Skip to content
The Past

Learn public speaking from Cicero, the Roman senator who defied Julius Caesar

Marcus Tullius Cicero is widely regarded as one of the most gifted orators in human history. His writings can teach us a lot about the lost art of public speaking.
Cicero speech
In ancient Rome, public speaking was considered an art as well as a science. (Credit: Palazzo Madama / Wikipedia)
Key Takeaways
  • Cicero used his talent as a public speaker to become one of the most influential people in the Roman Republic.
  • Aside from receiving a world class education, Cicero had a natural aptitude for manipulating crowds.
  • A staunch defender of republicanism, he nearly prevented the birth of the Roman Empire — and paid for it with his life.

As a lawyer and senator, Cicero became known as one of the most influential statesmen in all of ancient Rome. His influence did not rest on the legacy of his family; he was born into the equates, the social class beneath the patricians, the direct descendants of the Eternal City’s founding families. Nor was it his charisma that brought him here; a Hellenist bureaucrat in a world ruled by generals and dictators, Cicero’s character alone was not enough to capture the popular imagination.  

No, what enabled Cicero to rise to the top of the Roman Republic was his talent as an orator. Speeches can be as noteworthy today as they were in ancient Rome. Mark Antony’s moving remarks at the funeral of Julius Caesar, kept alive by William Shakespeare, are often mentioned in the same breath as the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

But while speeches continue to play an important role in public life, the practice of public speaking itself is no longer being treated like the art form that it is. At present, public speaking skills are often taught tangentially through courses in grammar, writing, and reading. In Cicero’s day and age, on the other hand, public speaking was at the center of the education of any Roman citizen.

Cicero grew up during the bloody reign of Sulla, pictured here. (Credit: Sergey Sosnovskiy / Wikipedia)

Benefitting from a natural aptitude for both wordplay and performance, Cicero climbed up the ladder of Roman society. The Rome that he and everyone else had ever known was on the verge of immense change. After centuries of unquestionable adherence to the Republic’s constitution, an increasing number of powerful personalities started breaking with constitutional policies. The latest of these personalities, the seasoned general Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, purged the Republic of his rival’s supporters, another seasoned general named Marius. Cicero began his political career in the middle of this purge, during which people with even the faintest link to Marius were executed. Despite losing friends and family members, Cicero emerged from the slaughter more or less unscathed.

These turbulent years turned Cicero into a lifelong supporter of republicanism. The ambitious orator first revealed the depths of his devotion when he, not long after the purges had ended, agreed to take to court one of Sulla’s close acquaintances, a former slave named Chrysogonus. When another Roman citizen was framed for murder, Cicero argued Chrysogonus was behind everything. Not only did Cicero clear the name of his client, but Sulla — perhaps distracted by his own governmental reforms, or perhaps swayed by Cicero’s allegedly spellbinding rhetoric — did not retaliate.

Even though public speaking is no longer deemed important enough to be a central focus in our education system, Cicero’s speeches and his unique oratorial style still can be of use to us in our daily lives. Cicero demonstrates that, through the power of mere words, you can turn the odds of any situation in your favor — and take your career to the next level.

The oratorical education of Cicero

Cicero’s talent as a public speaker developed in his youth. He was born Marcus Tullius Cicero in 106 BC, in the town Arpinum, outside the capital. Cicero was what others at the time referred to as a novus homo, a wealthy and politically active member of the equestrian class who, by marrying into an impoverished patrician family, acquired the same prestige as an upper class citizen — a big deal considering that, back then, non-patricians were rarely permitted to hold political offices.

As was common for a member of his class, Cicero’s father took great pains to ensure a quality education for his children. Cicero was likely taught by a tutor at home before he was sent to school. His first school would have been a ludus literatus, a primary school where kids learned reading, writing, and rudimentary arithmetic. Classes were held on porches shielded from the noise and distraction of the street by a cloth stretched between two pillars. Students sat down on wooden benches and wrote on wax tablets placed on their laps. They learned the letters of the alphabet by signing them forward and backward. In Rome, education was associated with play (the word ludus meant “game,” and the same word was used to describe gladiator schools).

A bust of Cicero. (Credit: Jose Luiz / Wikipedia)

At secondary school, Cicero and his peers studied grammar and literature. Their readings included Greek tragedies, the epics of Homer, and archaic Latin poems that have not survived to the present day. Also studied were the Twelve Tables: a piece of legislation, formerly posted in the Forum, that formed the basis of Roman law.

In his 2001 book Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, professor Anthony Everitt describes in considerable detail the oratory training that a young Cicero would have received from instructors. The Romans, like the Greeks before them, believed there were several qualities that differentiated a good speech from a bad one.

Thus, the practice of public speaking was broken down into several components: inventio (the searching for ideas and arguments), collocatio (the structuring and organizing of speeches), elocutio (diction and style), action (physical delivery), and memoria (memorizing speeches).

Although there was little room for improvisation and experimentation, orators could vary considerably in their individual styles. Some raised their voices and swung their arms. Others spoke softly, their bodies frozen. Cicero’s delivery was somewhere between rabid exaltation and alienating self-control. “A leading speaker,” Cicero wrote, “will vary and modulate his voice, raising and lowering it and deploying the full scale of tones.” The passage continues:

“He will avoid extravagant gestures and stand impressively erect. He will not pace about and when he does so not for any distance. He should not dart forward except in moderation with strict control. There should be no effeminate bending of the neck or twiddling of his fingers or beating out the rhythm of his cadences on his knuckles. He should control himself by the way he holds and moves his entire body. He should extend his arm at moments of high dispute and lower it during calmer passages… Once he has made sure he does not have a stupid expression on his face and or a grimace, he should control his eyes with great care, for as the face is the image of the soul the eyes are its translators. Depending on the subject at hand they can express grief or hilarity.”

How to work a crowd

Unlike his contemporaries, Cicero wrote extensively about his own writing process and went as far as to publish speeches he never had the opportunity to deliver. The sheer amount of insight he passed down makes him indispensable as both a historical and educational source.

One of Cicero’s defining characteristics was his industriousness. “The time which others spend in advancing their own personal affairs,” he once wrote, “taking holidays… gambling and playing ball, proves in my case to have been taken up with returning over and over again to… literary pursuits.” He admitted to working deep into the night — something few Romans did — and was said to write as many as 500 lines in a single sitting. His work ethic always paid off; in 70 BC, Cicero was tasked with persecuting Gaius Verres, a former governor of Sicily, on grounds of misconduct and extortion. Aside from his enthralling rhetoric, Cicero’s research into Verres’ crimes was so thorough that even the governor’s closest allies had no choice but to turn against him during the conviction.

Given Cicero’s success as well as his stubbornness, it may come as somewhat of a surprise that this public speaker suffered from intense stage fright. He confessed:

“Personally, I am always very nervous when I begin to speak. Every time I make a speech I feel I am submitting to judgment, not only about my ability but my character and honor. I am afraid of seeming either to promise more than I can perform, which suggests complete irresponsibility, or to perform less than I can, which suggests bad faith and indifference.”

However, Cicero’s fear of failure compelled him to refine and practice his speeches over and over, until the actual possibility of failure was minimized.

Cicero crushed a plot to overthrow the Republic through a series of effective speeches. (Credit: Palazzo Madama / Wikipedia)

At the Forum, Cicero was not only aware of his own emotions, but also those of his listeners. Like countless other leaders, he knew how to play the crowd like a fiddle. Cicero displayed this ability during a confrontation with Lucius Sergius Catilina. Catilina had run against Cicero for the Consulship, the highest executive office in the Roman Republic. When Catilina lost and Cicero won, Catilina planned to overthrow his victorious rival. With the help of allies, Cicero learned of the plan and brought Catilina to the Senate. Expecting the other senators to side with him, the Consul was surprised to learn that no one replied to his proposal to exile Catilina. Less skilled politicians would have been deposed then and there, but Cicero — sensing that most senators wanted Catilina gone but simply felt too awkward to admit it in his presence — retorted by asking whether they should exile another, unanimously beloved and respected senator instead. At this request, the Senate answered with a resounding “no!”

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Through clever manipulation, Cicero turned a defeat into a triumph: By voicing their support for the other senator, the Senate betrayed its ambivalence toward Catilina, who left Rome shortly after.

The end of the Roman Republic

Cicero’s prolific speeches failed to alter the course of history, and some argue his involvement may have hastened rather than delayed the birth of the Roman Empire. After the assassination of Caesar, Brutus, a key conspirator, pledged loyalty to Cicero, asking him to “restore the Republic.” In this new order, Cicero, who represented the Senate and republicanism, was pitted against Marc Antony, a Consul and interpreter of Caesar’s will.

Seeking to divide the Caesarian camp, Cicero delivered a series of speeches called the Phillipicae in which he condemned Antony while praising the late dictator’s adopted son and heir Octavian, the future Augustus. In elevating Octavian, Cicero inadvertently drove the two men to form a partnership, known to historians as the Second Triumvirate, which, once formed, marked Cicero and his allies as enemies of the state.

The death of Cicero. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Cicero attempted to flee to Macedonia, but was caught by assassins before he could leave Rome. Accepting his fate, the former lawyer and senator is believed to have stuck out his neck from his litter. His dismembered head and hands were displayed at the Forum in the tradition of Sulla and Marius.

The Roman historian Cassius Dio said that, when the assassins brought back the head, Antony’s wife Fulvia pulled out the tongue to symbolically nullify Cicero’s greatest strength: his ability to speak.


Up Next