Saturday, August 17, 2013

Banquet on the Ides of March: Cicero on the Final Days of the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January, 106 B.C.E. – 7 December, 43 B.C.E.) was a politician, philosopher, and political theorist, whose recorded speeches and letters represent one of our most important primary sources for the period of the late Roman Republic. Not only was Cicero a contemporary of the key political figures of his time, he was also a colleague, friend, and rival to the men who ultimately shaped some of the most significant events in history. Indeed, Cicero himself was a prominent political figure, who commanded a large degree of power and influence. Cicero’s writings are of particular importance to our understanding of the events corresponding to the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar and the final days of the Roman Republic.
Cicero records the tumultuous environment in Rome following Caesar’s January 10 crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E.  Pompey had aligned himself with the Senate in order to face the opposing force of Caesar’s legions as they marched towards Rome. Cicero, himself a strict republican, seems to have resigned himself to reality that senatorial power would soon be in subjection to either Pompey or Caesar; the question would be to whom. For their part, the Optimates had decided that Pompey represented the lesser of the two evils and preparations were made to defeat Caesar.
“3: Never has the state been in greater danger, never have wicked citizens had a leader more ready for action. True that on our side too preparations are very earnestly underway. This is happening through the authority and enthusiasm of our friend Pompey, who has begun, rather late, to be afraid of Caesar.”[1]

Following Caesar’s eventual defeat of Pompey’s forces, Cicero fled Rome. However, in a bid to legitimize his power grab, Caesar was offering clemency to individuals he thought useful to his cause. This included both his future assassin M. Junius Brutus, as well as a reluctant Cicero. It appears that Cicero accepted restoration because he was able to convince himself that Caesar could be persuaded to restore the Republic. This sentiment, however, was not forthcoming.
By the time the Senate approved Caesar’s unconstitutional powers as dictator perpetuo in February 44 B.C.E, it was abundantly clear to everyone that Caesar had no intention of restoring the Republic. However, Cicero was taken wholly by surprise, when on the Ides of March, Caesar was murdered by the Liberatores in the Theatre of Pompey in the presence of the Senate. M. Junius Brutus, the chief conspirator, is said to have called on Cicero immediately after the assassination to restore the Republic. Though Cicero’s sentiments were clearly with the conspirators, he was not brought into the plot. Cicero did maintain correspondence with the Liberatores, however, and appears to have some feeling of disappointment about his lack of involvement.
“I could wish that you had invited me to the banquet of the Ides of March: there would have been nothing left over! As it is, your leavings give me much trouble-yes, me more than anybody. Though our consuls are splendid, our consulars are utterly shameful. Though the senate is courageous, it is the lowest in rank that are most so. Nothing, indeed, can surpass the resolute bearing of the people, and of all Italy with one accord. Nothing, on the other hand, can well be more scandalous and unprincipled than our emissaries Philippus and Piso. For having been sent to deliver to Antony certain definite orders, in accordance with the vote of the senate, upon his refusing to comply with one of them, they have brought back to us some intolerable demands on his part. The result is that my house is thronged, and that though I am supporting a sound constitutional measure, I have now become a popular hero.” [2]

Following the death of Caesar, Mark Antony seized the initiative and attempted to consolidate his own power by gaining a monopoly on the memory of Caesar. He was opposed by Cicero who favored Caesar’s great-nephew and heir apparent, Octavian. Octavian was young and Cicero felt that he would be a more compliant tool of the Senate than the more seasoned and unscrupulous Antony. To this effect, Cicero wrote a series of public speeches known as the Philippicae[3] condemning Antony. He also bartered for a compromise concerning the Senatorial position regarding the status of the Liberatores.
“The Ides of March are our consolation. Our heroes achieved all that rested with themselves gloriously and magnificently; what remains needs money and men, none of which we have.”[4]

He argued for amnesty for the conspirators, in exchange for a declaration that Caesar had not been a tyrant. This declaration allowed Caesarians to continue to hold power without fear of condemnation.  However, this provision allowed for the Caesarians to appeal to popular sentiment and turn the mood of public opinion against the Liberatores and their defenders.
“The tyranny lives on, the tyrant is dead! We rejoice at the death of the murdered man whose act we defend!”[5]

“Those who ought to be guarded by all mankind, not only for their protection but also for their glorification, are praised and loved, but that is all, and are confined without their houses.”[6]

Cicero’s appeals to the Senate to back Octavian in his bid to overcome Antony ended with an agreement between Antony, Octavian, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. As condition of their Second Triumvirate agreement to share power, each one of the triumvirs agreed to allow the elimination of each other’s enemies. As a response to the damning effect of the Philippicae on his reputation, Antony ordered the death of Cicero; as well as Cicero’s son, brother, and nephew. Despite the fact that Cicero had been a helpful supporter to Octavian, he nevertheless did not wish to jeopardize his agreement by opposing Antony. Though Plutarch relates that Octavian attempted to dissuade Antony from executing Cicero, he would eventually acquiesce. On December 7, 43 B.C.E. Cicero was captured and killed as he left his villa. His corpse was beheaded and, and on Antony’s instructions, the hands that had penned the Philippicae were cut off. His head and hands were nailed and displayed in the Roman Forum as a deterrent to would-be detractors.
In Cicero’s writing you do not see a detached report of historical proceedings by a disinterested party. Rather, you get pictures of the vacillations of someone intimately involved in situations struggling with difficult decisions. Cicero often took courses of action which he soon thereafter came to regret. These he reports in his letters and writings concerning his mental states during the course of specific events. His writings range from the guarded statements of an inside political player—meant to garner favor (or at least prevent reprisal)—to revealing letters full of consternation and demur. In his many communications with family and friends, Cicero discussed his thoughts and feelings about politics and the state of the Republic. He was not himself a historian but, despite this, we have gleaned from his writings a significant amount of information concerning Roman society and political life. While he may not have realized that he was, in fact, chronicling the final days of the Republic which he so loved; we can look back and observe his voice as one which reflected the dimming light of traditional Roman values. Through his voluminous works there is a sense in which one can read his speculations concerning the specter of events—then still on the horizon—and note his sincere (if miscalculated belief) that those values would endure. Cicero leaves us with a foreboding about the future and perhaps a misplaced hope that the Republic could have been saved.


Bringmann, K. (2008). A History of the Roman Republic. Malden, MA: Polity.
Cicero. (n.d.). Epistulae ad Familiares. Retrieved May 2010, from Latin Texts & Translations: Fam. 12.4&getid=0

Garland, M. D. (2005). Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge.

[1] Cicero, Letters to his Friends 16. 11.2-3 (12 January 49)
[2] Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares DCCCXV (F XII, 4) [To C. Cassius Longinus (In Syria) Rome, 2 February
[3] A philippic is a speech offered as a condemnation of a politician. The term originates from several attacks on Philip II of Macedon in the 4th century BC, by the Greek statesman Demosthenes.
[4] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 14.4.2 (10 April 44)
[5] Ibid., 14.9.2 (17 April 44)
[6] Ibid., 14.5.2 (11 April 44)

No comments: