CRF Blog

Cicero Lost and Found

by Marshall Croddy

Classically educated, many of the Framers of the Constitution studied the ancients for inspiration in shaping their plan for the new republic—Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero—to name a few.

Cicero (106–43 B.C.), a Roman orator, lawyer, statesman, and philosopher, had been re-discovered in the early Renaissance and his orations and other writings were highly valued from that time throughout the 18th century. Based on his idealizations of the Roman Republic during its last years, he argued that a mixed form of government best served the interests of a commonwealth. Such a government should have a king, a strong Senate made up aristocrats and knighted individuals, and a body representing the people. Blending the best elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, in his view, offered the best chance to avoid their potential evils—tyranny, faction, and demagoguery. These ideas found resonance in the Framers’ scheme for a strong president, a state-selected Senate, and a popularly elected House of Representatives.

Cicero’s ideas on the subject of a mixed government found their fullest expression in his work, Treatise on the Republic (or Commonwealth). Ironically, the Framers of our Constitution could not have read this particular volume in time for their own work on our Constitution. Though widely referenced and quoted from, De Republic was lost until 1822 when a Vatican librarian found it in palimpsest form, hidden under later writings on various parchments. Restored and translated it only became readily available in English in the early 1840s.

The work consists of six books and numerous fragments. Taking a nod from the Greeks, Cicero structures his work as a series of dialogues among famous Roman statesmen, who spend their holidays in a garden discussing political forms.

The entire work is available at The Online Library of Liberty. It has an 1842 English translation by Francis Barham, Esq., a lawyer and Latinist, who also provides a history of the search for the treatise and a spirited argument that the British constitutional monarchy of his time was the consummate expression of what Cicero had in mind. It is well worth a read.

For more information on Cicero and a classroom lesson, see Cicero: Defender of the Roman Republic, an article from CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action.