Cicero, the quintessential public speaker

July 16, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

Citizens of ancient Rome loved public speaking. They put the highest value on a well-articulated argument or an emotion-filled oration. It wasn’t just good entertainment. A orator could make them think and feel.

No one was better at public speaking than Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Like many other Romans, Cicero studied what made a good, effective speech. He studied the techniques of the speaker and the expectations and reactions of the audience. Unlike most Romans, Cicero wrote extensively about what he had learned and what he had experienced. Much of what he wrote is available to us today.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BC in Arpinium, a hill town about 100 kilometers south of Rome. His family was among the “equestrian class” of Roman society (which had little to do with horses), a class that gave his well-to-do family some rank but was not among the most powerful of Roman citizens. As with many Roman men of his time, Cicero had ambitions of rising into the most powerful circles of the Roman Republic. (Rome at that time was a “republic” with a complex governmental structure rather than an “empire” with a single ruler at the top.)

It was during Cicero’s lifetime that events moved Rome away from its republicanism and toward its single, all-powerful leadership style. Cicero believed deeply in the republic and its governing principles — a believe that put him at odds with the powerful forces that wanted to do away with the republic. Eventually, those beliefs cost him his life.

Cicero not only was a politician but also a scholar, lawyer, and philosopher. His influence on the Latin language was enormous. Roman education at the time of Cicero was dominated by Hellenistic (Greek) ways of speaking and thinking. Cicero’s work introduced many Greek ideas into Latin and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary. 

Cicero entered public life as a lawyer, and his brilliant defenses and orations brought him much public acclaim.

He moved into politics, acquiring various official offices in the Roman Republic government and eventually service as consul, the highest office in the Republic. A consul could only serve for one year and had to serve alongside another consul. Cicero did this in 63 BC. He defeated political rival Cataline, who was later charged with sedition. Cicero aligned himself with Pompey, a rising star in the Roman political firmament, but it was a dangerous time to be a part of any political faction.

The Roman Republic was falling prey to the ambitions of several men who did not respect the Republic’s rules or governing traditions. Cicero maintained his allegiance to the integrity of the Republic, and ultimately it cost him his life.

Cicero was in the Senate when Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC but was not part of the conspiracy. Nevertheless, as events unfolded, Cicero was named as an enemy of the state and murdered by Roman soldiers in 43 BC as he was trying to escape the Italian peninsula.

Cicero’s politics are relatively unimportant to us today, but his writings have exercised a mass influence on modern thinking. Cicero wrote treatises on numerous aspects of politics and public life. His influence on education and the language during his lifetime was widespread and continued for centuries. His views on natural law and human rights were consistently cited by early Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo.

The Founding Fathers of the American Revolution relied heavily on Cicero’s republican ideas. Thomas Jefferson (aalong with other Englightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, and David Hume) cited him often, and John Adams wrote, “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”

Cicero is most popularly known today for his work on rhetoric and oratory. In his last work on rhetoric, Orato, written three years before his death, Cicero says the three aims of the orator are “docere, delectare, et movere.” That is: to prove your thesis to the audience, to delight the audience, and to emotionally move the audience.

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