Cicero Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In his De republica, Cicero argued that the mixed constitution of the Roman state was the perfect government because it evolved naturally and was not the creation of a single lawgiver.

Summary of Event

For centuries, the only known substantial portion of De republica (51 b.c.e.; On the State, 1817, commonly known as De republica) was the “Dream of Scipio” (Somnium Scipionis). Scattered quotations, many in Saint Augustine’s De civitate Dei (413-427 c.e.; The City of God, 1610), provided hints of the main text. In 1820, a manuscript of much of the rest was found in the Vatican Library. Although scholars still do not possess the full text of De republica, it is sufficiently intact to reveal its main argumentation and to justify an assessment of its contribution to political theory. (“On the commonwealth” is a more accurate rendering of Cicero’s title; the Roman state was not a republic in the modern sense of the word.) Cicero

It is fairly certain that Cicero had completed the writing of the De republica before his term as the governor of the province of Cilicia in Asia Minor in 51 b.c.e. This date is decisive for proper appraisal of the work. Cicero’s political career had peaked when he suppressed the Catiline conspiracy as consul in 63 b.c.e. Politics were turbulent. Cicero had a powerful enemy in Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 92-52 b.c.e.). In 59 b.c.e., Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.) was consul and formed the first triumvirate with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great; 106-48 b.c.e.) and Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115-53 b.c.e.). Cicero opposed this coalition and Caesar’s readiness to use violence to gain passage of measures he supported. The next year, Clodius was tribune and exiled Cicero, ostensibly because he had summarily executed some of the Catiline conspirators without a trial (although with the moral support of the senate) at the end of 63 b.c.e. Although Cicero was recalled to Rome the next year, his political initiative was henceforth curtailed severely. The triumvirs forced him into submission in 56 b.c.e. and compelled him to speak on behalf of some of their allies, although Caesar always sought to keep Cicero a friendly neutral. By 54 b.c.e., Cicero had essentially dropped out of politics. During this period, as he himself records, he turned to philosophy, especially to Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.e.), for consolation. The result was De republica, to which was added later a companion piece on the nature of law, the De legibus (which was never completed).

Cicero’s efforts are not to be seen as translations of Plato. Both works have a Roman setting and famous Romans as the interlocutors of the dialogues. In De republica, the chief speaker is one of Cicero’s heroes, Scipio Aemilianus, the most distinguished Roman of his generation (184/184-129 b.c.e.; consul in 147 and 134 b.c.e., censor in 142 b.c.e., and princeps senatus); he is best known as the conqueror of Carthage in 146 b.c.e. The remaining eight participants are his political allies and clients. De republica is set in 129 b.c.e., shortly before Scipio’s death. Cicero himself leads the discussion in De legibus, so his role corresponds to that of Scipio; his brother Quintus and friend Titus Pomponius Atticus (109-32 b.c.e.) are the other participants in the discussion.

The two works are not merely Roman replicas of Greek originals. In both works, Cicero is more dependent on Platonic format (the dialogue form and concluding dream) than content. He draws on the teaching of many other philosophical schools, especially Stoic philosophy, and on the Greek historian Polybius (c. 200-c. 118 b.c.e.), a friend of Scipio, to form his own conception of the ideal state and of the nature of law. Above all, Cicero utilizes his own experiences as Roman patriot, statesman, and theoretician. Cicero, for all his wisdom and patriotism, is fundamentally romantic. Politics in Scipio’s time were much more complex than Cicero presents them. As history the work is flawed, but as theory it was intended to be practical, not utopian.

Cicero’s De republica is composed of six books. Unlike Plato’s Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), its theme is not the nature of justice reflected in the workings of the perfect state, but the state itself reflected in its constitution and government. In book 1, Scipio examines the three types of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He shows that the best state is formed from a mixture of elements drawn from the three separate types. In book 2, he shows how the Roman state, itself a mixed form of government, achieved in the course of history this composite form. Book 3 discusses the nature of justice and its relation to the state. Book 4 treats education, while books 5 and 6 portray the ideal statesman (variously styled princeps, moderator, or rector), who guides the state by the force of personal integrity and reputation (auctoritas). The work ends with an almost mystic vision of the rewards to be enjoyed in the afterlife by those who have administered the state properly.

Cicero.

(Library of Congress)

This last section had a life separate from the rest of the dialogue as the Somnium Scipionis. In it, Scipio has a dream in which he discourses with two distinguished Roman senators, his adoptive grandfather (Scipio Africanus Major, or the Elder, 236-184/183 b.c.e.) and his real father (Lucius Aemilius Paulus, d. 216), and learns of the eternal fame and deification of the true statesman. Cicero’s propensity to simplify complexities, to idealize those he regarded as good and vilify those he thought bad, proved fatal, for in 44-43 b.c.e., seeing himself as rector, his vitriolic attacks on Marc Antony (c. 82-30 b.c.e.) led to the civil war many sought to prevent and to his own death.

Significance

Two aspects of De republica have been especially influential among later thinkers: the theory of the mixed constitution, and the relation of justice to the state. Cicero was not the originator of either idea, but he is primarily responsible for transmitting them to later ages. A third aspect is controversial. Cicero’s theory may have influenced Augustus (63 b.c.e.-14 c.e.) and his advisers in the early 20’s b.c.e. to model Augustus’s role as princeps on the Ciceronian princeps or rector, who guides by auctoritas (prestige) instead of ruling through potestas or imperium (power).

The virtue of the mixed constitution is that it is immune to the defects inherent in the three types of government. In ancient political theory there was an inevitable cycle in which monarchy degenerated into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into anarchic mob rule. Yet if the three types are combined into a single system of government, their differences interact with one another and form a series of checks and balances to prevent the dominance and subsequent degeneration of any one type. The influence of this theory is readily apparent in the structure of the U.S. Constitution.

Cicero’s treatment of the role of justice within the state is equally relevant. The initial argument is that justice is inimical to the efficient operation of the state because it is opposed to self-interest. Because each state has diverse laws and customs, there is no universal concept of justice that all states can follow. Among states as among men, the accepted principle is that the stronger dominate and exploit the weaker to ensure their own security and self-interest. If a state attempts to observe justice, it will only expose itself to mediocrity and external control. Against this view it is argued that justice forms the very fabric of the state, without which the state cannot even exist, since by definition the state is the union of persons who are joined by a common agreement about law and rights and by a desire to share mutual advantages. Yet justice is concerned precisely with the due observance of law and rights. Without justice, the members of the state can have nothing to share in and can only become a band of mutual exploiters. Cicero thus placed as the bedrock of his republic the inextricable bond of justice and law, and he transmitted to the West the concept that the very existence of the state depends on its being just; indeed, the unjust state has no right to continue.

Plato’s Republic has appealed to political thinkers more as an allegory than as a practical treatise for real politicians. Cicero’s De republica and his De officiis (44 b.c.e.; On Duties, 1534), however, typified a Roman practicality tempered by moderate idealism urging on men a role of action as statesmen. To the philosophers, Cicero remained the ideal of the active man, a thinker in action, in spite of the faulty policy that led to his death in the proscription on December 7, 43 b.c.e.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Republic and the Laws. Edited by Jonathan Powell and translated by Niall Rudd. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A modern translation that provides an excellent introduction, a table of dates, notes on the Roman constitution, and an index of names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Everitt, Anthony. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. New York: Random House, 2002. A biography aimed at the general reader, which concentrates on portraying Cicero the man, in the context of his times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, Jonathan, ed. Cicero the Philosopher: Twelve Papers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A collection of essays that focus on Cicero as a philosopher rather than a political theorist. Several essays consider aspects of De republica.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Thomas N. Cicero: The Ascending Years. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Thomas N. Cicero: The Senior Statesman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. This two-volume biography lucidly explains Cicero’s political life and thought. The work is notable for its thoroughness and its careful use of sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rawson, E. D. Cicero: A Portrait. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. Reliable overview of the life and work of Cicero.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Marc Antony; Julius Caesar; Catiline; Cicero; Plato; Polybius; Pompey the Great; Scipio Aemelianus; Scipio Africanus. De republica (Cicero)

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