Most Americans remember December 7 as the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the attempted destruction of the American republic.
But it is an important date in history for another reason: December 7 also marks the anniversary of the murder of Cicero–statesman, orator, and philosopher–and the symbolic end of the Roman Republic (or, rather, one of many such symbolic ends) in 43 BC.
As the Republic sputtered to its end, the killing of political enemies by the powerful via proscription lists had become de rigueur; this method was employed by the young Augustus (at the time named not Augustus but Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus) and Mark Antony, too. The first/second-century philosopher and historian Plutarch, writing decades later, notes that Cicero was not of one mind regarding how to respond to their vicious edicts of death—what Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar has the future emperor call “our black sentence and proscription”—that allowed for his slaughter with impunity, even after the similar killing of his nephew and his younger brother Quintus. Cicero, it seems, would determine to flee, and then would change his mind. Shortly before the day of his death, Plutarch tells us “he actually made up his mind to enter Caesar’s house by stealth, to slay himself upon the hearth, and so to fasten upon Caesar an avenging daemon,” though he abandoned this course from a fear of torture. Finally he decided to go to his property in Caieta 50 miles north of Naples.
Upon arrival he received a troubling sign: crows flying towards his boat with much uproar. “Some cawed, and others pecked at the ends of the ropes, and everybody thought that the omen was bad.” As the crows continued to clamor while Cicero slept, and even tried to tend to him, his servants were overcome with guilt and “rebuked themselves for waiting to be spectators of their master’s murder, while wild beasts came to his help and cared for him in his undeserved misfortune, but they themselves did nothing in his defence.” Thus they redoubled their efforts to protect him and prevailed upon him to sail elsewhere.
But it was too late. His assassins were already at the door. Upon arrival they found the house empty (for they were already on their way to the sea), but Cicero was betrayed, according to the account used by Plutarch, by a young man named Philologus to whom he had given a liberal education (a mark of shame for philologists ever since; according to some accounts, he met his own gruesome and wretched end, having been given into the hands of Quintus’s widow, though Plutarch also notes that other tellings do not mention Philologus’s betrayal of Cicero at all).
There followed the pursuit. When Cicero saw that they had come, he told his servants to put down the litter in which they were carrying him. Plutarch goes on:
Then he himself, clasping his chin with his left hand, as was his wont, looked steadfastly at his slayers, his head all squalid and unkempt, and his face wasted with anxiety, so that most of those that stood by covered their faces while Herennius was slaying him. For he stretched his neck forth from the litter and was slain, being then in his sixty-fourth year.
This, however, did not put an end to his ignominy. By order of Antony, he was decapitated by his assassin Herennius and his hands were cut off—“the hands with which he wrote the Philippics,” a set of vicious and masterful speeches against Antony.
And still his ignominy was not finished. For these bits of Cicero were brought to Rome, where Antony ordered them to be publicly displayed on the rostra, the speaker’s platform in the middle of the Roman Forum.
Years later, Plutarch says, when the civil wars were a thing of the past, the victorious Augustus saw his grandson reading one of Cicero’s books. The boy tried to hide it in fear, “but Caesar [Augustus] saw it, and took the book, and read a great part of it as he stood, and then gave it back to the youth, saying: ‘A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.’” This is, of course, true, though Augustus did nothing to help this “learned man and lover of his country”; on the the contrary he gave Antony full room to vent his rage. Objects of momentary political hatred are sometimes viewed much differently when the smoke has cleared. Cicero had opposed the strongman Julius Caesar, the strongman Mark Antony, and was undone by a third strongman, the upstart Octavian.
But why should we care about him now? As this last anecdote indicates, Cicero’s afterlife was long, and continues to this day. Reading Cicero put Augustine on the path to philosophy, as he tells us in the Confessions. Jerome, on the other hand, was terrified when rebuked in a dream at the heavenly tribunal for being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian. In the fourteenth century Petrarch wrote letters to him (his rediscovery of Cicero’s own letters was a key event in the early Renaissance). In the sixteenth century, Ciceronian purists were influential enough that Erasmus thought he had to defend non-Ciceronian Latin against them, which in turn provoked a response from the (wonderfully named) classicist Julius Caesar Scaliger—a Caesarian defending Cicero! He was deeply influential on a number of major Protestant Reformers as well, as Carl Springer has documented in his recent book Cicero in Heaven: The Roman Rhetor and Luther’s Reformation. More recently, though he’d since been dismissed by philosophers as a mere epigone, his work has become recognized as an important contribution to philosophy and has become the subject of excellent and important research.
This legacy should not be surprising, as his works remain a delight to read. His speeches are models of rhetorical construction and power (Anthony Everitt notes in his biography of Cicero that one can hear echoes of him in the speeches of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Churchill), his letters an intimate portrait of real life in the first century B.C., his philosophical works often a wonderful example of what one might call “philosophy in a common key.”
Let me take one of these last as an example of the “learned man” to show why he might have something to say to us yet: his dialogue On Old Age, written in 44 BC, the year before his death—an unpromising topic, perhaps, which can serve to indicate why it is worth reading. For our culture is one that is obsessed with the idols of youth and beauty, with novelty and appearance. The elderly are tolerated, though often from a distance, and the middle-aged increasingly embarrass themselves in trying to pretend that they are young. We have lost the principle of meaningful connection with the past, and with it any notion of the significance of the old and what they might have to teach us. It is natural, then, that old age is a thing to be dreaded and deferred at all costs: it means idleness or boredom, weakness and fatigue, flaccidity and flab, along with a concomitant lack of physical pleasures, and, ultimately, death. So much is an index (by opposition) of what we value, and thus one can account for our cult of the prolongation of youth and juvenility.
Enter Cicero. In his short dialogue (which quickly turns into a monologue), Cicero has his main character, Cato the Censor, give an account to his friends Laelius and Scipio as to why he thinks the four main critiques offered against old age referred to briefly above to be wrongheaded: namely, that old age is an “unhappy time…because it takes us away from active work…because it weakens the body…because it deprives us of practically all physical pleasures…[and] because it is not far from death” (tr. Michael Grant).
I won’t give away his arguments—there is no spoiler alert at the beginning of this column—because you should read them and judge their cogency for yourself. Most readers will not be persuaded by all he has to say. But that isn’t the point. The point is to pause for a few moments from the insanity and inanity of much of what goes on around us to remember what the really important questions are, despite disagreement over the answers. And the perspective of a thinker so at odds with our prevailing notions of value can be preeminently useful as an interlocutor for such an exercise. I choose the term “interlocutor” deliberately: writers like Cicero ought to serve us as conversation partners, not as authorities to be followed blindly, for that is the importance of “tradition” in its best sense.
Cicero knew this, too. It is no coincidence that he often set his philosophical dialogues in the past (as he does in On Old Age, the dramatic date of which is the middle of the second century B.C.), with the luminaries of previous generations as his characters. His own lifetime was filled with turmoil and trouble, high-level intrigue and sweeping cultural change. In his predecessors he found not only sources of wisdom and insight and models of exemplary conduct; he also—and perhaps more significantly—found partners for dialogue, with whom he could conduct an inquiry into prudence for the present.
Cicero himself met with an untimely demise, and thus did not see the old age that he had had Cato speak of so wistfully only the year before. But we the living can still profit from the products of his fancy, can still be addressed by him in his intellectual afterlife. In On Old Age and elsewhere, he provokes conversation about what should be one of our most central concerns as a people: what it means to live well. And in an age that struggles to understand almost every word of that statement, Cicero can help to set our minds at work again.
So this December, perhaps when in need of a momentary contemplative retreat from the holiday hustle and bustle, why not pick up one of Cicero’s works in honor of his memory and acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with one of history’s most important and engaging figures? You’ll be glad you did.
E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.