Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The rise of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)

The thirty years following Sulla’s retirement was a period of impassioned political dispute. These disputes took place in the open air, in the Roman Forum, a square half-mile of ground. In this period the total male citizenship increased hugely, swollen by the recently enfranchised Italians. The census of 69 registered about 910,000 adult citizen males, about three times as many as in the 130s.  Elections were held in the Campus Martius outside the formal boundary of the city. Voters in the city were congregated into four ‘tribes’ and the result was decided by a block-vote within each tribe. Although the patricians continued to dominate politics, the way was now open for men outside the political elite to enter politics. 

In the consular elections of January 63 an outsider had successfully stood for office. This was Marcus Tullius Cicero, a relative of Marius (not helpful!) from Arpinum, a hill-town about eighty miles south-east of Rome. 

Cicero is one of the best-known people of the ancient world. He was a brilliant writer. His speeches and his ninety letters to his friend Atticus have made the late Republic one of the best-known periods of Roman history. He is the subject of Robert Harris's Roman novels, Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator.

 He was born into the equestrian order, and none of his ancestors had held any political office in Rome. He had studied oratory in Rome and philosophy in Athens.  He served in the army during the Social War, and begun a public career as an orator in the law courts. He originally made his name by his denunciation of the corrupt provincial governor Verres, who cruelly oppressed and exploited the Sicilians under his rule. In 70 Verres was brought to trial and successfully prosecuted.

As a novus homo, Cicero lacked the extensive network of political connections that men from the senatorial families could build up over the years. As a non-noble he lacked clients. He won his election against the patrician Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) by canvassing in the Forum and offering a populist programme of sweeping land reform and debt cancellation.

Defeated and disappointed, Catiline planned a coup. Rumours of the impending coup leaked out but the Senate was divided over what to do, and there was no actual proof. Cicero denounced Catiline in the first of four orations

'Cicero denounces Catiline' by Cesare Maccari

When Catiline withdrew to Etruria in central Italy, Cicero, as consul, seized five of the leading conspirators and in December 63 obtained the Senate’s approval for their execution. The sentences went ahead even though they violated the Roman citizen’s basic right of appeal. Catiline died in Etruria in 62. His defeat of the conspiracy was Cicero’s finest hour, but the legality of the action was widely challenged; the Senate was not an executive body and its consent did not make the execution legal. But it had made him a powerful political figure, a major player in the complicated intrigues that were eventually to lead to the downfall of the Republic.