The brutal beheading of Cicero, last defender of the Roman Republic

In 43 B.C., Mark Antony murdered Cicero, famous for his unparalleled powers of speech, and ushered in the beginnings of the Roman Empire.Monday, 8 April 2019

By José Miguel Baños

The second-century A.D. historian Appian vividly captured the moment the Roman Republic truly died: When the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero was struck down by the forces of his enemies:

As he leaned out of the litter and offered his neck unmoved, his head was cut off. Nor did this satisfy the senseless cruelty of the soldiers. They cut off his hands, also, for the offense of having written something against Antony. Thus, the head was brought to Antony and placed by his order between the two hands on the rostra, where, often as consul, often as a consular, and, that very year against Antony, he had been heard with admiration of his eloquence, the like of which no other human voice ever uttered.”

“The Death of Cicero” by François Perrier recreates the moment when Cicero was intercepted by two of Mark Antony’s soldiers before the orator lost his life. 17th century. Bad Homburg, Staatliche
“The Death of Cicero” by François Perrier recreates the moment when Cicero was intercepted by two of Mark Antony’s soldiers before the orator lost his life. 17th century. Bad Homburg, Staatliche
photo by AKG/Album

Cicero’s death between Rome and what is today Naples, on December 7, 43 B.C., brought closer the era of empire.

Son of the Republic

Cicero was born in 106 B.C. into a wealthy family whose surname originated from the nickname cicer, the Latin word for “chickpea.” Writing of Cicero about a century after his death, Greek historian Plutarch believed the name came from an ancestor who had a dent in his nose resembling the cleft of a chickpea. Cicero’s family was wealthy but did not belong to the patrician class, the aristocracy of Rome. His family belonged to the equestrian class, which sat below the patricians and above the plebeians, the working class of the republic. His family had strong military connections, but not the political ones necessary for the career in government desired by Cicero.

Julius Caesar. First-century B.C. bust, Vatican Museums
Julius Caesar. First-century B.C. bust, Vatican Museums
photo by DEA/Album

Educated in Rome and in Greece, Cicero aimed to scale the political ladder as quickly as possible. He would do so as a novus homo, new man, a term which signified that his family did not come from the ruling class. Cicero served briefly in the military before turning to a career in law. He tried his first case in 81 B.C., and then successfully defended a man accused of parricide—a bright beginning to Cicero’s public life. (See also: Wine, women, and wisdom: The symposium of Ancient Greece.)


Marriage at age 27 into a wealthy family brought him the necessary funds to continue to rise. After he wed in 79 B.C., Cicero’s career took off, and he rapidly rose through the ranks. He was elected quaestor in 75, praetor in 66, and consul in 63, the highest political office in the republic. Cicero was one of the youngest ever to reach that high office.

It was in the Forum that Cicero addressed the people of Rome in 63 B.C., congratulating them for the defeat of Catiline’s plans to topple the republic and establish a dictatorship.
It was in the Forum that Cicero addressed the people of Rome in 63 B.C., congratulating them for the defeat of Catiline’s plans to topple the republic and establish a dictatorship.
photo by Massimo Ripani/Fototeca 9x12

Consul and conspiracy

Wielders of imperium, Roman authority, consuls held executive power in the republic. There were two consuls who each served a one-year term. They held equal power as political and military heads of state. Consuls controlled the army, presided over the Senate, and proposed legislation. On paper, the Senate’s job was to advise and consent, but because the body was made of roughly 600 elite and powerful patrician men, it gained much power and influence. Legislative authority rested with assemblies, most notably the Comitia Centuriata. Plebeians could belong to this body, whose powers included electing officials, enacting laws, and declarations of war and peace. (Learn about Vestal Virgins, the most powerful priestesses in Rome.)

In the same year Cicero clinched the consulship, he exposed and defeated a rebellion led by a political opponent, Catiline. The plot called for assassinations and burning the city itself. Widely considered the best orator of his time, Cicero had attempted to warn Rome about Catiline’s treasonous intentions through dramatic speeches in the Senate, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. After the plot had been exposed, Catiline escaped. Five of his conspirators were caught, however, and Cicero advocated for their immediate execution, without trial.

Depicted in a fresco by Cesare Maccari, Cicero denounces the Catilinarian conspiracy in the Roman Senate. Palazzo Madama, Rome
Depicted in a fresco by Cesare Maccari, Cicero denounces the Catilinarian conspiracy in the Roman Senate. Palazzo Madama, Rome
photo by Oronoz/Album

Most senators agreed with Cicero, with one major exception—Julius Caesar. He advocated for imprisoning the men, but his recommendation was overturned. The conspirators were executed, and Catiline died later, fighting alongside his men while making one last stand. The defeat of the Catiline conspiracy was a high mark for Cicero, whom his supporters proudly called pater patriae, father of the fatherland. (See also: How Julius Caesar started a big war by crossing a small stream.)

Julius Caesar and his patron, Marcus Licinius Crassus, were both formidably rich, and had each used their wealth to gain popular support over the course of their political careers. In the chaos that followed the conspiracy, Julius Caesar and Crassus joined another general, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey, to take control of the government in 60 B.C. Announced when Caesar began his first consulship, the First Triumvirate would rule the republic for six years until the death of Crassus in 53.

After a brief exile, Cicero returned to Rome in 57 B.C., an event depicted by Francesco di Cristofano in a vibrant painting that adorns a Medici villa in the town of Poggio a Caiano, Italy.
After a brief exile, Cicero returned to Rome in 57 B.C., an event depicted by Francesco di Cristofano in a vibrant painting that adorns a Medici villa in the town of Poggio a Caiano, Italy.
photo by Scala, Florence

At first Cicero refused to support the triumvirate and fled from Rome. In 57, with Pompey’s backing, he returned to the city and tried to persuade Pompey to break his alliance with Caesar. Pompey refused. Cicero begrudgingly gave the triumvirate his approval despite recognizing that the triumvirate was unstable; each of the three men wanted to increase his own power while keeping his two other “allies” in check. No one in the First Triumvirate would be the champion for the republic for whom Cicero hoped.

Disgusted by this turn of events, Cicero left politics for a few years. During this time, he penned some of his most influential works before returning to office in 51 B.C. He accepted the governorship of Cilicia, a province located in present-day Turkey, and then returned to Rome in late 50. Crassus’ death in 53 had increased hostility between Julius Caesar and Pompey, who were headed toward an unavoidable confrontation that would explode into civil war in 49 B.C.

The Republic falls

Striving for control of Rome, neither Caesar nor Pompey wanted Cicero for an enemy, and both men appealed to him for his allegiance. Cicero chose to side with Pompey. Rome’s civil war lasted five years, and Caesar emerged victorious. In 46 B.C. Caesar was declared Dictator perpetuo, dictator for life.

Despite siding with Pompey, Cicero was pardoned by Caesar, who allowed him to return to Rome. Cicero began another period of intensive writing, creating many works defending republican values. During this time, a group of conspirators decided to take a more proactive stance against Caesar’s ambition. Although the plotters were close associates of Cicero—including Marcus Brutus whom Cicero had mentored—they kept their plans secret from the great orator.

Cicero was not involved in Caesar’s assassination during the Ides of March in 44 B.C. In his writings he expressed horror at the violence but supported the actions of the assassins:

Our tyrant deserved his death for having made an exception of the one thing that was the blackest crime of all . . . here you have a man who was ambitious to be king of the Roman People and master of the whole world; and he achieved it! The man who maintains that such an ambition is morally right is a madman, for he justifies the destruction of law and liberty and thinks their hideous and detestable suppression glorious.

Although he could probably not have brought himself to commit the violent act himself, he wrote: “All honest men killed Caesar . . . some lacked design, some courage, some opportunity: none lacked the will.” He was hopeful that by removing the ambitious Caesar, Rome could set itself back on the path to a republic. A few days after the murder, he advocated amnesty for the assassins in the Senate.

Rise of Antony

The wake of Caesar’s death left Cicero and Antony standing as the two main powers in Rome. Cicero had the backing of the Senate, but Antony had the power of Caesar’s legacy. To take advantage of his position, Antony orchestrated a spectacular funeral for the fallen leader. His stirring eulogy roused the passions of the crowd and turned public opinion against the assassins. Fearing for his life, Brutus fled from Rome. Cicero also left the city and bewailed ever more bitterly the inactivity of “our heroes” the conspirators, who, in his view, had not acted swiftly enough.

Cicero remained convinced that he had a part to play in the survival of the republic. He knew that his close political associations with Brutus and other conspirators would hurt his cause, so he needed a strong political ally to counter that factor. He thought he had found just the person—a youth of 18, who was in the early days of what would turn out to be an impressive career.

Part of the Cross of Lothair, a cameo depicts Octavian after he became emperor of Rome. Circa A.D. 1000, Aachen Cathedral Treasury
Part of the Cross of Lothair, a cameo depicts Octavian after he became emperor of Rome. Circa A.D. 1000, Aachen Cathedral Treasury
photo by E. Lessing/Album

That young man was Octavian, a great-nephew of Julius Caesar. Caesar had named Octavian as his heir in his will. Octavian received news of Caesar’s death while in Apollonia (in modern-day Albania), and at once set out for Rome. He arrived in April and attempted to gain the trust of the veterans of Caesar’s legions and of influential figures like Cicero. He convinced Cicero to return to Rome, and the elder statesman was extremely flattered to have Octavian “totally devoted to me.” He became convinced that an alliance with Octavian might help to destroy Antony’s political aspirations. Cicero was encouraged to observe later in Rome, Octavian presented himself, unaccompanied by Antony, to the veterans of two legions and reiterated their rights. Cicero wrote, with misplaced optimism, to his friend Atticus: “This lad has landed a heavy blow to Mark Antony.” (See also: Inside the decadent love affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.)

Beginning in September and continuing into the spring of 43, Cicero delivered scathing speeches against Antony in the Senate that fanned outrage against him. These 14 orations were called the Philippics because they were modeled after warnings that the Athenian Demosthenes delivered about Philip of Macedon in the fourth century B.C. Perhaps harkening back to his famed orations against Catiline, Cicero argued for the restoration of the republic, advocated for Octavian, and framed Antony as a tyrant. Eventually the new consuls declared war on Antony, who was away besieging the city of Mutina (modern-day Modena) where one of Caesar’s assassins was holding out.

Octavian and Rome’s two sitting consuls, Gaius Vibius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius, led the Senate’s forces against Antony in April 43. After Pansa’s death in battle, they were able to secure a decisive victory against Antony. When news of the victories reached Rome there was jubilation in the Senate. Cicero, the man of the hour, was borne in triumph from his home on Capitoline Hill to the Forum. There he mounted the rostrum and delivered an exultant address to the people of Rome.

Cicero’s joy was short-lived. Antony managed to salvage a sector of his legions. Octavian, instead of pursuing Antony, decided to claim the vacant consulship for himself. When the Senate refused, Octavian lost no time in crossing the Rubicon—as Julius Caesar had before him—and marched on Rome with his legions. The senators were powerless to resist, and had to give in to his demands. Cicero saw how his trust had been misplaced, as his alleged protégé used the power of his troops to trample the rule of law. Historians believe the relationship between the two started to sour after Octavian found out that Cicero wrote that “the boy [Octavian] must be praised, honored, and removed.”

Death of an orator

Devastated that the republican cause was now lost, Cicero withdrew from Rome to spend time in his rural retreats in southern Italy. From there he looked on powerlessly as Octavian, reconciled with Antony, eventually formed the Second Triumvirate with him and Lepidus. Not only did Cicero feel this was a step backward politically, it also posed a serious personal threat to his life. The triumvirs put together a long list of senators and other citizens who should be “proscribed,” or condemned to die. The vengeful Antony managed to include Cicero’s name, despite Octavian’s initial reluctance.

Cicero was at his villa in Tusculum with his brother Quintus when he found out that they were both on the “hit list.” Fearing for their lives, they left for the villa in Astura, from there intending to sail to Macedonia and be reunited with Marcus Brutus. But at one point, Quintus retraced his steps in order to pick up provisions for the journey. Betrayed by his slaves, Quintus was killed a few days later along with his son.

"The Rage of Fulvia," a 1692 painting by Gregorio Lazzarini, depicts Fulvia with Cicero's severed head. Old Masters Picture Gallery, Kassel, Germany
"The Rage of Fulvia," a 1692 painting by Gregorio Lazzarini, depicts Fulvia with Cicero's severed head. Old Masters Picture Gallery, Kassel, Germany
photo by BPK/Scala, Florence

Cicero, by now in Astura, was wracked with fear and doubt as to what he should do. He set off by boat but after just a few miles he amazed everyone by disembarking and walking toward Rome in order to return to his Astura villa and from there be taken by sea to his villa at Formiae. There, he planned to rest and gather his strength before the final push onward to Greece.

Too hesitant. Too late. Realizing that Antony’s soldiers were about to catch up with him, Cicero headed through the forest toward the port of Gaeta from where he hoped to escape. The soldiers, led by Herennius, a centurion, and Popilius, a tribune, who had once been prosecuted for parricide and defended by Cicero, found his villa already abandoned but a slave called Philologus showed them which way Cicero had gone. They had no trouble catching up with him and performing their murderous deed.

Antony ordered that the severed head and right hand be displayed as trophies on the rostrum in the Forum so that all Rome could contemplate them. The rostrum was the very platform from which Cicero had been acclaimed by the crowds for his oratory. The force of arms had prevailed over the power of words.

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