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Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) On The Republic (54-51 BCE)

[Author: Barry Stocker]cicero

Cicero was both a leading thinker and a leading politician of the late Roman Republic. Like Aristotle, he was reflecting on the best aspects of a system which was disappearing. In Aristotle’s case, this was the self-governing democratic city of Athens, which had come under the tutelage of the kings of Macedonia. In Cicero’s case, this was the republican semi-democratic city of Rome, which came under the domination of a series of army generals up to Gaius Julius Caesar. After Caesar was assassinated by republican aristocratic friends of Cicero in 44 BCE, there was a struggle between Caesar’s main supporters Gaius Octavian and Mark Anthony and the republicans, which led to the murder of Cicero. After Octavian and Mark Anthony defeated Cicero’s friends, Octavian defeated Mark Anthony, and created the emperor system under the name of Augustus.

There are many Cicero texts important in the history of thought about liberty, and we will aim to cover them all over time. The one which probably gives the clearest overall view of his position is On the Republic. Cicero is looking back to Aristotle and to Polybius (203-120 BCE) the Graeco-Roman political thinker and historian, whom we need to discuss on another occasion.

He was also looking back to Plato, which might surprise some given that Plato has been struck with the popular modern image of ancestor of totalitarianism. This is not the prevailing view amongst Plato specialists, or many famous thinkers about liberty over the centuries. This is something else we need to return to, but very briefly: those elements of Plato which look totalitarian now, and which are certainly not ideal for liberty, occur in the context of a philosophy which tries to find the best institutional context for the formation of rational, self-commanding and free individuals living in a society governed by morality and reason, rather than force.

Cicero explains his position through a dialogue between notable Romans of an earlier period, including the politician Cato the Elder (ancestor of Cicero’s friend Cato the Younger) and the general and politician Scipio Africanus the Younger. The dialogue is placed in Smyrna (now the Turkish city of Izmir). What emerges is a picture of how the Roman republic grew from its earliest legendary and mythical history, which Cicero recognises to be unreliable.

He was a major sceptic about religion and mythology. The earliest kings are thought of as ruling through the creation of laws and consultative institutions, like the Senate, and to have ruled through consent. This itself is the creation of a ‘res publica’, public thing. When Cicero uses this term, he means both the state in general, and the state in its best possible form where no one person has complete power. This latter meaning is the ancestor of the current sense of republican as opposing all monarchy, including purely symbolic monarchs. It is also the ancestor of the sense of republican, now used in political theory, to refer to the belief that liberty rests on well designed political institutions, and a participatory political life of free citizens determined to defend their liberties.

Cicero refers to the last King of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus as going beyond the limits of the earlier kings, so that the republic could only continue through sending Tarquinius into exile and ending the institution of kingship. This legendary birth of the republic in the strongest sense, was brought about by Lucius Junius Brutus in 509 BCE – an aristocrat who was the ancestor of Marcus Junius Brutus, the friend of Cicero who led the assassination of Caesar.
The role given to Cicero’s friend more than 400 years after his ancestor had ended kingship indicates something else hinted at in the composition of On the Republic. We are looking at a society where rulers normally come from an aristocracy looking back to ancestors (real and imagined) and associated traditions going back over centuries. This emphasis on the continuity of city and its leading families over hundreds of years separates the ancient world from our own, along with other features such as the unquestioning acceptance of slavery, the low status of women, state control of religion and moral codes.

We should also recognise that Cicero, and his predecessors in political thought, advanced ideas about liberty as far as they could be taken at that time, and inspired the classical liberal thinkers from Locke to Mill, who were familiar with Cicero from their classics based education. Cicero’s importance itself sank in general consciousness with the decline of classics based education, but there has been a revived understanding of his legacy in recent years as classical studies has intersected more with moral philosophy and political theory.

Cicero’s thoughts on liberty in the republic include the strongest possible condemnation of Tarquinius and other tyrants, that is kings who go beyond law. Cicero refers to them as inhuman and worse than wild beasts. For Cicero, the right sort of life under the right sort of laws and institutions, is the proper human life and everything else is inferior.

The right sort of institutions for Cicero are explained by him as growing gradually through Roman history, and he refers to this gradual growth as itself better than sudden transformation towards a supposedly ideal constitution. There should be change in the right direction, but step by step. He thought there should be a mix of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy. For Cicero, democracy means the meeting in the town centre of all citizens to discuss and vote on the issues of the day. This was a real aspect of the Roman system, though the voting system was set up in such a way to give aristocrats the most influence in practice. Aristocracy for Cicero, means the senate in which the whole aristocracy meets and which dominates the decision making of the republic. Monarchy in republican Rome means the consuls, two aristocrats who jointly assume the power of kings, under the law, for one year only. In this way, no one person, or group can dominate the state. The best decisions can emerge from this antique form of the separation of state powers, which guarantees reflection and revision. A state restrained in this way, and by respect for the laws which have emerged from customs and history, allows liberty to its citizens.