Old World Hero Stories - E. M. Tappan

Cicero, The Great Roman Orator

Some of the Roman schoolboys once told their fathers that they had a schoolmate who could do anything. They said that he was always first in whatever study he attempted, and that he could even write poetry. Some of their tales were so amazing that the fathers went to the school to hear the wonderful boy recite.

This boy was Mar'cus Tul'li-us Cic'e-ro. His father was an educated man, and he meant that his son should have every advantage. The young Cicero studied with famous lawyers. One of his first cases required a good deal of courage. The Roman general Sulla had returned from the East with his army and had seized upon the city. He published long lists of those whom he wished out of his way, and whoever killed a man whose name was on these lists was rewarded. The estates of these proscribed persons were sold at auction for the benefit of the state; and it was very convenient for some one of Sulla's freedmen to bid them in for him at a small price. In one case, Ros'ci-us, the son of the murdered man, declared that his father's estate was worth nearly three hundred thousand dollars, though it had been knocked down to a freedman of Sulla's for three hundred and sixty dollars. Sulla wanted to make it appear that he was ruling according to law, and so, instead of having Roscius assassinated, he accused him of murdering his father. Cicero was the only lawyer who dared to defend him. He won the case; but Rome was no longer a safe place for him. He went to Greece, and remained till the death of Sulla.

Cicero won much applause by his defense of Roscius; but his next case of importance raised him to the highest pitch of fame. In this he spoke for the Sicilians. Ver'res had been their governor, or rather, their oppressor. He stole their grain, he stole paintings, gems, statues, tapestry, even the very columns of their temples. The handsomest houses of the island became as bare as barns, because Verres had stolen their beautiful furnishings. He was terribly cruel to the Sicilians. If they had property that he wanted, he would put them to death for the smallest offense, even by the slave's death of crucifixion. Verres expected to be brought before the courts, but he was prepared to buy an acquittal, and even then he would have an immense fortune remaining. But Cicero showed his villainy so plainly to the court that Verres saw there was no chance of escape, and he fled without waiting for the end of the trial.



Cicero was now recognized as the greatest orator in Rome. He held one position after another in the government; and at length he became consul. A noble named Cat'i-line had plotted to kill the magistrates, to burn the city, and overthrow the government. The worst men of Italy had joined in this plot. Cicero discovered it and called the senators together to reveal it to them. Behold, there sat Catiline! Then Cicero thundered at him, "In the name of the gods, Catiline, how long will you abuse our patience? Is there no limit to your audacity?" Cicero told the senate all the details of the plot, and Catiline fled to the troops that he had been bringing together. A few days later he was slain in a battle with the Romans. The people of Rome felt that Cicero had saved them from destruction. The streets were illuminated with lamps and torches, and the city reėchoed with shouts of "Cicero! Cicero! The Savior of Rome!" The title of "Father of his Country" was given to him.

Some of Catiline's allies had been captured and had been put to death without any waiting for a trial. This was done by command of the senate; but as Cicero was consul, he was looked upon as responsible for the acts of the senate. Of course he had enemies, and now one of them proposed that an old law be renewed which forbade fire and water to any one who had put to death a Roman citizen without a regular trial. Cicero fled to Greece. The Greeks were delighted to see him, and would have loaded him with honors; but he was too miserable. He longed to be in Rome again. After a while, the tide turned, and he was recalled. He came in triumph, for both magistrates and people lined the road to bid him welcome.

When Pompey and Cęsar were struggling to see which should win the rule of the state, Cicero decided to stand by Pompey. After Cęsar had overcome Pompey in battle, Cicero was a badly frightened man, for no one knew how the conqueror would behave toward him. Cęsar treated; him, however, with respect and with as much kindness as if they had always been friends. After the murder of Cęsar, Cicero stood by Mark Antony; but he soon saw that Antony was carrying out his own will and was not trying to restore freedom to Rome, but to win all power for himself. People had sometimes thought Cicero timid and wavering, but only a brave man would have dared to do what he did now; for he thundered out fourteen fearless orations, or "philippics," against Antony. He warned the people that Antony was rapidly seizing all power for himself, and he besought them to show the patriotism of their ancestors and preserve the freedom of the state. He became the friend and adviser of the young Octavianus, and hoped that he could induce him to help restore the republic. This Octavianus was a wily young man. He had no desire to make an enemy of the greatest orator in the land, and he pretended to fall in with Cicero's ideas. He even called Cicero "Father," and said that he himself was only a youth and wished to follow the wise judgment of the older man. After some fighting between Octavianus on one side and Antony together with Lep'i-dus, one of Cęsar's former officers, on the other, the shrewd Octavianus proposed that the three should meet on a little island in the Rhe'nus River and divide the world among them. This was the Second Triumvirate. As in the times of Sulla, a list of men to be put to death was made out. Antony had not forgotten the terrible philippics, and he would agree to nothing until the others had written the name of Cicero on the fatal list. Octavianus at first refused, then yielded. Cicero heard that he was among the proscribed, and he fled to the shore, went a little way by sea, then landed and walked toward Rome, then turned again toward the sea, then took refuge in his villa near Cai-e'ta. The falseness of Octavianus seemed to distress him more than the fact that murderers were in pursuit, and he thought once of making his way into the young man's house and killing himself upon the altar of the household gods in order to call down their vengeance upon the treacherous friend. Cicero's servants persuaded him to get into his litter, and they hurried him toward the sea. The assassins came upon him, and he was slain. There is a story that many years afterward one of Octavianus's grandsons was reading a book of Cicero's when his grandfather came upon him suddenly. The boy tried to slip it under his robe, but Octavianus took it from him and stood reading page after page. Then he gave it back and said, "My child, this was an eloquent man and a lover of his country." This was true, but it came with a poor grace from the man who had consented to his murder.


Cicero as a schoolboy. — He defends Roscius. — He speaks against Verres. — The conspiracy of Catiline. — Cicero is driven into exile. — Pompey and Cicero. — The philippics. — The Second Triumvirate. — The murder of Cicero.