Support Site Improvements

Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman


MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO was born at Arpinum, the native place of Marius, in the year of Rome 648 (A.C. 106), the same year which gave birth to the Great Pompey. His family was ancient and of Equestrian rank, but had never taken part in the public affairs of Rome, though both his father and grandfather were persons of consideration in the part of Italy to which they belonged. His father, being a man of cultivated mind himself, determined to give his two sons the advantage of a liberal education, and to fit them for the prospect of those public employments which a feeble constitution incapacitated himself from undertaking. Marcus, the elder of the two, soon displayed indications of a superior intellect, and we are told that his schoolfellows carried home such accounts of him, that their parents often visited the school for the sake of seeing a youth who gave such promise of future eminence. One of his earliest masters was the poet Archias, whom he defended afterwards in his Consular year; under his instructions he was able to compose a poem, though yet a boy, on the fable of Glaucus, which had formed the subject of one of the tragedies of Æschylus. Soon after he assumed the manly gown he was placed under the care of Scævola, the celebrated lawyer, whom he introduces so beautifully into several of his philosophical dialogues; and in no long time he gained a thorough knowledge of the laws and political institutions of his country.

This was about the time of the Social war; and, according to the Roman custom, which made it a necessary part of education to learn the military art by personal service, Cicero took the opportunity of serving a campaign under the Consul Pompeius Strabo, father of Pompey the Great. Returning to pursuits more congenial to his natural taste, he commenced the study of Philosophy under Philo the Academic, of whom we shall speak more particularly hereafter. But his chief attention was reserved for Oratory, to which he applied himself with the assistance of Molo, the first rhetorician of the day; while Diodotus the Stoic exercised him in the argumentative subtleties for which the disciples of Zeno were so generally celebrated. At the same time he declaimed daily in Greek and Latin with some young noblemen, who were competitors with him in the same race of political honours.

Of the two professions, which, from the contentiousness of human nature, are involved in the very notion of society, while that of arms, by its splendour and importance, secures the almost undivided admiration of a rising and uncivilized people, legal practice, on the other hand, becomes the path to honours in later and more civilized ages, by reason of the oratorical accomplishments to which it usually gives scope. The date of Cicero’s birth fell precisely during that intermediate state of things, in which the glory of military exploits lost its pre-eminence by means of the very opulence and luxury which were their natural issue; and he was the first Roman who found his way to the highest dignities of the State with no other recommendation than his powers of eloquence and his merits as a civil magistrate.

The first cause of importance he undertook was his defence of Sextus Roscius; in which he distinguished himself by his spirited opposition to Sylla, whose favourite Chrysogonus was prosecutor in the action. This obliging him, according to Plutarch, to leave Rome on prudential motives, he employed his time in travelling for two years under pretence of his health, which, he tells us, was as yet unequal to the exertion of pleading. At Athens he met with T. Pomponius Atticus, whom he had formerly known at school, and there renewed with him a friendship which lasted through life, in spite of the change of interests and estrangements of affection so common in turbulent times. Here too he attended the lectures of Antiochus, who, under the name of Academic, taught the dogmatic doctrines of Plato and the Stoics. Though Cicero felt at first considerable dislike of his philosophical views, he seems afterwards to have adopted the sentiments of the Old Academy, which they much resembled; and not till late in life to have relapsed into the sceptical tenets of his former instructor Philo. After visiting the principal philosophers and rhetoricians of Asia, in his thirtieth year he returned to Rome, so strengthened and improved both in bodily and mental powers, that he soon eclipsed in his oratorical efforts all his competitors for public favour. So popular a talent speedily gained him the suffrage of the Commons; and, being sent to Sicily as Quæstor, at a time when the metropolis itself was visited with a scarcity of corn, he acquitted himself in that delicate situation with such address as to supply the clamorous wants of the people without oppressing the province from which the provisions were raised. Returning thence with greater honours than had ever been before decreed to a Roman Governor, he ingratiated himself still farther in the esteem of the Sicilians by undertaking his celebrated prosecution of Verres; who, though defended by the influence of the Metelli and the eloquence of Hortensius, was at length driven in despair into voluntary exile.

Five years after his Quæstorship, Cicero was elected Ædile, a post of considerable expense from the exhibition of games connected with it. In this magistracy he conducted himself with singular propriety; for, it being customary to court the people by a display of splendour in these official shows, he contrived to retain his popularity without submitting to the usual alternative of plundering the provinces or sacrificing his private fortune. The latter was at this time by no means ample; but, with the good sense and taste which mark his character, he preserved in his domestic arrangements the dignity of a literary and public man, without any of the ostentation of magnificence which often distinguished the candidate for popular applause.

After the customary interval of two years, he was returned at the head of the list as Prætor; and now made his first appearance in the rostrum in support of the Manilian law. About the same time he defended Cluentius. At the expiration of his Prætorship, he refused to accept a foreign province, the usual reward of that magistracy; but, having the Consulate full in view, and relying on his interest with Cæsar and Pompey, he allowed nothing to divert him from that career of glory for which he now believed himself to be destined.


It may be doubted, indeed, whether any individual ever rose to power by more virtuous and truly honourable conduct; the integrity of his public life was only equalled by the correctness of his private morals; and it may at first sight excite our wonder that a course so splendidly begun should afterwards so little fulfil its early promise. Yet it was a failure from the period of his Consulate to his Pro-prætorship in Cilicia, and each year is found to diminish his influence in public affairs, till it expires altogether with the death of Pompey. This surprise, however, arises in no small degree from measuring Cicero’s political importance by his present reputation, and confounding the authority he deservedly possesses as an author with the opinions entertained of him by his contemporaries as a statesman. From the consequence usually attached to passing events, a politician’s celebrity is often at its zenith in his own generation; while the author, who is in the highest repute with posterity, may perhaps have been little valued or courted in his own day. Virtue indeed so conspicuous as that of Cicero, studies so dignified, and oratorical powers so commanding, will always invest their possessor with a large portion of reputation and authority; and this is nowhere more apparent than in the enthusiastic welcome with which he was greeted on his return from exile. But unless other qualities be added, more peculiarly necessary for a statesman, they will hardly of themselves carry that political weight which some writers have attached to Cicero’s public life, and which his own self-love led him to appropriate.

The advice of the Oracle, which had directed him to make his own genius, not the opinion of the people, his guide to immortality (which in fact pointed at the abovementioned distinction between the fame of a statesman and of an author), at first made a deep impression on his mind; and at the present day he owes his reputation principally to those pursuits which, as Plutarch tells us, exposed him to the ridicule and even to the contempt of his contemporaries as a “pedant and a professor.” But his love of popularity overcame his philosophy, and he commenced a career which gained him one triumph and ten thousand mortifications.

It is not indeed to be doubted that in his political course he was more or less influenced by a sense of duty. To many it may even appear that a public life was best adapted for the display of his particular talents; that, at the termination of the Mithridatic war, Cicero was in fact marked out as the very man to adjust the pretensions of the rival parties in the Commonwealth, to withstand the encroachments of Pompey, and to baffle the arts of Cæsar. And if the power of swaying and controlling the popular assemblies by his eloquence; if the circumstances of his rank, Equestrian as far as family was concerned, yet almost Patrician from the splendour of his personal honours; if the popularity derived from his accusation of Verres, and defence of Cornelius, and the favour of the Senate acquired by the brilliant services of his Consulate; if the general respect of all parties which his learning and virtue commanded; if these were sufficient qualifications for a mediator between contending factions, Cicero was indeed called upon by the voice of his country to that most arduous and honourable post. And in his Consulate he had seemed sensible of the call: “All through my Consulate,” he declares in his speech against Piso, “I made a point of doing nothing without the advice of the Senate and the approval of the People. I ever defended the Senate in the Rostrum, in the Senate House the People, and united the populace with the leading men, the Equestrian order with the Senate.”

Yet, after that eventful period, we see him resigning his high station to Cato, who, with half his abilities, little foresight, and no address, possessed that first requisite for a statesman, firmness. Cicero, on the contrary, was irresolute, timid, and inconsistent. He talked indeed largely of preserving a middle course, but he was continually vacillating from one to the other extreme; always too confident or too dejected; incorrigibly vain of success, yet meanly panegyrizing the government of an usurper. His foresight, sagacity, practical good sense, and singular tact, were lost for want of that strength of mind which points them steadily to one object. He was never decided, never (as has sometimes been observed) took an important step without afterwards repenting of it. Nor can we account for the firmness and resolution of his Consulate, unless we discriminate between the case of resisting and exposing a faction, and that of balancing contending interests. Vigour in repression differs widely from steadiness in mediation; the latter requiring a coolness of judgment, which a direct attack upon a public foe is so far from implying, that it even inspires minds naturally timid with unusual ardour.


His Consulate was succeeded by the return of Pompey from the East, and the establishment of the First Triumvirate; which, disappointing his hopes of political power, induced him to resume his forensic and literary occupations. From these he was recalled, after an interval of four years, by the threatening measures of Clodius, who at length succeeded in driving him into exile. This event, which, considering the circumstances connected with it, was one of the most glorious of his life, filled him with the utmost distress and despondency. He wandered about Greece bewailing his miserable fortune, refusing the consolations which his friends attempted to administer, and shunning the public honours with which the Greek cities were eager to load him. His return, which took place in the course of the following year, reinstated him in the high station he had filled at the termination of his Consulate, but the circumstances of the times did not allow him to retain it. We refer to Roman history for an account of his vacillations between the several members of the Triumvirate; his defence of Vatinius to please Cæsar; and of his bitter political enemy Gabinius, to ingratiate himself with Pompey. His personal history in the meanwhile furnishes little worth noticing, except his election into the college of Augurs, a dignity which had been a particular object of his ambition. His appointment to the government of Cilicia, which took place about five years after his return from exile, was in consequence of Pompey’s law, which obliged those Senators of Consular or Prætorian rank, who had never held any foreign command, to divide the vacant provinces among them. This office, which we have above seen him decline, he now accepted with feelings of extreme reluctance, dreading perhaps the military occupations which the movements of the Parthians in that quarter rendered necessary. Yet if we consider the state and splendour with which the Proconsuls were surrounded, and the opportunities afforded them for almost legalized plunder and extortion, we must confess that this insensibility to the common objects of human cupidity was the token of no ordinary mind. The singular disinterestedness and integrity of his administration, as well as his success against the enemy, also belong to the history of his times. The latter he exaggerated from the desire, so often instanced in eminent men, of appearing to excel in those things for which nature has not adapted them.

His return to Italy was followed by earnest endeavours to reconcile Pompey with Cæsar, and by very spirited behaviour when Cæsar required his presence in the Senate. On this occasion he felt the glow of self-approbation with which his political conduct seldom repaid him: he writes to Atticus, “I believe I do not please Cæsar, but I am pleased with myself, which has not happened to me for a long while.” However, this effort at independence was but transient. At no period of his public life did he display such miserable vacillation as at the opening of the civil war. We find him first accepting a commission from the Republic; then courting Cæsar; next, on Pompey’s sailing for Greece, resolving to follow him thither; presently determining to stand neuter; then bent on retiring to the Pompeians in Sicily; and, when after all he had joined their camp in Greece, discovering such timidity and discontent as to draw from Pompey the bitter reproof, “I wish Cicero would go over to the enemy, that he may learn to fear us.”

On his return to Italy, after the battle of Pharsalia, he had the mortification of learning that his brother and nephew were making their peace with Cæsar, by throwing on himself the blame of their opposition to the conqueror. And here we see one of those elevated points of character which redeem the weaknesses of his political conduct; for, hearing that Cæsar had retorted on Quintus Cicero the charge which the latter had brought against himself, he wrote a pressing letter in his favour, declaring his brother’s safety was not less precious to him than his own, and representing him not as the leader, but as the companion of his voyage.

Now too the state of his private affairs reduced him to much perplexity; a sum he had advanced to Pompey had impoverished him, and he was forced to stand indebted to Atticus for present assistance. These difficulties led him to take a step which it has been customary to regard with great severity; the divorce of his wife Terentia, though he was then in his sixty-second year, and his marriage with his rich ward Publilia, who of course was of an age disproportionate to his own. Yet, in reviewing this proceeding, we must not adopt the modern standard of propriety, forgetful of a condition of society which reconciled actions even of moral turpitude with a reputation for honour and virtue. Terentia was a woman of a most imperious and violent temper, and (what is more to the purpose) had in no slight degree contributed to his present embarrassments by her extravagance in the management of his private affairs. By her he had two children, a son, born the year before his Consulate, and a daughter whose loss he was now fated to deplore. To Tullia he was tenderly attached, not only from the excellence of her disposition, but from her literary tastes; and her death tore from him, as he so pathetically laments to Sulpicius, the only comfort which the course of public events had left him. At first he was inconsolable; and, retiring to a little island near his estate at Antium, he buried himself in the woods, to avoid the sight of man. His distress was increased by the conduct of his new wife Publilia; whom he soon divorced for testifying joy at the death of her stepdaughter. On this occasion he wrote his Treatise on Consolation, with a view to alleviate his grief; and, with the same object, he determined on dedicating a temple to his daughter, as a memorial of her virtues and his affection. His friends were assiduous in their attentions; and Cæsar, who had treated him with extreme kindness on his return from Egypt, signified the respect he bore his character by sending him a letter of condolence from Spain, where the remains of the Pompeian party still engaged him. Cæsar, moreover, had shortly before given a still stronger proof of his favour, by replying to a work which Cicero had drawn up in praise of Cato; but no attentions, however considerate, could soften Cicero’s vexation at seeing the country he had formerly saved by his exertions now subjected to the tyranny of one master. His speeches, indeed, for Marcellus and Ligarius, exhibit traces of inconsistency; but for the most part he retired from public business, and gave himself up to the composition of those works which, while they mitigated his political sorrows, have secured his literary celebrity.


The murder of Cæsar, which took place in the following year, once more brought him on the stage of public affairs; but as our present paper is but supplemental to the history of the times, we leave to others to relate what more has to be told of him, his unworthy treatment of Brutus, his coalition with Octavius, his orations against Antonius, his proscription, and his violent death, at the age of sixty-four. Willingly would we pass over his public life altogether; for he was as little of a great statesman as of a great commander. His merits are of another kind and in a higher order of excellence. Antiquity may be challenged to produce a man more virtuous, more perfectly amiable than Cicero. None interest more in their life, none excite more painful emotions in their death. Others, it is true, may be found of loftier and more heroic character, who awe and subdue the mind by the grandeur of their views, or the intensity of their exertions. But Cicero engages our affections by the integrity of his public conduct, the correctness of his private life, the generosity, placability, and kindness of his heart, the playfulness of his wit, the warmth of his domestic attachments. In this respect his letters are invaluable. “Here,” says Middleton, “we may see the genuine man without disguise or affectation, especially in his letters to Atticus; to whom he talked with the same frankness as to himself, opened the rise and progress of each thought; and never entered into any affair without his particular advice.”

It must be confessed, indeed, that this private correspondence discloses the defects of his political conduct, and shows that they were partly of a moral character. Want of firmness has been repeatedly mentioned as his principal failing; and insincerity is the natural attendant on a timid and irresolute mind. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that openness and candour are rare qualities in a statesman at all times, and while the duplicity of weakness is despised, the insincerity of a powerful but crafty mind, though incomparably more odious, is too commonly regarded with feelings of indulgence. Cicero was deficient, not in honesty, but in moral courage; his disposition, too, was conciliatory and forgiving; and much which has been referred to inconsistency should be attributed to the generous temper which induced him to remember the services rather than the neglect of Plancius, and to relieve the exiled and indigent Verres. Much too may be traced to his professional habits as a pleader; which led him to introduce the licence of the Forum into deliberative discussions, and (however inexcusably) even into his correspondence with private friends.

Some writers, as Lyttelton, have considered it an aggravation of Cicero’s inconsistencies, that he was so perfectly aware, as his writings show, of what was philosophically and morally upright and honest. It might be sufficient to reply, that there is a wide difference between calmly deciding on an abstract point, and acting on that decision in the hurry of real life; that Cicero in fact was apt to fancy (as all will fancy when assailed by interest or passion) that the circumstances of his case constituted it an exception to the broad principles of duty. Besides, he considered it to be actually the duty of a statesman to accommodate theoretical principle to the exigencies of existing circumstances. “Surely,” he says in his defence of Plancius, “it is no mark of inconsistency in a statesman to determine his judgment and to steer his course by the state of the political weather. This is what I have been taught, what I have experienced, what I have read; this is what is recorded in history of the wisest and most eminent men, whether at home or abroad; namely, that the same man is not bound always to maintain the same opinions, but those, whatever they may be, which the state of the commonwealth, the direction of the times, and the interests of peace may demand.” Moreover, he claimed for himself especially the part of mediator between political rivals; and he considered it to be a mediator’s duty alternately to praise and blame both parties, even to exaggeration, if by such means it was possible either to flatter or frighten them into an adoption of temperate measures. “Cicero,” says Plutarch, “used to give them private advice, keeping up a correspondence with Caesar, and urging many things upon Pompey himself, soothing and persuading each of them.”


But such criticism on Cicero as Lyttelton’s proceeds on an entire misconception of the design and purpose with which the ancients prosecuted philosophical studies. The motives and principles of morals were not so seriously acknowledged as to lead to a practical application of them to the conduct of life. Even when they proposed them in the form of precept, they still regarded the perfectly virtuous man as the creature of their imagination rather than a model for imitation—a character whom it was a mental recreation rather than a duty to contemplate; and if an individual here or there, as Scipio or Cato, attempted to conform his life to his philosophical conceptions of virtue, he was sure to be ridiculed for singularity and affectation.

Even among the Athenians, by whom philosophy was, in many cases, cultivated to the exclusion of every active profession, intellectual amusement, not the discovery of Truth, was the principal object of their discussions. That we must thus account for the ensnaring questions and sophistical reasonings of which their disputations consisted, has been noticed by writers on Logic; and it was their extension of this system to the case of morals which brought upon their Sophists the irony of Socrates and the sterner rebuke of Aristotle. But if this took place in a state of society in which the love of speculation pervaded all ranks, much more was it to be expected among the Romans, who, busied as they were in political enterprises, and deficient in philosophical acuteness, had neither time nor inclination for abstruse investigations; and who considered philosophy simply as one of the many fashions introduced from Greece, “a sort of table furniture,” as Warburton well expresses it, a mere refinement in the arts of social enjoyment. This character it bore both among friends and enemies. Hence the popularity which attended the three Athenian philosophers who had come to Rome on an embassy from their native city; and hence the inflexible determination with which Cato procured their dismissal, through fear, as Plutarch tells us, lest their arts of disputation should corrupt the Roman youth. And when at length, by the authority of Scipio, the literary treasures of Sylla, and the patronage of Lucullus, philosophical studies had gradually received the countenance of the higher classes of their countrymen, still, in consistency with the principle above laid down, we find them determined in their adoption of this or that system, not so much by the harmony of its parts, or by the plausibility of its reasonings, as by its suitableness to the particular profession and political station to which they severally belonged. Thus, because the Stoics were more minute than other sects in inculcating the moral and social duties, we find the Roman jurisconsults professing themselves followers of Zeno; the orators, on the contrary, adopted the disputatious system of the later Academics; while Epicurus was the master of the idle and the wealthy. Hence, too, they confined the profession of philosophical science to Greek teachers; considering them the sole proprietors, as it were, of a foreign and expensive luxury, which the vanquished might suitably have the duty of furnishing, and which the conquerors could well afford to purchase.

Before the works of Cicero, no attempts worth considering had been made for using the Latin tongue in philosophical subjects. The natural stubbornness of the language conspired with Roman haughtiness to prevent this application. The Epicureans, indeed, had made the experiment, but their writings were even affectedly harsh and slovenly, and we find Cicero himself, in spite of his inexhaustible flow of rich and expressive diction, making continual apologies for his learned occupations, and extolling philosophy as the parent of everything great, virtuous, and amiable.

Yet, with whatever discouragement his design was attended, he ultimately triumphed over the pride of an unlettered people, and the difficulties of a defective language. He was indeed possessed of that first requisite for eminence, an enthusiastic attachment to the studies he was recommending. But, occupied as he was with the duties of a statesman, mere love of literature would have availed little, if separated from that energy and breadth of intellect by which he was enabled to pursue a variety of objects at once, with equally perserving and indefatigable zeal. “He suffered no part of his leisure to be idle,” says Middleton, “or the least interval of it to be lost; but what other people gave to the public shows, to pleasures, to feasts, nay, even to sleep and the ordinary refreshments of nature, he generally gave to his books, and the enlargement of his knowledge. On days of business, when he had anything particular to compose, he had no other time for meditating but when he was taking a few turns in his walks, where he used to dictate his thoughts to his scribes who attended him. We find many of his letters dated before daylight, some from the senate, others from his meals, and the crowd of his morning levee.” Thus he found time, without apparent inconvenience, for the business of the State, for the turmoil of the courts, and for philosophical studies. During his Consulate he delivered twelve orations in the Senate, Rostrum, or Forum. His Treatises de Oratore and de Republicâ, the most finished perhaps of his compositions, were written at a time when, to use his own words, “not a day passed without his taking part, in forensic disputes.” And in the last year of his life he composed at least eight of his philosophical works, besides the fourteen orations against Antony, which are known by the name of Philippics.

Being thus ardent in the cause of philosophy, he recommended it to the notice of his countrymen, not only for the honour which its introduction would reflect upon himself (which of course was a motive with him), but also with the fondness of one who esteemed it “the guide of life, the parent of virtue, the guardian in difficulty, and the tranquillizer in misfortune.” Nor were his mental endowments less adapted to the accomplishment of his object than the spirit with which he engaged in the work. Gifted with great versatility of talent, with acuteness, quickness of perception, skill in selection, art in arrangment, fertility of illustration, warmth of fancy, and extraordinary taste, he at once seizes upon the most effective parts of his subject, places them in the most striking point of view, and arrays them in the liveliest and most inviting colours. His writings have the singular felicity of combining brilliancy of execution with never-failing good sense. It must be allowed that he is deficient in depth; that he skims over rather than dives into the subjects of which, he treats; that he had too great command of the plausible to be a patient investigator or a sound reasoner. Yet if he has less originality of thought than others, if he does not grapple with his subject, if he is unequal to a regular and lengthened disquisition, if he is frequently inconsistent in his opinions, we must remember that mere soundness of view, without talent for display, has few recommendations for those who have not yet imbibed a taste even for the outward form of knowledge, that system nearly precludes freedom, and depth almost implies obscurity. It was this very absence of scientific exactness which constituted in Roman eyes a principal charm of Cicero’s compositions.

Nor must his profession as a pleader be forgotten in enumerating the circumstances which concurred to give his writings their peculiar character. For, however his design of interesting his countrymen in Greek literature, however too his particular line of talent, may have led him to explain rather than to invent; yet he expressly informs us it was principally with a view to his own improvement in Oratory that he devoted himself to philosophical studies. This induced him to undertake successively the cause of the Stoic, the Epicurean, or the Platonist, as an exercise for his powers of argumentation; while the wavering and unsettled state of mind, occasioned by such habits of disputation, led him in his personal judgment to prefer the sceptical tenets of the New Academy.


Here then, before enumerating Cicero’s philosophical writings, an opportunity is presented to us of redeeming the pledge we have given elsewhere in our Encyclopædia, to consider the system of doctrine which the reformers (as they thought themselves) of the Academic school introduced about 300 years before the Christian era.

We shall not trace here the history of the Old Academy, or speak of the innovations on the system of Plato, silently introduced by the austere Polemo. When Zeno, however, who was his pupil, advocated the same rigid tenets in a more open and dogmatic form, the Academy at length took the alarm, and a reaction ensued. Arcesilas, who had succeeded Polemo and Crates, determined on reverting to the principles of the elder schools; but mistaking the profession of ignorance, which Socrates had used against the Sophists on physical questions, for an actual scepticism on points connected with morals, he fell into the opposite extreme, and declared, first, that nothing could be known, and therefore, secondly, nothing should be maintained.

Whatever were his private sentiments (for some authors affirm his esoteric doctrines to have been dogmatic), he brought forward these sceptical tenets in so unguarded a form, that it required all his argumentative powers, which were confessedly great, to maintain them against the obvious objections which were pressed upon him from all quarters. On his death, therefore, as might have been anticipated, his school was deserted for those of Zeno and Epicurus; and during the lives of Lacydes, Evander, and Hegesinus, who successively filled the Academic chair, being no longer recommended by the novelty of its doctrines, or the talents of its masters, it became of little consideration amid the wranglings of more popular philosophies. Carneades, therefore, who succeeded Hegesinus, found it necessary to use more cautious and guarded language; and, by explaining what was paradoxical, by reservations and exceptions, in short, by all the arts which an acute and active genius could suggest, he contrived to establish its authority, without departing, as far as we have the means of judging, from the principle of universal scepticism which Arcesilas had so pertinaciously advocated.

The New Academy, then, taught with Plato, that all things in their own nature were fixed and determinate; but that, through the constitution of the human mind, it was impossible for us to see them in their simple and eternal forms, to separate appearance from reality, truth from falsehood. For the conception we form of any object is altogether derived from and depends on the sensation, the impression, it produces on our own minds (πάθος ἐνεργείας, φαντασία). Reason does but deduce from premisses ultimately supplied by sensation. Our only communication, then, with actual existences being through the medium of our own impressions, we have no means of ascertaining the correspondence of the things themselves with the ideas we entertain of them; and therefore can in no case be certain of the truthfulness of our senses. Of their fallibility, however, we may easily assure ourselves; for in cases in which they are detected contradicting each other, all cannot be correct reporters of the object with which they profess to acquaint us. Food, which is the same as far as sight and touch are concerned, tastes differently to different individuals; fire, which is the same to the eye, communicates a sensation of pain at one time, of pleasure at another; the oar appears crooked in the water, while the touch assures us it is as straight as before it was immersed. Again, in dreams, in intoxication, in madness, impressions are made upon the mind, vivid enough to incite to reflection and action, yet utterly at variance with those produced by the same objects when we are awake, or sober, or in possession of our reason.

It appears, then, that we cannot prove that our senses are ever faithful to the things they profess to report about; but we do know they often produce erroneous. impressions of them. Here then is room for endless doubt; for why may they not deceive us in cases in which we cannot detect the deception? It is certain they often act irregularly; is there any consistency at all in their operations, any law to which these varieties may be referred?

It is undeniable that an object often varies in the impression which it makes upon the mind, while, on the other hand, the same impression may arise from different objects. What limit is to be assigned to this disorder? is there any sensation strong enough to assure us of the presence of the object which it seems to intimate, any such as to preclude the possibility of deception? If, when we look into a mirror, our minds are impressed with the appearance of trees, fields, and houses, which are unreal, how can we ascertain beyond all doubt whether the scene we directly look upon has any more substantial existence than the former?

From these reasonings the Academics taught that nothing was certain, nothing was to be known (καταληπτόν). For the Stoics themselves, their most determined opponents, defined the καταληπτικὴ φαντασία (the phantasy or impression which involved knowledge) to be one that was capable of being produced by no object except that to which it really belonged.

Since then we cannot arrive at knowledge, we must suspend our decision, pronounce absolutely on nothing, nay, according to Arcesilas, never even form an opinion. In the conduct of life, however, probability must determine our choice of action; and this admits of different degrees. The lowest kind is that which suggests itself on the first view of the case (φαντασία πιθανή, or persuasive phantasy); but in all important matters we must correct the evidence of our senses by considerations derived from the nature of the medium, the distance of the object, the disposition of the organ, the time, the manner, and other attendant circumstances. When the impression has been thus minutely considered, the phantasy becomes περιωδευμένη, or approved on circumspection; and if during this examination no objection has arisen to weaken our belief, the highest degree of probability is attained, and the phantasy is pronounced unembarrassed with doubt, or ἀπερίσπαστος.

Sextus Empiricus illustrates this as follows: If on entering a dark room we discern a coiled rope, our first impression may be that it is a serpent—this is the persuasive phantasy. On a closer inspection, however, after walking round it (περιοδεύσαντες), or on circumspection, we observe it does not move, nor has it the proper colour, shape, or proportions; and now we conclude it is not a serpent; here we are determined in our belief by the περιωδευμένη φαντασία, and we assent to the circumspective phantasy. For an instance of the third and most accurate kind, viz., that with which no contrary impression interferes, we may refer to the conduct of Admetus on the return of Alcestis from the infernal regions. He believes he sees his wife; everything confirms it; but he cannot simply acquiesce in that opinion, because his mind is embarrassed or distracted (περισπᾶται) from the knowledge he has of her having died; he asks, “What! do I see my wife I just now buried?” (Alc. 1148.) Hercules resolves his difficulty, and his phantasy is in repose, or απερίσπαστος.

The suspension then of assent (ἐποχὴ) which the Academics enjoined, was, at least from the time of Carneades, almost a speculative doctrine; and herein lay the chief difference between them and the Pyrrhonists; that the latter altogether denied the existence of the probable, while the former admitted there was sufficient to allow of action, provided we pronounced absolutely on nothing.

Little more can be said concerning the opinions of a sect whose fundamental maxim was that nothing could be known, and nothing should be taught. It lay midway between the other philosophies; and in the altercations of the various schools it was at once attacked by all, yet appealed to by each of the contending parties, if not to countenance its own sentiments, at least to condemn those advocated by its opponents, and thus to perform the office of an umpire. From this necessity, then, of being prepared on all sides for attack, it became as much a school of rhetoric as of philosophy, and was celebrated among the ancients for the eloquence of its masters. Hence also its reputation was continually varying: for, requiring the aid of great abilities to maintain its exalted and arduous post, it alternately rose and fell in estimation, according to the talents of the individual who happened to fill the chair. And hence the frequent alterations which took place in its philosophical tenets; which, depending rather on the arbitrary determinations of its present head, than on the tradition of settled maxims, were accommodated to the views of each successive master, according as he hoped by sophistry or concession to overcome the repugnance which the mind ever will feel to the doctrines of universal scepticism.

And in these continual changes it is pleasing to observe that the interests of virtue and good order were uniformly promoted; interests to which the Academic doctrines were certainly hostile, if not necessarily fatal. Thus, although we find Carneades, in conformity to the plan adopted by Arcesilas, opposing the dogmatic principles of the Stoics concerning moral duty, and studiously concealing his private views even from his friends; yet, by allowing that the suspense of judgment was not always a duty, that the wise man might sometimes believe though he could not know; he in some measure restored the authority of those great instincts of our nature which his predecessor appears to have discarded. Clitomachus pursued his steps by innovations in the same direction; Philo, who followed next, attempting to reconcile his tenets with those of the Platonic school, has been accounted the founder of a fourth academy—while, to his successor Antiochus, who embraced the doctrines of the Porch, and maintained the fidelity of the senses, it has been usual to assign the establishment of a fifth.


We have already observed that Cicero in early life inclined to the doctrines of Plato and Antiochus, which, at the time he composed the bulk of his writings, he had abandoned for those of Carneades and Philo. Yet he was never so entirely a disciple of the New Academy as to neglect the claims of morality and the laws. He is loud in his protestations that truth is the great object of his search: “For my own part, if I have applied myself especially to this philosophy, through any love of display or pleasure in disputation, I should condemn not only my folly, but my moral condition. And, therefore, unless it were absurd, in an argument like this, to do what is sometimes done in political discussions, I would swear by Jupiter and the divine Penates that I burn with a desire of discovering the truth, and really believe what I am saying.” And, however inappropriate this boast may appear, he at least pursues the useful and the magnificent in philosophy; and uses his academic character as a pretext rather for a judicious selection from each system than for an indiscriminate rejection of all. Thus, in the capacity of a statesman, he calls in the assistance of doctrines which, as an orator, he does not scruple to deride; those of Zeno in particular, who maintained the truth of the popular theology, and the divine origin of augury, and (as we noticed above) was more explicit than the other masters in his views of social duty. This difference of sentiment between the magistrate and the pleader is strikingly illustrated in the opening of his treatise de Legibus; where, after deriving the principles of law from the nature of things, he is obliged to beg quarter of the Academics, whose reasonings he feels could at once destroy the foundation on which his argument rested. “My treatise throughout,” he says, “aims at the strengthening of states and the welfare of peoples. I dread therefore to lay down any but well considered and carefully examined principles; I do not say principles which are universally received, for none are such, but principles received by those philosophers who consider virtue to be desirable for its own sake, and nothing whatever to be good, or at least a great good, which is not in its own nature praiseworthy.” These philosophers are the Stoics; and then, apparently alluding to the arguments of Carneades against justice, which he had put into the mouth of Philus in the third book of his de Republicâ, he proceeds: “As to the Academy, which puts the whole subject into utter confusion, I mean the New Academy of Arcesilas and Carneades, let us persuade it to hold its peace. For, should it make an inroad upon the views which we consider we have so skilfully put into shape, it will make an extreme havoc of them. The Academy I cannot conciliate, and I dare not ignore.”

And as, in questions connected with the interests of society, he thus uniformly advocates the tenets of the Porch, so in discussions of a physical character we find him adopting the sublime and glowing sentiments of Pythagoras and Plato. Here, however, having no object of expediency in view to keep him within the bounds of consistency, he scruples not to introduce whatever is most beautiful in itself, or most adapted to his present purpose. At one time he describes the Deity as the all-pervading Soul of the world, the cause of life and motion; at another He is the intelligent Preserver and Governor of every separate part. At one time the soul of man is in its own nature necessarily eternal, without beginning or end of existence; at another it is represented as a portion, or the haunt of the one infinite Spirit; at another it is to enter the assembly of the Gods, or to be driven into darkness, according to its moral conduct in this life; at another, it is only in its best and greatest specimens destined for immortality; sometimes that immortality is described as attended with consciousness and the continuance of earthly friendships; sometimes as but an immortality of name and glory; more frequently however these separate notions are confused together in the same passage.

Though the works of Aristotle were not given to the world till Sylla’s return from Greece, Cicero appears to have been a considerable proficient in his philosophy, and he has not overlooked the important aid it affords in those departments of science which are alike removed from abstract reasoning and fanciful theorizing. To Aristotle he is indebted for most of the principles laid down in his rhetorical discussions, while in his treatises on morals not a few of his remarks may be traced to the same acute philosopher.

The doctrines of the Garden alone, though some of his most intimate friends were of the Epicurean school, he regarded with aversion and contempt; feeling no sort of interest in a system which cut at the very root of that activity of mind, industry, and patriotism, for which he himself both in public and private was so honourably distinguished.

Such then was the New Academy, and such the variation of opinion which, in Cicero’s judgment, was not inconsistent with the profession of an Academic. And, however his adoption of that philosophy may be in part referred to his oratorical habits, or his natural cast of mind, yet, considering the ambition which he felt to inspire his countrymen with a taste for literature and science, we must conclude with Warburton that, in acceding to the system of Philo, he was strongly influenced by the freedom of thought and reasoning which it allowed to his literary works, the liberty of illustrating the principles and doctrines, the strong and weak parts, of every Grecian school. Bearing then in mind his design of recommending the study of philosophy, it is interesting to observe the artifices of style and manner which, with this end, he adopted in his treatises; and though to enter minutely into this subject would be foreign to our present purpose, it may be allowed us to make some general remarks on the character of works so eminently successful in accomplishing the object for which they were undertaken.


The obvious peculiarity of Cicero’s philosophical discussions is the form of dialogue in which most of them are conveyed. Plato, indeed, and Xenophon, had, before his time, been even more strictly dramatic in their compositions; but they professed to be recording the sentiments of an individual, and the Socratic mode of argument could hardly be displayed in any other shape. Of that interrogative and inductive conversation, however, Cicero affords but few specimens; the nature of his dialogue being as different from that of the two Athenians as was his object in writing. His aim was to excite interest; and he availed himself of this mode of composition for the life and variety, the ease, perspicuity, and vigour which it gave to his discussions. His dialogue is of two kinds: according as the subject of it is beyond or under controversy, it assumes the shape of a continued treatise, or a free disputation; in the latter case imparting clearness to what is obscure, in the former relief to what is clear. Thus his practical and systematic treatises on rhetoric and moral duty, when not written in his own person, are merely divided between several speakers who are the mere organs of his own sentiments; while in questions of a more speculative cast, on the nature of the gods, on the human soul, on the greatest good, he uses his academic liberty, and brings forward the theories of contending schools under the character of their respective advocates. The advantages gained in both cases by the form of dialogue are evident. In controverted subjects he is not obliged to discover his own views, he can detail opposite arguments forcibly and luminously, and he is allowed the use of those oratorical powers in which, after all, his great strength lay. In those subjects, on the other hand, which are uninteresting because they are familiar, he may pause or digress before the mind is weary and the attention begins to flag; the reader is carried on by easy journeys and short stages, and novelty in the speaker supplies the want of novelty in the matter. Nor does Cicero discover less skill in the execution of these dialogues than address in their method. It were idle to enlarge upon the beauty, richness, and taste of compositions which have been the admiration of every age and country. In the dignity of his speakers, their high tone of mutual courtesy, the harmony of his groups, and the delicate relief of his contrasts, he is inimitable. The majesty and splendour of his introductions, which generally address themselves to the passions or the imagination, the eloquence with which both sides of a question are successively displayed, the clearness and terseness of his statements on abstract points, the grace of his illustrations, his exquisite allusions to the scene or time of the supposed conversation, his digressions in praise of philosophy or great men, his quotations from Grecian and Roman poetry; lastly, the melody and fulness of his style, unite to throw a charm round his writings peculiar to themselves. To the Roman reader they especially recommended themselves by their continual and most artful references to the heroes of the old republic, who now appeared but exemplars, and (as it were) patrons of that eternal philosophy, which he had before, perhaps, considered as the short-lived reveries of ingenious but inactive men. Nor is there any confusion, want of keeping, or appearance of effort in the introduction of the various beauties we have been enumerating which are blended together with so much skill and propriety, that it is sometimes difficult to point out the particular sources of the admiration which they inspire.


The series of his rhetorical works has been preserved nearly complete, and consists of the De Inventione, De Oratore, Brutus sive de claris Oratoribus, Orator sive de optimo genere Dicendi, De partitione Oratoriâ, Topica, and de optimo genere Oratorum. The last-mentioned, which is a fragment, is understood to have been the proem to his translation (now lost) of the speeches of Demosthenes and Æschines, De Coronâ. These he translated with the view of defending, by the example of the Greek orators, his own style of eloquence, which, as we shall afterwards find, the critics of the day censured as too Asiatic in its character; and hence the proem, which still survives, is on the subject of the Attic style of oratory. This composition and his abstracts of his own orations are his only rhetorical works not extant, and probably our loss is not very great. The Treatise on Rhetoric, addressed to Herennius, though edited with his works, and ascribed to him by several of the ancients, is now generally attributed to Cornificius, or some other writer of the day.

The works, which we have enumerated, consider the art of rhetoric in different points of view, and thus receive from each other mutual support and illustration, while they prevent the tediousness which might else arise, if they were moulded into one systematic treatise on the general subject. Three are in the form of dialogue; the rest are written in his own person. In all, except perhaps the Oratory, he professes to have availed himself of the principles of the Aristotelic and Isocratean schools, selecting what was best in each of them, and, as occasion might offer, adding remarks and precepts of his own. The subject of Oratory is considered in three distinct lights; with reference to the case, the speaker, and the speech. The case, as respects its nature, is definite or indefinite; with reference to the hearer, it is judicial, deliberative, or descriptive; as regards the opponent, the division is fourfold—according as the fact, its nature, its quality, or its propriety is called in question. The art of the speaker is directed to five points: the discovery of persuasives (whether ethical, pathetical, or argumentative), arrangement, diction, memory, delivery. And the speech itself consists of six parts: introduction, statement of the case, division of the subject, proof, refutation, and conclusion.

His treatises De Inventione and Topica, the first and nearly the last of his compositions, are both on the invention of arguments, which he regards, with Aristotle, as the very foundation of the art; though he elsewhere confines the term eloquence, according to its derivation, to denote excellence of diction and delivery, to the exclusion of argumentative skill. The former of these works was written at the age of twenty, and seems originally to have consisted of four books, of which but two remain. In the first of these he considers rhetorical invention generally, supplies commonplaces for the six parts of an oration promiscuously, and gives a full analysis of the two forms of argument, syllogism and induction. In the second book he applies these rules particularly to the three subject-matters of rhetoric, the deliberative, the judicial, and the descriptive, dwelling principally on the judicial, as affording the most ample field for discussion. This treatise seems for the most part compiled from the writings of Aristotle, Isocrates, and Hermagoras; and as such he alludes to it in the opening of his De Oratore as deficient in the experience and judgment which nothing but time and practice can impart. Still it is an entertaining, nay, useful work; remarkable, even among Cicero’s writings, for its uniform good sense, and less familiar to the scholar only because the greater part has been superseded by the compositions of his riper years.

His Topica, or treatise on commonplaces, has less extent and variety of plan, being little else than a compendium of Aristotle’s work on the same subject. It was, as he informs us in its proem, drawn up from memory on his voyage from Italy to Greece, soon after Cæsar’s murder, and in compliance with the wishes of Trebatius, who had some time before urged him to undertake the translation.

Cicero seems to have intended his De Oratore, De claris Oratoribus, and Orator, to form one complete system. Of these three noble works the first lays down the principles and rules of the rhetorical art; the second exemplifies them in the most eminent speakers of Greece and Rome; and the third shadows out the features of that perfect orator, whose superhuman excellences should be the aim of our ambition. The De Oratore was written when the author was fifty-two, two years after his return from exile; and is a dialogue between some of the most illustrious Romans of the preceding age on the subject of oratory. The principal speakers are the orators Crassus and Antonius, who are represented unfolding the principles of their art to Sulpicius and Cotta, young men just rising in the legal profession. In the first book, the conversation turns on the subject-matter of rhetoric, and the qualifications requisite for the perfect orator. Here Crassus maintains the necessity of his being acquainted with the whole circle of the arts, while Antonius confines eloquence to the province of speaking well. The dispute for the most part seems verbal; for Cicero himself, though he here sides with Crassus, yet elsewhere, as we have above noticed, pronounces eloquence, strictly speaking, to consist in beauty of diction. Scævola, the celebrated lawyer, takes part in this preliminary discussion; but, in the ensuing meetings, makes way for Catulus and Cæsar, the subject leading to such technical disquisitions as were hardly suitable to the dignity of the aged Augur. The next morning Antonius enters upon the subject of invention, which Cæsar completes by subjoining some remarks on the use of humour in oratory; and Antonius, relieving him, finishes the morning discussion with treating of arrangement and memory. In the afternoon the rules for propriety and elegance of diction are explained by Crassus, who was celebrated in this department of the art; and the work concludes with his handling the subject of delivery and action. Such is the plan of the De Oratore, the most finished perhaps of Cicero’s compositions. An air of grandeur and magnificence reigns throughout. The characters of the aged senators are finely conceived, and the whole company is invested with an almost religious majesty, from the allusions interspersed to the melancholy destinies for which its members were reserved.

His treatise De claris Oratoribus was written after an interval of nine years, about the time of Cato’s death, when he was sixty-one, and is thrown into the shape of a dialogue between Brutus, Atticus, and himself. He begins with Solon, and after briefly mentioning the orators of Greece, proceeds to those of his own country, so as to take in the whole period from the time of Junius Brutus down to himself. About the same time he wrote his Orator; in which he directs his attention principally to diction and delivery, as in his De Inventione and Topica he considers the matter of an oration This treatise is of a less practical nature than the rest. It adopts the principles of Plato, and delineates the perfect orator according to the abstract conceptions of the intellect rather than the deductions of observation and experience. Hence he sets out with a definition of the perfectly eloquent man, whose characteristic it is to express himself with propriety on all subjects, whether humble, great, or of an intermediate character; and here he has an opportunity of paying some indirect compliments to himself. With this work he was so well satisfied that he does not scruple to declare, in a letter to a friend, that he was ready to rest on its merits his reputation for judgment in Oratory.

The treatise De partitione Oratoriâ, or on the three parts of rhetoric, is a kind of catechism between Cicero and his son, drawn up for the use of the latter at the same time with the two preceding. It is the most systematic and perspicuous of his rhetorical works, but seems to be but the rough draught of what he originally intended.


The connection which we have been able to preserve between the rhetorical writings of Cicero cannot be attained in his moral, political, and metaphysical treatises; partly from the extent of the subject, partly from the losses occasioned by time, partly from the inconsistency which we have warned the reader to expect in his sentiments. In our enumeration, therefore, we shall observe no other order than that which the date of their composition furnishes.

The earliest now extant is part of his treatise De Legibus, in three books; being a sequel to his work on Politics. Both were written in imitation of Plato’s treatises on the same subjects. The latter of these (De Republicâ) was composed a year after the De Oratore, and seems to have vied with it in the majesty and interest of the dialogue. It consisted of a series of discussions in six books on the origin and principles of government, Scipio being the principal speaker, but Lælius, Philus, Manilius, and Other personages of like gravity taking part in the conversation. Till lately, but a fragment of the fifth book was understood to be in existence, in which Scipio, under the fiction of a dream, inculcates the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. But in the year 1822, Monsignor Mai, librarian of the Vatican, published considerable portions of the first and second books, from a palimpsest manuscript of St. Austin’s Commentary on the Psalms. In the part now recovered, Scipio discourses on the different kinds of constitutions and their respective advantages; with a particular reference to that of Rome. In the third book, the subject of justice was discussed by Lælius and Philus; in the fourth, Scipio treated of morals and education; while in the fifth and sixth, the duties of a magistrate were explained, and the best means of preventing changes and revolutions in the constitution itself. In the latter part of the treatise, allusion was made to the actual posture of affairs in Rome, when the conversation was supposed to have occurred, and the commotions excited by the Gracchi.

In his treatise De Legibus, which was written two years later than the De Republicâ, when he was fifty-five, and shortly after the murder of Clodius, he represents himself as explaining to his brother Quintus and Atticus, in their walks through the woods of Arpinum, the nature and origin of the laws and their actual state, both in other countries and in Rome. The first part only of the subject is contained in the books now extant; the introduction to which we have had occasion to notice, when speaking of his Stoical sentiments on questions connected with State policy. Law he pronounces to be the perfection of reason, the eternal mind, the divine energy, which, while it pervades and unites in one the whole universe, associates gods and men by the more intimate resemblance of reason and virtue, and still more closely men with men, by the participation of common faculties, affections, and situations. He then proves, at length, that justice is not merely created by civil institutions, from the power of conscience, the imperfections of human law, the moral sense, and the disinterestedness of virtue. He next proceeds to unfold the principles, first, of religious law, under the heads of divine worship; the observance of festivals and games; the office of priests, augurs, and heralds; the punishment of sacrilege and purjury; the consecration of land, and the rights of sepulchre; and, secondly, of civil law, which gives him an opportunity of noticing the respective duties of magistrates and citizens. In these discussions, though professedly speaking of the abstract question, he does not hesitate to anticipate the subject of the lost books, by frequent allusions to the history and customs of his own country. It must be added, that in no part of his writings do worse instances occur, than in this treatise, of that vanity which was notoriously his weakness, which are rendered doubly offensive by their being put into the mouth of his brother and Atticus.

Here a period of seven or eight years intervenes, during which he composed little of importance besides his Orations. He then published the De claris Oratoribus and Orator; and a year later, when he was sixty-three, his Academicæ Quæstiones, in the retirement from public business to which he was driven by the dictatorship of Cæsar. This work had originally consisted of two dialogues, which he entitled Catulus and Lucullus, from the names of the respective speakers in each. These he now remodelled and enlarged into four books, dedicating them to Varro, whom he introduced as advocating, in the presence of Atticus, the tenets of Antiochus, while he himself defended those of Philo. Of this most valuable composition, only the second book (Lucullus) of the first edition and part of the first book of the second are now extant. In the former of those two, Lucullus argues against, and Cicero for, the Academic sect, in the presence of Catulus and Hortensius; in the latter, Varro pursues the history of philosophy from Socrates to Arcesilas, and Cicero continues it down to the time of Carneades. In the second edition the style was corrected, the matter condensed, and the whole polished with extraordinary care and diligence.

The same year he published his treatise De Finibus, or “On the chief good,” in five books, in which are explained the sentiments of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Peripatetics on the subject. This is the earliest of his works in which the dialogue is of a disputatious character. It is opened with a defence of the Epicurean tenets, concerning pleasure, by Torquatus; to which Cicero replies at length. The scene then shifts from the Cuman villa to the library of young Lucullus (his father being dead), where the Stoic Cato expatiates on the sublimity of the system which maintains the existence of one only good, and is answered by Cicero in the character of a Peripatetic. Lastly, Piso, in a conversation held at Athens, enters into an explanation of the doctrine of Aristotle, that happiness is the greatest good. The general style of this treatise is elegant and perspicuous; and the last book in particular has great variety and splendour of diction.

It was about this time that Cicero was especially courted by the heads of the dictator’s party, of whom Hirtius and Dolabella went so far as to declaim daily at his house for the benefit of his instructions. A visit of this nature to the Tusculan villa, soon after the publication of the De Finibus, gave rise to his work entitled Tusculanæ Quæstiones, which professes to be the substance of five philosophical disputes between himself and friends, digested into as many books. He argues throughout after the manner of an Academic, even with an affectation of inconsistency; sometimes making use of the Socratic dialogue, sometimes launching out into the diffuse expositions which characterise his other treatises. He first disputes against the fear of death; and in so doing he adopts the opinion of the Platonic school, as regards the nature of God and the soul. The succeeding discussions on enduring pain, on alleviating grief, on the other emotions of the mind, and on virtue, are conducted for the most part on Stoical principles. This is a highly ornamental composition, and contains more quotations from the poets than any other of Cicero’s treatises.

We have already had occasion to remark upon the singular activity of his mind, which becomes more and more conspicuous as we approach the period of his death. During the ensuing year, which is the last of his life, in the midst of the confusion and anxieties consequent on Cæsar’s death, and the party warfare of his Philippics, he found time to write the De Naturâ Deorum, De Divinatione, De Fato, De Senectute, De Amicitiâ, De Officiis, and Paradoxa, besides the treatise on Rhetorical Common Places above mentioned.

Of these, the first three were intended as a full exposition of the conflicting opinions entertained on their respective subjects; the De Fato, however, was not finished according to this plan. His treatise De Naturâ Deorum, in three books, may be reckoned the most splendid of all his works, and shows that neither age nor disappointment had done injury to the richness and vigour of his mind. In the first book, Velleius, the Epicurean, sets forth the physical tenets of his sect, and is answered by Cotta, who is of the Academic school. In the second, Balbus, the disciple of the Porch, gives an account of his own system, and is, in turn, refuted by Cotta in the third. The eloquent extravagance of the Epicurean, the solemn enthusiasm of the Stoic, and the brilliant raillery of the Academic, are contrasted with extreme vivacity and humour;—while the sublimity of the subject itself imparts to the whole composition a grander and more elevated character, and discovers in the author imaginative powers, which, celebrated as he justly is for playfulness of fancy, might yet appear more the talent of the poet than the orator.

His treatise De Divinatione is conveyed in a discussion between his brother Quintus and himself, in two books. In the former, Quintus, after dividing Divination into the heads of natural and artificial, argues with the Stoics for its sacred nature, from the evidence of facts, the agreement of all nations, and the existence of divine intelligences. In the latter, Cicero questions its authority, with Carneades, from the uncertain nature of its rules, the absurdity and uselessness of the art, and the possibility of accounting from natural causes for the phenomena on which it was founded. This is a curious work, from the numerous cases adduced from the histories of Greece and Rome to illustrate the subject in dispute.

His treatise De Fato is quite a fragment; it purports to be the substance of a dissertation in which he explained to Hirtius (soon after Consul) the sentiments of Chrysippus, Diodorus, Epicurus, Carneades, and others, upon that abstruse subject. It is supposed to have consisted at least of two books, of which we have but the proem of the first, and a small portion of the second.

In his beautiful compositions, De Senectute and De Amicitiâ, Cato the censor and Lælius are respectively introduced, delivering their sentiments on those subjects. The conclusion of the former, in which Cato discourses on the immortality of the soul, has been always celebrated; and the opening of the latter, in which Fannius and Scævola come to console Lælius on the death of Scipio, is as exquisite an instance of delicacy and taste in composition as can be found in his works. In the latter he has borrowed largely from the eighth and ninth books of Aristotle’s Ethics.

His treatise De Officiis was finished about the time he wrote his second Philippic, a circumstance which illustrates the great versatility of his mental powers. Of a work so extensively celebrated, it is enough to have mentioned the name. Here he lays aside the less authoritative form of dialogue, and, with the dignity of the Roman Consul, unfolds, in his own person, the principles of morals, according to the views of the older schools, particularly of the Stoics. It is written in three books, with great perspicuity and elegance of style; the first book treats of the honestum, or virtue, the second of the utile, or expedience, and the third adjusts the claims of the two, when they happen to interfere with each other.

His Paradoxa Stoicorum might have been more suitably, perhaps, included in his rhetorical works, being six short declamations in support of the positions of Zeno; in which that philosopher’s subtleties are adapted to the comprehension of the vulgar, and the events of the times. The second, fourth, and sixth, are respectively directed against Antony, Clodius, and Crassus. They seem to have suffered from time. The sixth is the most eloquent, but the argument of the third is strikingly maintained.

Besides the works now enumerated, we have a considerable fragment of his translation of Plato’s Timæus, which he seems to have finished in his last year. His remaining philosophical works, viz.: the Hortensius, which was a defence of philosophy; De Gloriâ; De Consolatione, written upon Platonic principles on his daughter’s death; De Jure Civili, De Virtutibus, De Auguriis, Chorographia, translations of Plato’s Protagoras, and Xenophon’s Œconomics, works on Natural History, Panegyric on Cato, and some miscellaneous writings, are, except a few fragments, entirely lost.

His Letters, about one thousand in all, are comprised in thirty-six books, sixteen of which are addressed to Atticus, three to his brother Quintus, one to Brutus, and sixteen to his different friends; and they form a history of his life from his fortieth year. Among those addressed to his friends, some occur from Brutus, Metellus, Plancius, Cælius, and others. For the preservation of this most valuable department of Cicero’s writings, we are indebted to Tyro, the author’s freedman, though we possess, at the present day, but a part of those originally published. As his correspondence with his friends belongs to his character as a man and politician, rather than to his literary aspect, we have already noticed it in the first part of this memoir.

His Poetical and Historical works have suffered a heavier fate. The latter class, consisting of his commentary on his consulship and his history of his own times, is altogether lost. Of the former, which consisted of the heroic poems Halcyone, Limon, Marius, and his Consulate, the elegy of Tamelastes, translations of Homer and Aratus, epigrams, etc., nothing remains, except some fragments of the Phænomena and Diosemeia of Aratus. It may, however, be questioned whether literature has suffered much by these losses. We are far, indeed, from speaking contemptuously of the poetical talent of one who possessed so much fancy, so much taste, and so fine an ear. But his poems were principally composed in his youth; and afterwards, when his powers were more mature, his occupations did not allow even to his active mind the time necessary for polishing a language still more rugged in metre than it was in prose. His contemporary history, on the other hand, can hardly have conveyed more explicit, and certainly would have contained less faithful, information than his private correspondence; while, with all the penetration he assuredly possessed, it may be doubted if his diffuse and graceful style was adapted for the deep and condensed thoughts and the grasp of facts and events which are the chief excellences of historical composition.


The Orations which he is known to have composed amount in all to about eighty, of which fifty-nine, either entire or in part, are preserved. Of these some are deliberative, others judicial, others descriptive; some delivered from the rostrum, or in the senate; others in the forum, or before Caesar; and, as might be anticipated from the character already given of his talents, he is much more successful in pleading or in panegyric than in debate or invective. In deliberative oratory, indeed, great part of the effect of the composition depends on its creating in the hearer a high opinion of the speaker; and, though Cicero takes considerable pains to interest the audience in his favour, yet his style is not simple and grave enough, he is too ingenious, too declamatory, discovers too much personal feeling, to elicit that confidence in him, without which argument has little influence. His invectives, again, however grand and imposing, yet, compared with his calmer and more familiar productions, have a forced and unnatural air. Splendid as is the eloquence of his Catilinarians and Philippics, it is often the language of abuse rather than of indignation; and even his attack on Piso, the most brilliant and imaginative of its kind, becomes wearisome from want of ease and relief. His laudatory orations, on the other hand, are among his happiest efforts Nothing can exceed the taste and beauty of those for the Manilian law, for Marcellus, for Ligarius, for Archias, and the ninth Philippic, which is principally in praise of Servius Sulpicius. But it is in judicial eloquence, particularly on subjects of a lively cast, as in his speeches for Cælius and Muræna, and against Cæcilius, that his talents are displayed to the best advantage. In both these departments of oratory the grace and amiableness of his genius are manifested in their full lustre, though none of his orations are without tokens of those characteristic excellences. Historical allusions, philosophical sentiments, descriptions full of life and nature, and polite raillery, succeed each other in the most agreeable manner, without appearance of artifice or effort. Such are his pictures of the confusion of the Catilinarian conspirators on detection; of the death of Metellus; of Sulpicius undertaking the embassy to Antony; the character he draws of Catiline; and his fine sketch of old Appius, frowning on his degenerate descendant Clodia.

These, however, are but incidental and occasional artifices to divert and refresh the mind, since his Orations are generally laid out according to the plan proposed in rhetorical works; the introduction, containing the ethical proof; the body of the speech, the argument, and the peroration addressing itself to the passions of the judges. In opening his case, he commonly makes a profession of timidity and diffidence, with a view to conciliate the favour of his audience; the eloquence, for instance, of Hortensius, is so powerful, or so much prejudice has been excited against his client, or it is his first appearance in the rostrum, or he is unused to speak in an armed assembly, or to plead in a private apartment.1 He proceeds to entreat the patience of his judges; drops out some generous or popular sentiment, or contrives to excite prejudice against his opponent. He then states the circumstances of his case, and the intended plan of his oration; and here he is particularly clear. But it is when he comes actually to prove his point that his oratorical powers begin to have their full play. He accounts for everything so naturally, makes trivial circumstances tell so happily, so adroitly converts apparent objections into confirmations of his argument, connects independent facts with such ease and plausibility, that it becomes impossible to entertain a question on the truth of his statement. This is particularly observable in his defence of Cluentius, where prejudices, suspicions, and difficulties are encountered with the most triumphant ingenuity; in the antecedent probabilities of his Pro Milone; in his apology for Muræna’s public, and Cælius’s private life, and his disparagement of Verres’s military services in Sicily; it is observable too in the address with which the Agrarian law of Rullus, and the accusation of Rabirius, both popular measures, are represented to be hostile to public liberty; with which Milo’s impolitic unconcern is made a touching incident; and Cato’s attack upon the crowd of clients which accompanied the candidate for office, a tyrannical disregard for the feelings of the poor. So great indeed is his talent, that he even hurts a good cause by an excess of plausibility.

But it is not enough to have barely proved his point; he proceeds, either immediately, or towards the conclusion of his speech, to heighten the effect by amplification. Here he goes (as it were) round and round his object; surveys it in every light; examines it in all its parts; retires, and then advances; turns and returns it; compares and contrasts it; illustrates, confirms, enforces his view of the question, till at last the hearer feels ashamed of doubting a position which seems built on a foundation so strictly argumentative. Of this nature is his justification of Rabirius in taking up arms against Saturninus; his account of the imprisonment of the Roman citizens by Verres, and of the crucifixion of Gavius; his comparison of Antony with Tarquin; and the contrast he draws of Verres with Fabius, Scipio, and Marius.

And now, having established his case, he opens upon his opponent a discharge of raillery, so delicate and good-natured, that it is impossible for the latter to maintain his ground against it. Or where the subject is too grave to admit this, he colours his exaggeration with all the bitterness of irony or vehemence of passion. Such are his frequent delineations of Gabinius, Piso, Clodius, and Antony; particularly his vivid and almost humorous contrast of the two consuls, who sanctioned his banishment, in his oration for Sextius. Such the celebrated account (already referred to) of the crucifixion of Gavius by Verres, which it is difficult to read, even at the present day, without having our feelings roused against the merciless Prætor. But the appeal to the gentler emotions of the soul is reserved (perhaps with somewhat of sameness) for the close of his oration; as in his defence of Cluentius, Muræna, Cælius, Milo, Sylla, Flaccus, and Rabirius Postumus; the most striking instances of which are the poetical burst of feeling with which he addresses his client Plancius, and his picture of the desolate condition of the Vestal Fonteia, should her brother be condemned. At other times, his peroration contains more heroic and elevated sentiments; as in his invocation of the Alban groves and altars in the peroration of the Pro Milone, the panegyric on patriotism, and the love of glory in his defence of Sextius, and that on liberty at the close of the third and tenth Philippics.


But it is by the invention of a style, which adapts itself with singular felicity to every class of subjects, whether lofty or familiar, philosophical or forensic, that Cicero answers even more exactly to his own definition of a perfect orator than by his plausibility, pathos, and brilliancy. It is not, however, here intended to enter upon the consideration of a subject so ample and so familiar to all scholars as Cicero’s diction, much less to take an extended view of it through the range of his philosophical writings and familiar correspondence. Among many excellences, the greatest is its suitableness to the genius of the Latin language; though the diffuseness thence necessarily resulting has exposed it, both in his own days and since his time, to the criticisms of those who have affected to condemn its Asiatic character, in comparison with the simplicity of Attic writers, and the strength of Demosthenes. Greek, however, is celebrated for its copiousness in vocabulary, for its perspicuity, and its reproductive power; and its consequent facility of expressing the most novel or abstruse ideas with precision and elegance. Hence the Attic style of eloquence was plain and simple, because simplicity and plainness were not incompatible with clearness, energy, and harmony. But it was a singular want of judgment, an ignorance of the very principles of composition, which induced Brutus, Calvus, Sallust, and others to imitate this terse and severe beauty in their own defective language, and even to pronounce the opposite kind of diction deficient in taste and purity. In Greek, indeed, the words fall, as it were, naturally, into a distinct and harmonious order; and, from the exuberant richness of the materials, less is left to the ingenuity of the artist. But the Latin language is comparatively weak, scanty, and unmusical; and requires considerable skill and management to render it expressive and graceful. Simplicity in Latin is scarcely separable from baldness; and justly as Terence is celebrated for chaste and unadorned diction, yet, even he, compared with Attic writers, is flat and heavy. Again, the perfection of strength is clearness united to brevity; but to this combination Latin is utterly unequal. From the vagueness and uncertainty of meaning which characterises its separate words, to be perspicuous it must be full. What Livy, and much more Tacitus, have gained in energy, they have lost in lucidity and elegance; the correspondence of Brutus with Cicero is forcible, indeed, but harsh and abrupt. Latin, in short, is not a philosophical language, not a language in which a deep thinker is likely to express himself with purity or neatness. Cicero found it barren and dissonant, and as such he had to deal with it. His good sense enabled him to perceive what could be done, and what it was in vain to attempt; and happily his talents answered precisely to the purpose required. He may be compared to a clever landscape-gardener, who gives depth and richness to narrow and confined premises by ingenuity and skill in the disposition of his trees and walks. Terence and Lucretius had cultivated simplicity; Cotta, Brutus, and Calvus had attempted strength; but Cicero rather made a language than a style; yet not so much by the invention as by the combination of words. Some terms, indeed, his philosophical subjects obliged him to coin; but his great art lies in the application of existing materials, in converting the very disadvantages of the language into beauties, in enriching it with circumlocutions and metaphors, in pruning it of harsh and uncouth expressions, in systematizing the structure of a sentence. This is that copia dicendi which gained Cicero the high testimony of Cæsar to his inventive powers, and which, we may add, constitutes him the greatest master of composition that the world has seen.


Such, then, are the principal characteristics of Cicero’s oratory; on a review of which we may, with some reason, conclude that Roman eloquence stands scarcely less indebted to his works than Roman philosophy. For, though in his De claris Oratoribus he begins his review from the age of Junius Brutus, yet, soberly speaking (and as he seems to allow in the opening of the De Oratore), we cannot assign an earlier date to the rise of eloquence among his countrymen, than that of the same Athenian embassy which introduced the study of philosophy. To aim, indeed, at persuasion, by appeals to the reason or passions, is so natural, that no country, whether refined or barbarous, is without its orators. If, however, eloquence be the mere power of persuading, it is but a relative term, limited to time and place, connected with a particular audience, and leaving to posterity no test of its merits but the report of those whom it has been successful in influencing; but we are speaking of it as the subject-matter of an art.

The eloquence of Carneades and his associates had made (to use a familiar term) a great sensation among the Roman orators, who soon split into two parties,—the one adhering to the rough unpolished manners of their forefathers, the other favouring the artificial graces which distinguished the Grecian rhetoricians. In the former class were Cato and Lælius, both men of cultivated minds, particularly Cato, whose opposition to Greek literature was founded solely on political considerations. But, as might have been expected, the Athenian cause had prevailed; and Carbo and the two Gracchi, who are the principal orators of the next generation, are praised as masters of an oratory learned, majestic, and harmonious in its character. These were succeeded by Antonius, Crassus, Cotta, Sulpicius, and Hortensius; who, adopting greater liveliness and variety of manner, form a middle age in the history of Roman eloquence. But it was in that which immediately followed that the art was adorned by an assemblage of orators, which even Greece will find it difficult to match. Of these Cæsar, Cicero, Curio, Brutus, Cælius, Calvus, and Callidius, are the most celebrated. The talents, indeed, of Cæsar were not more conspicuous in arms than in his style, which was noted for its force and purity. Cælius, whom Cicero brought forward into public life, excelled in natural quickness, loftiness of sentiment, and politeness in attack; Brutus in philosophical gravity, though he sometimes indulged himself in a warmer and bolder style. Callidius was delicate and harmonious; Curio bold and flowing; Calvus, from studied opposition to Cicero’s peculiarities, cold, cautious, and accurate. Brutus and Calvus have been before noticed as the advocates of the dry sententious mode of speaking, which they dignified by the name of Attic; a kind of eloquence which seems to have been popular from the comparative facility with which it was attained.

In the Ciceronian age the general character of the oratory was dignified and graceful. The popular nature of the government gave opportunities for effective appeals to the passions; and, Greek literature being as yet a novelty, philosophical sentiments were introduced with corresponding success. The republican orators were long in their introductions, diffuse in their statements, ample in their divisions, frequent in their digressions, gradual and sedate in their perorations. Under the Emperors, however, the people were less consulted in state affairs; and the judges, instead of possessing an almost independent authority, being but delegates of the executive, from interested politicians became men of business; literature, too, was now familiar to all classes; and taste began sensibly to decline. The national appetite felt a craving for stronger and more stimulating compositions. Impatience was manifested at the tedious majesty and formal graces, the parade of arguments, grave sayings, and shreds of philosophy, which characterized their fathers; and a smarter and more sparkling kind of oratory succeeded, just as in our own country the minuet of the last century has been supplanted by the quadrille, and the stately movements of Giardini have given way to Rossini’s brisker and more artificial melodies. Corvinus, even before the time of Augustus, had shown himself more elaborate and fastidious in his choice of expressions. Cassius Severus, the first who openly deviated from the old style of oratory, introduced an acrimonious and virulent mode of pleading. It now became the fashion to decry Cicero as inflated, languid, tame, and even deficient in ornament; Mecænas and Gallio followed in the career of degeneracy; till flippancy of attack, prettiness of expression, and glitter of decoration prevailed over the bold and manly eloquence of free Rome.

Copyright ©1999-2023 Wildfire Fellowship, Inc all rights reserved