Who are Roman Era Philosophers?

The Roman period of the Ancient era of philosophy generally continues the classical Greek tradition and is usually considered to end with the Fall of Rome in the 5th Century.

It includes the following major philosophers:

Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.) Roman
Epictetus (c. A.D. 55 – 135) Greek-Roman
Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121 -180) Roman
St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430) Roman
Boethius (c. A.D. 480 – 525) Roman

Traditionally, the Fall of Rome was A.D. 476, when the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire was deposed, although St. Augustine and Boethius represent a link between the Roman and Medieval periods, and arguably the early Christian St. Augustine had more in common with the later Medieval philosophers than with the earlier Romans. There is also some overlap with the Hellenistic period, and the distinction is as much geographical as historical.

Stoicism and Neo-Platonism were the most influential philosophical schools among Roman philosophers, although there was also a revival of Cynicism.

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Boethius (c. 480 – 525)

Introduction

boethiusAnicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (usually known simply as Boethius) (c. 480 – 525) was a 6th Century Roman Christian philosopher of the late Roman period.

He is sometimes called the last of the Roman philosophers and the first of the Scholastics, and his final work, the “Consolation of Philosophy”, assured his legacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. His Latin translations of some of the works of Aristotle were the only ones available in Europe until the 12th Century.

 

Life

Boethius (pronounced Bo-EE-tius) was born in Rome to an ancient and important patrician family which included emperors (Petronius Maximus and Olybrius) and many consuls on both sides. His father’s line also included two popes. His father, Flavius Manlius Boethius, was consul in 487.

His exact date of birth is disputed, although it is usually located at around A.D. 480, (the same year of birth as St. Benedict), or sometimes A.D. 475 or 476 (the same time as the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed). He was left an orphan at an early age and was educated by the pious and noble-minded Symmachus, whose daughter, Rusticana, he later married.

His father is recorded as proctor of a school in Alexandria, Egypt in the period around A.D. 470, and Boethius may have received some of his formidable education in Greek either there or in Athens. Either way, as early as 507 he was known as a learned man, and he entered the service of Theodoric the Great, the King of the Ostrogoths and de facto ruler of Italy (Theodoric had replaced Odoacer who had deposed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 476). In 510, he became consul in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths, and by 520, at the age of about forty, Boethius had risen to the position of magister officiorum, the head of all the government and court services. In 522, his two sons were both appointed consuls, reflecting their father’s prestige.

In 523, however, Theodoric had Boethius arrested on charges of treason, possibly for a suspected plot with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I, or possibly just due to the political slander of his rivals (as Boethius himself claimed). He was stripped of his titles and wealth and imprisoned at Pavia in northern Italy, and finally executed in 524.

By the 8th Century, Boethius was represented as a martyr for the Christian faith (his family had been orthodox Christian for about a century, and Theodoric was an Arian heretic), and he is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church (although there some who dispute that he was a Christian at all, or that he abjuredthe Faith before his death).

 

Work

Boethius’ lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. He intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin, and his completed translations of Aristotle‘s works on Logic were the only significant portions of Aristotle available in Europe until the 12th Century. However, some of his translations were mixed with his own commentary, which reflected both Aristotelian and Platonic concepts.

He also produced commentaries on the “Isagoge” of Porphyry (c. A.D.233 -309), an important text on the Platonic treatment of the problem of universals, as well as several original treatises on Logic. Boethius’ theological works, which generally involve support for the orthodox position against Arian ideas and other contemporary religious debates, were much studied in the early Middle Ages.

Boethius’s most popular and enduring work, though, was the “Consolation of Philosophy”, which he wrote in prison in 523 while awaiting his execution. The work is cast as a dialogue between Boethius himself (bitter and despairing over his imprisonment) and the spirit of philosophy (depicted as a woman of wisdom and compassion), and is alternately composed in prose and verse. It teaches acceptanceof hardship in a spirit of philosophical detachment from misfortune, and parts of the work are reminiscent of the Socratic method of Plato’s dialogues.

The work takes up many problems of Metaphysics and Ethics, and it treats of the being and nature of God, of providence and fate, of the origin of the universe, and of the freedom of the will. Interestingly, it contains very little Christian influence, and its focus is much more on Neo-Platonism and even a recourse to Stoicism.

Many manuscripts survive, and it was extensively edited, translated, commentaried and printed throughout Europe from the late 15th Century onwards (including translations by Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I), and it has been one of the most influential books in European culture. In particular, the concept of the “Boethian Wheel” (or the “Wheel of Fortune”), depicting the rise and fall of man, was frequently used in the “Consolation” and remained very popular throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Boethius also produced texts on mathematics and the theory of music. His loose translation of Nicomachus’ treatise on arithmetic (and his translations of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on astronomy, if they were in fact completed, although they no longer survive) contributed to medieval education, and his mathematical texts were used in the early medieval universities. He also introduced the threefold classification of music: music of the spheres/world, harmony of human body/spirit and instrumental music (including the human voice).

St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430)

Introduction

augustineSt. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430) was an Algerian-Roman philosopher and theologian of the late Roman / early Medieval period. He is one of the most important early figures in the development of Western Christianity, and was a major figure in bringing Christianity to dominance in the previously pagan Roman Empire. He is often considered the father of orthodox theology and the greatest

of the four great fathers of the Latin Church (along with St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory).

Unlike the later Scholastics who took Aristotle as the classical model to be integrated into Christian thought, Augustine developed a philosophical and theological system which employed elements of Plato and Neo-Platonism in support of Christian orthodoxy. His many works profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.

 

Life

Aurelius Augustinus (usually known as simply Augustine) was born on 13 November 354 in Tagaste (or Thagaste), a provincial Roman city in Algeria, North Africa, and he was, by descent, a Berber. His father Patricius was a pagan, but his mother Monica (or Monnica) was a devout Catholic (and is herself revered as a Christian saint), so he was raised as a Catholic. At the age of 11, he was sent to school at Madaurus, an old Numidian town just south of Tagaste, famed both for its schools and for its pagan influence, where he became very familiar with Latin literature, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. Later he read the “Hortensius”, a dialogue by the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, which was largely responsible for sparking his interest in philosophy.

At the age of 17, he went to Carthage, Tunisia (the metropolis of Roman Africa) to continue his education in rhetoric, and there he came under the influence of the controversial Persian religious cult of Manichaeism, much to the despair of his mother. He lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, including frequent visits to the brothels of Carthage, and developed a relationship with a young woman named Floria Aemilia, who would be his concubine for over fifteen years, and who bore him a son, Adeodatus.

After a year or two teaching grammar back in his home town, he returned to Carthage where he spent nine years conducting a school of rhetoric, until, in 383 (at the age of 29), he moved to Rome to teach rhetoric. However, he was disappointedwith the apathetic and crooked Roman schools, and the next year he accepted an appointment as professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan, a highly visible and influential academic chair.

During his time at Rome and Milan, he had moved away from Manichaeism, initially embracing the Skepticism of the New Academy movement. A combination of his own studies in Neo-Platonism, his reading of an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, and the combined influence of his mother, his friend Simplicianus and, particularly, the influential bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose (338 – 397), gradually inclined Augustine towards Christianity. In the summer of 386, he officially converted to Catholic Christianity, abandoned his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, and gave up any ideas of the society marriage which had been arranged for him, and devoted himself entirely to serving God, the priesthood and celibacy. He detailed this spiritual journey in his famous “Confessions”, which became a classic of both Christian theology and world literature.

In 388, he returned to Africa, although his mother died on the way there, and his son Adeodatus died soon after, leaving him alone in the world, without family. He sold his patrimony, giving the money to the poor, and converted the family house into a monastic foundation for himself and a group of friends. In 391, he was ordained a priest (and later bishop) at Hippo Regius on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria, and he became a famous preacher, particularly noted for opposing Manichaeism and heresies such as Donatism and Pelagianism. He remained in this position at Hippo until his death in 430, working tirelessly to convert the diverse local racial and religious groups to the Catholic faith.

Augustine died on 28 August 430, aged 75, during the siege of Hippo by the Germanic Vandals, who destroyed all of the city except Augustine’s cathedral and library. His body was later moved to Pavia, Italy (or, according to another account, to Cagliari on the island of Sardinia). Almost throughout his life he had been a lonely, isolated figure, not attached to any intellectual or academic movement, and without any university or institutional support for his work. At the time of his death, he was apparently the only person in his whole town who possessed any books at all.

He was made a saint (patron saint of brewers, printers, sore eyes and theologians) of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and among the Orthodox he is known as Blessed Augustine or St. Augustine the Blessed. He is the patron of the Augustinian religious order (the Catholic monastic order of both men and women living according to a guide to religious life known as the Rule of Saint Augustine). In 1298, he was made a pre-eminent Doctor of the Church.

Work

Augustine wrote over 100 works in Latin, many of them texts on Christian doctrine and apologetic works against various heresies. He is best known for the “Confessiones” (“Confessions”, a personal account of his early life, completed in about 397), “De civitate Dei” (“The City of God”, consisting of 22 books started in 413 and finished in 426, dealing with God, martyrdom, Jews and other Christian philosophies) and “De Trinitate” (“On the Trinity”, consisting of 15 books written over the final 30 years of his life, in which he developed the “psychological analogy” of the Trinity).

In both his philosophical and theological reasoning, he was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-Platonism, particularly the “Enneads” of Plotinus (his generally favourable view of Neo-Platonic thought contributed to its entrance into the Christian, and subsequently the European, intellectual tradition). He was also influenced by the works of the Roman poet Virgil (for his teaching on language), Cicero (for his teaching on argument) and Aristotle (particularly his “Rhetoric” and “Poetics”).

Augustine argued that Skeptics have no basis for claiming to know that there is no knowledge, and he believed that genuine human knowledge can be established with certainty. He believed reason to be a uniquely human cognitive capacity that comprehends deductive truths and logical necessity. In a proof for existence similar to one later made famous by Descartes, Augustine claimed “Si fallor, sum” (“If I am mistaken, I am”). He also adopted a subjective view of time, arguing that time is nothing in reality but exists only in the human mind’s apprehension of reality, and that time cannot be infinite because God “created” it.

Augustine struggled to reconcile his beliefs about free will and his belief that humans are morally responsible for their actions, with his belief that one’s life is predestined and his belief in original sin (which seems to make human moral behaviour nearly impossible). He held that, because human beings begin with original sin and are therefore inherently evil (even if, as he believed, evil is not anything real but merely the absence of good), then the classical attempts to achieve virtue by discipline, training and reason are all bound to fail, and the redemptive action of God’s grace alone offers hope. He opined that “We are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone”.

In his theological works, Augustine expounded on the concept of original sin (the guilt of Adam which all human beings inherit) in his works against the Pelagian heretics, providing an important influence on St. Thomas Aquinas. He helped formulate the theory of the just war, and advocated the use of force against the Donatist heretics. He developed doctrines of predestination (the divine foreordaining of all that will ever happen) and efficacious grace (the idea that God’s salvation is granted to a fixed number of those whom He has already determined to save), which later found eloquent expression in the works of Reformation theologians such as Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and John Calvin(1509 – 1564), as well as Cornelius Jansen (1585 – 1638) during the Counter-Reformation.

Augustine took the view that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason (e.g. he believed that God created the world simultaneously and that the seven-day creationrecorded in the Bible merely represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way). Although he believed that God had chosen the Jews as a special people, he considered the scattering of Jews by the Roman empire to be a fulfillment of prophecy, and believed that the Jews would be converted at the end of time. He associated sexual desire with the sin of Adam, and believed that it was still sinful, even though the Fall has made it part of human nature.

In “The City of God”, he conceived of the church as a heavenly city or kingdom, ruled by love, which will ultimately triumph over all earthly empires which are self-indulgent and ruled by pride. He emphasized the church’s strict independencefrom, and its superiority over, the civil state. Begun in the aftermath of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, it was to some extent written as a defence against those who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome, and to restore the confidenceof his fellow Christians.

 

Marcus Aurelius (c. A.D. 121 – 180)

Introduction

Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius (c. A.D. 121 – 180) was a Roman Emperor (the last of the “Five Good Emperors”) and philosopher of the Roman period. He is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers.

Although, perhaps not a first-rank or original philosopher, his “Meditations” remain revered as a literary monument and as a succinct statement of Stoic philosophy. Looked at as a series of practical philosophical exercises intended to digest and put into practice philosophical theory, his works have had a profound influence over the centuries.

 

Life

Marcus Aurelius was born on 26 April A.D. 121 in Rome (originally named Marcus Annius Catilius Severus at birth). His father was Marcus Annius Verus (of Spanish origin, served as a praetor and died when Marcus was just three years old); his mother was Domitia Lucilla (from a wealthy family of consular rank). He had no brothers and just one sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, who was about two years younger than he. After his father’s death, Marcus Aurelius was adopted and raised by his mother and paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus.

He had several family connections to various Roman emperors, mainly on his father’s side, and he had already attracted the attention of the ruling Emperor Hadrian as a young boy. He was made a member of the equestrian order when he was six. When Hadrian’s first adopted son died young, he adopted Anoninus Pius as his son and successor, on the precondition that Antoninus would in turn adopt both Marcus Aurelius (then called Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus) and his own grandson Lucius Aurelius Verus, and arrange for them to be next in line. Thus, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Verus were adopted by Anoninus Pius when he became Emperor in A.D. 138 and designated as his joint successors.

Marcus Aurelius received an education from some of the greatest scholars of his day: Euphorion for literature, Geminus for drama, Andron for geometry, Alexander of Cotiaeum for Greek, Caninius Celer and Herodes Atticus for Greek oratory and Marcus Cornelius Fronto for Latin. He was an intelligent, serious-minded and hardworking youth, and at quite an early age he became fond of the “Diatribai” (“Discourses”) of Epictetus, an important moral philosopher of the Stoic school.

He also started to have an increasing public role at the side of Antoninus, holding the position of consul three times in A.D. 140, A.D. 145 and A.D. 161, and increasingly involved in decisions. In A.D. 147 he received the proconsular imperium outside Rome and the tribunicia potestas, the main formal powers of emperorship. In A.D. 145, he married Annia Galeria Faustina (Faustina the Younger), who was Antoninus’ daughter and Marcus Aurelius’ own paternal cousin, and they were to bear 13 children, although only one son (Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, who would succeed him) and four daughters would outlive their father. When he married, he took the name Marcus Annius Verus.

When Antoninus Pius died in A.D. 161, Marcus Aurelius (or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus as he was then officially named) and Lucius Verus became joint Emperors, as had been arranged previously by Hadrian, although Verus (ten years younger and less popular) was probably subordinate in practice. During his reign, Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war with various peoples outside the empire, and having joint emperorship was probably a practical boon as well: Verus was authoritative enough to command the full loyalty of the troops, but already powerful enough that he had little incentive to try to overthrow Marcus Aurelius, and he remained loyal until his death during a pandemic of smallpox or measles while on campaign in A.D. 169, at which time Marcus Aurelius assumed sole emperorship.

As Emperor, he continued on the path of his predecessors by issuing numerous law reforms, and maintaining the status of Christians as legally punishable, although rarely persecuted in practice. The war with the revitalized Parthian Empire in Asia was essentially won by the end of the A.D. 160s, but the continuing battles against various Germanic tribes and other nomadic peoples along the northern borderand into Gaul and across the Danube (as well as minor revolts by ambitious generals) plagued Marcus Aurelius for the greater part of his remaining life.

Together with his wife, Faustina, Marcus Aurelius toured the eastern provincesuntil A.D. 173, including a visit to Athens where he declared himself a protector of philosophy. He also establish four Chairs of Philosophy in Athens, one for each of the principal philosophical traditions of the time (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean).

After a triumph in Rome the following year, he marched again to the Danubian frontier, and a plan to annex Bohemia seemed poised for success after a decisive victory in A.D. 178, but was abandoned after Marcus Aurelius fell ill in A.D. 180.

Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March A.D. 180, in the city of Vindobona (modern-day Vienna, Austria). He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome where they rested in Hadrian’s mausoleum (modern Castel Sant’Angelo) until the Visigoths sacked the city in A.D. 410. His campaigns against the Germans and Sarmatians were also commemorated by a column in Rome.

Marcus Aurelius’ death is often held to have been the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. He had named his son, Commodus, as Caesar in A.D. 166 and then as co-emperor with him in A.D. 177 (possibly just a pragmatic choice made out of Marcus Aurelius’ fear of succession issues and the possibility of civil war). But, as sole Emperor after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ instability, apathy and cowardice resulted in a series of crises and the start of the decline in imperial morals and attitudes.

 

Work

Although his philosophical output was not large or original (unsurprising given the other calls on his time), the twelve books of his “Meditations”, written in Greek while on campaign between A.D. 170 and A.D. 180 as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement, remain revered as a literary monument and as a succinct statement of Stoic philosophy (although nowhere in the “Meditations” does Marcus Aurelius explicitly call himself a Stoic). The “Meditations” may be read as a series of practical philosophical exercises designed to digest and put into practice philosophical theory, and thereby to transform his own behaviour and his entire way of life.

Particularly important in his thought was his complete disbelief in an afterlife and the conviction that everything, even legends, will be turned into absolute oblivionand is already in the process of disintegrating and changing. In his opinion, to desirewas to be permanently disappointed and disturbed, since everything we desire in this world is “empty and corrupt and paltry”. Thus, death was desirable, because it would mark an end to all desires.

Despite his thoughts on life and death, Marcus Aurelius was an advocate of rational virtue, and had a kind of indifference towards the brutalities of life. He justified his deeds as an Emperor, such as his persecution of Christians and his frequent military campaigns, by pointing out the insignificance of worldly affairs. He showed no particular religious faith in his writings, but seemed to believe that some sort of logical, benevolent force organizes the universe in such a way that even “bad” occurrences happen for the good of the whole. He echoed Epictetus in his claims that all attributions of good or evil are the product of human judgements.

His Stoic ideas often revolved around the denial of emotion, a skill which, he says, can free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world, and he claimed that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. In a number of passages, Marcus Aurelius exhorts himself to overcome the limited perspective of the individual and experience the world from a cosmic perspective, sometimes evoking the Stoic physics of flux inherited from Heraclitus. He believed that once one has overcome false value-judgements (e.g. that wealth and social standing are valuable, and that one should compete for them against others), one will experience the cosmos as a single living being (identified with God) rather than as a site of conflict and destruction.


Epictetus (c. A.D. 55 – 135)

Introduction

epictetusEpictetus (c. A.D. 55 – 135) was a Greek/Roman philosopher of the Hellenistic period. He managed to overcome huge obstacles in developing from a crippled Roman slave to become one of the most popular and sought after philosophers of his time.

He was one of the most influential teachers of the later years of the school of Stoicism, and considered by some to be the greatest of the Stoics. Because so little of the original early works of Stoicism has survived, his transcribed teachings are also a major source of our knowledge of the movement.

 

Life

Epictetus (pronounced epic-TEE-tus) was born around A.D. 55 in the Roman city of Hierapolis (the present-day city of Pamukkale in south-western Turkey). He spent his youth in Rome as a slave to Epaphroditus, a wealthy freedman and secretary to the Roman Emperor Nero. He was either lame from birth or, as some sources have it, deliberately crippled by Epaphroditus. Even as a slave, he studied Stoic philosophy under one of the greatest Stoic teachers of the age, Gaius Musonius Rufus, before the latter’s exile by Nero for his ethical teachings.

He gained his freedom after his master was put to death by Nero’s successor Emperor Domitian, and began to teach philosophy in Rome. Around A.D. 93, however, Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome (and ultimately from all of Italy), and Epictetus travelled to Nicopolis in north-western Greece. There, he founded his own philosophical school, which soon acquired a good reputation, attracting many upper-class Romans. His most famous pupil there was Arrian (Flavius Arrianus: c. A.D. 86 – 160), who studied under him as a young man and wrote the famous “Discourses” and the “Handbook” based on his lecture notes.

He lived a life of great simplicity, with few possessions. He was reportedly a powerful speaker and famed for his knowledge and wisdom. According to some reports, he was more popular in his day than Plato had been in his, and the Emperor Hadrian (among other eminent figures) favoured him and may have visited his school in Nicopolis. He never married and had no children, and for many years he lived alone, although in his old age he adopted a friend’s child (who would otherwise have been left to die), and brought him up as his own.

Epictetus died around the year A.D. 135 in Nicopolis.

 

Work

So far as is known, Epictetus himself wrote nothing, and all that remains of his work was faithfully transcribed by his pupil, Arrian around the years A.D. 104 – 107. The main work is “The Discourses” (of which four of the original eight books have been preserved), and a popular digest of that work, entitled the “Enchiridion” (or “Handbook”).

The Stoicism school of philosophy had been founded nearly 400 years before Epictetus, and very little of the original works of Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus of Soli (c. 280 – 207 B.C.) has survived. Most of our knowledge of Stoic philosophy therefore comes down to us from Epictetus, although it is difficult to tell to what extent he preserved the original doctines, and how much he innovated and adapted.

Epictetus focused more on Ethics (and less on Logic and physics) than the early Stoics had, and he brought to a logical conclusion Stoicism’s tendency to reduce philosophy to Ethics. He saw the role of the Stoic teacher as encouraging his students to discover the invariable and inviolable true nature of things. The nature of things falls into two categories: those which are subject to our exclusive power (e.g. judgment, impulse, desire, aversion, etc), and those which are not (e.g. health, material wealth, fame, etc). In order to achieve the ultimate goal of ataraxia (an undisturbed and serene state of mind), the philosopher should therefore concentrate on those things he has some control over, and not be affected by the external objects of our lives (over which we have no control). Essentially, then, Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions, in order to develop clear judgment and inner calm and the ultimate goal of freedom from suffering.

The Stoics were essentially materialists, and God was conceived of as a type of fiery breath that blended perfectly with all other matter in the universe and transformed matter from undifferentiated “stuff” into the varied forms that we see around us. The mind of each person was quite literally a fragment of God, and the rationality that we each possess therefore a fragment of God’s rationality. Living in harmony with nature, and accepting whatever fate brings were also important Stoics precepts. Epictetus argued that we can never fail to be happy if we learn to desire that things should be exactly as they are.

 

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.)

Introduction

CiceroMarcus Tullius Cicero (usually known simply as Cicero) (106 – 43 B.C.) was a Roman philosopher, orator and statesman of the Roman period. He was a central political figure during the turbulent reign of Julius Caesar, and politics was always the most important thing in his life, but he still managed to produce six influential books on rhetoric and eight on philosophy (much of it during enforced periods of exile).

He is generally perceived to be one of the most versatile minds of ancient Rome, and is widely considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists. While perhaps not an exceptional or original thinker, he was instrumental in introducing the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy, and was declared a “righteous pagan” by the early Catholic Church (meaning that many of his works were deemed worthy of preservation – St. Augustine and others quoted liberally from his works).

Life

Cicero was born on 3 January 106 B.C. in Arpinum, a hill town south of Rome. His father was a well-to-do and well-read member of the semi-noble equestrian (or knight) class with good connections in Rome, although with no familial ties to the Roman patrician or senatorial class. Little is known about his mother, Helvia.

He was an extremely talented student, whose learning attracted attention from all over Rome, leading to an opportunity to study Roman law under the prominent politician and legal authority Quintus Mucius Scaevola (c. 159 – 88 B.C.). His fellow students with Scaevola were Gaius Marius Minor, Servius Sulpicius Rufus (106 – 43 B.C., who became a famous lawyer), and Titus Pomponius Atticus (c. 110 – 32 B.C., who became Cicero’s closest friend, chief emotional support and adviser). Cicero also had the support of his family’s patrons, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus (163 – 89 B.C.) and Lucius Licinius Crassus (140 -91 B.C., who was a model to Cicero both as an orator and as a statesman).

In the late 90’s and early 80’s B.C., Cicero fell in love with philosophy, which was to have a great role in his life. The first philosopher he met was the Epicurean philosopher Phaedrus (d. 70 B.C.), when he was visiting Rome in around 91 B.C. In 87 B.C., Philo of Larissa (c. 159 – 84 B.C.), then head of the New Academy in Athens, visited Rome and Cicero enthusiastically absorbed the philosophy of Academic Skepticism at his feet. Cicero also met Diodotus (d. 59 B.C.), a Stoic, and for a time he adopted a modified Stoicism, and Diodotus became Cicero’s protégé and lived in his house until his death.

Cicero’s ambitions for an illustrious career in public civil service started with some time in military service in 90 – 88 B.C. (although he had no taste for military life), and then the early years in his career as a lawyer around 83 – 81 B.C., including the politically courageous defence of Sextus Roscius on a charge of parricide. After winning this sensitive case, however, Cicero thought it prudent to leave Italy for a while and travelled to Athens to stay with his childhood friend, Atticus. There, he further consulted with philosophers of the Academy and the New Academy, and particularly with the rhetorician Apollonius Molon of Rhodes (fl. 70 B.C.) in order to learn a less exhausting style of public speaking.

On his return to Rome, Cicero’s reputation rose very quickly. In 79 B.C., he married Terentia, a wealthy heiress of patrician background. The marriage, which was initially a marriage of convenience, was harmonious for over 30 years, until their divorce in 45 B.C., and they had two children, Tullia Ciceronis (b. 78 B.C.) and Marcus Tullius Cicero Minor (b. 65 B.C.) . He rose to the position of quaestor (a financial administrator, which also made him a member of the Roman Senate) for western Sicily in 75 B.C.. His career received a further fillip from the great success of his prosecution of Gaius Verres (120 – 43 B.C.), a corrupt governor of Sicily.

Despite his lack of social standing, he was able to ascend the Roman cursus honorum (sequence of public offices) and was made consulin 63 B.C., at the relatively young age of 43. After helping to suppress a conspiracy, however, he was forced into exile in Thessalonica, Greece in 58 B.C., although he was rehabilitated just a year later and his properties restored. When Julius Caesar (100 – 44 B.C.) invaded Italy in 49 B.C., Cicero, having thown in his lot with Caesar’s main rival, Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus: 106 – 48 B.C.), again fled Rome, this time to Illyria (modern-day Albania). Caesar eventually pardoned him, but Cicero returned to Rome very cautiously.

Soon after his divorce from Terentia in 45 B.C., his daughter (and favourite) Tullia died, and for a long time Cicero was inconsolable. He was also saddened that his son Marcus insisted on pursuing a military career rather than philosophy, even if later Marcus rose to the position of proconsul of Syria and the province of Asia.

In the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., Cicero became a popular leader during the period of instability that followed, supporting Octavian (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.), Caesar’s heir and adopted son (later to become Emperor Caesar Augustus). He orchestrated political attacks on Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius: 83 – 30 B.C.) who was jockeying for power and scheming to take revenge on Caesar’s murderers. In reprisal, he was hunted down by Mark Antony’s forces and was himself summarily assassinated on 7 December, 43 B.C. at Formia, between Rome and Naples.

 

Work

Among 60 speeches (both as a lawyer and as a senator) and over 900 letters of Cicero which have been preserved, six influential books on rhetoric and eight on philosophy have come down to us (although some in fragmentary condition). Given that they were designed with a political purpose in mind, we cannot be sure of Cicero’s actual opinions, and it should be noted that the dialogue form of many of them is useful for an author who wishes to express a number of opinions without having to endorse one.

In the political chaos following the dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 78 B.C.), and the First Triumvirate (the unofficial political alliance of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus), Cicero sought to reinstate (and, if possible, improve) what he thought of as the “golden age” of the Roman Republic, ruled by a selfless nobility of successful individuals. He also looked to boost the influence of his own family’s equestrian class, rather than relying on the self-serving and often corrupt patrician class. His political vision is detailed in the “De Re Publica”, of which unfortunately only fragments remain, including the famous Dream of Scipio.

He tried to use philosophy to bring about his political goals, which, in an age when serious philosophy was still very much centred in Greece, required making it accessible to a Roman audience through Latin translations of the major Greek works and summaries of the beliefs of the primary Greek philosophical schools of the time (Skepticism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and Epicureanism). He was well acquainted with all these schools (he had teachers in each of them at different times of his life), and he is the source of much of our knowledge about these schools. He professed allegiance throughout his life to the Skepticism of the New Academy (which, as a politician and a lawyer, with the need to be able see as many sides of an argument as possible, is probably understandable).