It is to the ancients we turn when we seek to find the foundations on which the structure of modern civilization has been reared. Our laws we trace to Rome. Athens is the mother of art, both plastic and poetic. Both Greece and Rome have taught us the science of government, nay, given us government itself. And eloquence, the fleeting utterance of the tongue, we trace in its beginning and perfection, through the channels of Rome, to Athens, its source and fountain-head.
Oratory was a living power in Athens and in Rome. It has been a power with all civilized peoples. Its power has always been in direct proportion to the eloquence it bore. For, in the living speech lies that hidden charm by which the emotions are kindled, that rouses to action, that imparts knowledge. “What is there in the world,” says Cicero, “more extraordinary than eloquence, whether we consider the admiration of its hearers, the reliance of those who stand in need of assistance, or the good-will it procures from those whom it defends.”
Eloquence, the quintessence of oratory, has ever been a safe criterion of the intellectual and moral level of a people, its decay an indication of torpor and of decay of the ideal. In Demosthenes culminated the eloquence of Greece; in Cicero that of Rome. With their disappearance vanish the liberties of the people and self-government is effaced. With the institution of free government Roman oratory developed and grew during the five hundred years that Rome was her own mistress. Before the fall of the Republic, when liberty was about to make her last struggle, it reached the summit of perfection. With the decline of independence oratory declined in Rome as well as in Greece. Eloquence ceased to be a weapon in public affairs and yielded its gentle sway to force borne by appeal to arms. Rarely has oratory flourished and unfolded its powers in times of peace and general prosperity. It needs a soil peculiar to itself, from which to draw its vigor and an atmosphere of its own to expand and to develop its supreme powers. Political ideals and the attainment of high aims have ever been its foster-mother. Great issues, the welfare of nations, oppression of the proud and generous, religious fervor, each in turn has tended to urge the orator to impassioned eloquence. Turn to the Irish Parliament and its champions for national independence; to the French Revolution and its unattainable ideals; to the great struggle in the United States to free the slave from bondage. Never have the powers of eloquence had greater sway, never have they helped to shape greater events.
Cicero is the embodiment of Roman eloquence. None is greater than he save Demosthenes; none of the ancients nearer to us than he. The more realistic a nation’s conception of the life of the ancients, especially in their literature, the nearer has it attained to their standard of perfection. Witness the Latin races, witness England and its intellectual offspring, America. The prose style of all modern writers has been largely influenced by Latin prose, and, above all, by the model style of Cicero.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on the third of January, about the year 106 B.C. He was of noble birth and his family had possessed equestrian rank from its first admission to the freedom of Rome. At an early age he was brought to Rome. Reared under the best tutors of his time and guided by a natural tendency of his mind, he soon became a zealous student of philosophy, jurisprudence and its twin sister, eloquence. He grew into manhood under the shadow of the outrages of civil war.
His defence of Roscius against the favorite of Sulla falls in the year 81 B.C. Hortensius was his opponent. To triumph over such a foe was a triumph indeed. A two-years’ sojourn abroad in Greece and Asia Minor did much to invigorate his body and develop his mind. As quæstor in Sicily, then in his thirtieth year, he acquired his first experience in the administration of government. In the Senate Cicero was at this time looked upon as leader and champion. Public favor was bestowed on him without his courting it by insidious arts. The accusation of Verres was delegated to him after he had been unanimously elected ædilis curulis in 69 B.C. During his prætorship he assisted Pompey in securing the generalship in the war against Mithridates. His election as consul, in 64 B.C., marks the climax of his life. The defence of Rabirius and the prosecution of Catiline belong to this period.
But stronger arms than his aspired to rule. Cicero was powerless against the combination of Crassus, Cæsar and Pompey. The entry of Publius Clodius into the triumvirate drove him into exile. To Pompey’s quarrel with Clodius he owed his recall. The fate of Crassus had impressed him profoundly, and we miss in Cicero henceforth that independence of character that marked his earlier years. Discouraged from participating in public affairs, he now entered upon a period of great literary activity.
The final struggle between Pompey and Cæsar was drawing near. Cicero’s friendship and influence, still powerful, were sought by both, and, while his heart inclined him to Pompey, his reason favored Cæsar. Nothing, however, could induce him to abandon his seclusion, till, after the assassination of Cæsar, he proposed in the Senate a general pardon for all participants in the struggle, and effected a superficial reconciliation between the opposing factions. He joined Octavianus against Antonius, and with all the power of his eloquence strove to thwart the designs of Antonius to continue in the role of Cæsar.
But Octavianus repaid him ill. In his new triumvirate with Antonius and Lepidus all friends of liberty were doomed by proscription. Cicero was the first victim demanded from Octavianus by the implacable Antonius. On the seventh day of December in the year 43 B.C., he suffered death at the hands of C. Popillius Lænas, whose life he had once saved. His head and right hand were exposed to the populace, a spectacle that brought tears to every eye in the gazing multitude, and exultation to the hearts of sycophants and the enemies of liberty.
It was the conception and the pursuit of ideal beauty that produced all the masterpieces of Greek art. Cicero applied it to eloquence. He tells us that he continually strove to attain an ideal excellence not found in any living model nor taught in any school; and accords to his Grecian rival the great praise of all but reaching a perfection which he had himself always longed for but had never been able to attain. No writer has ever made so close a scrutiny of himself and his art as he. In “De Oratore” he points to the variations of his style. Thus, among others, he gives reasons that aroused him to indignation and vehemence in his pleadings against Verres and Catiline, and those that inspired him to insinuating eloquence in speaking on the Manilian law. In Brutus he has laid down all the results of his observations, reflections and experience, what a speaker should be, can never be, yet must ever strive to be.
Cicero owed his great perfection in eloquence more to himself and his constant endeavors than to any other source. It is true he acknowledges more than once his indebtedness and gratitude to Isocrates. Archias, the poet, is mentioned as one of his early preceptors. But the genius of eloquence was born in him, and, at an early age, following a natural inclination he resolved to devote himself to oratory. He often saw and listened to the orators of his day, Crassus, Antonius, Cæsar, Sulpicius and Cotta. In acquiring a profound knowledge of the law he owed much to the two Scævolas, the most eminent jurists of the day. Again the arrival of Philo and other learned Greeks, in 89 B.C., was an event in the life of Cicero. Phædrus had already initiated him in the study of philosophy and the Stoic Diodolus in the art of dialectics. Thus it was that, at the threshold of manhood and at the very outset of his career, he had attained to a degree of perfection which few have reached after a long and active career. His sojourn in Greece, his intercourse there with the foremost minds, especially his associations with Appolonius Molon, whom he had known in Rome, offered an unusual opportunity for self-improvement. His early causes established his fame as an orator. Cicero preferred to plead the case of the defendant and only reluctantly arose as public accuser. Content to conquer in triumphs won by talent, he often pleaded causes without remuneration. The confidence and love of his people, so nobly won, he retained almost uninterruptedly till his death.
In bringing his style to an unparalleled degree of perfection Cicero was guided by Isocrates, who had labored much to shape the language of the Athenians to the purposes of the highest eloquence. It is a long distance from the harsh and clumsy style of the old Romans to the refined latinity of Cicero. Owing to so many points of similarity with the Greeks by virtue of his early training and the course of his studies in later life, Cicero has often been compared with Demosthenes. Quintilian tells us that Demosthenes always seeks to attain victory at the point of his weapon, while Cicero employs the weight of the weapon itself for this purpose, each being perfect in his way. He tells us that Demosthenes is concise while Cicero is flowing and redundant. This is the keynote to the powers of each. Demosthenes, objective, realistic, concise, intensely earnest, linking himself to his cause, only asking the good-will of his hearers; Cicero subjective, redundant, verbose, jesting at times, displaying flash and fire, and often sacrificing form to substance in pleading. Cicero has been reproached for his inordinate vanity, his glittering sophisms, his self-complacency, putting himself always in the centre of all, shutting all else out from view. But no assaults have been able to dethrone him from that lofty position which the mature judgment of the generations of twenty centuries has assigned to him. And are we not ever drawn anew to the man as well as to the orator by the surpassing elegance of his style, the urbanity of his manner, his skill and erudition, his knowledge of men and of affairs, and, above all, by his profound sympathy with mankind? Future generations may well re-echo the words of John Quincy Adams when he said, “Cicero is the friend of the soul, whom we can never meet without a gleam of pleasure, from whom we can never part without reluctance.”