Tiro was a real historical person, the slave and later freedman of Cicero. Tiro is referred to in many of Cicero’s letters, where Cicero often shows concern for Tiro’s ill health. It is possible that Tiro was born on Cicero’s family estate in Arpinum, but we cannot know for sure. Several ancient writers mention works of Tiro, including the usage and theory of the Latin language and a biography of Cicero, but these have been lost. The Greek writer Plutarch uses Tiro as a source for episodes of Cicero’s life. Tiro is credited with having invented a system of shorthand that was still used by monks hundreds of years later. After Cicero’s death, Tiro retired to an estate near Puteoli, where according to Jerome he died aged 99.
In fiction, Tiro also appears as a character in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa ancient crime series, and in several books of John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series. A character called Tyro also appears as Cicero’s slave in the HBO television series Rome.
The purges were authorised assassinations carried out under the leadership of certain powerful Romans, such as Sulla (82/81 BC) or the Second Triumvirate (43 BC). In the purges, the leaders’ political foes would be declared enemies of Rome, sought out and killed. Tiro, as the confidante of Cicero, would have feared for his life in the purges of the Second Triumvirate (the combined leadership of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus).
" And it is of power and the man that I shall sing. "
This is a reference to the famous first line of the Latin epic The Aeneid, written by Virgil under the patronage of the first emperor Augustus:
“It is of arms and the man that I sing”
TheAeneid is a poem of praise for Rome and its founder, the Trojan prince Aeneas. By referring to this great epic, Tiro is telling us that the story of Cicero, and its consequences, will be equally dramatic and important in the history of Rome.
Imperium roughly means ‘power.’ In ancient Rome, the term could be applied to the power or legal authority of the elected magistrates, the generals in the army, or later, the emperor. Imperium was the power to apply the law and make decisions within a particular area according to the extent of the magistracy. This authority could be overruled by those of a higher position, whose imperium outranked that of lower officials.
" He had no mighty army to back up his candidacy, as did Pompey or Caesar. "
Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, 106-48 BC) was a successful military commander and later political leader of the Roman Republic. He was born into a wealthy family in Picenum, and served under Sulla in the civil wars. Sulla was the leader of the optimates cause at the time, fighting Marius and his populares supporters. The optimates faction was concerned with traditional and aristocratic values, whereas their rivals, the populares faction, sought popular support by appealing to the people. Pompey helped to deal with the Marian rebels who were driven from the city when Sulla declared himself dictator. At this point, Pompey is currently fighting a successful campaign against the last Marian rebels in Spain. Pompey was to have a great deal of power and influence in Rome in the years to come.
Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), like Pompey, was another successful military and political leader. He was the nephew of Marius, and son-in-law of Cinna, one of Marius’ allies. As such, he became a target when Sulla crushed Marian support and declared himself dictator. Caesar had his wealth and important priesthood stripped from him, but was forced to go into hiding when he refused to divorce Cinna’s daughter, Cornelia. Caesar was saved by the intervention of the vestal virgins and of his mother’s family, who were Sulla’s supporters. Caesar then went into military service, before returning to Rome after Sulla’s death. He began a legal career, studying under the same oratory tutor as Cicero. At this point in history, Caesar is beginning to make a name for himself on the early stages of the political career ladder.
Caesar would later become one of the most important and powerful figures in Roman history, and play a major role in the transformation of Republic to Empire. Click here to find out more about Caesar’s famous role in Roman history, but be aware that this information will contain plot spoilers.
" He did not have Crassus’s vast fortune to grease his path. "
Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115-53 BC) was an extremely wealthy and influential Roman general and politician. He supported Sulla during the civil wars. Crassus’ aspirations of fame and political success were overshadowed by the successes and commands of other leaders, particularly Pompey. When the Third Servile War broke out, led by the escaped slave Spartacus, Crassus saw his chance for glory and offered to put down the revolt. At this point, Crassus is fighting the remains of Spartacus’ army in Italy. Crassus would later become an ally of Caesar, offering him the money to back his schemes for power.
" I was a household slave, born on the family estate in the hills near Arpinum "
Rome was a slave society. Slave labour was utilised in almost every aspect of life, from manual work or household duties to management and secretarial positions. Slaves could be acquired in a number of ways, such as captives from warfare, piracy, and trade with other societies and countries. Slaves might also be ‘home-bred’, as the children of slaves were born slaves (even if their father was actually the Roman master of the household!). ‘Home-bred’ slaves were sometimes considered to be better than other slaves, as they were expected to be more loyal and could be educated for specific tasks from their childhood. Tiro, born on the family estate, is one of these ‘home-bred’ slaves.
This video provides some general information on slavery and manumission in Rome. It is a video made by HBO for its TV series Rome. Specific slaves mentioned in the video are characters from the series. The video also provides some great visuals for how Rome may have looked.
" This was during the consulship of Servilius Vatia and Claudius Pulcher "
The Roman consuls were the elected leaders of the Republic. They held the power to run the state, enforce the law and make decisions, but were expected to consult and take advice from the senate in the process. The consulship was an annual magistracy, held by two men each year. Those who had served as consul were not allowed to run for the consulship again until at least ten years had passed. This restriction was designed to stop any one man from holding too much power and influence in Rome. The consulship was one of the highest and most respected positions a man could earn in the Republic, and often viewed as the pinnacle of a politician’s career.
" What has happened, I wonder, to all those thousands of busts and portraits, which once adorned so many private houses and public buildings? Can they really all have been smashed and burned? "
The Romans decorated their homes and public buildings with statues, paintings and mosaics, much influenced by the Classical Greek and Hellenistic art of the past. They were particularly fond of busts of their family and ancestors, a chance to display and show off good family connections, wealth and a proud lineage. Tiro wonders if these can all have been smashed and burned, referring to the riots, political upheaval and general chaos of the last years of the Republic.
The Academy was the school set up in Athens by Plato in the 4th century BC to teach philosophy. To the ancients, this encompassed more than the modern concept of philosophy, including science and maths. Taking a trip to Greece to study the arts of philosophy and rhetoric was a common and popular choice for young Roman men starting out in political or professional life. The Academy might be thought of as the first form of the university.
" In Rome its leading exponent was Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, universally considered the foremost orator of the day "
Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (114-50 BC) was a real historical figure - a successful Roman orator and statesman. He was a traditionalist and supporter of the aristocrats (the optimates faction). He worked his way up the political career ladder, clashing with Cicero over the Verres case in the year before his consulship. Later, events would push Cicero towards the optimates faction, and he would find himself often on Hortensius’ side.
" Molon’s first action was to feed him that evening a bowl of hard-boiled eggs with anchovy sauce "
Roman meals are famous for including some very strange foods, but in fact, the average Roman’s diet may not have looked so very odd to our eyes, consisting mainly of boiled vegetables, cheese, bread, fruit and fish. In particular, the Romans loved a fish sauce called garum, made from fermented fish guts and enjoyed with a variety of foods in much the same way as modern ketchup. Wealthier Romans, it is true, are reported to have sampled some more bizarre offerings, including lark’s tongues and dormice. In Petronius’ Satyricon, the ex-slave Trimalchio, desperate to appear as sophisticated and cultured as his freeborn peers, serves up such elaborate delicacies as live birds sewn up inside a pig.
In 2009, the British chef Heston Blumenthal re-created some of the weirder Roman dishes described in ancient sources for an extreme cookery programme on Channel 4. Watch him make 'the Trojan Hog' here.
Find out more about Roman food from Channel 4 here.
The BBC’s ‘Supersizers Eat’ series also featured Sue Perkins and Giles Coren sampling some of Rome’s stranger servings. Explore some Roman recipes from the BBC here.
Demosthenes was a statesman and orator of Athens in the 4th century BC. He learned the art of rhetoric by studying famous speeches of past orators, and became a very successful public speaker and speech-writer. He famously warned Athens of the dangers of Macedon’s expansion in speeches against its ruler, Philip. Philip conquered the Greek states in 338 BC. Cicero considered Demosthenes “the perfect orator,” and used his tirades against Philip as the inspiration for his own later speeches against Mark Antony.
Quintus Tullius Cicero (102-43 BC) was both a military man and a politician, climbing as high as the praetorship on the political career ladder (cursus honorum). He married Pomponia, the sister of Cicero’s good friend Atticus, but the marriage was not a happy one. Quintus was also a writer, composing four Greek tragedies, several poems on Caesar’s expedition to Britannia, and epistles to Tiro and Cicero. A surviving handbook on canvassing for an election has also been attributed to him, though its validity has been questioned. Quintus was prescribed as a political enemy by the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC. Click here to find out more about his life and death, but be aware that this information will contain some spoilers.
Titus Pomponius Atticus (c. 109-32 BC) was a real historical figure and friend of Cicero. He came from a wealthy equestrian family, and was a philosopher and patron of letters. Due to his epicurean beliefs he did not seek to become involved in politics, and tried to promote friendships rather than rivalries. As a result, he could be a very influential man in Rome. He loved Athens and Greek culture so much that he adopted the name ‘Atticus’ meaning ‘man of Attica’ (Attica was a region of ancient Greece containing Athens). Atticus is said to have written a single book about Cicero as well as several poems, but none of his writing survives. It was Atticus who published the works of Cicero, including his speeches and letters.
" The first step is obvious: you must become a senator "
The senate was a group of wealthy Romans in charge of the Republic; all official magistracies were held by senators. The property qualification to join the senate was a million sesterces, effectively closing off this important body to the poorer citizens. Though a large amount of senators tended to come from the traditional patrician families, plebeians who met the money requirement were also allowed in (such as Cicero himself). The senate advised the consuls and other public officials, and debated laws before putting them to public vote in the assemblies. During the Republic, the power of the senate was at its height, with the fate of Rome and her empire in its hands. The last century of the Republic, however, saw a rise in populares leaders who took their reforms and politics straight to the mob, and the power of the senate was severely threatened.
" Terentia was seventeen, boyishly flat-chested, with a head of short, tight black curls. "
Terentia (98 BC – 4 AD) was born into a wealthy plebeian family and endowed with a huge dowry, including some very good income-generating property. Terentia’s dowry passed to Cicero, but she remained responsible for the affairs of her private property with the help of her steward and guardian Philotimus. Through times of success and hardship, Terentia was a supportive wife to Cicero and a passionate activist of his cause. Click here for more information about Terentia and her life with Cicero, but be aware that this page contains many plot spoilers for Imperium and its sequels.
" Her half-sister was a vestal virgin, proof of her family’s social status. "
The vestal virgins were priestesses in charge of the sacred fire of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, responsible for keeping the flame permanently lit. This was an important and high status position, usually filled by the daughters of influential Romans. The vestal virgins lived together in a special house set aside for them, and were forbidden from relations with men. If a vestal virgin was discovered to have lost her virginity, the punishment was burial alive. Vestal virgins served for a period of thirty years, after which they were free to marry and start a family. They were highly prized as wives for the status they would bring to husband and children.
Roman dwellings came in three main forms: country villas, townhouses and apartment blocks (insulae). The Roman poor often dwelt in slum apartment blocks as much as nine storeys high, in small, cramped living quarters. These slum blocks were terrible fire hazards and often extremely unsafe. Later, the maximum height of these insulae were reduced for safety reasons under the emperors. The rich apartment-owners could make good money from the amount of rent payers crammed into one tall building. The bottom floor was usually utilised for shops, bars and small businesses.
" and then was sent off for the obligatory year of government service, in his case to the province of Sicily, before being allowed to take his seat. His official title was quaestor, the most junior of the magistracies. "
Rome’s empire was split into a number of manageable areas, called provinces, managed by provincial governors. The governor was a Roman politician who had finished serving one of the higher annual magistracies, the consulship or the praetorship. After handing over office, they were awarded a province to govern, aided in their task by quaestors, the junior magistrates beginning to make a name for themselves in Roman public life. The quaestor’s job was to oversee financial affairs; some were sent to provinces or with the army while others remained in Rome.
Many governors looked on their term in a province as a way to quickly (and often corruptly) recoup the expenses of their magistracy, or to fund an expensive election campaign. Governors possessed immunity from prosecution as long as they held imperium, but upon giving up the province they became accountable for any corruption charges brought against them.
" wearing for the first time the purple-edged toga of a senator of the Roman Republic. "
A toga was a form of clothing worn by Roman citizens. It was a white, wrap-around piece of cloth that draped over one shoulder, usually worn over a tunic. Togas were worn exclusively by men. Senator’s togas were marked by a purple stripe.
Watch this video to learn how to make your own toga from a bedsheet, or click here for instructions.
" He had purchased a record amount of grain to feed the electors back in the capital "
Roman coin showing Africa personified. The stalk of grain (right) and plough (below) represent Africa's importance to Rome's grain supply - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Rome was too big a city to be self-sufficient, relying heavily on trading and grain imports. The main centres of grain production in Rome’s empire were Sicily, North Africa and Egypt. The grain supply was so important that its care was made one of the official duties of the office of aedile.
Grain was so important to Rome that it was sometimes depicted on coins. Click here to see stalks of grain on a coin of the first emperor Augustus.
Roman townhouses, with the exception of the very rich, were generally modest in size, with an entrance hall opening off the street, an atrium open to the sky, and a central courtyard garden with a surrounding colonnade. Rooms included the tablinum (study), the triclinium (dining room), living rooms, sleeping quarters, slaves’ rooms, a kitchen and store-rooms. Wealthier houses might have more than one dining room and garden, more rooms for entertaining guests, and perhaps even, for the very rich, their own baths. Follow this link for a plan of a Roman house, with clickable rooms for more information.
Romans used wax tablets for writing, using a stylus to make marks in the soft wax. These notes could be erased easily by rubbing over and smoothing out the wax. More permanent writing could be committed to sheets of papyrus, paper made from the reeds of the papyrus plant.
Tiro is describing the Roman system of patrons and clients. This was a symbiotic relationship whereby a patron might help a client with particular concerns, lend him money, support or advice, or sponsor his art or business. In return, the patron would receive political support from his clients: a crowd of enthusiastic followers for his speeches, debates and other public appearances. He would also gain a number of favours to be called in at a later date, as well as a good network of contacts and informants.
" Some prominent citizen from a useful tribe? A sabatini, perhaps? A pomptini? "
Rome was split into thirty-five ancestral tribes, into which Roman citizens were separated for voting and for the legislative assemblies. The sabatini and pomptini were two of these tribes. Cicero is hoping for clients from as many different tribes as possible in order to spread his support. Some tribes were viewed as more useful than others; those composed largely of rural citizens might not hold much weight if the men could not spare time to travel to Rome to vote.
" ‘Sicilians don’t have a vote,’ I pointed out. "
Only free Roman citizens were allowed to vote, excluding slaves and the inhabitants of conquered or allied territory. Roman citizenship was a prized possession, coveted for the protection and privileges it bestowed, and was the cause of much contention throughout Roman history. Citizenship was at first jealously guarded, and the question of whether it should be extended to the Italian allies was one factor in the cause of the Social War that broke out in 91 BC. Much later, the emperor Caracalla (3rd century AD) would offer citizenship to all free men living in Rome’s empire.
Myron’s Discobolus (The Discus Thrower) and Polycleitus’ Doryphoros (The Spear Bearer) were the highly treasured statues of two very famous Greek sculptors of the Greek Classical Period. They were admired by Romans for their idealised beauty and attention to composition and form, and held up as great masterpieces of classical art. The Romans, since the conquest of the Hellenic East, had fallen in love with Greek art, brining back pieces as treasure for their villas and houses.
Unfortunately, neither the Discus Thrower nor the Spear Bearer remain to us, and we have only various Roman copies with which to study and admire them.