a charm. Had he been venal and unscrupulous, he would have seized it with avidity. He was too conscientious to enrich himself by public corruption, as other Senators did, and unless he could accumulate a fortune the command of a distant province was an honorable exile. He was fifty-six years of age when he became Proconsul of Cilicia, an Eastern province; and all historians have united in praising his proconsulate for its justice, its integrity, and its ability. He committed no extortions, and returned home, when his term of office expired, as poor as when he went. One of the highest praises which can be given to a public man who has chances of enriching himself is, that he remains poor. When a member of Congress, known not to be worth ten thousand dollars, returns to his home worth one hundred thousand dollars, the public have an instinct that he has, somehow or other, been untrue to himself and his country. When a great man returns home from Washington poorer than when he went, his influence is apt to survive his power; and this perpetuated influence is the highest glory of a public man,–the glory of Jefferson, of Hamilton, of Washington, like the voice of Gladstone during his retirement. Now Cicero had pre-eminently this influence as long as he lived; and it was ever exerted for the good of his country. Had his country been free, he would have died in honor. But his country was enslaved, and his voice was drowned, and he had to pay the penalty of speaking the truth about those unscrupulous men who usurped authority.

On his return to Rome the state of public affairs was most alarming. Caesar and Pompey were in antagonism. He must choose between them, and he distrusted both. Caesar was the more able, accomplished, and magnanimous, but he was the more unscrupulous and dangerous. He had ventured to cross the Rubicon,–the first general who ever dared thus openly to assail his country’s liberties. Pompey was pompous, overrated, and proud, and had been fortunate in the East. But then he sided with the Constitutional authorities,–that is, with the Senate,–so far as his ambition allowed. So Cicero took his side feebly, reluctantly, as the least of the evils he had to choose, but not without vacillation, which is one of the popular charges against him. “His distraction almost took the form of insanity.” “His inconsistency was an incoherence.” Never did a more wretched man than Cicero resort to Pompey’s camp, where he remained until his cause was lost. He returned, after the battle of Pharsalia, a suppliant at the feet of Caesar, the conqueror. This, to me, is one of his weakest acts. It would have been more lofty and heroic to have perished in the camp of Pompey’s sons.

In the midst of these public misfortunes which saddened his soul, his private miseries began. He was now prematurely an old man, under sixty years of age, almost broken down with grief. His beloved daughter Tullia, with whom his life was bound up, died; and he was divorced from his wife Terentia,–a proceeding the cause of which remains a mystery. Neither in his most confidential letters, nor in his conversations with most intimate friends, does it appear that he ever unbosomed himself, although he was the frankest and most social of men. In his impressive silence he has set one of the noblest examples of a man afflicted with domestic infelicities. He buries his conjugal troubles in eternal silence; although he is forced to give vent to sorrows, so plaintive and bitter that both friend and foe were constrained to pity. He expects no sympathy, even at Rome, for the sundering of conjugal relations, and he communicates no secrets. In his grief and sadness he does, however, a most foolish thing: he marries a young lady one-third his age. She accepted him for his name and rank; he sought her for her beauty, her youth, and her fortune. This union of May with December was of course a failure. Both parties were soon disenchanted and disappointed. Neither party found happiness, only discontent and chagrin. The everlasting incongruities of such a relation–he sixty and she nineteen–soon led to another divorce. He expected his young wife to mourn with him the loss of his daughter Tullia. She expected that her society and charms would be a compensation for all that he had lost; yea, more, enough to make him the most fortunate and happy of mortals. In truth, he was too old a man to have married a young woman whatever were the inducements. It was the great folly of his life; an illustration of the fact that, as a general thing, the older a man grows the greater fool he becomes, so far as women are concerned; a folly that disgraced and humiliated the two wisest and greatest men who ever sat on the Jewish throne.

In his accumulated sorrows Cicero now plunged for relief into literary labors. It was thus that his private sorrows were the means which Providence employed to transmit his precious thoughts and experiences to future ages, as the most valued inheritance he could bestow on posterity. What a precious legacy to the mind of the world was the book of “Ecclesiastes,” yet by what bitter experiences was its wisdom earned!

It was in the short period when Caesar rejoiced in the mighty power which he transmitted to the Roman Emperors that Cicero wrote, in comparative retirement, his history of “Roman Eloquence,” his inquiry as to the “Greatest Good and Evil,” his “Cato,” his “Orator,” his “Nature of the Gods,” and his treatises on “Glory,” on “Fate,” on “Friendship,” on “Old Age,” and his grandest work of all, the “Offices.”–the best manual in ethics which has come down to us from heathen antiquity. In his studious retirement he reminds us of Bacon after his fall, when on his estate, surrounded with friends, and in the enjoyment of elegant leisure, he penned the most valued of his immortal compositions. And in those degenerate days at Rome, when liberty was crushed under foot forever, it is beautiful to see the greatest of Roman statesmen and lawyers consoling himself and instructing posterity by his exhaustive treatises on the fundamental principles of law, of morality, and of philosophy.

The assassination of Caesar by Roman senators, which Cicero seems to have foreseen, and in which he rejoiced, at this time shocked and disturbed the world. For nearly two thousand years the verdict of the civilized world respecting this great conqueror has been unanimous. But Mr. Froude has attempted to reverse this verdict, as he has in reference to Henry VIII., and as Carlyle–another idolater of force–has attempted in the cases of Oliver Cromwell and Frederick II. This remarkable word-painter, in his Life of Caesar,–which is, however, interesting from first to last, as everything he writes is interesting,–has presented him as an object of unbounded admiration, as I have already noticed in my lecture on Caesar. Whether in his eagerness to say something new, or from an ill-concealed hostility to aristocratic and religious institutions, or from an admiration of imperialism, or disdain of the people in their efforts at self-government, this able special pleader seems to hail the Roman conqueror as a benefactor to the cause of civilization. But imperialism crushed all alike,–the people, no longer able to send their best men to the Senate through the higher offices perchance to represent their interests, and the nobles, shorn of the administration of the Empire. Soldiers, not civilians, henceforth were to rule the world,–a dreary thought to a great lawyer like Cicero, or a landed proprietor like Brutus. Even if such a terrible revolution as occurred in Rome under Caesar may have been ordered wisely by a Superintending Power for those degenerate times, and as a preservation of the peace of the world, that Christianity might take root and spread in countries where all religions were dead,–still, the prostration of what was dearest to the hearts of all true citizens by the sword was a crime; and men are not to be commended for crime, even if those crimes may be palliated. “It must need be that offences come, but woe to those by whom they come.”

Cicero was now sixty-three, prematurely old, discouraged, and heart-broken. And yet he braced himself up for one more grand effort,–for a life and death struggle with Antony, one of the ablest of Caesar’s generals; a demagogue, eloquent and popular, but outrageously cruel and unscrupulous, and with unbridled passions. Had it not been for his infatuated love of Cleopatra, he probably would have succeeded to the imperial sceptre, for it was by the sword that he too sought to suppress the liberties of the Senate and people. Against him, as the enemy of his country, Cicero did not scruple to launch forth the most terrible of his invectives. In thirteen immortal philippics–some of which, however, were merely written and never delivered, after the fashion of Demosthenes, with whom as an orator and a patriot he can alone be compared–he denounced the unprincipled demagogue and general with every offensive epithet the language afforded,–unveiling his designs, exposing his forgeries, and proving his crimes. Nobler eloquence was never uttered, and wasted, than that with which Cicero pursued, in passionate vengeance, the most powerful and the most unscrupulous man in the Roman Empire. And Cicero must have anticipated the fate which impended over him if Antony were not decreed a public enemy. But the protests of the orator were in vain. He lived to utter them, as a witness of truth; and nothing was left to him but to die.

Of course Antony, when he became Triumvir,–when he made a bargain that he never meant to keep with Octavius and Lepidus for a division of the Empire between them,–would not spare such an enemy as Cicero. The broken-hearted patriot fled mechanically, with a vacillating mind, when his proscription became known to him,–now more ready to die than live, since all hope in his country’s liberties was utterly crushed. Perhaps he might have escaped to some remote corner of the Empire. But he did not wish for life, any more than did Socrates when summoned before his judges. Desponding, uncertain, pursued, he met his fate with the heroism of an ancient philosopher. He surrendered his wearied and exhausted body to the hand of the executioner, and his lofty soul to the keeping of that personal and supreme God in whom he believed as firmly as any man, perhaps, of Pagan antiquity. And surely of him, more than of any other Roman, could it be said,–as Sir Walter Scott said of Pitt, and as Gladstone quoted, and applied to Sir Robert Peel,–

“Now is the stately column broke,
The beacon light is quenched in smoke;
The trumpet’s silver voice is still,
The warder silent on the hill.”

With the death–so sad–of the most illustrious of the Romans whose fame was not earned on the battlefield, I should perhaps close my lecture. Yet it would be incomplete without a short notice of those services which–as statesman, orator, and essayist–he rendered to his country and to future ages and nations.

In regard to his services as a statesman, they were rendered chiefly to his day and generation, for he elaborated no system of political wisdom like Burke, which bears (except casually and indirectly) on modern governments and institutions. It was his aim, as a statesman, to continue the Roman Constitution and keep the people from civil war. Nor does he seem to have held, like Rousseau, the vox populi as the voice of God. He could find no language sufficiently strong to express his abhorrence of those who led the people for their own individual advancement. He was equally severe on corrupt governors and venal judges. He upheld morality and justice as the only guides in public affairs. He loved popularity, but he loved his country better. He hated anarchy as much as did Burke. Like Bright, he looked upon civil war as the greatest of national calamities. He advocated the most enlightened views, based on the principles of immutable justice. He wished to preserve his country equally from unscrupulous generals and unprincipled politicians.

As for his orations, they also were chiefly designed for his own contemporaries. They are not particularly valuable to us, except as models of rhetorical composition and transcendent beauty and grace of style. They are not so luminous with fundamental principles as they are vivid with invective, sarcasm, wit, and telling exaggeration,–sometimes persuasive and working on the sensibilities, and at other times full of withering scorn. They are more like the pleadings of an advocate than an appeal to universal reason. He lays down no laws of political philosophy, nor does he soar into the region of abstract truth, evolving great deductions in morals. But as an orator he was transcendently effective, like Demosthenes, though not equal to the Greek in force. His sentences are perhaps too involved for our taste; yet he always swayed an audience, whether the people from the rostrum, or the judges at the bar, or the senators in the Curia. He seldom lost a case; no one could contend with him successfully. He called out the admiration of critics, and even of actors. He had a wonderful electrical influence; his very tones and gestures carried everything before him; his action was superb; and his whole frame quivered from real (or affected) emotion, like Edward Everett in his happiest efforts. He was vehement in gesture, like Brougham and Mirabeau. He was intensely earnest and impressive, like Savonarola. He had exceeding tact, and was master of the passions of his audience. There was an irresistible music in his tones of voice, like that of St. Bernard when he fanned crusades. He was withering in his denunciations, like Wendell Phillips, whom in person he somewhat resembled. He was a fascination like Pericles, and the people could not long spare him from the excitement he produced. It was their desire to hear him speak which had no small share in producing his recall from banishment. They crowded around him as the people did around Chrysostom in Antioch. He amused like an actor, and instructed like a sage. His sentences are not short, terse, epigrammatic, and direct, but elaborate and artificial. Yet with all his arts of eloquence his soul, fired with great sentiments, rose in its inspired fervor above even the melody of voice, the rhythm of language, and the vehemence of action. A listener, who was not a critic, might fancy it was gesture, voice, and language combined; but, after all, it was the man communicating his soul to those who hung upon his lips, and securing conviction by his sincerity and appeals to conscience. He must have had a natural gift for oratory, aside from his learning and accomplishments and rhetorical arts,–a talent very rare and approaching to creative genius. But to his natural gifts–like Luther, or Henry Clay, born an orator–he added marvellous attainments. He had a most retentive memory. He was versed in the whole history of the world. He was always ready with apt illustrations, which gave interest and finish to his discourses. He was the most industrious and studious man of his age. His attainments were prodigious. He was master of all the knowledge then known, like Gladstone of our day. He was not so learned a man as Varro; but Varro’s works have perished, as the great monuments of German scholars are perhaps destined to perish, for lack of style. Cicero’s style embalmed his thoughts and made them imperishable. No writer is immortal who is not an artist; Cicero was a consummate artist, and studied the arrangement of sentences, like the historian Tacitus and the Grecian Thucydides.

But greater than as an artist was he in the loftiness of his mind. He appealed to what is noblest in the soul. Transcendent eloquence ever “raises mortals to the skies” and never “pulls angels down.” Love of country, love of home, love of friends, love of nature, love of law, love of God, is brought out in all his discourses, exalting the noblest sentiments which move the human soul. He was the first to give to the Latin language beauty and artistic finish. He added to its richness, copiousness, and strength; he gave it music. For style alone he would be valued as one of the immortal classics. All men of culture have admired it, from Augustine to Bossuet, and acknowledged their obligations to him. We accord to the great poets the formation of languages,–Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakspeare; but I doubt if either Virgil or Horace contributed to the formation of the Latin language more than Cicero. Certainly they have not been more studied and admired. In every succeeding age the Orations of Cicero have been one of the first books which have been used as textbooks in colleges. Is it not something to have been one of the acknowledged masters of human composition? What a great service did Cicero render to the education of the Teutonic races! Whatever the Latin language has done for the modern world, Cicero comes in for a large share of the glory. More is preserved of his writings than of any other writer of antiquity.

But not for style alone–seen equally in his essays and in his orations–is he admirable. His most enduring claim on the gratitude of the world is the noble tribute he rendered to those truths which save the world. His testimony, considering he was a pagan, is remarkable in reference to what is sound in philosophy and morals. His learning, too, is seen to most advantage in his ethical and philosophical writings. It is true he did not originate, like Socrates and Plato; but he condensed and sifted the writings of the Greeks, and is the best expounder of their philosophy. Who has added substantially to what the Greeks worked out of their creative brain? I know that no Roman ever added to the domain of speculative thought, yet what Roman ever showed such a comprehension and appreciation of Greek philosophy as did Cicero? He was profoundly versed in all the learning the Grecians ever taught. Like Socrates, he had a contempt for physical science, because science in his day was based on imperfect inductions. There were not facts enough known of the material world to construct sound theories. Physical science at that time was the most uncertain of all knowledge, although there were great pretenders then, as now, who maintained it was the only certainty. But the speculations of scientists disgusted him, for he saw nothing in them upon which to base incontrovertible truth. They were mere dreams and baseless theories on the origin of the universe. They were even puerile; and they were then, as now, atheistic in their tendency. They mocked the consciousness of mankind. They annihilated faith and Providence. At best, they made all things subject to necessity, to an immutable fate, not to an intelligent and ever-present Creator. But Cicero, like Socrates, believed in God and in providential interference,–in striking contrast with Caesar, who believed nothing. He taught moral obligation, on the basis of accountability to God. He repudiated expediency as the guide in life, and fell back on the principles of eternal right. As an ethical writer he was profounder and more enlightened than Paley. He did not seek to overturn the popular religion, like Grecian Sophists, only (like Socrates) to overturn ignorance, before a sound foundation could be laid for any system of truth. Nor did he ridicule religion, as Lucian did in after-times, but soared to comprehend it, like the esoteric priests of Egypt in the time of Moses or Pythagoras. He cherished as lofty views of God and his moral government as any moralist of antiquity. And all these lofty views he taught in matchless language,–principles of government, principles of law, of ethics, of theology, giving consolation not only to the men of his day, but to Christian sages in after-times. And there is nothing puerile or dreamy or demoralizing in his teachings; they all are luminous for learning as well as genius. He rivalled Bacon in the variety and profundity of his attainments. He gloried in the certitudes which consciousness reveals, as well as in the facts which experience and history demonstrate. With these he consoled himself in trouble; on these he reposed in the hour of danger. Like Pascal he meditated on the highest truths which task the intellect of man, but, unlike him, did not disdain those weapons which reason forged, and which no one used more triumphantly than Pascal himself. And these great meditations he transmitted for all ages to ponder, as among the most precious of the legacies of antiquity.

Thus did he live, a shining light in a corrupt and godless age, in spite of all the faults which modern critics have enlarged upon in their ambitious desire for novelties, or in their thoughtless or malignant desire? to show up human frailties. He was a patriot, taking the side of his country’s highest interests; a statesman, seeking to conserve the wisdom of his ancestors; an orator, exposing vices and defending the innocent; a philosopher, unfolding the wisdom of the Greeks; a moralist, laying down the principles of immutable justice; a sage, pondering the mysteries of life; ever active, studious, dignified; the charm and fascination of cultivated circles; as courteous and polished as the ornaments of modern society; revered by friends, feared by enemies, adored by all good people; a kind father, an indulgent husband, a generous friend; hospitable, witty, magnificent,–a most accomplished gentleman, one of the best men of all antiquity. What if he was vain and egotistical and vacillating, and occasionally weak? Can you expect perfection in him who “is born of a woman”? We palliate the backslidings of Christians; we excuse the crimes of a Constantine, a Theodosius, a Cromwell: shall we have no toleration for the frailties of a Pagan, in one of the worst periods of history? I have no patience with those critics who would hurl him from the pedestal on which he has stood for two thousand years. Contrast him with other illustrious men. How few Romans or Greeks were better than he! How few have rendered such exalted services! And even if he has not perpetuated a faultless character, he has yet bequeathed a noble example; and, more, has transmitted a legacy in the richness of which we forget the faults of the testator,–a legacy of imperishable thought, clothed in the language of imperishable art,–a legacy so valuable that it is the treasured inheritance of all civilized nations, and one which no nation can afford to lose.


Plutarch’s Life of Cicero, Appian, Dion Cassius, Villeius Paterculus, are the original authorities,–next to the writings of Cicero himself, especially his Letters and Orations. Middleton’s Life is full, but one-sided. Forsyth takes the opposite side in his Life. The last work in English is that of Anthony Trollope. In Smith’s Biographical Dictionary is an able article. Dr. Vaughan has written an interesting lecture. Merivale has elaborately treated this great man in his valuable History of the Romans. Colley Cibber’s Character and Conduct of Cicero, Drumann’s Roman History, Rollin’s Ancient History, Biographic Universelle. Mr. Froude alludes to Cicero in his Life of Caesar, taking nearly the same view as Forsyth.

[4] Coulanges: Ancient City.

Cleopatra : The Woman of Paganism

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements