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Cicero’s On Life and Death [extract]

In this extract from the introduction to Cicero’s On Life and DeathMiriam T. Griffin describes the experiences of Cicero during the reign of the First Triumvirate, his increasing disillusionment with politics, and what led him toward writing about philosophy instead.

In 58 BC, Roman politics was paralyzed by the coalition of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, known as the First Triumvirate. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, who had successfully climbed the political ranks to reach the level of consul, struggled to maintain his independence while on occasion lending reluctant oratorical support to their projects and associates. He also started to put his excess energy, stylistic brilliance, and superabundant vocabulary into philosophy, a new domain for Latin literature. Cicero turned first to rhetorical and political theory, congenial subjects which would keep him before the public as a leading statesman. To this period we owe the monumental dialogues On the Orator and On the Republic. Cicero was to list them, in On Divination II, among his philosophical works, most of which, including those in On Life and Death, were written a decade later. Both dialogues were designed to emulate Plato, the former inspired by his Gorgias, the latter by his Republic. On the Laws, meant to recall another Platonic dialogue, was left incomplete a few years later. Despite their titles, both political works are distant from abstract Platonic thought, and On the Orator and On the Republic, though set in the past, are firmly rooted in contemporary concerns at Rome.

As the end of the fifties BC approached, the coalition that had been dominating political life began to crumble. Cicero did what he could to avert civil war, but when war came, he felt he must follow Pompey to the east. After the defeat at Pharsalus in August of 48 BC, Cicero abandoned an active role in the war. Although indifferent to Caesar’s reforms, believing that the Roman Republic was the perfect system of government, he was sufficiently moved by Caesar’s clemency towards his virulent opponent Marcus Claudius Marcellus, to speak appreciatively of the Dictator in autumn 46 before the senate. Combining flattery with advice and admonition, the later published speech On Behalf of Marcellus is the father of all the imperial panegyrics, starting with Seneca’s admonitory praise of Nero in De Clementia.

When news of Pompey’s death arrived, Caesar had been made dictator and could make peace and war on his own initiative. In retrospect, Cicero was to say that “once a single man came to dominate everything, there was no longer any room for consultation or for personal authority, and finally I lost my allies in preserving the republic, excellent men as they were.” He returned to philosophy, writing copious works in many of which he celebrated those excellent men.

"Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Half of 1st century AD" by Glauco92. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
“Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Half of 1st century AD” by Glauco92. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

In his preface to the second book of On Divination, Cicero discusses his motives for writing about philosophy: the need for a substitute for political to the Republic, and the intellectual challenge of rendering Greek philosophy in elegant Latin. His response to these needs would lead him, he hoped, to increase the glory of Latin literature himself and to encourage contributions from others, as well as to develop a practical ethics for his peers, especially the young.

In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero is more emphatic about his aims than elsewhere. If in On Divination he looked forward to the Roman people being independent of Greek writers in the study of philosophy, here he insists on Roman ability to excel the Greeks as they have in other branches of literature, defends the Latin language as an instrument for writing philosophy, and casts himself in the role of teacher of the young. There is, however, another motive which Cicero mentions in other works as well, but which dominates this work, albeit in a less explicit way. That is Cicero’s recent bereavement. In January of 45 his beloved only daughter Tullia gave birth to a son in Cicero’s house in Rome. She was then moved to his villa at Tusculum where, in the middle of February, she died, apparently of complications in the birth. Her child lived only a few months. Cicero felt that he had fought bravely against fortune in the past but was now wholly defeated: the attacks of his enemies, his humiliating exile, had been easier to bear than this. As he wrote to Atticus, “For a long time it has been my part to mourn our liberties and I did so, but less intensely because I had a source of comfort.” He read every work on consolation he and Atticus possessed, but the grief was stronger than any solace they could offer. And so, in the solitude of his villa at Astura, Cicero began writing his own Consolation to himself. He collected examples and other material throughout March “and threw them into one attempt at consolation; for my soul was in a bruised and swollen state, and I tried every means of curing its condition,” as he wrote later in the Tusculan Disputations. He knew that he was going against the advice of the Stoic Chrysippus, among others, not to try to apply remedies to fresh bruises. He found writing a distraction but was interrupted by fits of weeping. He insists to Atticus, who agreed with others that he should return to Rome and his old activities, that he is a changed person: “the things you liked in me are gone for good.” The Consolation “reduced the outward show of grief; grief itself I could not reduce, and would not if I could.”

Featured image credit: “Colosseum” by The_Double_A. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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