The end of the Roman Republic initiated the decline of the Roman Empire as a whole. Marcus Tullius Cicero lived through these turbulent times, and he marked the Republic’s passing with grief because his warnings had gone unheard. Cicero was Rome’s most feared politician and one of the greatest lawyers and statesmen of all time. Not only did he oppose Julius Caesar under the dictatorship, but his speeches against Mark Antony also cost Cicero his life. Cicero’s main desire was to restore traditional political values to save the Republic. He believed that the condition of Rome during the late Republican era started to decline because of philosophical and political problems.
Cicero advocated a change in philosophy to save the Republic from decline. The great orator argued for or against every philosophical system in four of his works. He discussed indifference to death, enduring pain, alleviating stress, peace of mind, and the pursuit of happiness. Because Cicero believed that philosophy substitutes for political activity, he believed the downfall of the Republic evidenced the moral failure of Roman statesmen. Therefore, Cicero introduced Greek philosophy to his fellow Romans and even added philosophical terminology to the Latin language.
Cicero also claimed the moral philosophy of Rome was a failure. His personal philosophy mirrored the Stoic belief that true law equaled reason. Good would always be good; evil would always be evil. Cicero believed high moral standards should be upheld with determination and restraint. In his book On Duties, Cicero expounded on the corrupt moral values of Rome, and he accosted Mark Antony for his flagrant sexual practices. In the end Cicero postulated that the cause of Rome’s moral corruption lay at the door of its leadership who had taken away the rights of the citizens.
Cicero also believed the educational philosophy of Rome was faulty. In The Ideal Orator, Cicero outlined his views with arguments for a broadly-based and well-integrated liberal education. He presented politics as a division of learning which needed to be studied and mastered. Cicero urged that future statesmen of Rome be trained in this political education so they could fix the problems of the Republic.
Cicero further advocated that a change in politics would save the Republic from decline. He was a fervent supporter of the republican system, and his writings revealed a conservatism. He maintained this unpopular opinion throughout Caesar’s dictatorial reign. Cicero’s book, The Republic, insisted on the superiority of the constitution while outlining the degenerating state of contemporary Rome. The political fix, he believed, would come only through the Senate and the Roman people themselves.
Cicero thought the political crisis began under Tiberius Gracchus’s Tribuneship. In order to fix the constitutional crisis, the political state should be organized along the lines of a mixed or balanced constitution. This mixed constitution combined monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. The executive division had quasi-royal powers. The Senate, composed of political families, acted as a balance to the executive powers, and the people elected their politicians. Ultimately, Cicero offered the Republic a new constitution founded on the precepts of the old one.
Cicero also believed that a legal code would fix the problems of the Republic. In his book, On Law, Cicero sketched in detail a legal code for the ideal Roman state. Although this new code resembled the current Roman Constitution, Cicero corrected the major errors. The code voiced an early, abstract idea of rights based on ancient law and custom. Cicero believed the legal code should protect liberty and justice according to the universe’s natural law.
Cicero also attacked the Roman military which was, in his opinion, the greatest opponent of politics. As Caesar took control of Rome, Cicero realized that true power rested with the military, and it would lead to the fall of the Republic. All of his struggles for the constitution died because political power lay in the hands of soldiers and their leaders. Caesar promised his troops land and money, so at the end of his dictatorship, thousands of soldiers owed their loyalty, not to the Senate, but to their great general. Cicero feared that the military would come to rule the state.
Later historians and contemporaries of the Roman Republic criticized Cicero’s arguments for Roman decline. Tacitus, a historian of the Empire, believed that the Germanic tribes influenced the fall of the Roman Empire. Other historians claimed that Cicero’s principles relied on mistaken analysis because Cicero failed to understand the reasons for the Roman crisis. While Cicero argued that creating better politicians would solve the government, Caesar knew the limitations of the Roman constitution, and he ushered in a more effective government system. Although Cicero’s theory of a mixed constitution had profound effects on European political thought during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, his ideas were not suitable for the circumstances of the Roman Republic. He failed to consider Sulla’s disastrous attempt at a mixed constitution in the previous years. Overall, Cicero’s theories failed because he viewed politics in personal terms instead of structural terms, and in the end, his ideas made little impact on the political situation of the Republic.
However, some contemporaries and historians have agreed with Cicero’s beliefs. Cassiodorus, a devout monk of the sixth century, also advocated the idea of a liberal arts education. Even though Cicero’s political ideas misfired, his beliefs were remarkable for his era. He must be given credit for the amount of consideration and work he gave to providing solutions for his beloved Republic. Other historians also concluded that Rome declined because of political and moral issues. Some modern philosophers even based their political theories on Cicero’s writings which survived through the centuries. Cicero cannot be discarded just because he viewed government as personal instead of structural.
To the end of his life, Cicero remained steadfast in the belief that the Republic would fall because of philosophical and political problems. When the civil war came between Octavian and Mark Antony, Cicero supported Octavian in hopes that he would restore republican values. Although Octavian won the war, he issued in a new era of government. Cicero’s Republic had died, and the decline of Rome was now inevitable.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Cicero. On Government. Translated by Michael Grant. London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Cicero. The Republic – The Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Everitt, Antony. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. New York: Random House, Inc., 2003.