January 3

Franz Valery-Marie Cumont (1868)

It was on this date, January 3, 1868, that Belgian archaeologist and philologist Franz Valery-Marie Cumont was born in Aalst. He studied at the Royal Athenaeum in Brussels, then at the University of Ghent, and earned his doctor of philosophy and letters in 1887 at the age of 19. By age 24 (1892) Cumont was named part-time lecturer in Philology at the University of Ghent. He was a member of academies in various European capitals and focused his study and writing on the history of the religions.

In particular, Cumont's studies of the neglected cult of the Persian sun-god Mithra illuminated the development of early Christianity. Texts and Illustrated Monuments Relating to the Mysteries of Mithra (1894-1900; Engl. trans. 1903) made his reputation. Cumont's academic position kept his public statements on religion circumspect, but his works on ancient Rome — especially After-Life in Roman Paganism (Engl. trans., 1922) — not only demonstrated his Rationalism, but corrected many false charges Christian apologists had made against the pagans.

In 1910, Baron Descamps, the Catholic Minister of Sciences and Arts at the University of Ghent, refused to approve Cumont for the chair in Roman History, in spite of the unanimous recommendation of the faculty. There was a vigorous press campaign and student agitation in Cumont's favor because the refusal was seen as blatant religious bigotry. When another candidate was named, in 1912 Cumont resigned. He died on 25 August 1947 in Brussels.

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Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE)

It was also on this date, January 3, 106 BCE, that Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in Arpinum, which is modern Arpino, Italy. Having chosen parents not among the ruling class in oligarchic Rome, Cicero rose through the political ranks — quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul — much as one would today: after distinguishing himself as a lawyer. At the peak of his political career, as Consul, in 63 BCE, Cicero exposed the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow Rome.

Cicero was not only an idealist in morals but an advanced skeptic toward religion. In his rejection of the Roman (pagan) religion, he was followed by many of the educated in Roman society. Though professing to follow Plato's Academic School in philosophy, the school had abandoned dogmatic Platonism by then for something resembling Agnosticism.

Cicero witnessed the fall of the Roman Republic, but his own character demonstrates that Rome was not wholly corrupt. He declined to join in the First Triumvirate, which gave Cicero's enemies an opening to apply an ex post facto law to get him exiled. Banned from politics even after his return from exile (47 BCE), Cicero had much time to reflect on philosophy. His treatise On the Nature of the Gods gives the arguments for and against the existence of God, but like a politician he takes neither side.

Likewise as a politician, Cicero may have adopted only a public profession of belief in immortality: one authority on Cicero says that "the noble hopes of immortality with which he fills his works never come to his mind in his misfortunes and perils; he seems to have expressed them only for the public."*

After the collapse of the First Triumvirate, the crossing of the Rubicon, a civil war, and the murder of Julius Caesar (44 BCE), Cicero made the wrong enemies by bitterly attacking Marc Antony in speeches he called Philippics. The Second Triumvirate agreed on a power-sharing plan and Marc Antony took revenge by ordering the orator's assassination. Belatedly attempting to flee Rome, Cicero was murdered on 7 December 43 BCE. By Antony's order, Cicero's head and his hands were cut off and nailed to the speaker's podium in the Senate as a warning to others.**

* Gaston Boissier, Cicéron et ses amis, (Cicero and His Friends) 1875, p. 59.
** In an poetical postscript, Cicero's son, also named Marcus, became consul in 30 BC under Octavian, who had defeated Antony after the Second Triumvirate collapsed. He got to announce Antony's suicide to the Senate.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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