What Socrates was to the Greeks, Cicero became to the Romans.

Born January 3, 106 BC, at the Roman city of Arpinum (now Arpino, Italy), Cicero came from a plebeian family, although they were wealthy.

As Roman citizens, they did not have to work. They were living in an all-inclusive resort called "Rome" complete with daily rations supplied from the vassals and conquests of the empire. 

Like all uppity young Roman men, he was educated in Greece and in Greek philosophy, which was a prerequisite to any career as a lawyer.

As a barrister, he was very effective as the Roman tribunals sought and were impressed by oratory more than anything else. Cicero, who carefully monitored and nourished his fame, won many high profile and difficult cases. 

Oratory was Cicero’s specialty and he soon gained a following, orators – especially lawyers – being the rock stars of Roman times. Orators were dynamite as from time to time, they created political tsunamis of bored Romans with nothing else to do, which had to then be put down by force.


Cicero’s writings were as persuasive as his oratory. He was prolific: over 800 of his letters still exist and have given modern historians a unique glimpse of life in Roman times. 

When he was 43 (63 BC), Cicero (pictured) was elected as one of Rome’s two consuls which looked good on his resume when it happened, but which would cause him no end of difficulty and, ultimately his death some twenty years later. During his brief tenure as consul, he vehemently spoke against (see picture below) - and then led Roman troops to the defeat of - his fellow senator Catiline, whom he later had put to death without trial, a decision that would later come back to haunt him.

But throughout his future writing, he was anything but humble on the subject of his tenure as consul, and his handling of the Cataline crisis in particular.

Having been consul, a sought-after speaker and a famously successful lawyer, when Cicero spoke, people listened. He was courted by the triumvirate of Julius Ceasar-Pompey and Crassus then in power but his neutrality was not endearing. Soon enough, a law was passed exiling any person who had killed a Roman citizen without trial – even retroactively. That was Cicero. He was forced to leave Italy, lost all his property and wrote of the tragedy of his self-described martrydom. 

He was back in Rome a year later, thanks to Pompey. But he had had his wings clipped and lay low, focusing on writing.

When Cracus died, Ceasar and Pompey both vied for the position of dictator. Cicero picked the wrong side. 

He suspected that Ceasar had personal ambitions and in the best interests of Rome, he preferred and openly supported Pompey. Caesar defeated Pompey in battle and had him killed in 48 BC. Caesar became emperor and pardoned Cicero.

Even more so, Cicero remained out of the public eye immersed in his legal writings, which continue to bewitch and enchant legal philosophers. 

Since Hammurabi and the Greeks, human society had been piecing together and experimenting with various forms of governments. Which was better? Rule or men or rule of law?

Cicero’s theories, naive for the time, nonetheless formed the basis of modern law, including the common law.

Arguably, his greatest influence came in his support of the ideals of stoicism, a basis of contemporary legal systems; that human beings were all meant to follow natural law, which arises from reason. In essence, he believed that most of the times, humans could distinguish from a right or a wrong course of action, and that personal and societal stability - and thus happiness - came when men did what was right, even if it left them poorer.

Stoicism, according to Cicero, also held that natural law is the source of all properly made human laws and communities. Because human beings share reason and the natural law, humanity as a whole can be thought of as a kind of community, and because each of us is part of a group of human beings with shared human laws, each of us is also part of a political community. This being the case, we have duties to each of these communities.

His three basic premises built on Plato and Aristotle and were almost spiritual, and were built around concepts of determining law from nature; natural law and the importance of being good:

  • First, every adult person, in any situation, instintively knows right from wrong and is aware when doing something wrong; that "reason, is the supreme law".
  • Secondly, obeying the law is always the right thing to do. Modern historian Charles Van Doren, in A History of Knowledge, paraphrased Cicero’s legal theory saying that any illegal action, however small or "apparently advantageous, can never be really advantageous because it is wrong."
  • Thirdly, if the law is manifestly unfair, "the right thing is what is honest, open and fair. Keeping your word, no matter what the consequences. Telling the truth, even if you have not taken an oath." Cicero in the Senate

Cicero was of the view that if most citizens deferred to the law – rule of law – this would have the greatest potential of creating long-lasting peace and freedom which did not depend on the will or might of a leader; that law ought to lead and not man.

In De Legubus, Book II (also known as On the Laws or The Laws), Cicero defers to:

"(T)he light of reason from the nature of things, that incites to good actions and dissuades from evil ones; and which does not begin for the first time to be a law when it is drawn up in writing, but from the first moment that it exists...."

"Laws were originally made for the security of the people, for the preservation of states, for the peace and happiness of society; and that they who first framed enactments of that kind, persuaded the people that they would write and publish such laws only as should conduce to the general morality and happiness, if they would receive and obey them. And then such regulations, being thus settled and sanctioned, they justly entitled Laws. From which we may reasonably conclude, that those who made unjustifiable and pernicious enactments for the people, acted in a manner contrary to their own promises and professions, and established anything rather than laws, properly so called, since it is evident that the very signification of the word "law" comprehends the whole essence and energy of justice and equity.

"And as those beings which are furnished with reason are incomparably superior to those which want it, and as we cannot say, without impiety, that anything is superior to the universal Nature, we must therefore confess that divine reason is contained within her.

"(W)ho will dispute the utility of these sentiments, when he reflects how many cases of the greatest importance are decided by oaths; how much the sacred rites performed in making treaties tend to assure peace and tranquility; and what numbers of people the fear of divine punishment has reclaimed from a vicious course of life; and how sacred the social rights must be in a society where a firm persuasion obtains the immediate intervention of the immortal gods, both as witnesses and judges of our actions? Such is the preamble of the law...." 

But Cicero had missed a fundamental pre-requisite to the rule of law: the equality of all men. When Cicero spoke "men", he spoke of his peers, Romans, He never intended lesser humans such as the poor, slaves or non-Romans as part of the solution.

His entanglement with Caesar caught up with Cicero shortly after Caesar was assassinated in March of 43 BC. Cicero, who had witnessed the act, and who Plutarch described as being a close friend of Brutus, remarked that it had been a "noble" act but he would soon see that the Ides of March had done little to eradicate tyranny. Cicero wrote of the republic as being "lost". 

Like a rubber band taut for too long, he came out after Caesar’s death and began to make public pronouncements critical of Caesar’s successors, the co-emperors(?) Mark Anthony and Octavian. Some of his speeches became famous works of oratory and were called the Phillipics.

When Anthony and Octavian came to a triumvirate agreement with Lepidus, each was allowed free hand in rounding up their detractors. 

Anthony chased down Cicero who made a run for it but was eventually run down and killed on December 7, 43 BC. Writing about the event hundred years later, Plutarch describes it as follows:

"But meantime his assassins came to the villa, Herennius a centurion, and Popillius a tribune, who had once been prosecuted for parricide and defended by Cicero; and they had helpers.

"After they had broken in the door, which they found closed, Cicero was not to be seen, and the inmates said they knew not where he was. Then, we are told, a youth who had been liberally educated by Cicero, and who was a freedman of Cicero's brother Quintus, Philologus by name, told the tribune that the litter was being carried through the wooded and shady walks towards the sea.

"The tribune, accordingly, taking a few helpers with him, ran round towards the exit, but Herennius hastened on the run through the walks, and Cicero, perceiving him, ordered the servants to set the litter down where they were.

"Then he himself, clasping his chin with his left hand, as was his wont, looked steadfastly at his slayers, his head all squalid and unkempt, and his face wasted with anxiety, so that most of those that stood by covered their faces while Herennius was slaying him. For he stretched his neck forth from the litter and was slain, being then in his sixty-fourth year.

"Herennius cut off his head, by Antony's command, and his hands — the hands with which he wrote the Philippics. For Cicero himself entitled his speeches against Antony ‘Philippics’, and to this day the documents are called Philippics...."

To repress criticism of the triumvirate, Cicero’s hands and head -  which had influenced so many by sheer force of penmanship – were hung up inside the Senate as a warning to others. 

Rome never got his message, sustained by the rule of man for centuries to come, eventually imploding in about 410 AD, helped along by marauding Huns. Thus began a time of lawlessness.

Cicero’s had lit a flame that barely flickered but which would eventually blaze out of the slow and painful no man’s land called the Dark Ages, between the rule of man and the rule of law.

An icon in the history of law, Cicero saw and painted the future of law, a future which his contemporaries at first marveled at and then, like bored little children, rejected. While his philosophical theory for the rule of law did not sit well with the men whose rule it would displace, it remains the greatest beacon of modern democracy then lit.


  • Van Doren, Charles, A History of Knowledge (New York: Ballatyne Books, 1991), pp. 72-77.
  • Painting of Cicero in the Senate by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919) entitled "Cicero in the Senate Accusing Cataline"
  • Plutarch, Life of Cicero
  • Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Legibus