Marcus Tullius Cicero is one of the great lights of history, because his genius and influence were directed to the conservation of what was most precious in civilization among the cultivated nations of antiquity.
He was not a warrior, like so many of the Roman Senators, but his excellence was higher than that of a conqueror. “He was doomed, by his literary genius, to an immortality,” and was confessedly the most prominent figure in the political history of his time, next to Caesar and Pompey. His influence was greater than his power, reaching down to our time; and if his character had faults, let us remember that he was stained by no crimes and vices, in an age of violence and wickedness. Until lately he has received almost unmixed praise. The Fathers of the Church revered him. To Erasmus, as well as to Jerome and Augustine, he was an oracle.
In presenting this immortal benefactor, I have no novelties to show. Novelties are for those who seek to upturn the verdicts of past ages by offering something new, rather than what is true.
Cicero was born B.C. 106, in the little suburban town of Arpinum, about fifty miles from Rome,—the town which produced Marius. The period of his birth was one of marked national prosperity. Great military roads were built, which were a marvel of engineering skill; canals were dug; sails whitened the sea; commerce was prosperous; the arts of Greece were introduced, and its literature also; elegant villas lined the shores of the Mediterranean; pictures and statues were indefinitely multiplied,—everything indicated an increase of wealth and culture. With these triumphs of art and science and literature, we are compelled to notice likewise a decline in morals. Money had become the god which everybody worshipped. Religious life faded away; there was a general eclipse of faith. An Epicurean life produced an Epicurean philosophy. Pleasure-seeking was universal, and even revolting in the sports of the Amphitheatre. Sensualism became the convertible word for utilities. The Romans were thus rapidly “advancing” to a materialistic millennium,—an outward progress of wealth and industries, but an inward decline in “those virtues on which the strength of man is based,” accompanied with seditions among the people, luxury and pride among the nobles, and usurpations on the part of successful generals,—when Cicero began his memorable career.