A famed Roman statesman and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was known for both his contributions to politics via the Roman senate and his works on ethics, political philosophy, and rhetoric.
Cicero was born into wealth and thus received a thorough education in Greece and Rome, and immediately embarked into the political life. His talent for oration quickly ensured his meteoric rise to the rank of praetor, delivering speeches both deliberative and judicial.
In terms of his philosophy, Cicero was an avid scholar of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Their influence can be observed in his conception of ethics, Cicero having borrowed the foundations for his virtue theory from the three. In Cicero’s work De Officiis, his model of virtue is similar to that of Plato’s—consisting of justice, prudence/wisdom, temperance, and courage (Cicero, Book I) (Plato, Book IV). Likewise, Cicero shared the belief that a virtuous life was a prerequisite to a truly happy one. However, Cicero disagreed on the case of rhetoric. Rejecting Plato’s assertion that all rhetoric was mere pandering independent from knowledge of the relevant subject (Gorgias 453b-465e), Cicero declared that rhetoric was an intricate art requiring expertise in the topic. Furthermore, much like Aristotle, Cicero believed that rhetoric was necessary for the progression of society. While Plato portrayed rhetoric as inherently evil, Cicero presented the opposite, culminating in his representation of the “ideal orator” (De Oratore, Book I). The works of Cicero, along with Plato and Aristotle, composed a significant portion of Petrarch’s revival of classical literature (see item “Petrarch” in “Political Philosophy of Classical Antiquity”).
Cicero’s relevance to Early Modern Europe arises not just in his philosophy, but in the latter half of his life. Having been a firsthand witness to the ascension of Julius Caesar, the transition from a republic to a dictatorship provoked a power struggle between the senate and Caesar—one emblematic of the later struggles between monarchs and parliament. Now a senator, Cicero saw Caesar’s initial ascension via his alliance—the First Triumvirate—as a threat to Roman democracy, declining to join in spite of Caesar’s invitation. From that point on, Cicero endeavored to alienate Caesar’s allies from one another and criticized Caesar, but did so to little avail. Eventually, facing pressure to do so, Cicero succumbed and joined the alliance. Following the civil war that established Caesar’s dictatorship (with Cicero opposing Caesar), Cicero reluctantly returned to the senate under pardon from Caesar. To Cicero, Caesar’s unlimited jurisdiction undermined the power of the senate and thus democracy. To Caesar, the senate was often an antagonist to exacting his will.
Though not directly involved in Caesar’s later assassination, Cicero expressed his support, which in turn deteriorated his relationship with Mark Antony, Julius’ successor. Like his relationship with Julius, Cicero continued his history of antagonization. He would often deliver scathing critiques of Antony to the public, eventually convincing the senate to declare Antony an enemy of the state. Finally, Antony responded by listing Cicero as an enemy of the Triumvirate, resulting in Cicero’s assassination (Balsdon and Ferguson).
Over a millennium later, the struggles between monarch and legislative body experienced by Cicero had become a recurring theme in the hybrid governments of Early Modern Europe (discussed in week six of HIST 139). Most notably, the antagonistic relationship between the monarchs of France and parlement resembled that of Cicero and Caesar/Antony. Throughout the reign of Louis XIV, parlement and the monarch were at odds due to competing policy interests, resulting in conflicts such as the Fronde, a violent revolt. Exhausting France’s finances via continuous war like his predecessors, King Louis XV turned to increased taxation as a means of replenishment. Parlement, however, opposed every single attempt made by the king to do so. Following a series of hostile exchanges, Louis XV dissolved parlement, resulting in a sharp rise in anonymous criticisms against him (Wiesner-Hanks, p. 329-32).
Similarly, the relationship between Parliament and monarch in the reigns of England’s James VI and Charles I was fraught with discord. As with the French monarchs, James VI spent much of his country’s finances. Additionally, to raise funds, he would often attempt to circumvent Parliament, angering them. His career was marred with opposition to the Parliament, at one point illegitimately removing a page from Parliament’s Book of Commons to nullify their decision. His successor, Charles I, went as far as to attempt the arrest of five members of Parliament, with his career ending in civil war.


Balsdon, John, and John Ferguson. "Marcus Tullius Cicero." Encyclopedia Britannica.October 4, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De Oratore. Edited by E. H. Warmington. Translated by E. W. Sutton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Accessed November 16, 2018.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De Officiis. Translated by Walter Miller. New York, NY: MacMillan Company, 2014. September 29, 2014. Accessed November 16, 2018.

Luiz, José. Bust of Cicero. September 24, 2016. Capitoline Museums, Rome. In Wikimedia. December 10, 2016. Accessed November 17, 2018.

Plato. Gorgias. Translated by Chris Emlyn-Jones and Walter Hamilton. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Early Modern Europe 1450-1789. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.


Cicero (106-43 BC)
Bust of Cicero (100 AD)


Moses Jehng


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