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On The Nature Of The Gods
Cicero, Rome, 106-43 BCE
Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BCE into a moderately wealthy, although not patrician family just outside Rome. Cicero, however, became one of Rome’s greatest statesmen, most respected lawyers, political theorists, philosophers, and is widely considered one of history's great orators.
Cicero's political achievements were remarkable. In Rome during the later years of the Republic high political offices were controlled by a small group of wealthy aristocrats who could afford to bribe the electorate. Cicero wasn’t wealthy enough to gain electoral office, but he was intelligent and ambitious. Cicero had two paths open to him in order to gain power and wealth – the military of the law. Cicero entered the army but soon discovered he was no soldier. So, Cicero chose the law and embarked on a study of jurisprudence, rhetoric, and philosophy.
Cicero made his name as a lawyer and great orator. As a lawyer he made many friends and built up a network of influential friends. Roman politics was less based on party lines than it was on a loose shifting network of friendships and on political favours. He proved a shrewd politician and navigated his way through a turbulent period of Roman history. He was elected to each of the principle Roman offices (quaestor, aedile, praetor and, the highest office, consul). Having held these offices also made him a member of the Roman Senate.
During his term as consul in 63 BCE, Cicero uncovered and prevented a coup attempt called the Catiline Conspiracy. Cicero made much of his role in preventing the plot and had five of the conspirators were put to death without trial. As a result, Cicero enjoyed widespread popularity at this time although his summary execution of the Catiline conspirators made him enemies who would come back to haunt him.
Such was Cicero’s popularity that when Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus combined their resources to take control of Roman politics in 60 BCE they desperately tried to get Cicero to join them. But Cicero, often accused of lack of decisiveness, hesitated and then decided to remain loyal to the Senate and the idea of the Republic.
Cicero’s enemies finally caught up with him in 58 BCE and had him exiled for the Catiline executions. Caesar brought him back to Rome but his political power was ended.
He tried to remain out of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar but was eventually forced to side with Pompey. Caesar again spared his life and Cicero retired to his law practice and to writing his great works.
However, he could not resist taking the political stage again following the murder of Caesar and he tried to organize a return to the Republic. His speeches, called the Phillipics, were brilliant examples of rhetoric and oratory. These speeches called for the Senate to aid Octavian in overcoming Anthony (Cicero believed that Octavian, still a teenager, could be discarded by the Senate once his purpose was served). However, Mark Anthony and Octavian formed a short alliance, and Cicero was murdered on Mark Anthony’s orders in 43 BCE.
On The Nature Of The Gods
During the later years of his life, when he could no longer take much part in politics, Cicero devoted his time to writing a number of philosophical works. He intended to bring the idea of the Greek philosophers available to Romans. Cicero’s works were an important part of most Western European and North American students up until the 19th Century. He was especially influential with the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Many of Cicero’s writings were patterned after Plato's or Aristotle's dialogues. Unfortunately, several of them have been lost almost entirely and several of the others are available only in fragmentary condition.
On The Nature of The Gods, along with On Divination and On Fate, was intended by Cicero to form a trilogy on religious questions. It offers descriptions of dozens religions. Emphasis is placed on the Epicurean view that gods exist but are indifferent about human beings, which is described and then refuted, and the Stoic view that states that the gods govern the world, love human beings, and after death reward the good and punish the bad, which again is stated and refuted. At the end of the dialogue the characters have not reached agreement. This is perhaps best example of Cicero's skeptical method.