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Cicero Biography

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Cicero at 60. Marble bust of Cicero.

Cicero at 60. Photogravure from a marble bust in the Prado Gallery at Madrid.

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Detailed Account of Cicero
Basics on Cicero | Cicero Quotes

Cicero was born on 3 January 106 BC. His family was from the town of Arpinum, about 70 miles south-east of Rome. The name Cicero means chickpea, and stemmed from an ancestor who had a wart at the end of his nose, which looked like a chickpea. Cicero studied literature, philosophy and law in Rome. His studies were interrupted by a spell of military service under Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo during the Social War (the war Rome fought (90-88) against its Italian allies which ended with the extension of Roman citizenship to the whole of Italy south of the Po). He claims to have supported Sulla in the upheavals of the 80s without actually taking up arms.

In 80, Cicero appeared as the advocate defending Sextus Roscius of Ameria against a charge of parricide. He defended Roscius by turning the accusation of murder back on one of Roscius' accusers, his relation Titus Roscius Magnus, and another relation, Titus Roscius Capito. What caused a sensation was Cicero's claim that Chrysogonus, one of Sulla's freedmen, had assisted in covering up the murder and, for his pains, had bought the lion's share of the dead man's property at a rock bottom price a claim that could easily be seen, despite all Cicero's protestations to the contrary, as an attack on Sulla himself. Sextus Roscius was acquitted and Cicero was famous.

Soon afterwards, Cicero took on another politically sensitive case, that of a woman from Arretium, in which he criticised Sulla for depriving the people of Arretium of their citizenship. Cicero then left for Greece, perhaps for health reasons (his digestion was never good), or perhaps because he felt a discreet absence might be wise, or perhaps a bit of both.

He used this time to continue his studies of philosophy in Athens. Here he renewed his acquaintance with Titus Pomponius Atticus, who was to become a life-long friend and correspondent. Although he was attracted by Antiochus of Ascalon's lecturing style, Cicero's own philosophical leanings were towards the sceptical position of the philosophers known as the New Academy. Cicero did consider settling in Athens, but after the death of Sulla (78), he left for the Roman province of Asia (now Western Turkey) and Rhodes where he studied oratory. On his return to Rome (77) he resumed his career as an advocate.

In 75, he became quaestor and served in Sicily, securing the grain supply. The Sicilians' gratitude for his fair, if strict, administration led to their approaching Cicero to undertake the prosecution of Verres, who had just completed his term of office (73-71) as governor of Sicily, for extortion. Cicero did so (70), although he first had to argue before the courts that he, and not Quintus Caecilius Niger, who had been quaestor under Verres and was expected to put up only a token prosecution to ensure Verres' acquittal, should be the prosecutor.

Verres' strategy was to draw out the proceedings to the next year when Hortensius, Verres' defending advocate, would be one of the consuls, and one member of the Metelli family, who were supporters of Verres, would be the other consul and another the praetor presiding over the court where Verres was to be tried.

Cicero gathered his evidence more quickly than anyone expected despite the efforts of yet another Metellus, who succeeded Verres as governor of Sicily. Nevertheless, because of the great number of festivals coming up, during which the courts would be closed, Cicero had to adopt an unusual strategy in court. The normal procedure in cases of extortion was for the prosecution to give an introductory speech and then one or more speeches arguing for the defendant's guilt. The defending advocates would then reply, and then witnesses would be called. After a two-day adjournment, the prosecution and defence would each give further speeches, and then the jury would vote by secret ballot.

Cicero's opening speech laid great stress on the political aspects of the case. Only senators could be jurors, but there were moves afoot to turn the courts over to the equites (rich non-senators) on the grounds that the senatorial juries were notoriously corrupt. Cicero warns the jury that if they do not convict Verres, who had frequently boasted that his money would guarantee an acquittal, they should not be surprised if the senate's privilege of sitting on juries is taken away. Rather than making speeches arguing for Verres' guilt, Cicero then just presented his witnesses. Verres chose not to contest the case and went into voluntary exile from Italy. Cicero published the speeches he would have given if Verres had stuck it out. The next year the senators lost their exclusive right to sit on juries. Henceforth, juries were made up of 1/3 senators, 1/3 equites, and 1/3 treasury tribunes (tribuni aerarii) (we don't know who exactly the treasury tribunes were).

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