General Notes on Cicero's Political Thought

Having realized that it would be impossible to get through all of the de Re Publica and the de Officiis in a timely manner if I continued to lecture in as much detail and with as much attention to the text as I was doing before the break, I decided a more compendious approach was in order. What is more, it seems that after the break, we could all use a bit of refreshing about what we were talking about before the break. So this page repeats some of what was covered in the week or so before break.

This page is largely inspired by and is a presentation of E.M. Atkins chapter on Cicero from The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. Indication  of quotations and citations of page numbers would be tedious, but the reader should know that Atkins' chapter is the source of the structure of this page. Much of the wording has been changed to my own idiom.

Cicero's background is relevant to his political thought: he was a novus homo, a man whose family had never before had one of its members achieve the consulship.

He was from Arpinum. In his life, he governed Rome, Sicily, and Cilicia. He studied at Rome and in Greece. He was widely read.

Cicero knew that no political regime lasts forever. Conscious of that, he nonetheless argued that the Roman republic was the most stable regime available. As a novus homo and an intellectual, he had the fervor of a convert combined with the scholarly urge, and so he put in writing the aristocratic ideals of the Roman republic of his time.

He set the scene of the de Re Publica in Rome's past, possibly because he was convinced that the tradition, and the fact that it was a tradition, not a pie-in-the-sky intellectual endeavor, gave what he wrote gravitas and credibility. But he was deeply familiar with the more theoretical discussions of politics that Greek philosophy offered, and he reacts to, reshapes, and uses that tradition extensively in his writings.


The Republic was governed by a few aristocratic families, but it was not a closed club. New blood could enter. Cicero was one of them. Those few families are known as patricians. They were the governing class. They were wealthy too, but considered such things beneath them.

But there was a parallel wealthy class called the equites ("knights") who ruled the world of property and finance in Rome. They did not have political duties or privileges. But they could stand for office and thereby switch over to the patricians.

Voting was weighted in Rome towards the wealthy and aristocrats. What is more, although anyone could stand for office, in practice, only the aristocrats did most of the time.

The people had significant opportunities to exercise their political power particularly when there was disagreement and conflict in the aristocratic class (remember Thersites).

victorious generals => triumphs => election
lavish funerals =>publicity => election
important court cases => renown => election
Reputation => election

Those who favored reforms that would give more to the people were known as 'polulares.' It was not a party in our sense, but rather a tendency which some politicians followed some of the time. The paradigm populares were the Gracchi brothers, Gaius and Tiberius, both of whom were killed in the early to mid 2nd c. BCE. Measures of populares were one force that caused tension in the system.

The empire grew and grew. Individual military commanders accrued immense power and could hold it for a long time (as opposed to consuls who were consul for one year only).

Individual ties to the provinces and allies were of great import.

From the time when Marius encouraged the propertyless to enroll in the Roman army in 107BCE, individual military commanders came to wield so much power that there were not effective checks and balances on their power.

Everything was cast in moral terms: virtue and vice, justice and injustice, etc.
The code was an inherited one: mos maiorum, and was to a large extent responsible for keeping things on track in Rome.
Education via historical heroes: actual historical personages held up for emulation.
Education via apprenticeship to powerful individuals who knew the code.
Respect for precedent was deeply engrained.
The family, not the individual was the locus of pride and reputation.
"In theory, individual and familial ambitions were channeled to benefit the greater whole. There was thus an inherent tension in the system between competitive and socially directed values."

For the powerful, it consisted in preventing one from becoming supreme.
For the people, it meant equality before the law, right of appeal, voting.

Cicero's initial education with L Licinius Crassus the orator, Quintus Mucius Scaevola the Augur and his cousin Quintus Mucius Scaevola the Pontifex, both of whom were lawyers. He got from theme a passion for moderated conservatism.

Philosophically, he was influenced and learned from the Stoic Diodotus and the head of the Academy Philo of Larissa, a sceptic. Then he went to Greece from 77-79 and studied under the Stoic Posidonius and the Academic Antiochus of Ascalon, an Old Academy man.

Cicero followed scepticism in that he held that one should examine all sides, then choose one, but not be dogmatic about it. But he also admired and took material from stoics, peripatetics, and Platonists. The only ones he rejected explicitly were Epicureans (although he sometimes seems to take something from them too). Cicero's closest friend Atticus was an Epicurean.

When he was unable to be politically active, Cicero wrote philosophical works. It was clearly a substitute, not his most preferred activity.

Cicero rose to power through being an orator. He took on important cases and acquitted himself well. First, he defended Sextus Roscius Ameria against a supporter of Sulla the dictator. Then the Verrines in 69 BCE against an exploitative governor of Sicily.

As consul in 63, his first action was defeating land reform. But his main claim to fame as consul was putting down the rebellion of Catiline, who was following the populares tendency.

After his consulship, the triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus made Cicero's brand of politics, moderate conservatism, out of favor. What is more, Cicero had a powerful aristocratic enemy, Publius Clodius, who drove Cicero into exile in 58 (he was recalled the next year, but it had a significant effect on his career and person).

Under Caesar and Pompey, Cicero was not happy. His "concord of the orders" could not come to be without free senatorial debate, free law courts, and a free republic. He was compelled to defend personal enemies and forced to renounce some of his ideas.
Atkins' conclusion:
"It may have been naive, but it was not, surely, valueless, to suggest an alternative strategy [to tyranny] for restoring and maintaining peace. The ethos of the Roman Republic, ti which Cicero gave personal philosophical Expression, was to possess a lasting appeal." P516