He followed the custom of going to Rome for his formal education, studying rhetoric, philosophy, and law. After Rome he also studied rhetoric and philosophy with the Greeks at Athens and Rhodes.
The Romans considered him a great orator, and his writing style had a strong influence on writing in the Western world. Politically and philosophically, his stand against autocratic rule and for a republican style of government has also been influential.
Cicero’s family was well to do and of the landed gentry but still not of the highest social class. Nevertheless, Cicero’s father made sure that Cicero and his brother, Quintus, had the best teachers in Rome.
At age 16, he studied law under Mucius Scaevolia, one of Rome’s best lawyers. During the Social War (91–88 b.c.e.), the war between the Romans and other Italian cities over the right to citizenship, Cicero served as a soldier for a short time under Consul Pompeius Strabo.
After this he began his career as a lawyer. In 82 b.c.e. he demonstrated his political courage by defending Sextus Roscius, an enemy of the dictator Sulla. He won the case and went to Greece to continue his education, returning to Rome in 77 b.c.e.
Intelligent and ambitious, he followed the Roman road map to success, working his way up through various government jobs. The government first appointed him as a quaestor (financial administrator) in Sicily in 76 b.c.e.
This was also the year that he married his first wife, Terentia, who gave him property and eventually an unhappy marriage. He further made his name in the legal profession in 70 b.c.e. when he successfully prosecuted Gaius Verres, the former governor of Sicily, for corruption.
In the year 63 b.c.e. Cicero became a consul, a position that gave him the highest of Roman class distinctions: a member of the nobility. But his time in office was a time of crisis for the Republic.
The bulk of the Roman army was with Pompey in the east. In the meantime, Catiline, who had run for the position of consul and lost, had put an army together with the hopes of taking over the government.
Cicero discovered the plot and had many of the conspirators arrested. The Senate decided to put some of the conspirators to death without a trial. They argued that it was a time of martial law and the government was in grave danger. Cicero went along with this and was declared Pater Patriae—Father of His Country. But not everyone was happy with the decision.
After testifying in a case against a patrician named Clodius, Cicero found his citizenship—and possibly his life—in danger. In revenge for the testimony Clodius had a law passed that stated that anyone involved with putting to death a citizen without trial should be exiled or executed.
Cicero fled the country and could not safely return until the next year (57 b.c.e.). In the meantime, Roman officials destroyed his house and confiscated his property.
Cicero, a firm believer in republican principles, did not like the trend in Roman politics toward dictatorship. Unfortunately, these were the years of the First Triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. Then Crassus was killed in battle, and the country was ripe for civil war.
Eventually, Caesar and Pompey clashed militarily, and Pompey was killed. Caesar proclaimed himself perpetual dictator in February 44 b.c.e. Then, on the Ides of March, a group of conspirators representing those for the return of the Republic assassinated Caesar.
Cicero was not a member of the conspiracy. It was the hope of all of the conspirators, as well as Cicero, that with the death of Caesar, the Roman Empire would return to a republican style government. It did not.
Instead, Mark Antony took power, increasing his political and military power. Brutus left the country; Cicero started to leave, but Brutus convinced him he should remain and use his powers to try to persuade the populace that Antony was not their answer. In response, Cicero then wrote his famous Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Antony. Again, the result was not the desired one.
In a complicated zigzag of power shifts, Octavian, Caesar’s nephew, returned to Rome and pledged his loyalty to the republican cause. At first, he was successful in his military challenge to Antony, then in a complete reversal, Octavian struck a deal with Antony and Lepidus to create the Second Triumvirate.
Part of the deal included a proscription—a death list of people who the new government felt were a threat. Cicero was on the list and was hunted and killed. His head and hands were cut off and placed in Rome as a warning to those who would write and speak against those in power.
Cicero’s life and examples are evident in his writings. His letters are superb examples of clear writing as well as a prime source of historical data. In terms of influence, his thoughts have affected many, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.