January 3

106 BC The birth of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on this date to a family of the equestrian class who had made it big in the chickpea business.  (Cicer is the Latin name for that useful legume). He was given an excellent education in philosophy rhetoric and the law and, as any young ambitious Roman of the elite did, embarked on the cursus honorum. In his life of public service, he rose from praefect to aedile to praetor to consul to provincial governor. Cicero earned a reputation as the greatest orator of his age and was a deadly advocate in the law courts, particularly fame for his prosecution of Cataline and his would-be rebels.

Cicero’s downfall came when he meddled in factional politics and chose the wrong side in the last days of the corrupt republic. He cheered the assassination of Caesar and made an enemy of the dictator’s heir and best friend, Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony who put him on a death list. He was murdered on December 7, 43 BC, and his head and hands were nailed up in the Forum. 

Cicero’s speeches, letters, and books were considered to be written in the purest form of Latin and inspired much imitation during the Renaissance. (The reader will recall the demand of the dying prelate in Robert Browning’s poem “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s” that his epitaph be in finest “Tullian” style.) His works have never been out of print for the last 500 years.

Since he would have been 2128 years old today, it seems fitting to conclude with remarks from his book On Old Age.

When I reflect on this subject I find four reasons why old age appears to be unhappy: first, that it withdraws us from active pursuits; second, that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and, fourth, that it is not far removed from death.

The greatest states have been overthrown by the young and sustained and restored by the old. … Rashness is the product of the budding-time of youth, prudence of the harvest-time of age.

No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year.

When the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.

In short, enjoy the blessing of strength while you have it and do not bewail it when it is gone, unless, forsooth, you believe that youth must lament the loss of infancy, or early manhood the passing of youth. Life’s race-course is fixed; Nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its own appropriate quality; so that the weakness of childhood, the impetuosity of youth, the seriousness of middle life, the maturity of old age—each bears some of Nature’s fruit, which must be garnered in its own season.

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