Quote Cicero at the dinner table and friends are either going to think that you know your onions, or that you’re a bit of a busy know-it-all best given a wide steer over cheese. Now Cicero was of that enviable age where men did not do just one job. No, they were not just a lawyers or politicians; they were also philosophers, orators, political theorists and constitutionalists. Cicero was all of those and more. The link from Ted Cruz, the ribs-n-beer Senator from Texas, to Cicero, a man responsible for much of European culture is on the face of it tenuous. Which it is, but in a Senate speech in 2014 our man Cruz invoked the spirit of Cicero in denouncing President Obama’s plans for immigration reform. He may have played the ball with slightly heavy hands though, as Cruz equated President Obama to Catiline, a crafty conspirator who bribed his way into office and who hoped to put Rome, and indeed all the senators in Rome, to the torch. Fortunately for the Senators he was caught. Obama doesn’t seem the type to torch Congress.
Anyway, the year is 106 BC, and young Marcus Tullius Cicero is born. It didn’t take long for the school’s teachers to start grinning at PTA nights, as Cicero Jnr had a bit about him. He learnt Latin and Greek, as it was deemed at the time – perhaps not so much today – that to be cultured meant both languages ought to be spoken. Choosing between joining the army and becoming a lawyer, Cicero took an iron off the tee and slipped into a crisp linen toga and headed to court. His first case was a high profile affair where a one Sextus Roscius, was accused of murdering his father. Patricide then, as indeed it is now, was regarded as an appalling crime ensuing plenty of public interest. It was a brave move for young Cicero as it pitted him against the establishment. Yet it proved to be a canny one. The bald-faced prosecution quickly discovered a significant hole in their case when Cicero arched a brow and pointed out his man had not actually been in the country at the time of his father’s death. Cicero devoured the prosecution, framing the accusers of being greedy, manipulative and power hungry and finished it all off with some outspoken comments about the hard-boiled regime itself. The jury lapped it up and Roscius was unanimously acquitted.
Perhaps knowing he had ruffled a few too many establishment feathers, or perhaps just wanting to scratch an itch, Cicero then packed a bag and struck out for Greece, Asia Minor and Rhodes. He would later be attributed with creating a philosophical vocabulary in Latin which is more than can be said for most of today’s young tourists who run around Greece’s ancient towns trying to snog each other and Instagram their lunch. Cicero married. Twice. First to Terentia, whose money helped him on his political way proving that politics back then, as today, needed its wheels greased with establishment cash. This ended after thirty years of increasingly bitter rows. He then married another girl called Pubillia, which is not a great name for a girl, and was a marriage that didn’t seem to work out either.
Anyway domestic ills aside he quickly rose up the political ranks. Years in office though, ended in exile, where all great moralists and progressive thinkers tend to end up. Cicero was forced out after publicly suggesting Caesar was a bit heavy handed with his people and was generally too quick to release the dogs. Yet some lengthy time-out afforded Cicero time to write, think, contextualise, rue and get depressed; as all exiles are prone to become being, as they are, in exile. All was not lost though and Cicero was recalled a few years later after a cabal of friends smoothed things over in Rome. Politically, though, he remained on the edge which turned out to be a good place to stand on the ides of March, when Caesar met his bloody end. In the ensuing instability Cicero came into his own becoming the spokesman of the Senate. All was squeaky until Mark Anthony began to let the power go to his head and Cicero started calling him out, encouraging the Senate to have him labelled an enemy of the state. As it turned out this was not much of a vote winner and Mark Anthony then had Cicero himself labelled an enemy of the state and hounded him out of house and home. It all ended badly, as you can imagine, with Cicero being slotted by a couple of goons and had his head and hands nailed to a platform in the middle of Rome. His wife then apparently pulled out his tongue and jabbed it with a hairpin, which was a bit pretty poor form.
And that was pretty much Cicero, a man who created the language of the civilised world and later inspired both French revolutionaries and the founding fathers of the United States, and whose principles are largely seen as the bedrock of liberty in the modern world. Good man.