Destiny of the Republic: The Context of Cicero’s ‘de Officiis’ in Ancient Rome

While Antony was consul, it appeared that little could be accomplished. Cicero was concerned about his own safety and the threat of civil war.

By Dr. Laurie Ann Wilson
Assistant Professor in Classics
Biola University

Cicero composed his final philosophical treatise in autumn 44 B.C. The detailed correspondence he maintained throughout the months of uncertainty after the assassination of Julius Caesar in March reveals Antony’s bid for power, the failing attempt to restore the Republic, and Cicero’s own indecision. Originally full of optimism that Caesar’s death would assure the future of the Republic, Cicero began to realise that the Ides of March did not fulfil their hopes and that vivit tyrannis, tyrannus occidit (the tyranny lives, though the tyrant is dead).[1] While he agreed with Antony’s confirmation of Caesar’s acta in the senate meeting on 17 March, it was only on the basis of peace and tranquillity.[2] Indeed, Cicero looked upon it as a political concession that Antony had subsequently abused to increase his own authority.[3] As he writes to Atticus, quae enim Caesar numquam neque fecisset neque passus esset, ea nunc ex falsis eius commentariis proferuntur (for policies which Caesar would never have composed nor allowed are now being produced from his falsified notebooks).[4]

However, under the current circumstances and while Antony was consul, it appeared that little could be accomplished, and Cicero was concerned about his own safety, the possible threat of civil war, and the lack of confidence they could place in the young Octavian.[5] Additionally, he had received conflicting reports of his son’s progress in Athens, where Marcus was pursuing his studies, and Cicero desired to see him.[6] En route to Athens where he planned to visit Marcus, Cicero received news of the senate meeting scheduled for 1 September at which it was hoped that Antony would yield to the authority of the senate, and he returned to Rome.[7]

He writes to Atticus from his estate at Puteoli near the end of October 44, not only sending him the recently completed text of the Second Philippic but also mentioning de Officiis for the first time, saying that he is composing a marvellous work on the subject of καθῆκον addressed to his son.[8] In another letter to Atticus, dated 5 November, Cicero writes that he has finished the first two books of de Officiis, and plans to finish the third after he receives a copy of Posidonius’ book dealing with the apparent conflict between moral duty and expediency.[9] At the same time, he was in correspondence with Octavian, who was urging him to return to Rome and take an active role.[10] The final mention of de Officiis occurs in a letter to Atticus later in November, where he further defends his translation ofκαθῆκον as “officium”.[11] By 9December, he had returned to Rome, as is attested in a letter to Brutus, in which he declares his own commitment to the Republic and entreats Brutus to liberate it from tyrannical rule for the sake of the senatus populusque Romanus.[12] Thus, de Officiis was likely finished only a year before Cicero’s death in December 43 and in the midst of much political doubt and turmoil. These circumstances and his relation to public events inevitably led to a hasty writing of the work and prevented him from an attempt at careful revision.[13]

De Officiis reflects Cicero’s position in regard to the political situation in which he finds himself. For a time, due to political necessity, he had acquiesced with Caesar’s rule and policies,[14] but now in de Officiis, Cicero freely condemns his tyranny, policies,and destruction of law and justice.[15] Since his initial display of approval on the Ides of March, Cicero recognised that his joy at Caesar’s death could not be recalled. In a letter to Atticus, he notes with concern that if civil war should arise, it will not be possible as previously, to take neither the one side nor the other.[16] Although Caesar’s legacy remained an issue of fierce debate in Roman politics, Cicero knew that he could not retract the view that Caesar’s reign was a tyranny and his murder was justified on behalf of the Republic. Thus, at this time of political ambiguity and fluctuation, while writing de Officiis and the virulent Second Philippic, Cicero was forming a determined denunciation of Caesar and taking an irreconcilable stand against Antony. Despite Caesar’s death, the Republic and senatorial authority were not reinstated. In contrast to the theme of strengthening the Republic that Cicero emphasises in earlier philosophical treatises like de Republica, he now frequently laments the loss of the old political system,[17] but portrays himself as working for its restoration.

On occasion throughout the text, an apparent contradiction appears in Cicero’s approach as he depicts himself both as writing in retirement but also engaged in active service for the state. He feels the decline in his position and influence, saying that he consoles himself with writing philosophy since he is deprived of public duties (rei publicae muneribus) and is exiled from the senate and the forum.[18] Nevertheless,Cicero is not willing to divorce himself from politics and depicts himself as one with the qualifications and willingness to re-enter public life and to guide the state. In the end,despite his common complaints about his inability to engage in oratory and statecraft,Cicero believes he still has an active service to perform. Indeed, he believes that he is currently fulfilling that duty, since he would be in Athens giving instructions to his son Marcus, were it not that me e medio cursu clara voce patria revocasset (with a loud voice my country recalled me from the midst of my travels).[19] Thus, although he wryly mentions to Atticus that writing is his only occupation,[20] de Officiis and his other works become an aspect of the centre role he is taking in the political arena, as the struggle for the senate and the destiny of the Republic are determined.[21] This portrayal of himself as serving the state in retirement not only justifies his past inactivity under Caesar, but also assists in defining his political image and preparing for future engagement in politics.


  1. Cic. Att. 14.9.2; cf.14.12.1,14.14.3.
  2. Cic. Phil. 1.16.
  3. Cic. Fam. 12.1.1-2
  4. Cic. Att. 14.13.6; cf. Phil. 2.39.100; Off. 2.7.23.
  5. Cic. Att. 14.12.2, 14.13.2 and 4, 14.22.2, 15.10.1, 15.12.2,
  6. Ibid. 14.16.3,15.16.1
  7. Ibid. 16.7.1-2.
  8. Ibid. 15.13.1, 6.
  9. Ibid. 16.11.4
  10. Ibid. 16.11.6
  11. Ibid. 16.14.3
  12. Cic. Fam. 11.5.1.
  13. Dyck (1996) 9.
  14. Cic. Fam. 4.4.4. Cf. Cic. Att.11.7.3-5, 11.8.2, 12.51.2; cf. Shackleton Bailey (1971) 186-200 on Cicero’s life under Caesar.
  15. Cic. Off. 1.8.26, 2.7.23, 2.24.84, 3.21.82-84. Cicero’s bitterness against Publius Clodius is not forgotten in his personal attacks (2.17.58).
  16. Cic. Att. 14.13.2.
  17. Cic. Off. 1.11.35, 2.8.29, 2.8.29, 3.1.4.
  18. Ibid. 2.2.6, 3.1.2.
  19. Ibid. 3.33.121.
  20. Cic. Att. 16.11.3.
  21. Steel (2004) 137 on the role of the philosophical treatises “as an aspect of, and not a substitute for, political activity”; cf.Douglas (1965) 136.


  • Atzert, C., ed. (1985). M. Tulli Ciceronis. Fasc. 48: De Officiis. Leipzig: Teubner.
  • Dyck, A. R. (1996). A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Federli, P., ed. (1982). M. Tulli Ciceronis. Fasc. 28: Philippicae. Leipzig: Teubner.
  • Shackleton Bailey, D. R. (1971). Cicero. London: Duckworth.
  • Shackleton-Bailey, D. R., ed. (1987). M. Tulli Ciceronis Epistulae ad Atticum (Vol. 2, Books 9-16). Stuttgart: Teubner.
  • Shackleton-Bailey, D. R., ed. (1988). M. Tulli Ciceronis Epistulae ad Familiares (Vol. 2, Books 9-16). Stuttgart: Teubner.
  • Steel, C. E. W. (2004). Reading Cicero: Genre and Performance in Late Republican Rome. London: Duckworth.

Excerpted, “From the Roman Republic to the American Revolution: Readings from Cicero in the Political Thought of James Wilson”, PhD Dissertation by Laurie Ann Wilson (2009), published by the University of St. Andrews under a Creative Commons license.