While reading history of philosophy books, Cicero's name often comes up. However I remain unclear of what if any are his original contributions to the philosophy of that period.

I know that he was an important transmitter of philosophical though from the Greek to the Roman world and so onto the modern period. However Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes Laertius were also important transmitters of philosophical knowledge but they get much more of a passing reference in the history books.

I know that Cicero was an important political figure, an adherent of the skeptic school (to a greater or lesser extent) and I believe that his prose is meant to be magnificent (though I'm no classicist). But what did he add to philosophy itself?

Many thanks for your thoughts

2 Answers 2


It appears that Cicero's main contribution to philosophy was in political philosophy. The extensive account of his idea was only found in the nineteenth century.

His big idea, which he tirelessly publicized, was that of a mixed or balanced constitution. He favored not monarchy nor oligarchy nor democracy, but a combination of all three. His model was Rome itself, but improved. Its executive had quasi-royal powers. It was restrained partly by the widespread use of vetoes and partly by a Senate, dominated by great political families. Politicians were elected to office by the People. [My emphasis.]

From Anthony Everitt's Cicero.

However, looking at Wikipedia's 'Mixed government' entry, this doesn't appear to be much of a novel idea at all. :)


Cicero Latinised philosophy

Cicero pioneered the writing of philosophy in Latin rather than Greek:

In the Tusculans, the Academica, De Officiis, De Divinatione, and De Finibus Cicero promoted Latin, in terms very like those of modern linguistic nationalism, as a medium for intellectual discourse at the expense of Greek, and exhorted his readers to follow him in transferring philosophy from Greece to Rome. To choose to write philosophy at this time in Latin instead of Greek was, as Cicero put it, a practical means of increasing Rome's intellectual prestige, a campaign in which he invited his readers to enlist. But to whom was this appeal directed? Who, to Cicero's mind at least, would have been useful in achieving this political goal? From evidence in Cicero's letters to Atticus, we can largely retrace how he disseminated these philosophical books, reconstruct to some degree their original readers, and, most importantly, deduce the grounds on which Cicero selected them. Cicero's choice of audience, and the manner in which he assembled it, throws an interesting light both on his agenda in promoting Latin as a philosophical language as well as on the Roman culture of publication.

Before we look at the means by which Cicero's books were disseminated, we must look first, very briefly, at the linguistic politics of the Roman intellectual world in the first century B.C., and review what Cicero thought he was achieving by writing philo- sophy in Latin. Cicero pioneered the use of Latin prose as a vehicle for philosophy, permanently expanding its supply of abstract vocabulary in the process. His own linguistic facility permanently extended the expressive capacities of Latin, leaving it a more supple, and more prestigious, medium of thought. Such is the point of an elegantly turned compliment, preserved for us by Pliny the Elder, to Cicero from Caesar himself: 'You have earned a laurel greater than that of any triumph, insofar as it is greater to have extended the boundaries of the Roman mind than those of Roman power.'

(T. Murphy, 'Cicero's First Readers: Epistolary Evidence for the Dissemination of His Works', The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2 (1998), pp. 492-505: 492-3.)

The whole credit for Latin's subsequent status as the main means of philosophical exposition, discussion, and debate can hardly be awarded to Cicero but he played a major role in Latin's later status as the lingua franca of philosophy in Western Europe.

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