Marcus Tullius Cicero was a famous Roman politician and speaker, who rubbed shoulders with Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Brutus. But what else do we know about this fabled orator of the Roman Empire? Here are 11 fascinating facts about this legendary Roman figure—who wasn’t really Roman.
Cicero: 11 Fascinating Facts about Rome’s Greatest Orator.
1. His surname means ‘Chickpea.’
Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in Arpinium, Italy, in January, 106 BC. His parents—Marcus Tullius, a well-connected knight, and Helvia—were very wealthy, and a part of the area’s nobility.
As part of the tradition of Romans shunning the hierarchy and choosing relatable, approachable surnames, Cicero’s ancestors chose ‘Chickpea.’ According to Plutarch, Cicero was pressured heavily to change his surname when he became a politician. He refused, citing political greats like Scaurus—meaning ‘Swollen-ankled’—and Catalus—meaning ‘Puppy, an interesting fact about Cicero.
2. He was ahead of his time.
As an Arpinian, Cicero’s people spoke a native Volsian. He followed the trend by learning Latin, which helped him to assimilate well into Roman society, decades before Rome absorbed Arpinium.
The upper echelons of Roman society believed that the upper class should speak both Latin and Greek. Historical records and letters of the period show that the Roman people preferred to use Greek for their correspondence. According to many, it was more eloquent and delicate. Greek literature was also important to the Romans, and having an understanding of Greek culture was very important. Cicero was ahead of his time here, too—Greek was part of the Arpinium curriculum. Cicero’s generation of men were also taught about ancient Greek rhetoricians, and often taught oratory skills by Greek teachers.
3. He worked hard to fit in.
Despite this easy assimilation, history shows that Cicero was never quite accepted as Roman—a point of contention for him throughout his life there. Despite being somewhat of an outcast for his lack of Roman heritage, it was his intrinsic knowledge—and hard work—in the areas of Greek and Latin philosophy—that helped him gain massive power amongst Rome’s high society.
Cicero spent years translating Greek philosophy into Latin, in order to make the fascinating stories and ideologies accessible to a wider audience, an interesting Cicero fact. He was so obsessed with Greek culture—and the language itself—that his family and friends called him ‘Gadymedes,’ meaning ‘Little Greek Boy.’ The name comes from the young Trojan boy who was kidnapped by Zeus to be his cupbearer, because he was so beautiful and pure. Although the word itself was a term of endearment amongst the Greek people, it was an insult to use the word when referring to a grown man.
4. He served in the military—briefly.
In addition to his extensive education in Latin and Greek language and culture, Cicero also served in the Roman military from 89 BC. He served under the father of famed general, Pompey.
Less than a decade later, Cicero successfully defended Publius Quinctius, and then Sextus Roscius in Rome’s highest courts. His defense of Roscius against a charge of murdering his own father brought Cicero strong public renown—he was only 27 years old at the time.
5. He rose to power quickly.
From here, Cicero began his career as a quaestor in Sicily, before becoming a powerful judicial officer. As a praetor—the Latin term for a judicial officer—one of Cicero’s first major speeches was in favor of Pompey leading a campaign on Anatolia. He spoke against the conservative Roman Senate.
Despite Cicero’s first official political speech being against Quintus Lutatius Catalus and the Optimates—the conservative party of the Senate—they elected him as Senate consul. Varying accounts of this election exist, although historians accept that his election was mainly due to the Optimates dislike of Cicero’s rival’s ideas.
6. He was the target of an assassination attempt.
This rival—Catiline—was a revolutionary with bad intentions. He planned armed protests in Italy, and was behind several arson attacks in Rome. Cicero worked for years to draw attention to the dangers of not dealing with Catiline, and for most of that time it was to no avail. In 63 BC, however, Cicero was able to convince the Senate to proclaim Senatus consultum ultimum—the Roman equivalent of martial law. Catiline retaliated by ordering the assassination of Cicero. The attempt failed, and several of Catiline’s co-conspirators were captured, an interesting Cicero fact.
7. He was far less tolerant than Julius Caesar.
A senatorial debate was held to decide how the prisoners should be punished for their crimes against Rome’s highest government. Cato the Younger voted for execution, and Julius Caesar argued against it. The final vote fell to Cicero, who famously pronounced to the Roman people: “Vixerunt.” The ruling, meaning “they are dead,” was greeted with celebration from the people of Rome, and Catulus proclaimed Cicero “the father of his country.”
8. He had marital troubles.
Around 79 BC, Cicero married a wealthy heiress named Terentia. It was a marriage of convenience on both parts, and Terentia was a strong-willed and religious woman. After 30 relatively happy years of marriage and two children, Cicero wrote to his brother claiming that Terentia had betrayed him. It is unclear what she did—or why—but Cicero quickly divorced her.
Five years later, he married his ward, Publilia, with many records showing that he did this for money.
9. He lost his beloved daughter in 45 BC.
Many of Cicero’s writings exalt his young daughter, Tullia. He describes her in letters as affectionate, clever, and the “express image of my very soul.” She gave birth to a son in January of 45 BC, but then became sick and died a month later. Cicero was heartbroken, and withdrew to his brother’s home to seek comfort. Brutus and Caesar both sent Cicero letters of condolence, and many of Cicero’s old friends showed him support at the time.
Publilia, his wife, had always been jealous and resentful of Cicero’s closeness with his daughter, and showed him no sympathy after her death. He divorced her within months of his daughter’s passing, an interesting fact about Cicero.
10. He wasn’t there when Julius Caesar was killed.
Despite Cicero’s support of Caesar’s political opponents, the famed orator was not involved in Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. He was also not present in the Senate when it occurred.
11. His death was ordered by Caesar’s son.
Cicero had planned to use Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian—who would soon become the emperor Augustus—to declare war on Mark Antony. He underestimated Octavian’s intelligence, and remarked publically that the young consul should be “given praise, distinctions, and then be disposed of.” When Octavian heard of this—and in conjunction with Octavian and Mark Antony working together—Caesar’s son ordered Cicero’s execution. Cicero was captured near Caieta on December 7, 43 BC, and executed immediately. His head and hands were displayed at the Forum in Rome, on the speakers’ platform, an interesting fact about Cicero.
Despite Cicero’s fascinating life and impressive education, his poor decision to publically insult a future emperor was to be his downfall. Displaying his head and hands on the speakers’ platform—where Cicero had delivered so many of his famed oratories—was the ultimate final insult, and a reminder from Emperor Augustus of how he would deal with treason.
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