THE LITERARY WORK
A dialogue in six books set on a country estate near Rome in 129 bce; written in Latin and published (as De Republica) c. 54-51 bce.
Cicero portrays the famed Roman general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus (185-129 bce) discussing political theory with several friends.
Author, orator, philosopher, and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bce) holds a unique place in the history of Rome. His voluminous writings have made the age in which he lived better known to historians than any other period of Roman history. But Cicero was also a participant in history itself, an important player in the drama that unfolded as Rome’s ancient republican government crumbled and power ultimately became concentrated in the hands of an emperor, a single ruler with dictatorial powers over all. Cicero was born in the town of Arpinum, near Rome, into a wealthy but not an aristocratic family. Educated in Greece as well as in Rome, he went on to make a name for himself as a lawyer. In 66 bce, Cicero entered politics, supporting the Roman general and politician Gnaius Pompeius, or Pompey. Three years later, Cicero was elected to be one of Rome’s two consuls, the annually chosen chief magistrates of the Roman government. As consul he won fame for crushing the Catilinarian conspiracy, an attempt to take over the government by Cicero’s former rival for the consulship, Lucius Catilina. A staunch defender of republican values, Cicero went on to vocally oppose the three-way alliance known as the First Triumvirate, among Pompey, Marcus Crassus, and Julius Caesar. This triumvirate dominated Roman politics in the 50s bce. Forced out of politics as a consequence, Cicero devoted himself to writing. It was during this period that he produced a number of key writings, including The Republic. Grounded in Greek political theory, The Republic reflects Cicero’s attempt to apply Greek ideas to the Roman model in the interest of understanding the problems that afflicted the Roman political system and offering solutions that might help save it.
The stages of Roman expansion
Cicero lived at a time when the Italian city-state of Rome was finalizing its imperial control of the Mediterranean world. According to a tradition widely believed in Cicero’s day, Rome had been founded in 753 bce. The long process by which it rose to become an imperial superpower can be roughly divided into three stages of expansion into different areas: the Italian peninsula (c. 400 to c. 265 bce); the western Mediterranean (c. 265 to
THE ROMAN POLITICAL SYSTEM
The Roman republic was based on a balance of power between the aristocratic Senate and a variety of popular assemblies. The most important such assembly was the comitia centuriata, or “assembly of centuries.” This body acted as a legislature, and it also elected the two yearly consuls—the republic’s chief executive officers, who conducted Rome’s foreign relations and commanded its armies. Holding the office of consul qualified a man to enter the Senate after his term expired; thus drawing into the body a number of non-aristocrats, such as Cicero, This type of inductee was called a novus homo or “new man” All legislation was subject to veto by any of the Tribunes of the Plebs, ten officers elected annually to guard the interests of the lower classes. In a time of crisis, with the approval of the Senate, a consul had the power to publicly nominate a dictator, who could make decisions that were not subject to the Tribune’s veto. The dictator was named to accomplish a specific task—to command the army in putting down a rebellion, for example—and his term in office was limited to six months. The Senate, as indicated, played a key role in naming him. Until the late second century bce, when Cicero’s Republic is set, the senators, through their wealth and influence, generally exercised the upper hand in Roman politics.
c. 200 bce); and the eastern Mediterranean (c. 200 to c. 50 bce).
Understanding the first of these stages helps explain the careers of many “Roman” politicians and writers, including Cicero, who did not originally come from Rome itself. As smaller Italian towns like Cicero’s hometown of Arpinum came under Roman control, their inhabitants were granted Roman citizenship. By the time The Republic is set, the late second century bce, the sharing of Roman citizenship had helped weld the often distinctive loyalties of the Italian towns into a unified Roman identity. It also allowed promising and talented young men like Cicero to come to Rome and take part in politics and culture there. As a politician from a wealthy but not an aristocratic family, the first in his family to attain the position of consul, the Senate considered him a novus homo, or “new man”; he made the break-through for the rest of his family, who would henceforth be of Senatorial rank. This meant that he was the first of his family to attain the office of consul.
The second and third stages of Roman expansion relate directly to the historical and cultural background of the dialogue itself. The dialogue’s main character, Scipio Aemilianus, came from a famous military family that had led the way in conquering Rome’s foes. In the process of expanding into the eastern Mediterranean, Rome had meanwhile encountered the Greek ideas on which The Republic would be based.
The Punic Wars
During its second stage of expansion, Rome was challenged primarily by the North African city-state of Carthage, a strong commercial and imperial power that dominated western Mediterranean areas such as Spain and North Africa. By defeating Carthage in three bitter wars fought over more than a century, Rome inherited Carthage’s power in the western Mediterranean.
Carthage had originally been founded by the Phoenicians, a people from the area of today’s Lebanon. Romans called them the Poeni or Puni, and so the three wars against Carthage are known as the Punic Wars:
The First Punic War (264-241 bce) broke out because Rome’s expansion in the Italian peninsula brought it into conflict with Carthage’s dominance in Sicily and southern Italy. Rome won the war, seizing the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, its first overseas provinces. Carthage remained a strong power elsewhere in the west.
The Second Punic War (218-202 bce) broke out after Rome began encroaching on Carthage’s empire in Spain. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal marched from Spain into Italy, where his army defeated the Romans several times and threatened Rome for more than a decade. Rome appointed Publius Cornelius Scipio (237-183 bce) to command its army in Spain. After winning against Carthaginian forces in Spain, Scipio crossed to North Africa in 204 bce, threatening Carthage and forcing Hannibal to return and defend the city. Scipio then defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama in 202, ending the war. Known as Scipio Africanus for the victory, this Scipio is the adoptive grandfather of Scipio Aemilianus, the main character in The Republic. Near the end of the dialogue, in the famous passage known as “The Dream of Scipio,” Scipio Aemilianus describes a dream in which he converses with his grandfather’s ghost.
The Third Punic War (149-146 bce) resulted in Carthage’s final destruction. Although by this time Rome’s old foe was no longer a threat to Roman power, Scipio Aemilianus commanded a Roman army that conquered the city and razed it to the ground.
Rome consolidated its imperial growth in the western Mediterranean during the second century bce. Most notably, from 154 to 133 bce, Rome fought a series of wars in Spain against local rulers who resisted Roman rule. Increasingly brutal, these campaigns of conquest came to a climax in 134 bce, when Scipio Aemilianus captured the pivotal fortress of Numantia, which—like Carthage a dozen years earlier—he utterly destroyed.
Rome and the Hellenistic world
Although Rome continued adding to its western empire, by the second century bce much of its attention had turned to the eastern Mediterranean. In contrast with the backward and sparsely populated west, the culturally advanced eastern Mediterranean consisted of wealthy kingdoms and ancient, populous cities. Comprising many different ethnicities, the upper classes in these kingdoms were educated in ancient Greek literature and learning, which had been spread throughout the region by the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century bce. Since the Greeks referred to themselves as “Hellenes,” this Greek-based civilization in the East is called “Hellenistic.”
Also in contrast with the west, Rome’s expansion into the Hellenistic world of the east occurred haphazardly. Instead of facing a single powerful rival such as Carthage, during the second century bce Rome was drawn into a series of wars between the various Hellenistic kingdoms. The most troublesome kingdom was Macedon, which began expanding in the late third century under its aggressive king, Philip V (ruled 221-179 bce). Typically, smaller powers would appeal to mighty Rome for help. Rome would sign a defensive alliance with them, and would then be embroiled in war when they were attacked. Between 215 and 168, Rome fought three such wars against Philip and his successors: the First Macedonian War (215-205 bce); the Second Macedonian War (200-197 bce); and the Third Macedonian War (172-168 bce).
Despite such conflicts, Rome did not yet attempt to occupy areas of the eastern Mediterranean directly. Instead, Roman leaders at first preferred to let the Greeks and others rule themselves, establishing a patchwork of different sorts of relationships across the empire, from ally to direct ruler. Yet its new role of international policeman demanded that Rome exercise an increasingly harsh level of power. By the end of the Third Macedonian War, Rome was punishing the leaders of anti-Roman factions in the Greek cities.
The wars in the East exposed upper-class Romans to the glories of Greek civilization. One of the first was Scipio Aemilianus, whose father commanded the Roman army in the Third Macedonian War. As a young man serving under his father, Scipio won fame for his courage in the Battle of Pydna, which ended this third war in 168 bce. Scipio’s father had made sure that his sons were tutored by the best Greek teachers, and in the future many more upper-class Romans would follow his example. By Cicero’s time, the prestige of Greek culture had become firmly established in Rome. The historical Scipio was well known as an early pioneer in this process, making him a logical choice as the main character in a dialogue based on Greek political thought.
Scipio Aemilianus and Tiberius Gracchus
By the late second century bce, the immense wealth generated by Rome’s imperial expansion had created strong social and political tensions in Rome. Enriched by income from the provinces, Roman aristocrats had amassed huge estates, often illegally, while the poor were driven off the land. In 133 bce the aristocratic reformer Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, elected as a tribune of the plebs, proposed a series of land reforms aimed at helping the poor. The move was upsetting to many in the Senate, who stood to lose large tracts of land that they had illegally acquired. When the Senate induced another tribune to veto the land-reform law, Tiberius Gracchus had that tribune illegally removed from office and the law was passed. Tiberius then ran for a second term as tribune but was killed amid the social disturbances that followed.
Scipio Aemilianus was Tiberius Gracchus’s brother-in-law and his chief opponent in the Senate. Along with his reputation for integrity, Scipio’s role in opposing the Gracchan reforms made him a hero to the defenders of the Senate in Cicero’s day and thus a perfect mouthpiece for the conservative republican views that Cicero espouses through him in the dialogue.
In other words, Cicero calls for “harmony between the orders,” or peace between the different classes vying for power in Roman society (i.e., the Senate and the business class). In the dialogue, Cicero implies that, by causing strife between the orders, the land reforms of Tiberius Gracchus were the beginning of the problems that beset the republic in his own day. Modern historians instead tend to see the reforms as an attempt to address the complex set of inequities that were the real cause of Rome’s troubles.
Consisting of six sections, referred to as “books,” Cicero’s Republic has survived only in incomplete form. Much of what we have today, about one third of the original, comes from a single, badly damaged manuscript that was discovered in the Vatican library in 1820. Entire sections are missing from it. In addition, a number of brief passages have survived because they were quoted by later writers. Finally, the dialogue’s best-known passage, “The Dream of Scipio,” from the sixth and final book, was copied and widely read on its own. It has thus survived in a separate manuscript tradition.
SCIPIO’S CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
In addition to his political and military leadership, Scipio Aemilianus was also well known as a patron of Greek culture. Drawing on Cicero’s portrait of Scipio in the dialogue and in other works, modern scholars have speculated that Scipio and his friends constituted a social circle through which elements of Greek culture were first passed to Rome.
Because the first 17 pages are missing from the Vatican manuscript, the modern reader begins the preface of the first book about two-thirds of the way through. Drawing on their study of the prefaces to Cicero’s comparable works, scholars believe the missing pages contain the author’s dedication, most likely to his brother Quintus, whom Cicero appears to address in the surviving portions of the work. Cicero’s main goal in the preface is to establish that participating in politics is a good and rewarding activity for citizens to undertake, despite the arguments of some philosophers against it. (Debating the relative merits of an “active life” in public service and a “contemplative life” of philosophical study was a favorite pastime of ancient philosophers.)
Declaring his intention to present “a discussion of the state,” Cicero introduces the dialogue as a conversation “that was once reported by Publius Rutilius Rufus to you [probably Cicero’s brother] and me in our youth” and that covers the matter from every conceivable angle (Cicero, The Republic, book 1, lines 12-13). Rutilius Rufus was a historical figure, an older acquaintance of Cicero’s, who as a young man had known the celebrated Scipio. He may well have reported such a conversation to Cicero and his brother when they were young, although it is equally possible that Cicero is simply making this claim as a way of lending verisimilitude to the work.
The dialogue itself is set during a winter holiday gathering of Scipio’s “closest friends” at his country estate near Rome (Republic, 1.14). Along with Scipio himself, these friends comprise the dialogue’s cast of characters. They include Quintus Tubero, Scipio’s nephew; Lucius Furius Philus, a leading Roman politician and orator; Publius Rutilius Rufus, Cicero’s purported source for the conversation; and Gaius Laelius, another leading politician and Scipio’s closest friend. Several others are also present. By far the most prominent speaker is Scipio, but Laelius also contributes significantly to the discussion, and the others chime in frequently as well.
The dialogue proper begins in speculation about “a second sun” that has appeared over Rome (Republic, 1.15). Like eclipses, comets, and other such phenomena, this “second sun” was the subject of intense speculation. A reflection caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere, it was thought to have supernatural implications for events on earth. Laelius suggests that they confine the discussion to “more important things,” such as the political turmoil that followed the reforms of Tiberius Gracchus a few years earlier, when Rome was divided into “two senates and almost two nations” (Republic, 1.30 and 1.31).
Laelius then asks Scipio what form of government he thinks is best. Scipio begins by defining the three basic sorts of constitutions as outlined according to traditional Greek political theory:
Monarchy (“rule by one”), in which power is held by a king or other supreme ruler
Aristocracy (“rule by the best”), in which power is held by a ruling class
Democracy (“rule by the people”), in which power is held by the people as a whole
None of these is perfect, Scipio continues, although each can provide adequate government “provided no forms of wickedness or greed find their way into it” (Republic, 1.42).
Each also has “a depraved version of itself” (Republic, 1.44). Thus monarchy can be corrupted into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy (“rule by the few”), and democracy into mob rule:
And so political power passes like a ball from one group to another. Tyrants snatch it from kings; aristocrats or the people wrest it from them; and from them it moves to oligarchic cliques or back to tyrants. The same type of constitution never retains power for long. That is why, though monarchy is, in my view, much the most desirable of the three primary forms, monarchy is itself surpassed by an even and judicious blend of the three forms at their best.
Such a mixed constitution, Scipio concludes, is better able to withstand the pressures of instability—unless, he warns, “the politicians are deeply corrupt” (Republic, 1.69). He offers Rome as a positive model, asserting that “no form of government is comparable in its structure, its assignment of functions, or its discipline, to the one which our fathers have received from their fore-bears and handed down to us” (Republic, 1.33).
Though he prefers a mixed constitution above all, when pressed by Laelius to say which of the three forms of government he favors by itself, Scipio chooses monarchy.
SCIPIO: Recently, when we were at your villa in Formiae, I observed that you gave the staff instructions to take orders from one person only.
LAELIUS: Quite; my agent.
SCIPIO: What about your house in town? Do several people run your affairs?
LAELIUS: No indeed; just one.
SCIPIO: What of the whole establishment? Is anyone else in charge of it apart from you?
LAELIUS: Certainly not.
SCIPIO: So why don’t you admit that in a state, too, the rule of one man is best, provided he is just?
LAELIUS: I’m almost persuaded to agree with you.
In book 2, Scipio goes on to recount the historical development of Rome’s republican constitution. He begins by praising the city’s legendary founder, Romulus, who acted as king but who also introduced aristocratic and democratic elements into his government. After Romulus’s death, however, Rome’s monarchy descended into tyranny, a process that culminated in the late sixth century bce, with the despotic king Tarquinius Superbus. A period of aristocracy followed, in which Rome was ruled, responsibly at first, by the decemviri or “Ten Men.” However, the decemvirate soon deteriorated into an oligarchic faction, “cruel and greedy in their domination over the people” (Republic, 2.63). At this point, several missing pages apparently bring the reader up to about 450 bce, when Cicero believes that Rome’s republican form of government had taken shape. About 15 pages are missing near the end of this book.
Book 3 begins with several missing pages in which it is thought that Cicero, writing in his own voice, argues that man is a rational animal and discusses connections between philosophy and politics. Further missing pages obscure what follows, reducing most of the surviving remainder of book 3 to opposing arguments by Philus and Laelius over the role of justice in the state. Assenting to a request that he take the less popular side, Philus agrees to argue against the importance of justice, a position that he doesn’t actually hold. The primary job of the state, he asserts, is to promote the strength and security of its people, and giving weight to the interests of justice undermines this responsibility. Laelius (much of whose argument is lost) argues that justice is necessary to the state’s legitimacy. Scipio then resumes his discussion of the three types of constitution, relating them to the original meaning of the Latin word respublica, literally “public thing.” All three are republican in their uncorrupted forms, but Scipio concludes, with some reluctance, that only democracy can be considered a “public thing” in its corrupted form (mob rule).
Just a few pages survive of book 4 and book 5. The extant parts of book 4 discuss the education and training of youth, comparing Roman customs favorably with Greek ones. Scipio, for example, reflects on Roman modesty, objecting to the way that young Greek men exercise naked. Book 5’s few surviving fragments concern the ideal statesman, whom Scipio compares with a farm manager, ship’s captain, or doctor in applying expert knowledge from a variety of areas to the goal of guiding the state. The ideal statesman, he says, should possess a wide knowledge of law, a thorough education, sensitivity to public opinion, and a strong sense of honor.
Apart from a few isolated fragments, all that survives of the sixth and final book is the passage commonly known as “The Dream of Scipio,” which runs to less than eight pages in most translations. It begins as Scipio recalls a visit he made in 149 bce to Masinissa (c. 240-148 bce), king of the North African kingdom of Numidia and a longtime ally of the Romans against Carthage. The old king entertained Scipio—who at that point was not yet the famed conqueror of Carthage and Numantia—with tales of his friendship with Scipio’s grandfather, the great Scipio Africanus. That night Africanus appeared to Scipio in a dream.
“Don’t be afraid, Scipio,” Africanus tells Scipio in the dream: “Listen to me and remember what I say” (Republic, 6.10). Africanus first foretells Scipio’s political and military career, including his destruction of Carthage and Numantia. Then Africanus predicts that in Scipio’s 56th year—that is, in 129 bce, the year in which the dialogue is set—Scipio will have to save Rome itself in a time of dire need: “you will be the one man on whom the country’s safety depends,” Africanus tells him (Republic, 6.12).
Yet, to make you all the keener to defend the state. … I want you to know this: for everyone who has saved and served his country and helped it to grow, a sure place is set aside in heaven where he may enjoy a life of eternal bliss. To that supreme god who rules the universe nothing (or at least nothing that happens on earth) is more welcome than those companies and communities of people linked together by justice that are called states. Their rulers and saviours set out from this place [heaven], and to this they return.
Africanus takes Scipio to a great height, and they see the whole earth stretched out beneath them. Together they view the stars and planets, and listen to the music of the spheres. (According to ancient Greek cosmology, the earth was the center of the universe. As the planets, sun, and stars revolved around the earth, they were thought to make a beautiful, harmonious sound, the so-called “music of the spheres.”) Africanus tells Scipio to keep in mind that although the body dies, the soul is immortal. Africanus explains that the souls of those who live selfishly are trapped on earth after the death of the body. The souls of those who have devoted themselves to serving their country fly upward more easily, because their connection to the lowly earth has already been weakened by their higher purpose in life. Africanus then leaves, and Scipio awakens.
Cicero’s analysis of Rome’s problems
Writing in his own voice at the beginning of book 5, Cicero quotes from the Annals, an epic poem about Rome by the early Latin poet Ennius (239-169 bce): “On ancient customs and old-fashioned men / the state of Rome stands firm” (Republic, 5.1). Cicero then goes on to ask rhetorically:
What remains of those ancient customs on which he [Ennius] said the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known. And what shall I say of the men? It is the lack of such men that has led to the disappearance of those customs.... it is because of our own moral failings that we are left with the name of the Republic, having long since lost its substance.
In other words, Rome’s problems came from a decline in morality as Romans strayed from the virtuous traditions of the past.
Cicero’s solution was to call for a return to the traditions of selfless service that he thought distinguished Rome’s glorious past from its corrupt present. Accordingly, as envisioned by Cicero, the ideal statesman is the man who “by the splendour of his mind and conduct” offers “himself as a mirror for his fellow-citizens” (Republic, 2.69). Such men had been common in Rome’s past, Scipio argues in his summary of Roman history in book 2. Significantly, Scipio implies that the Roman constitution is best not because of how it organized the government, but because of the quality of the men who founded it. The flaw, Cicero clearly wishes his reader to conclude, was not with the system but with the leadership and the citizens.
Modern scholars have characterized Cicero’s analysis of politics as personal rather than structural—that is, as having to do more with people than with institutions or ideology. They point to a number of factors of which Cicero could hardly have been unaware, but that he neglects to include in his picture of the Roman political scene. For example, he ignores the rising power of the business class, known as the equites. These merchants and manufacturers controlled a growing proportion of Rome’s wealth but were largely excluded from politics, which remained the province of the aristocrats. Similarly, while he condemns Tiberius Gracchus for going against the constitution in pursuing his reforms, Cicero ignores instances in which his hero Scipio likewise advanced his own career by unconstitutional means.
Cicero was not alone in blaming individuals for problems that modern commentators would see as the failings of a system. His analysis actually represents the best thinking of his age, when political science was still in its infancy. At this stage, a politician either put himself first, in which case he was regarded as corrupt, or he put the state first, in which case he was viewed as noble. In early political theory, as in ancient politics, personal interest, not ideology, was the guiding force.
Sources and literary context
Cicero’s main model for The Republic was the well-known dialogue of the same title by the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 bce). In the lost part of his introduction, Cicero reportedly calls himself “a companion of Plato” (Cicero in Powell & Rudd, p. xvi, n. 20). Both dialogues focus on questions such as the ideal state and the nature of justice, and Cicero frequently quotes from Plato’s Republic or alludes to Plato’s ideas throughout his own Republic. Just as Plato followed his Republic with a companion dialogue called the Laws, so did Cicero compose his own Laws after completing his Republic.
Cicero drew not only on the work of Plato but also that of his student Aristotle (384-322 bce). Plato and Aristotle were the first to articulate the picture of three forms of government, each with a corrupted version, which is so central to Cicero’s analysis (see Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, both also in Classical Literature and Its Times). By Cicero’s day, this sixfold menu of political options had become a standard part of Greek political theory. Another important Platonic concept also makes up part of the dialogue’s backdrop: the doctrine of forms that Plato developed in his own Republic. Plato believed that the material world of everyday existence was in fact unreal, and that true reality resided in invisible entities he called idea or “ideas,” often translated as “forms” in English. Every material object, from a person to a tree, represented a mere projection into our tangible world of a unique and immaterial “form.” These intangible forms alone had truly real existence. Aristotle had rejected this notion. Although Cicero’s characters allude to it in The Republic, they stop short of endorsing it, and it does not have the centrality in his Republic that it does in Plato’s.
While Cicero does not agree with all of Plato’s notions, he does embrace Plato’s most influential idea of all—that of the immortal soul. This concept would find its way from Platonic philosophy into Christian theology starting about a century after Cicero’s death, as would the idea of a heaven where the souls of the good dwell in eternal bliss. It is no accident that many of the fragments of Cicero’s dialogue that survived as quotations did so because they were cited by Christian writers. Nor is it an accident that the manuscript was discovered in the library of the Vatican, power center of the Western Christian world.
The exception that proves the rule is “The Dream of Scipio,” which was preserved not by a Christian writer, but by a fourth-century interpreter of Platonic philosophy, Macrobius. Along with Macrobius’s commentary on it, “The Dream of Scipio” would become very popular during the highly religious Middle Ages, illustrating the common ground shared by Platonic and Christian beliefs. Cicero’s dream is based loosely on a section known as the “Myth of Er” at the end of Plato’s Republic, in which a soldier named Er comes back to life after being killed in battle and describes his experience of the afterlife.
Cicero relied on other sources as well, including the Greek historian Polybius, a contemporary and friend of Scipio’s, who is mentioned several times in the dialogue. Polybius had described the Roman constitution and chronicled the expansion of Roman power into the Greek world.
The fall of the Roman republic
The political problems that Cicero addresses in The Republic—as well as the ones he fails to address—were more apparent by Cicero’s day than they had been almost 80 years earlier in Scipio’s. The turbulence of the Gracchan era had resulted in assassination and violence, but not in civil war between two Roman armies. Tiberius’s younger brother Gaius, a reformer as well, had been murdered in similar political violence in 123 bce. After that, the Senate had managed to maintain its shaky grip on power for the moment, but by the 80s bce, when Cicero was a young man, that grip was weakening. During that decade, a rivalry between two powerful generals, Marius (157-86 bce) and Sulla (138-78 bce), led to armed clashes between their supporters and also between their armies.
Marius, who came from Cicero’s hometown of Arpinum, was a novus homo like Cicero, a successful general but a political outsider who was the first of his family to hold the rank of consul. Like the Gracchus brothers, he represented the interests of the people. After his death, his lieutenant, Cinna, carried on the war against Sulla’s troops.
CICERO’S PLACE IN LITERARY HISTORY
Though Cicero played an important part in the political events of his day, his role in Western literary and intellectual history was more decisive. Cicero’s writings fall into four main categories:
Speeches Cicero rewrote many of his courtroom speeches and political orations for publication; 58 of them survive in whole or in part (see Cicero’s Speeches , also in Classical literature and Its Times).
Rhetorical works In addition to practicing rhetoric (the art of oratory, or public speaking), cicero also wrote instructional and theoretical books on the subject, based on Greek rhetorical theory, Including On Rhetoric (55 bce), Brutus 46 bce), and Orator (46bce)
Philosophical works The Republic and its companion, The Laws, are Cicero’s two major works of political philosophy. But he also wrote treatises on moral philosophy, favoring the ideas of the Stoics. Perhaps best known Is On the Offices (44 bce). in which he purports to explain Stoic philosophy to his son.
letters Cicero’s letters, dozens of which survive, comprise the single most important historical source for his life and times. They fall in two groups: “Letters to Friends,” and “Letters to Atticus,” Atticus being Cicero’s lifelong friend Titus Pomponius Atticus.
Above all, Cicero organized Greek thought, conveying the ideas of the Greek philosophers, rhetoricians, and others in a form that was easily graspable for a Roman audience, His writings were the primary conduit through which Creek ideas passed to Rome, and as such they had a profound effect on the development of Roman and European civilization.
Meanwhile, Sulla, a Roman aristocrat, represented the interests of the aristocracy and the Senate. Sulla won the civil war and was appointed to the temporary office of dictator in 82 bce. As a dictator, attempting to strengthen the Senate, Sulla murdered thousands of Marius’s supporters throughout Italy. He retired from power in 79 bce, leaving Rome with a new constitution designed to restore stability and Senatorial control.
Soon after Sulla’s death the following year, the Senate gave Pompey (106-48 bce), still only in his twenties, extraordinary power to crush another revolt by Marius’s followers. However, Pompey then turned on his benefactors, forcing the Senate to abandon the Sullan constitution for a return to the status quo. During the 60s bce, Pompey and his army won many victories over Rome’s enemies abroad, making him Rome’s most popular leader. Cicero allied himself with Pompey, possibly in the hope that Pompey would turn out to be an “ideal statesman” of the kind that Cicero would describe a few years later in The Republic.
If so, Cicero’s hopes were in vain. It later became apparent that Pompey was motivated largely by self-interest and a thirst for power and recognition. So were the two other powerful aristocrats with whom he allied himself in 60 bce, Marcus Crassus (c. 112-53 bce) and Julius Caesar (100-44 bce). Together the three of them—Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar—formed the so-called First Triumvirate. Hostile to both, Cicero was bitterly disappointed by Pompey’s decision. Indeed, he himself was invited to join the alliance but refused.
The First Triumvirate ended with Crassus’s death in 53 bce. At the time Caesar, perceived as a champion of the common people and an enemy of the Senate, was waging war in Rome’s name in Gaul, to the north. He was a popularis. Pompey, a fair-weather champion of the aristocrats, resumed his opportunistic alliance with the now toothless Senate. The next year, in an un-precedented move aimed against Caesar, the Senate appointed Pompey as sole consul. Rome tensely awaited Caesar’s return from his command in Gaul. It was around this time that Cicero completed The Republic, which some observers have seen as a final attempt to win Pompey over—to turn him into the selfless statesman that Cicero envisioned. Caesar returned and proved more than a match for Pompey and the Senate, defeating Pompey in battle in 48 bce. Pompey fled to Egypt but was murdered there by one of his men, who hoped to curry favor with Caesar.
Decades of civil war still lay ahead for Rome. Having engineered his appointment as “dictator for life,” Caesar was assassinated at the meeting place of the Senate (Pompey’s Theater) in 44 bce. Cicero, who applauded the assassins as saviors of the Republic, would himself die in the violence that followed. He delivered fiery speeches denouncing Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, earning Antony’s hatred. In 43 bce Antony struck a deal with Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavian, in which Octavian agreed to have Cicero assassinated.
Thereafter, the demise of the Republic became even more of a certainty. Civil war eventually resumed between Octavian and Antony, resulting in Antony’s defeat in 31 bce. Unopposed, Octavian emerged as Rome’s first emperor, becoming known as Caesar Augustus.
Despite the years of war that followed the First Triumvirate, many historians look back to the alliance itself as signaling the fall of the Republic, because it marked the effective end of the Senate as Rome’s main governing body. As Cicero himself may have suspected, his dialogue amounts to an epitaph for a dying political system.
Reception and impact
Cicero’s The Republic was well received by the contemporary reading public, as a letter from his younger friend and student Marcus Rufus Caelius attests. “Your political books are doing splendidly with everyone,” Caelius wrote in 51 bce, shortly after Cicero began circulating the work (Caelius in Cicero, Cicero: Select Letters, p. 27). The dialogue continued to be widely read during the early Roman Empire.
As suggested above, the echoes of Plato in Cicero’s dialogue made it popular among early Christian writers; their quotations from The Republic have provided many of the surviving fragments. These writers include Lactantius (c. 240-c. 320 ce) and St. Augustine (354-430 ce), whose works were themselves widely read in the Middle Ages.
Chief among the non-Christian authors who helped preserve interest in Cicero’s Republic was the earlier mentioned Macrobius, whose popular commentary on “The Dream of Scipio” gave this passage a separate life of its own. Also the early-fourth-century literary compiler Nonius Marcellus reproduced excerpts of Cicero’s writing that supplied many of the surviving fragments. Such second-hand access to the political thought of The Republic ensured that it remained influential, even before the manuscript containing a large portion of it came to light in 1820.
Boardman, John, et al. The Oxford History of the Classical World: The Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Cicero: Select Letters, Vol. 1. Ed. W. W. How. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925.
Everitt, Anthony. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. New York: Random House, 2001.
Powell, Jonathan, and Niall Rudd. “Introduction.” In The Republic and the Laws, by Cicero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Rawson, Elizabeth. Cicero. London: Allen Lane, 1975.