Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Not much is positively known about the parents of Marcus Tullius Cicero, but he was born in the same year which gave birth to Pompey the Great. He became prominent at a very early age, for he was so quick and bright at school that the other boys wondered at him, and mentioned him so often at home that their fathers would visit the school on purpose to hear the clever pupil recite. He wanted to learn everything, but particularly poetry, for which he showed peculiar taste. His poem on the fable of Glaucus, which he wrote when a boy, still exists, and later in life he had the name of being not only the best poet but the best orator in Rome. Even at the present time his orations are considered perfect samples of rhetoric, but his verses have been cast into the shade by those of the many great poets that have followed him.

Scævola, a celebrated lawyer, taught Cicero all about the laws and politics of Rome; and his knowledge of military affairs, which was considered an important part of every Roman boy's education, he gained in actual service under the Consul Strabo, father of Pompey the Great. But he preferred to study philosophy and rhetoric, and returned to them just as soon as he could, devoting part of each day to declaiming in Greek and Latin.

His introduction into public life was made in defence of Roscius Amerinus, one of Sylla's emancipated slaves. Roscius was accused of having murdered his own father; Cicero defended him and won the suit. This happened when Sylla was at the height of his power; so, thinking it prudent to get out of the way after having defended a man whom Sylla had accused, Cicero determined to travel. He visited Greece, where he studied under the most learned men of the day; then he went to Asia and mingled with the great philosophers and rhetoricians. Like Demosthenes, Cicero began by having serious defects both in manner and delivery; but he took lessons of Roscius, the comedian, and Æsop, the tragedian, until he became so excellent in the art of oratory that when he was leaving Athens a learned scholar said to him, "You have my praise, Cicero, and Greece my pity, since those arts and that eloquence which are the only glories that remain to her will now be transferred by you to Rome."

He was thirty years of age when he returned to his native city, so much improved in public speaking that he excelled all the other orators, and soon became the most popular of them.

He was appointed quæstor, or public treasurer, at a time when there was great need of grain in Rome, and was sent to Sicily to procure it. At first the people complained of him, but he proved himself so just and reasonable that they afterwards declared they liked him better than any quæstor Rome had ever sent them. He gained further favor with the Sicilians by his prosecution of Verres, who had been their prætor and had filled the office very badly. Verres was convicted, and the Sicilians were so grateful to Cicero that later, when he became ædile, they sent him all sorts of presents from their island.

Cicero owned a modest country-seat near Naples, and another at Pompeii, but he lived most of the time on the Palatine Hill, in Rome, so that people who desired to visit him needed not to make a journey. He had the good taste to live simply, though his wife had brought him a fortune, and he had besides plenty of money of his own. His companions were literary men, Greek and Roman, and he held a levee every day, as Pompey did.

Two years after he became ædile he was raised to the office of prætor, and presided at the courts of justice with great dignity and honor. But it had long been his aim to become consul, and he relied on Cæsar and Pompey to raise him to that office. They succeeded in doing so, and he won the blessings of his countrymen by crushing the conspiracy of Catiline. This he could only have done as consul, and he stood for that office in a complete suit of armor under his tunic, because he knew that Catiline and his party had determined to assassinate him. Their scheme was to put Cicero out of the way, make Catiline consul, and thus get complete control of the government into their own hands. It was bold and outrageous, but they might have succeeded had not the plot been revealed to Cicero, who exposed it in an oration, and thus saved Rome and drove Catiline from the city. When the people became aware of the danger they had escaped, they saluted Cicero as the father and deliverer of his country, and when he walked home from the market-place, after witnessing the execution of Catiline's principal assistants, all the houses were illuminated in honor of him, and he was followed by a train of the most distinguished of the citizens.

His authority at that time was very great, but he excited the envy of not a few because he was continually praising himself, and people grew tired of hearing him repeat again and again the benefit he had done his country in crushing Catiline. On the other hand, it must be admitted that, though he loved to sound his own praises, he did not envy others, and was always ready to give them whatever credit they deserved. This may be seen in his writings and in some of his sayings. For example, he called Aristotle "a river of flowing gold;" of Plato's Dialogues he said, "If Jupiter were to speak, it would be in language like theirs." When asked which of Demosthenes's orations he preferred, he answered, "The longest." When Cæsar was in power, Cicero obtained from him the Roman citizenship for a learned Greek, whose instruction he advised many youths to seek; and he gave several other instances of how highly he esteemed the merits of the virtuous and the wise. These are some samples of his bright repartee: When Crassus was going to Syria he wanted to leave Cicero his friend; therefore, on meeting him one day, he told him that he would sup with him. Cicero accepted the offer politely. A few days after Vatinius sent word that he wanted to make friends with him. "What!" said Cicero, "does Vatinius too want to sup with me?" This showed that he understood why Crassus wished to partake of his hospitality. A report was brought to Cicero of the death of Vatinius, and when he heard that it was false he said, "May the rascal that told the news perish because it is not true!" There was a man named Octavius, who was suspected of having African blood in his veins. He said, one day, when Cicero was pleading in court, that he could not hear him. "That is strange," returned the orator, "for you have holes in your ears." This was a mark of slavery among some nations; but the Africans wore earrings for ornament. There was a young man accused of having killed his father with poisoned cake. He was very insolent to Cicero, who cross-questioned him, and offered angry threats. "I had much rather have your threats than your cake," said Cicero. Publius Sestius had taken Cicero to defend him in an important case, but would not permit anybody to talk but himself; and when the judges were about to acquit him Cicero called out, "Make the best use of your time to-day, Sestius, for nobody will listen to you to-morrow." Marcus Appius said, in the introduction to one of his pleadings, that his client had desired him to try all that industry, eloquence, and fidelity in his cause could do. When he had finished, Cicero said, "What a hard-hearted man you are not to do any one thing that your client asked of you!" It need scarcely be said that Cicero excited a great deal of ill feeling by such cutting remarks, because they were often made merely for the sake of raising a laugh.

Lucius Cotta was censor when Cicero stood for the consulship. Cotta was known to be a great lover of wine, and often drank to excess. During the canvass, feeling thirsty, Cicero called for a cup of water; his friends stood close about him while he drank. "That is right," he said; "conceal me, for otherwise the censor may call me to account for drinking water."

Cicero had some enemies, but the most powerful of them all was Clodius, a bold, bad man, descended from an illustrious Roman family. Clodius hated Cicero so much that he determined to ruin him, and with that object in view caused the old law to be renewed which declared any one guilty of treason who had a citizen put to death without trial. This was a blow aimed at Cicero, who had executed those engaged in the Catiline conspiracy.

When Cicero was accused of this crime he put on mourning, and went around among the people humbly begging their grace. Nearly all the knights followed his example, and there were no fewer than twenty thousand young men of the best families walking about Rome in mourning attire, with hair untrimmed, supplicating the people for Cicero. But Clodius, with his lawless band of ruffians, met them at every turn, and pelted them with dirt and stones. At last matters came to such a pass that it was clear Cicero must either leave the country or fight. He applied to Pompey for assistance; but Pompey slipped out of the back door and avoided the interview. Cicero had often befriended him, therefore he dared not refuse, but as he was now Cæsar's son-in-law, and as Cæsar was no friend to Cicero just then, he preferred not to side with the orator.

Cicero next applied to the consuls; one advised him to wait until Clodius fell into disfavor, the other treated him roughly; but his friends, one and all, advised him to go into exile. So one night he started by land, escorted by a party of friends, and travelled until he reached Brundusium, whence he set sail for Greece.

No sooner did Clodius discover that he was gone than he pronounced a decree of exile against him, and then destroyed his farm, burned his villa and his city house, and on the site of the latter built a temple to Liberty. But in course of time Clodius made himself so obnoxious to the good citizens that Pompey went about among Cicero's friends urging them to get him recalled to Rome, and the senate declared that they would attend to no business whatever until that was done. Then Lentulus, the consul, used his efforts in Cicero's favor, and there was a bloody scene in the Forum in consequence. Milo, the tribune, summoned Clodius to trial for acts of violence, but the people collected in a body, drove Clodius out of the Forum, and gave a unanimous vote for the recall of the exiled Cicero.

So, at the end of about sixteen months from the time he had left, the orator returned to his native country, where he was received with every mark of honor. The senate met him at the city gates, and his entry resembled a triumph.

Not long after Milo killed Clodius, and Cicero was called upon to defend him against the charge of murder. But Cicero was a timid man; and when he beheld the crowd that had gathered to hear him, he was seized with a fit of trembling that seriously affected his delivery. That speech was said to be the worst he ever made, and was probably the reason why Milo was condemned.

Five years after his return from exile Cicero went to Cilicia as governor, and did such good service in driving the bandit tribes from the neighboring mountains that he was saluted by the soldiers with the title of Imperator.

When he went back to Rome he would have asked for a triumph, but the civil war was just on the eve of breaking out, and everything was in commotion. He tried very hard to reconcile the two leaders, Pompey and Cæsar, but, failing to do that, showed himself miserably changeable and undecided, first favoring the one, then the other. "Whither shall I turn?" he says in his epistles. "Pompey has the more honorable cause; but Cæsar manages his affairs with the greater address, and is more able to save himself and his friends. In short, I know whom to avoid, but not whom to seek."

He joined Pompey's camp in Greece after a time, but, on account of ill health, was not present at the battle of Pharsalia. At that battle Pompey was defeated and had to fly. Then Cato desired Cicero to command part of the army, but he declined, and announced that he would take no further share in the war. Thereupon some of the young warriors drew their swords, called him traitor, and would certainly have despatched him on the spot had it not been for Cato, who interposed and led him out of the camp.

Cicero then went to Brundusium, but when he heard that Cæsar was coming he began to tremble, for he did not know how the mighty conqueror would receive him. However, his fears were allayed when Cæsar appeared; for he saluted him as a friend, and then walked by his side and conversed with him.

Soon Rome became a monarchy, with Cæsar as ruler, and Cicero withdrew from public affairs and devoted himself entirely to philosophy and literature. He spent the greater part of his time at his country-house near Tusculum, where for recreation he would write poetry, sometimes producing as many as five hundred verses in one night. He rarely went to town, unless he wished to pay his respects to Cæsar or to vote him some new honors.

It was the assassination of Cæsar which called him to public life again and made him hope for political influence; but Mark Antony took Cæsar's place, and, as he was no friend to Cicero, the orator could do nothing for the moment. It was then that he composed some admirable orations known by the name of Philippic which are familiar to students of classical literature.

However, his ambition revived when he found young Octavio Cæsar disposed to be his friend, and with him he tried to bring about a war against Antony. But he was deceived, for as soon as Octavius had managed to obtain the consulship he formed an alliance with Antony and Lepidus, who had been Cæsar's friend, and Cicero's was one of the first names that appeared on the list of those they condemned to death.

While these things were taking place, Cicero was at Tusculum, and as soon as he heard of them he set out for a certain seaport, whence he hoped to set sail for Macedonia and join Brutus, who had formed an army there. He did embark, and sailed some distance along the coast; he then changed his mind and travelled by land. At times he thought of killing himself, but, after much uncertainty and various half-formed plans, he at last went to Capitæ, where he owned a pleasant house near the sea-side. As his vessel was rowed to shore, a flock of crows alighted on the sails, some cawing, others pecking at the ropes. This was considered a bad omen; but Cicero went to the house and lay down upon a lounge to rest. The crows followed, some settling on the window-sill, while one or two hopped on the lounge and tugged at the covers. Cicero's servants were so impressed by these ill omens that they asked one another, "Shall we stay to be spectators of our master's murder? Shall we not protect him, so innocent and so great a sufferer as he is, when the brute creatures give him marks of their care?" So, partly by persuasion, partly by force, they got him into a litter and carried him down towards the sea.

The assassins who had been sent from Rome, headed by Popillius, a tribune whom Cicero had once defended against a charge of murder, soon arrived. They went to the house and burst open the door; not finding the orator, they questioned a youth whom he had educated, and were told that he was in a litter then on its way to the sea. They ran in the direction pointed out, and when Cicero saw them approaching he ordered his litter to be set down. The poor old man, now in his sixty-fourth year, looked straight at the murderers, and some of them were so struck by his misery that they covered their faces while Herennius, the centurion, raised his sword and with one powerful stroke cut off his head.

The hands which had written the Philippics against Antony were also cut off and carried to Rome. Antony was holding an assembly for the election of magistrates, and when he beheld the head and hands of Cicero he said, "Now let there be an end of all executions." They were exposed together in a public place, and men wept when they beheld them and thought of the pure, amiable character that had met so cruel and unjust a death. About fifty-nine of this great man's orations have been preserved, though he wrote many more, which, with his other literary works, will give to those who care to study them a much better insight into the thoughts and feelings of Cicero than they can get in these pages.