Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on this day in the year 106 BC, in a town in southern Lazio called Arpinum. This was also the birthplace of the famous Gaius Marius, who held the consulship seven times in the late 2nd and early 1st century BC, and an unverified tradition claims Augustus’ lieutenant Marcus Agrippa as a native son. From this comes a motto often associated with the town, “Hinc ad imperium – from here to empire.” Cicero himself liked to note that both he and Marius, although they were not natives of Rome, and therefore famously regarded (and by many despised) as “new men”, proved to be saviors of the city, Marius in the Cimbrian War, and Cicero in the Catilinarian conspiracy.
(A statue of Cicero in the central piazza of the modern town of Arpino; image from Wikimedia Commons by pietro scerrato, CC BY-SA 3.0)
It is difficult to overstate the importance of his influence on the Latin language. The definition of “proper Latin” as that of Cicero has too often been exaggerated, to the needless despite of other perfectly good expressions of the language. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that it was he above all others who transformed it into the powerful medium for the writings of so many different cultures and eras that it has been for over two millennia.
In one sense, then, it is rather ironic that one of the most important sources for his life, and especially his early life, is a Greek work, the Parallel Lives of Plutarch, who pairs him with the great Athenian orator Demosthenes. But in another, this is highly appropriate, since it was the Greek language and philosophical tradition that formed so much of Cicero’s work as both an orator and writer.
Here is an excerpt from the Latin translation given in a bilingual edition of Plutarch, published in England in 1723. It was, of course, taken for granted that Latin was the medium by which an educated person might approach the Greek language, a fact which itself testifies to the extraordinary endurance of Cicero’s legacy.
“Editum ferunt Ciceronem, facili partu et nullo matris dolore, tertio Nonas Januarias; quo die magistratus nunc vota faciunt et sacrificant pro incolumitate principis. Nutrici ejus spectrum aiunt se obtulisse, ac praedixisse ingens eam bonum omnibus Romanis nutrire. Hac quum somnia esse et vana alioquin viderentur, ipse brevi ostendit certum fuisse oraculum. Nam ubi literarum fuit per aetatem capax, tanta in eo eluxit indoles, tantumque nomen inter pueros et laudem comparavit, quae parentes eorum excitaret ut ad ludum pergerent ad Ciceronem oculis contemplandum, celebratumque ejus in discendo acumen et solertiam considerandam: agrestiores succenserent filiis, quum cernerent in media eos caterva Ciceronem honoris causa per vias stipantes. Hic quum esset, qualem esse Plato vult studiosam et philophophiae naturam amantem, ad omnes natus artes complectendas, nec ad ullum doctrinae aut eruditionis praetereundum genus, ad poesim sane fuit proclivior. Extat poema quoddam parvum, quod puer etiamnum edidit, Pontius Glaucus, versibus tetrametris compositum. Progressu temporis, quum magis ac magis hoc studium excoleret, non modo orator habitus est, sed et poeta inter Romanos praetantissimus. Caeterum laus oratoria, licet multa in dicendo novata fuerint, vel hac manet aetate: poetica vero, quia multi ei insignes successerunt, neglecta jacet et obsoleta.
(The Young Cicero Reading, ca. 1464, by Vincenzo Foppa; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
It is said that Cicero was born, without travail or pain on the part of his mother, on the third day of the new kalends, the day on which at the present time the magistrates offer sacrifices and prayers for the health of the emperor. It would seem also that a phantom appeared to his nurse and foretold that her charge would be a great blessing to all the Romans. And although these presages were thought to be mere dreams and idle fancies, he soon showed them to be true prophecy; for when he was of an age for taking lessons, his natural talent shone out clear and he won name and fame among the boys, so that their fathers used to visit the schools in order to see Cicero with their own eyes and observe the quickness and intelligence in his studies for which he was extolled, though the ruder ones among them were angry at their sons when they saw them walking with Cicero placed in their midst as a mark of honor. And although he showed himself, as Plato thought a nature should do which was fond of learning and fond of wisdom, capable of welcoming all knowledge and incapable of slighting any kind of literature or training, he lent himself with somewhat greater ardour to the art of poetry. And a little poem which he wrote when a boy is still extant, called Pontius Glaucus, and composed in tetrameter verse. Moreover, as he grew older and applied himself with greater versatility to such accomplishments, he got the name of being not only the best orator, but also the best poet among the Romans. His fame for oratory abides to this day, although there have been great innovations in style; but his poetry, since many gifted poets have followed him, has altogether fallen into neglect and disrepute.”