Blog post

Cicero’s legacy in medieval western Europe

Rhetorical and philosophical teaching of Marcus Tullius Cicero

Engraving of writers Virgilius, Cicero and Seneca talking to each other
Christoph Pieper (opens in new window) (Leiden University)

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was one of the most notable figures in Roman history. As a contemporary of Caesar, Cato and Pompey, Cicero witnessed the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the career of Octavian, later the first ‘emperor’ Augustus. His gruesome death was directly linked to the political turmoil of his time.

Not everyone who refers to Cicero today has his full political biography in mind. Since antiquity, the name Cicero has been a synonym for rhetorical excellence. For example, journalists often compared Barack Obama’s speeches to Cicero’s eloquent orations. Cicero has had a huge impact on the cultural development of western Europe. The hundreds of manuscripts in which his texts survive are tangible proof of his influence on rhetorical and philosophical teaching and thought in the Middle Ages.

Cicero and rhetorical teaching

Cicero was famed for his eloquence and many students of Latin have learned the language with his speeches and rhetorical handbooks.

 A heavily annotated 12th century copy of Marcus Tullius Cicero's De inventione

Especially important was Cicero’s De inventione, a systematic treatise on how to find fitting arguments to express one’s point of view. In the Middle Ages, it was used regularly as a handbook for teaching rhetoric, and this is why we have such a huge amount of medieval manuscripts that contain this text. Some are heavily annotated (see above); others are smaller and less expensive pocket editions.

De inventione was widely read, but in order to fully appreciate it, one needed commentaries that explained the content in more detail or applied it to the needs of one’s own time. The first huge commentary (which we can still read today) stems from late antiquity, almost 400 years after Cicero’s death. It was written by Marius Victorinus, a teacher of rhetoric and a contemporary of Augustine, who mentions him in his Confessions. In the twelfth century, the ‘magister’ Menegaldus wrote another influential commentary, demonstrating the continued engagement with Cicero’s rhetorical doctrine.

First page of pocket edition of Cicero's De inventione from the 12th century
12th century manuscript containing Cicero's De inventione and excerpts of the commentary by Menegaldus

Cicero the philosopher

Cicero was not only a famous orator. He also composed philosophical treatises that discussed moral and metaphysical questions. Medieval readers were especially interested in them because Cicero summarised the opinions of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and the thoughts of philosophical schools like the Stoics and Epicureans. During the Middle Ages, knowledge of Greek was very limited in western Europe so Cicero’s texts served as an important source for the Greek philosophical tradition.

The beginning of Cicero’s philosophical treatises: De natura deorum

Cicero the philosopher, however, was also interesting for his own sake. His moral treatise De officiis – about how to fulfill one’s duties as citizen and human being – became especially influential from the 14th century onwards, when the early Italian Renaissance turned Cicero into a model of civic excellence, a role model for humanists, especially in Republican Florence.

Decorated initial 'Q'(uemadmodum) with pen-flourishing and human face at the beginning of De officiis

Already in late antiquity Cicero’s philosophical texts were commented upon, as were his rhetorical treatises. The most influential is probably Macrobius’s neoplatonic commentary on the end of Cicero’s dialogue De re publica. In the so-called Dream of Scipio, one of the interlocutors, Scipio Aemilianus, is lifted up while dreaming towards the heavens. There he meets his ancestor Scipio Africanus the Elder, who predicts his future and shows him the earth, planets and stars. Macrobius’s text was an important source in the Middle Ages for philosophers and cosmographers alike.

12th century copy of Macrobius’ Somnium Scipionis with a schematic illustration showing the zodiac signs

Cicero’s works have proven to be an inspiration and source of knowledge for generations. Digital versions of his writings, available in Europeana and other online collections, help preserve this heritage and make it accessible to a broad audience.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.