This article was first published in the January 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine


A landowner framed for patricide by two of his relatives, who are eager to sting him out of his inheritance; a playboy and his aristocratic lover, the scandal of their affair ending amid rival accusations of poisoning and prostitution; a gangland boss, cornered and brought down by the henchmen of his deadliest rival: these might sound like plots from a particularly lurid television cop show. In fact, they derive from a corpus of speeches delivered by one man in the law courts of Rome over 2,000 years ago. His speeches, as well as being masterpieces of Latin prose, are also historical documents of the utmost significance. The author’s name: Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Soap orator

The comparison of Cicero’s speeches to popular entertainment is not, perhaps, an entirely far-fetched one. True, his status as Rome’s greatest orator certainly won him no end of kudos among the elite, those senatorial movers and shakers whose good opinion was so essential for anyone looking to climb to the top of the Republic’s greasy pole. Yet law, to the Romans, was by no means an exclusive enthusiasm. Cicero’s dominance of the courts ensured that he was a genuine celebrity, courted by those who might need his services, and admired from afar by those who flocked to gawp at his rhetorical pyrotechnics. Great orators were figures of glamour, and the law itself a topic of consuming interest. To a degree that his heirs can only fantasise about today, a lawyer in Rome might become a superstar.

For the Roman people, as the free citizens of a republic, knew that their legal system was what served to define them, and guarantee their rights. Understandably, they were intensely proud of it. Law was the only intellectual activity which they felt entitled them to sneer at the Greeks. It gratified the Romans no end to point out how “incredibly muddled – almost verging on the ridiculous – other legal systems are compared to our own”.

This sense of self-satisfaction was drummed into them from an early age. In childhood, boys would train their minds for the practise of law with the same single-minded intensity they brought to the training of their bodies for warfare. Indeed, a career in the law courts was the only alternative to glory-chasing against barbarians that a senator would even contemplate – while for those, like Cicero himself, who came from families with no tradition of high office, legal practice offered by far the likeliest path to membership of the elite. To be sure, ambitious novices in the political game would be obliged to serve at least some time with the legions, and maybe even win some honourable scars; but it was hard for them, if they lacked contacts, to obtain a meaningful command.

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With oratory, however, things were different. Cicero, sent as a boy from provincial obscurity to Rome, had displayed such a precocious aptitude for rhetoric that the fathers of his fellow students would come to his school just to hear the infant prodigy declaim. This potential had soon been spotted by some of the most influential figures in Rome. One of these, Marcus Antonius – the grandfather of Cleopatra’s lover – had provided the young Cicero with a particularly encouraging role-model. Despite coming from an undistinguished family himself, Antonius’ mastery of rhetoric had succeeded in elevating him both to the consulship, the Republic’s supreme office, and to a status as a leading statesman of the senatorial elite. It was an example of what oratory might achieve for a parvenu that Cicero would never forget.

Certainly, his performances in the courts were never just ends in themselves. Law was not something distinct from political life, but an often lethal extension of it. There was no state-run prosecution service. Instead, all cases had to be brought privately, making it a simple matter for feuds to find a vent in the courts. The prosecution of a rival might well prove a knock-out blow. Officially, the penalty for a defendant found guilty of most crimes was death. In practice, because the Republic had no police force or prison system, a condemned man would be permitted to slip away into exile, and even live in luxury, if he had succeeded in squirreling away his portable wealth in time.

His hopes of high office, however, would be finished. Not only were criminals stripped of their citizenship, but they could be killed with impunity if they ever set foot back in Italy. Every Roman who embarked upon a political career had to be aware that this might be his fate. Only if he won a magistracy would he be immune from the prosecutions of his rivals, and even then only for the period of his office. The moment it ended, his enemies would pounce. Bribery, intimidation, the shameless pulling of strings – anything would be attempted to avoid a prosecution. If it did come to the law courts, then no trick would be too low, no muck-raking too vicious, no slander too cruel. Even more than an election, a trial was a fight to the death.

To the Romans, with their inveterate addiction to passionate and sensational rivalries, this made the law a thrilling spectator sport. Even though the jurors, 75 of them in all, would be selected exclusively from the upper classes, the courts themselves were always open to the general public. Two permanent tribunals stood in the Forum, and other temporary platforms might be thrown up as circumstance required. As a result, the discerning enthusiast always had a wide choice of trials from which to choose. Orators could gauge their standing by their audience share. This only encouraged the histrionics which were anyway part and parcel of a Roman trial. Close attention to the minutiae of statutes was regarded as the pettifogging strategy of a second-class mind, since everyone knew that only “those who fail to make the grade as an orator resort to the actual study of the law”. Eloquence was the true measure of forensic talent. The ability to seduce a crowd, spectators as well as jurors and judges, to make them laugh or cry, to entertain them with a comedy routine or tug at their heart strings, to persuade them and dazzle them and make them see the world anew: this was the art of a great law court pleader. It was said that a Roman would rather lose a friend than an opportunity for a joke. Conversely, he felt not the slightest embarrassment at displays of wild emotion. Defendants would be told to wear mourning, and look as haggard as they possibly could. Relatives would periodically burst into tears. On one occasion, we are told, a witness wept to such effect at the trial of a friend that the jurors and the presiding magistrate all joined in, and promptly voted for the defendant to be freed.

The lawyer and the dancing girl

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the Romans should have had the same word, “actor”, for both a prosecutor and a performer on a stage. Socially, the gulf between the two of them was vast, but in terms of technique there was often little to choose. Rome’s leading orator in the years of Cicero’s apprenticeship, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, was notorious for apeing the gestures of a mime-artist. He was a celebrated fop, who “would arrange the folds of his toga with great care and exactness” then use his hands and the sweep of his arms as an extension of his voice. He did this with such grace that the stars of the Roman stage would stand in the audience whenever he spoke, studying and copying his every gesture. Like actors, orators were endlessly gossiped about. Hortensius himself was nicknamed “Dionysia”, after a famous dancing girl – but he could afford to brush all such insults aside. The prestige he won as Rome’s leading orator was worth any number of jeers.

Hortensius’ own pre-eminence had been established in the aftermath of Rome’s first ever civil war, during the 80s BC, when the law courts had been muzzled, and numerous orators culled. Marcus Antonius, Cicero’s patron, had been among them: his head had been displayed in the Forum, and his body fed to birds and dogs. Cicero himself, unnerved by the murder of his hero, elected to keep his head down. He spent the years of the civil war studying and honing his rhetorical skills, and not until 81 BC, when he was already in his mid-20s, did he finally plead in his first trial. Constitutional government had just been restored – but Cicero still had to tread warily. A year after his debut in the law courts, he agreed to defend the son of an Umbrian landowner, Sextus Roscius, who had been charged with patricide. The case was politically highly sensitive. The murdered man was supposed to have been an enemy of the faction that had recently emerged victorious in the civil war; but this, as Cicero was to demonstrate, had been a fabrication. The defendant was duly acquitted. Cicero, having dipped his toe into shark-infested waters and lived to tell the tale, found his reputation made.

But not yet to his own satisfaction. Aiming for the political heights as he was, Cicero knew that he first had to seize Hortensius’ oratorical crown. Accordingly, he threw himself into defence work, taking on other prominent cases, and using the courts to test himself to the emotional and physical limits, “drawing on all the strength of [his] voice and the effort of [his] whole body.” Finally, in 70 BC, more than a decade after his successful defence of Sextus Roscius, Cicero felt himself ready to take on the heavyweight champion of the law courts, and meet Hortensius face to face. Rather then defend, he chose, for the first time in his life, to prosecute. His target: a venal provincial governor by the name of Gaius Verres. The case was ripe with scandal and prurient detail, and Cicero had done his homework well. Hortensius only needed to hear his first speech to know the game was up. He waived his right of reply, and the trial promptly collapsed.

The news was broadcast all over Rome. The king had finally lost his crown. Hortensius’ rule of the law courts had been brought to a close, and from that moment on, Marcus Cicero’s supremacy as Rome’s greatest orator was firmly established. It would continue unchallenged until his death. The golden age of Roman oratory, and of the law courts, was about to begin.

A martyr to free speech: how Cicero’s outspoken attacks cost him his life

Once, in a letter to a friend, Cicero anxiously wondered what people would be saying about him in a thousand years’ time. The mixture of self-obsession and insecurity was absolutely typical of the man. Even to the Romans – who never regarded modesty as a virtue – Cicero’s conceit was something monstrous. Yet his vanity was as much prickliness as self-promotion. A provincial from a small hill town to the south of Rome, he was always painfully conscious that the elite regarded him as an upstart. If Cicero never tired of boasting about his achievements, then this was at least in part because he appreciated just how astounding they had been.

Securely established as Rome’s greatest orator by his mid-30s, he was also, by his mid-40s, being hailed as “the father of his country”. In 63 BC, while Cicero was consul, he uncovered – some said invented – a dangerous conspiracy to overthrow the Republic. The memory of how he had rallied both Senate and the Roman people in the cause of stability and tradition would never leave him, and provided Cicero with a manifesto that he clung to for the rest of his career. Sadly for all his hopes, a Rome that found herself increasingly dominated by plutocratic warlords regarded Cicero’s defence of constitutionalism as an increasing irrelevance. By the time that Julius Caesar, having plunged the Republic into civil war, emerged as dictator, Cicero appeared yesterday’s man. Even those who had once admired him now widely accused him of cowardice.

Retiring to his villa, Cicero devoted himself to works of philosophy that would have an incalculable influence on medieval and Renaissance literature.

Summoned back to the political fray following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, he launched a series of stinging attacks on Mark Antony, the grandson of his old mentor, accusing him of being a menace to Roman freedom. He paid for this unwonted display of political courage with his life. He perished, as he would perhaps have wished, a martyr to free speech.

Not one, but two thousand years later, he is still remembered.


Tom Holland is a historian and broadcaster, who presents BBC Radio 4’s Making History. He is the author of Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.