The Life and Death of Ancient Rome’s Greatest Orator

The Life and Death of Ancient Rome’s Greatest Orator

Patrick Lynch - April 18, 2017

Marcus Tullius Cicero is widely considered to be one of Rome’s greatest orators and is known for helping foil the Catiline Conspiracy, his opposition to Caesar, and his speeches denouncing Mark Antony. He was born on January 3, 106 BC and was a member of a wealthy municipal family. His father was a member of the equestrian order and had a lot of political connections, but since he was a semi-invalid, he was unable to enter public life. He paid for the education of Cicero and his younger brother, and the duo studied philosophy and rhetoric in Greece and Rome.


As a young man, Cicero served in the military under Pompey’s father, Pompeius Strabo, but he had no taste for active service and wanted a career in politics. He entered the legal field, and one of his first major cases took place in 81 BC when he defended Publius Quinctius. The following year, he gained fame for his brilliant defense of Sextus Roscius on a charge of patricide. It was a bold move by Cicero since killing one’s father was considered one of the worst crimes in Rome. Also, he accused several favorites of Sulla of committing the murder. The dictator could easily have had the young lawyer murdered. As it transpired, Roscius was acquitted.

Cicero rose through the political ranks; first, he became quaestor in 75 BC, then he was elected praetor in 66 BC before landing the crucial rank of consul in 63 BC. He was the youngest man ever to achieve the position of consul without coming from a political family. Cicero made his first important public political speech in 66 BC as praetor when he spoke in favor of issuing Pompey with command of the Roman army against Mithridates VI of Pontus. Cicero wanted a friendly relationship with Pompey in the political field; their shared hatred of Crassus was one of the reasons.

The Life and Death of Ancient Rome’s Greatest Orator
Cicero Denouncing Catiline. WordPress

Catiline Conspiracy

Sergius Catilina (also known as Catiline) was a politician with revolutionary ideas; his plan for agrarian reform alarmed important members of the Senate and ensured Cicero was elected consul for 63 BC along with Gaius Antonius Hybrida. An irate Catiline decided to grab power by force and planned armed uprisings throughout Rome. After surviving an assassination attempt, Cicero went to the Senate and made a speech denouncing his rival.

While Catiline was in the Senate on that day and denied rumors of a plot, he fled Rome that very night. Eventually, Cicero uncovered evidence of a plot to burn Rome and murder senators. Five conspirators were executed when Cicero and Cato the Younger spoke in favor of execution while Caesar spoke against it. Cicero announced the death of the five men to a waiting crowd; he said ‘vixerunt’ (they are dead). Catulus hailed Cicero as the ‘father of his country,’ and the crowd cheered him as he announced the deaths of the plotters. However, he got carried away and breached Roman law when executing the men without trial, an act that left him open to prosecution. The Catiline Conspiracy was the high water mark of his career.

The Life and Death of Ancient Rome’s Greatest Orator
Cicero. Wikipedia

Exile & the First Triumvirate

History could have been different had Cicero accepted Caesar’s invitation to join himself, Pompey and Crassus in what later became known as the First Triumvirate. He declined on the grounds that the alliance was unconstitutional. His past came back to haunt him when in 58 BC, Publius Clodius became Tribune. He was an enemy of Cicero ever since the orator spoke against him during Clodius’ trial for profanity in 61 BC. Cicero knew he was in trouble and when Pompey refused to help, he fled Rome. The following day, Clodius carried a bill that forbade the execution of a Roman citizen without trial. Then he carried another bill that said Cicero was an exile.

Cicero eventually returned with the help of Pompey in 57 BC and tried to steer his ally away from Caesar with no success. Pompey renewed his pact with Caesar and Crassus at Luca in 56 BC. Cicero agreed to align himself with the Triumvirate in politics, but this meant defending some disreputable characters. After completing famous written works such as On the Orator, On the Republic and On Laws, he failed in his defense of Milo in 52 BC when his client was accused of murdering Clodius. He governed the province of Cilicia in 51 BC and was praised for ruling with integrity.

Civil War

When he returned to Rome, Caesar and Pompey were in a battle for supremacy and Cicero was on the outskirts of the city when Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon in January 49 BC. He met both men, and during a discussion with Caesar in March, Cicero told the great commander of his intention to speak against Caesar’s conflict with Pompey in the Senate. As much as he hated the idea of Caesar’s dictatorship, he knew that the commander’s enemies would kill him if they triumphed! Cicero spent the next couple of years completing another collection of written works.

Cicero had no involvement in Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 BC nor was he in the Senate when it happened. By now, he saw Mark Antony as a threat, and his 14 Philippic Orations against his new enemy were designed to get the Senate to declare war against Caesar’s former lieutenant. At some point, Cicero spoke out against Octavian by stating the young man should be disposed of when his usefulness had expired. The future emperor learned of these comments and after he had formed the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus, Cicero’s days were numbered.

The Life and Death of Ancient Rome’s Greatest Orator

The End

When the Triumvirate began proscribing their enemies, Cicero’s name was one of the first on the list, and he was aggressively pursued. Eventually, a centurion named Herennius and a tribune named Popilius found him in a villa at Formiae on December 7, 43 BC. Cicero had hoped to catch a ship to Macedonia to escape his enemies, but the two assassins caught him, and Herennius stabbed him before cutting off the orator’s head. Fulvia, the wife of Mark Antony, pulled out Cicero’s tongue and stabbed it with a hairpin. Antony ordered Cicero’s head and hands to be pinned to the Rostra in the Forum Romanum.

Cicero was a ‘new man,’ a phrase that referred to someone with no noble ancestry. As a result, the Optimates never accepted him into their circle. Unlike so many other men of the era, Cicero was prepared to compromise his ideals for the good of the Republic, but in the end, he was unable to do anything as it crumbled and was replaced by an Empire.