On Dec. 7, 43 B.C., the Roman statesman Cicero was assassinated. Set against the backdrop of the demise of the Roman Republic, Cicero was murdered to appease his primary political enemy, Mark Antony.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 B.C. to a wealthy family of launderers who belonged to the equestrian order, the commercial class that sat on the highest rung of the plebeian class. The name Cicero was a nickname meaning chickpea, perhaps referring to his bulbous nose (think of the distinctive nose of actor Karl Malden). Cicero entered the law around 80 B.C., making a name for himself defending Sextus Roscius, a man accused of murdering his own father.
Above the plebeian class sat the patricians, the class that boasted families who went all the way back to the foundation of the republic, and who typically dominated the senate. Through his intelligence and hard work, Cicero had been allowed to enter the senate despite his lack of noble heritage. Such a man was then referred to as Novus Homo, or New Man, since he was the first in his family to serve in the senate.
In the year 63 B.C., Cicero served as one of the two consuls, executive officers of the senate who together served a similar function to the president of the United States. While consul, Cicero defused the conspiracy of Catiline, a senator who sought to overthrow the republic. A few years later, when Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar formed the First Triumvirate, a political alliance, they asked Cicero to join, though he refused because he thought so much concentrated power in the hands of four men was antithetical to the ideals of the republic.
After Crassus died, the alliance between Caesar and Pompey soon withered, and in 49 B.C. Caesar crossed the Rubicon River from Gaul to Italy, essentially declaring war upon Pompey and the senate. Though Cicero had little love for Pompey, he joined him in the war until the senate's army was defeated by Caesar at Pharsalus in Greece in 48 B.C. After the battle Cicero returned to Rome, accepting Caesar's promise of a pardon.
A strict constitutionalist, Cicero was appalled at Caesar's domination of Roman politics, and no doubt detested the title given to him by the senate — perpetual dictator. The republic, it appeared, was being dismantled before his eyes. Caesar, however, was murdered by a host of senators in 44 B.C., who like Cicero wished to see a return to the republic.
In the aftermath of Caesar's death, Mark Antony, Caesar’s chief lieutenant, took over leadership of the pro-Caesar faction against the conspirators who had killed him. At the time, Antony also served as consul. Soon, however, a new contender for for leadership appeared in the form of Caesar's 18-year-old adopted son, Octavian. The young heir arrived in Rome to claim his inheritance, and soon after raised an army at his own expense, ostensibly to punish Caesar's murders, but just as much to challenge Antony's authority.
With the advent of Octavian, Cicero saw a way to finally restore the republic. He had long been critical of Antony, publicly attacking him with his speeches titled “The Philippics,” named in honor of the Greek orator Demosthenes' attacks on Philip II of Macedon. Now Cicero sought to work out a deal with Octavian in the hopes that he could control the young man, while at the same time sidelining Antony.
It didn't help Antony's cause that he left Rome before his term as consul was over to take up the governorship of Gaul. It further damaged his standing when the current governor of Gaul refused to leave early, and Antony went to war with him.
In his book “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician,” biographer Anthony Everitt wrote of a heated senate meeting: “Cicero opened the debate at an unusually well-attended meeting with a powerful address, his third philippic. He sought to demonstrate that Antony was an enemy of the state (arguably a treasonable assertion, bearing in mind that he was still consul, if only for a few more days). He also argued that Octavian's position as the leader of a private army should be regularized. For the first time, he referred to the young man not as Octavian but by his new patronymic. 'Caesar on his own initiative — he had no alternative — had liberated the republic.'”
The man who had railed against the evils of Catiline's revolution now embraced what amounted to the same thing with Octavian's private army, though his hope was to use Octavian to restore the republic as it had been. Though young, Octavian proved a shrewd political operator and used his army to blackmail the senate into giving him the powers of a consul. Octavian soon took an army into Gaul, ostensibly to find and punish Antony, now considered an outlaw.
Despite appearances, however, Octavian had no desire to arrest or kill Antony. Octavian's chief goal was to punish Caesar's murderers. For that, he wanted Antony as an ally. In the October, 43 B.C., Antony, Octavian and Antony's lackey Lepidus met near modern Bologna. Together they formed what historians refer to as the Second Triumvirate, a military government for Rome in which all three served as co-dictators. Cicero's hope for a restoration of the republic was crushed.
Further, the three men had two very important problems. The size of the Roman armies at this time was enormous, much larger than it had been during the period of the First Triumvirate, and if Caesar's murderers were to be hunted down and defeated the large army would be necessary. The question they faced was financing. How do you pay for such a large army? The second problem they faced dealt with political opposition in Rome. There were many powerful and influential senators and equities that would oppose their plans. How could they sideline their enemies?
The three men looked back to the example of Roman dictator, Sulla, who only a few decades earlier had faced a similar dilemma. Sulla's answer, and what the triumvirs would emulate, was the proscription lists. Essentially, a list of names was placed in the Roman forum. Any Roman citizen was allowed to kill anyone named by the lists, and upon offering proof of the murder, would be given a percentage of the murdered man's estate. The state would claim the bulk of the deceased's estate, solving the problems of money.
Generally, severed heads served as the required proof of the deed.
In his book, “Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic,” historian Tom Holland wrote: “The return of the proscription lists was foreshadowed in Rome by grim and unmistakable portents: Dogs howled like wolves, and wolves were seen running through the forum; in the sky loud shouts were heard, along with the clash of weapons and the pounding of unseen hooves. The lists went up within days of the triumvirs' entry into the city.”
The thee men had haggled and horse-traded over names for the lists, but there was one name that Antony insisted on: Cicero. Though Octavian found the elder statesman useful, and perhaps even had some level of affection for him, he would not let it stand in the way of his alliance with Antony. The three agreed that Cicero would die.
Cicero, aware of the alliance that had formed and its likely implications for himself, was at his villa in Astura when word arrived of the proscription lists. Cicero ordered his servants to take him to another home, where supposedly he wanted to die. Meanwhile, Popillius Laenas, a military tribune, arrived at his villa to claim his prize, only to find that Cicero had already departed. Undaunted, Laenas set out and soon found Cicero and his party.
Drawing upon Seneca the Elder and Plutarch, Everitt reconstructed the event as Laenas and his centurion, Herennius, approached Cicero's litter:
“(Cicero) drew aside the the curtain of his litter a little and said: 'I am stopping here. Come here, soldier. There is nothing proper about what you are doing, but at least make sure you cut off my head properly.' Herennius trembled and hesitated. (Cicero) stretched his neck as far as he could out of the litter and Herenius slit his throat. While this was being done, most of those who were standing around covered their faces. It took three sword strokes and some sawing to detach the head and then the hands were cut off.”
And so ended the life of Rome's greatest statesman. The Roman historian Plutarch noted that upon seeing Cicero's severed head Antony said, “Now we can end the proscription.” Cicero's hands and possibly his head were then nailed to the main platform in the senate, the very spot from which he'd launched his philippics against Antony. Cicero's dream of a restored Roman Republic was never realized, and eventually Octavian emerged as Rome's first emperor under the name Augustus.
For a wonderful, fictionalized account of key events in Cicero's life, I highly recommend novelist Steven Saylor's works, “Roman Blood” and “Catilina's Riddle,” about the trial of Sextus Roscius and the Catiline conspiracy, respectively. Both novels do contain some adult themes.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: [email protected]