“How I could wish that you had invited me to that most glorious banquet on the Ides of March!” the heroic Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote to one of the Roman senators who stabbed perpetual dictator Julius Caesar to death more than two millennia ago.
The Ides of March on March 15, 44 B.C., is among the most important dates in the political history of Western civilization. It marks the assassination of one of the world’s worst tyrants, who demolished Roman law by marching on his own city and ultimately was made a god.
When young senator Marcus Brutus dealt the final blow slaying Caesar, he raised his dagger and acknowledged Cicero for helping recover liberty. Cicero’s inspiring oratory against tyranny established him as the greatest apostle of political freedom and civic virtue the Western world has ever known.
A “new man” to Rome’s aristocratic politics, Cicero rose to prominence through his peerless rhetorical gifts, protecting the Republic from corrupt usurpers like Catiline, who tried to overthrow it.
Cicero Was a Model of Self-Government
Today, Roman history is largely forgotten across American public education, but this wasn’t always so. Not long ago, high school students knew that any sentence starting with “As Cicero said” would soon be followed by enduring classical wisdom. Sadly, American students’ mediocre performance on the eighth-grade history portion of the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Nation’s Report Card, shows the decline of our civic culture.
The Founding Fathers thought the basic lessons from ancient Rome should be taught in schools as models and anti-models of self-government. Thomas Jefferson cited Cicero, nicknamed “Tully,” as one of his primary sources in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Cicero favored “mixed constitutions,” based on Greek and Roman republicanism, that check political power.
“[A]ll ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero,” wrote John Adams, author of the Massachusetts constitution. Tully followed the ancient view that a divine spark embeds reason in the human mind, resulting in lawmaking based on moral tenets, not arbitrary force.
A champion of Greek learning, Cicero wrote books on republics, laws, duties, friendship, and old age that popularized liberal arts ideals for posterity. Tully’s surviving 900 letters remain central to our historical understanding of the Roman Republic. His influence on Latin, the Romance languages, and English is immeasurable, shaping the cadences, rhythms, and tones of European tongues. “Ciceronian” is eloquence defined.
Cicero’s Contribution to the Renaissance
Scholars say the Italian Renaissance really began when the poet Petrarch unearthed Cicero’s letters in 1345; and later, leading Enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Voltaire saw Cicero as immortal. More recently, historian Michael Grant wrote, “the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language.”
Beyond the togas, sandals, and grandeur, Rome degenerated into authoritarian rule under the Second Triumvirate. Caesar’s former henchman Mark Antony commanded his army to incite violence for political ends, persecuting constitutionalists like Cicero and Brutus, who spoke truth to power.
Antony had an insatiable appetite for tyranny, civic disrespect, and drunkenness, even vomiting in the senate chamber. By 44-43 B.C., Cicero had had enough, unleashing 14 scathing Philippics against Mark Antony’s debauched character. These speeches are masterpieces. Rome’s political bloodsport escalated, and Antony’s soldiers hunted down and butchered Cicero. This tragedy teaches students how despots destroy republics.
The historian Plutarch reports that Antony “laugh[ed] aloud for joy many times,” having ordered his men to cut off Cicero’s head and right hand, “with which Cicero had written the speeches against him…” Then Antony had them placed in the public forum.
Cicero’s martyrdom has inspired liberty-loving patriots across eras. But not in our time. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick killed off a basic history-civics graduation requirement, which current Gov. Charlie Baker thus far has lacked the courage to reinstate. At the federal level, the Obama administration also canceled national U.S. history and civics tests, substituting them with technology literacy tests, a decision the Trump administration has yet to revisit.
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child,” Cicero said. “For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
If American schooling seeks to revitalize its historic duty to teach civic knowledge, it should look to Cicero, our civilization’s most compelling profile in eloquent statesmanship.