Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders

Khalid Elhassan - October 29, 2017

The Res Publica Romana, or the Roman Republic, was the nearly 500 year period between the overthrow of the Roman monarchy in 509 BC and the establishment of the Roman Empire in 27 BC – a period which saw the expansion of Rome from an insignificant city in central Italy into the world’s most powerful state, ruling or exerting hegemonic power over the entire Mediterranean world.

The evolution of government during the Republic was strongly influenced by a struggle between the patrician class, the landed aristocracy who traced their lineage to Rome’s founding, and the far more numerous plebeians, or common citizens. Initially, the patricians monopolized the Republic’s high offices, but gradually, their exclusive control was weakened and repealed, and powerful plebeian families joined the aristocracy.

More than 2,000 years after its collapse, the Roman Republic’s impact can still be felt, and many of its legislative and legal structures were codified in the Napoleonic Code, still followed in large part in most of Europe and much of the world. Additionally, the Republic’s ethos of public service and devotion to duty and the common good survive as ideals of what government service is or ought to be, and throughout the Enlightenment, political thinkers and reformers, in both the Old World and New, repeatedly drew on Roman Republican ideals.

Following are twelve of the most influential leaders of the Roman Republic:

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Lucius Junius Brutus. Know the Romans

Lucius Junius Brutus

Lucius Junius Brutus (flourished 6th century BC) was the legendary founder of the Roman Republic, and the ancestor of Marcus Junius Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar, the dictator who brought the Republic to an end. This early Brutus is credited with organizing and leading the rebellion that ousted Rome’s last monarch, after which Brutus was elected to the new republic’s first consulship – Rome’s highest office.

Rome had been ruled by kings until 509 BC, when the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped a noblewoman, Lucretia. Tradition has it that to preserve the family’s honor, she told all to family members and other gathered Romans, and then stabbed herself to death. Until then, Brutus, a nephew of the king, had given little sign of potential greatness – the name Brutus is Latin for “Dullard”. He had his own grievances against the king, who had executed Brutus’ brother, and it is possible that Brutus acted the dimwit to avert his uncle’s suspicions. Whatever the case, it all changed on the day of Lucretia’s death: pulling the knife out of her breast, Brutus vowed revenge and led a popular revolt.

By 507 BC, the monarchy was done with, and Rome had become a republic, with Brutus its first chief magistrate. He epitomized the ideal of devotion to duty and severe impartiality in its fulfillment: he condemned his own sons to death when they joined a conspiracy to restore the kings. Tradition holds that he was killed during a battle against a royal army, in single combat with the son of the king whom Brutus had ousted.

He is credited with establishing many of basic institutions of the Roman Republic, which lasted for about half a millennium before it collapsed and was done away with by Julius Caesar and Augustus. Many of Brutus’ Republican institutions continued for centuries more, in altered and reduced form, as emperors strove to at least pay lip service to the republican facade.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Lars Porsena surveying Rome before battle at Sublician bridge. Wikimedia

Titus Herminius Aquilinus

Titus Herminius Aquilinus (died 498 BC) was one of the early Roman Republic’s heroes who participated in the major conflicts attending the founding and securing of the new republic, rose to high office, and was elected consul in 506 BC. His greatest achievement for which he was most lauded was a heroic stand at a bridge in the face of an invading army.

After his ouster in 509 BC, Rome’s last monarch sought the aid of Lars Porsena, king of nearby Clusium, who marched on Rome at the head of a mixed army of Clusians and Roman royalist exiles. In 508 BC, the invaders routed the infant republic’s forces opposite Rome and sent them fleeing across the Sublician bridge into Rome, which lay defenseless.

Lars Porsena’s forces were halted at the narrow Sublician bridge by three courageous Romans: Herminius, Horatius, and a Spurius Lartius, who held off the enemy long enough for the bridge to be destroyed behind them. When the bridge was about to collapse, Herminius and Lartius were urged by Horatius to retreat, while he fought on alone until the bridge fell.

Herminius and Lartius were elected consuls in 506 BC. In 498 BC, war broke out with Rome’s Latin neighbors, and Herminius was one of the generals in the army that marched out to deal with them. When the forces met at the Battle of Lake Regillus in 498 BC, Herminius slew the enemy’s leader in single combat. However, while stripping the corpse of its armor, Herminius was mortally wounded by a javelin.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
‘Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough’ by Juan Antonion Ribeira. Wikimedia

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus (519 – 430 BC) was one of the Roman Republic’s most admired figures, elected Rome’s consul in 460 BC, and twice appointed dictator, in 458 and 439 BC. He became legendary for his selfless devotion to the Republic during crises, assuming power when thrust upon him to deal with grave problems, then surrendering it when the crises were over.

Cincinnatus was a conservative patrician and a capable general who opposed the plebeians’ demands for a greater share of power. He ended up on the losing side of that fight, and when his son killed a plebeian and fled Rome, Cincinnatus’ opponents held him accountable and impoverished him with a huge fine. His possessions were reduced to a small farm, and he was reduced to manual labor at an advanced age, forced to toil in his fields with his own hands.

However, a military emergency in 458 BC led to his appointment as dictator – a constitutional office of absolute power to which Romans appointed a leader during crises for a 6 month period. When a delegation arrived to let him know, they found Cincinnatus toiling in his farm. He put aside the plow and took up the sword, and led the Romans to a swift victory. He then resigned the dictatorship and went back to working his small farm.

He was appointed dictator again in 439 BC when Rome was threatened with an internal conspiracy, which he put down, and again laid down his power as soon as the crisis was over and returned to his farm. He went down as one of the most revered figures of the Roman Republic, and as an exemplar of civic virtue, modesty, and outstanding leadership.

George Washington consciously sought to model his career after that of Cincinnatus – a comparison that resonated with contemporaries during the Age of the Enlightenment, who knew their Roman history well, when America’s first president and first great general voluntarily laid down his power at the end of his second term and went into retirement.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Quintus Fabius Maximus. All Free Photos

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (circa 280 – 203 BC) was a Roman statesman and general whose cautious delaying tactics and strategies against the Carthaginian general Hannibal earned Fabius the nickname Cunctator, or “the Delayer”, and saved a Rome reeling from a string of humiliating defeats, giving it time to recover its equilibrium and gird itself for a difficult war.

Hannibal had led an army into Italy at the start of the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) and won crushing victories against Rome, threatening its hold on Italy, as allies joined Hannibal or declared neutrality. Fabius by then was a respected senior statesman, having been elected Consul in 233 and 228 BC, as well as Censor – a highly prestigious position – in 230. Faced with a dire emergency, the Romans appointed him dictator for 6 months.

He realized that Rome had no general at the time, including himself, who was Hannibal’s equal as a battlefield commander, so he adopted an attrition strategy which came to be known as “Fabian”. He shadowed the Carthaginian, refusing to offer pitched battle, gradually whittling the enemy’s strength with scorched earth tactics, coupled with attacks against his supplies and isolated detachments.

That stabilized the situation but was resented by Romans who took to calling Fabius Cunctator, or “Delayer” – an insult that, in hindsight, became a badge of honor. When Fabius’s 6-month term as dictator expired, his countrymen amassed 87,000 men, the biggest Roman army to date, and marched off to crush Hannibal. He was eager to let them try, and at Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal adopted a brilliant tactical plan that was executed to perfection, lured the eager Romans into a double envelopment, and destroyed them. Of 87,000 Romans, only 10,000 escaped – all the rest were slaughtered or captured.

There were no more snide comments and sneers, and Cunctator became an honorific instead of an insult. Fabius was elected consul three more times before his death in 203 BC, and his Fabian strategy became the official one followed by Rome for the remainder of the war, which was finally won in 201 BC. Fabius did not live to see the victory, but he laid the groundwork leading to it.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Scipio Africanus. Ancient Rome

Scipio Africanus

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 – 183 BC), so named because of his military victories in Africa, was one of Rome’s greatest generals and strategists, best known for his conquest of Carthage’s territories in Iberia during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), and for defeating Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC to close out the conflict with victory.

His first mention in the historic record dates to 218 BC, when he led a cavalry charge that saved his father, one of that year’s consuls, from encirclement by Carthaginians. He survived the disaster at Cannae two years later, when Hannibal nearly wiped out a Roman army 87,000 strong. Scipio was one of the few Roman officers to keep their wits about them and cut their way to safety with 10,000 men – the sole survivors, who would form the nucleus of a reconstituted Roman army.

In 211, Scipio’s father and uncle were defeated and killed fighting Hannibal’s brother in Hispania, and in elections for a new proconsul to lead an army to avenge the defeat, Scipio was the only Roman to seek the position, which others eschewed as a death sentence. Only 25 at the time, he was underage to be elected a magistrate, but a special law was enacted to give him command. He opened the campaign with a surprise attack in 209 BC that captured New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the Carthaginian seat of power in Hispania, securing at a stroke ample supplies, as well as a great harbor and base for further operations. He then campaigned across Hispania, winning a series of victories, and by 206 BC had wrested all of Hispania from the enemy.

He then returned to Rome as its most successful general to date, and was elected consul in 205 BC. By then, Hannibal was isolated in southern Italy, cutoff from supplies and reinforcements. Dismissing him, Scipio boldly took the war directly against Carthage by invading North Africa in 204 BC. The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy to take command of their armies at home, setting the stage for a climactic showdown between Rome’s and Carthage’s greatest generals. It came at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, in which Scipio won a complete victory that end the war.

Scipio returned to a hero’s welcome, but while lionized by the general public, he was hated by fellow patricians who persecuted him with trumped-up charges of treason, bribery, and general corruption in order to sully his reputation. The ingratitude left him disillusioned and bitter and led to his withdrawal from public life and retirement to his estates in Campania, where he remained until his death in 183 BC.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
The Gracchi brothers. Ancient Rome

Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebes and a populares politician – a faction which upheld the cause of the plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians – who sponsored agrarian reforms to restore the class of small independent farmers that was being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by a small elite of the patrician senatorial class.

Service in the military service during his youth drew his attention to a growing crisis of shrinking Roman military manpower: Rome’s legions were drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves, mostly independent farmers. However, the class of independent farmers had been shrinking over a generation as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by the patrician senatorial classes. In addition to illegality, it drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty, diminishing the pool of prospective legionaries.

Tiberius Gracchus proposed agrarian reforms to break the giant estates and redistribute the lands in small parcels to lower class Roman in order to restore the independent yeoman class. He was vehemently opposed by the senatorial class, and when he pushed through legislation that began redistributing land, he was murdered by a senatorial mob during a riot organized by optimates – conservatives who sought to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes, while extending that of the pro-aristocratic Senate – in the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence. It broke a double taboo: that against political violence in general, and that against visiting violence upon a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed inviolate for centuries.

Violence begat violence, and Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus’ political murders ushered in nearly a century of mounting turmoil as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in bouts of civil wars and bloody political purges that fell disproportionately upon and virtually wiped out the very patrician and senatorial class whose interests the optimates sought to advance.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Flight of Gaius Gracchus from senatorial mob. Eon Images

Gaius Gracchus

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC) was the younger brother of Tiberius Gracchus, who followed in his older brother’s footsteps as a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician advancing the cause of the plebeians, an advocate of agrarian reform, and finally, as a victim of political violence when the conservative Roman Senate and the optimates murdered him.

About a decade younger than Tiberius, Gaius Gracchus was influenced by his elder brother’s reform policies and by his murder at the hands of a senatorial mob. Elected a tribune of the plebes in 123 BC, he made innovative use of the popular assemblies to push through legislation to reenact his brother’s agrarian reforms and advocated other measures to lessen the power of the senatorial nobility.

He also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat, and was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate again organized a riot to go after a turbulent tribune. After one of his supporters was killed, Gaius Gracchus and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age. The Senate responded by enacting a novel decree that ordered the consuls to go after Gaius, which they did with a mob. Seeing that all was lost, Gaius committed suicide, while the mob fell upon and massacred hundreds of his followers, then threw their bodies into the Tiber river.

In the long run, the political murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates‘ cause and the patrician senatorial class whose interests they sought to advance. The patricians were virtually exterminated during rounds of proscriptions that claimed the lives and confiscated the properties of thousands, first by the dictator Sulla going after populares following his victory in Rome’s first civil war, only for the pendulum to swing a generation later when Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription following their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. What relatively few patricians survived were gradually killed off later as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until, by the end of the first century AD, the patrician class was virtually extinct.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Gaius Marius. Quora

Gaius Marius

Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC) was a general who saved Rome from extinction and a statesman who headed the populares, Rome’s political faction that leant towards the rising middle and lower classes. He was elected consul an unprecedented seven times, and was the first general to illustrate that political support and power could be secured from the votes of veterans.

Marius was not an aristocrat, but a plebeian from an equestrian or knightly family who entered Rome’s political power structure as novus homo, or “new man” – a term for those who are the first of their family to serve in the Senate. He owed his rise to his talents as a soldier, riding criticism of the bungling by incompetent aristocratic commanders of war against Numidia in North Africa into election to his first consulship for 107 BC, and appointment to command of the war.

He initiated revolutionary military changes that came to be known as the “Marian Reforms“. Germanic tribes had crossed the Alps, entered southern Gaul, and threatened Italy. They wiped out two Roman armies sent to meet them – sending Rome and Italy, always fearful of barbarians since ever since an invasion by Gauls had sacked Rome and devastated Italy in 387 BC, into a panic. To meet the crisis, Marius opened the ranks of the Roman legions, hitherto restricted to propertied citizens who could afford to arm and equip themselves, to all citizens, including the poorest, with the government now paying for their weapons and armor, as well as salaries.

An unforeseen knock-on effect was the transformation of the Roman army’s character from a middle class and patrician institution into a professional army for whose legionaries military service became a career, and who came to look upon their generals, not the government in Rome, for rewards during service and severance pay and retirement benefits upon their discharge.

Marius’ reforms and his competence as a commander enabled him to win the war against Numidia, and more importantly, raise and train an army that utterly crushed the Germanic barbarians and removed their threat to Rome by 101 BC. That made him the most popular politician of the era, and by 100 BC, he been elected consul 6 times. With the barbarian threat removed, however, Marius’ limitations as a politician, which had hitherto been masked by his brilliance as a military man at a time when Rome was in desperate need of one, emerged. With the emergency over, Marius’ political star dimmed as Rome’s traditional power brokers reasserted themselves.

In 91 BC the Social War between Rome and her Italian allies broke out. Marius was called back into service, but had to quit due to poor health. Sulla, a former subordinate, prosecuted the war to a successful conclusion, and the rise of his star while that of Marius fell led to friction and jealousy that broke into the open in 88 BC. That year, Sulla was elected consul and appointed by the Senate to command a war against Pontus. However, Marius got a tribune to call a popular assembly that overrode the Senate and gave command to Marius, instead – a move that was technically legal, but highly unusual and controversial.

Sulla surprised Marius and everybody by marching on Rome – something no Roman general had ever tried. Marius and his supporters were forced to flee, and Sulla entered Rome, where he got the Senate to pass a death sentence against the Marians, then marched off to the war against Pontus in 87 BC. When he left, Marius, who by then had raised an army in North Africa, returned to Rome, and had about a dozen leading Sullans executed, with their heads displayed on pikes in the Forum. Marius was then elected consul for the 7th time, but died just 17 days into his term, in 86 BC.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Sulla. The Romans


Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 79 BC) was a successful general who, at the head of the optimates, Rome’s conservative and aristocrtic-leaning political faction, used his legions to seize power in Rome and win the ensuing civil war against the populares faction. He then had himself appointed dictator, massacred his political opponents by the thousands, and carried out constitutional reforms that were intended, but ultimately failed, to strengthen the Roman Republic in its final decades.

Sulla belonged to an old patrician family that was centuries removed from its heyday by the time he was born. He grew up dissolute and debauched, consorting with actors – a despised profession in those days. Strikingly handsome, he earned his keep as a young man seducing and preying upon wealthy older women, at least two of whom died in mysterious circumstances after naming Sulla sole heir in their wills.

He began his political career in 107 as Gaius Marius’ quaestor, or financial magistrate, in the Numidian War, but when he captured the Numidian king by treachery and claimed credit for ending the war, he aroused Marius’ resentment. When the Social War (91 – 88 BC) broke out, Sulla performed brilliantly while Marius, aged and ailing by then, did not. Sulla was elected consul in 88 BC and given command of war against Pontus, but Marius engineered the enactment of a law that stripped the command from Sulla and gave it to Marius instead.

Sulla responded by informing his legions that if Marius was appointed to command the war, he would use his own legions and not Sulla’s men – thus depriving them of the opportunity for the rich rewards they had expected in the form of booty from a successful war against Pontus. With their financial interests threatened, the legions supported Sulla in marching on Rome.

Marius and his supporters were forced to flee, but when Sulla marched off to the war against Pontus, Marius returned to Rome at the head of his own army in 87 BC, had Sulla’s enactments reversed, executed about a dozen leading Sullans, and was elected consul for 86, only to die 17 days into his consulship.

Sulla won the war against Pontus, then returned to Rome, which he entered at the head of his army 82 BC, after defeating the Marians. He undid all their legislations, introduced reactionary conservative constitutional reforms that solidified the power of the aristocracy and weakened that of the middle classes, and got himself appointed dictator. He then proceeded to massacre the Marians and populares by the thousands, passing proscriptions, or lists naming enemies of the state who could be legally killed by anybody in exchange for a reward and a share of the proscribed victim’s property upon presentation of his head to Sulla’s agents. He resigned in 79 BC, retreated into private life, and died the following year.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Marcus Licinius Crassus. Ancient History Encyclopedia

Marcus Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was the late Roman Republic’s wealthiest man and one of its leading figures. He used his wealth to amass power, sponsoring politicians, including Julius Caesar whose political rise he financed, and with Caesar and Pompey the Great, entered into a power-sharing agreement known as “The First Triumvirate“, which effectively made the trio the masters of the Roman Republic.

As an ally of Sulla, Crassus started on the road to fabulous wealth by buying the confiscated properties of executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value, even arranging to have the names of those whose property he coveted added to the lists of the proscribed, slated for execution and confiscation of property.

By the 70s BC, Crassus was Rome’s richest man, and he leveraged his wealth into power by entering a power-sharing agreement with Caesar and Pompey. However, Crassus also craved military glory such as that enjoyed by his partners – unlike them, Crassus’ main military accomplishment had been to defeat Spartacus’ slave rebellion, which paled in comparison to Pompey’s and Caesar’s deeds.

To win glory of his own, Crassus decided to invade Parthia, a newly established wealthy kingdom encompassing Persia and Mesopotamia, which did not seem a difficult nut to crack: a decade earlier, Pompey had easily defeated other eastern kingdoms, other kingdoms in the east, and there was little reason to assume the Parthians would be any tougher.

With an army of 50,000, he went to war against Parthia in 53 BC, but things went wrong from the start when his guide, secretly in Parthian pay, took Crassus on an arid route that left his army parched and exhausted by the time they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey, where they encountered a Parthian army of 1000 armored heavy cavalry and 9000 horse archers. Although they greatly outnumbered the Parthians, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ uninspiring leadership.

Archers whittled the Romans with arrows from a safe standoff distance, retreating whenever the Romans advanced. Morale plummeted as casualties mounted, and Crassus finally ordered his son to drive off the horse archers with the Roman cavalry and an infantry detachment. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians returned, taunting the Roman army and Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear.

Crassus retreated, abandoning thousands of his wounded. The Parthians invited him to parley, offering safe retreat in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his army threatened to mutiny if he did not negotiate. The parley went badly, violence broke out, and Crassus was killed. To mock his greed, the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat. Out of his 50,000 man army, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Pompey the Great. Pintrest

Pompey the Great

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey or Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC) was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades, who was first Julius Caesar’s son in law and partner in the First Triumvirate, then his rival, and finally enemy, during the civil war that followed Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon into Italy in 49 BC.

Pompey was born into a family that had only recently joined the senatorial ranks, but that was nonetheless powerful and incredibly wealthy, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. Pompey’s father was a general who became consul in 89 BC and had a reputation for double-dealing, greed, and ruthlessness. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC, and 19-year-old Pompey inherited his vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.

Upon Sulla’s return to Italy from the war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with 3 legions in his march on and seizure of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from the Marians, which he accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC, after which he executed the captured Marians and was named Magnus, or “the Great” by his troops.

After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate into appointing him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania, which he eventually won after considerable effort by 71 BC. He took his army back to Italy with him, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC.

In 67 BC, he was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control, and he managed to do so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only 3 months. He was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and granted authority to settle the entire eastern Mediterranean, which he did by annexing some kingdoms into the Roman Republic and reducing others to client state. That settlement was his greatest achievement and one which, with few modifications, lasted for over 500 years.

Returning to Italy in 62 BC, he sought land upon which to settle his veterans and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east, but political chaos in Rome prevented that. He finally accomplished his goals after forming Triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst the trio, sealing the deal by marrying Caesar’s daughter. After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war in 49 BC.

Pompey and the optimates conservative faction fled to Greece, where they raised an army. Caesar followed, and Rome’s two greatest generals finally met at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. Fleeing, he sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore, only to get assassinated and have his head chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.

Ancient Men of Power: The Roman Republic’s Most Influential Leaders
Cicero. Sententiae Antiquae


Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC), considered Rome’s greatest orator, was a statesman, scholar, lawyer, and writer who served as consul in 63 BC. Throughout his career, he tried in vain to uphold republican principles as the Roman Republic tore itself apart in civil wars during its final years. He had much greater impact and success influencing Western thought for centuries, and the rediscovery of his writings more than a millennium after his death is credited with sparking the Renaissance.

Cicero was born into a wealthy equestrian family in Arpinum and was sent to study law in Rome as a youth. His brilliant defense of a Sextus Roscius in 79 BC against trumped-up charges of parricide established his reputation as a lawyer and began his rise in Rome. He became a supporter of Pompey the Great, and as a member of the conservative and pro-aristocratic optimates faction, was elected consul in 63 BC. That year, he suppressed what came to be known as the Catiline Conspiracy to overthrow the government, arresting and ordering the summary execution of its ringleaders captured in Rome.

In 60 BC, he declined an invitation to join Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in what became known as the First Triumvirate, deeming the arrangement unconstitutional, and doing all he could to undo it by driving wedges between the Triumvirs. Crassus was killed in battle in 53 BC, and when Pompey and Caesar fell out and the latter marched on Italy in 49 BC, Cicero sat out the ensuing civil war, and spent that period in scholarly pursuits and writing books and treatises.

After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Cicero promoted the cause of Gaius Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, seeking to use the teenager as a cat’s paw during his conflict against Mark Antony, whom Cicero loathed and against whom he penned and orated scathing critiques known as The Philippics. Quipping that he would “praise, raise, and erase” Octavius, Cicero greatly underestimated the youth, who as the future Augustus would end the Roman Republic and replace it with the Roman Empire. Octavius shrewdly reconciled with Mark Antony and cut a deal that divided Rome between the two, who then proceeded to clean house by eliminating all enemies, and potential opponents of the regime in a bloody purge that outdid Sulla’s. Cicero, as an avowed enemy of Mark Antony, was on the new regime’s list of the proscribed.

He fled Rome, but was captured and killed on December 7th, 43 BC. A vindictive Antony then had Cicero’s severed head and hands displayed in the rostra, or speaker’s platform in Rome’s Forum, after Antony’s equally vindictive wife pierced the orator’s tongue with knitting needles.

Defeated politically, Cicero triumphed intellectually. His impact extended far beyond his own days, as he left behind a trove of writings on philosophy, politics, rhetoric, and oratory, whose rediscovery in the 13th century and the keen interest they aroused in scholars, amongst whom Petrarch was most notable, helped jump-start the Renaissance. He influenced European literature and ideas more than any single prose writer before or since, and his impact on the Latin language was such that until the 19th century, all European prose could be viewed as being a return to or a reaction against Cicero’s style.