The Significance of Cicero’s Concordia Ordinum

            Concordia ordinum, the ‘harmony of the orders’, was Cicero’s plan to unite the fractious groups of the financial and political elite in an attempt to preserve the Republic. Against a backdrop of military generals acquiring unprecedented levels of individual political power, Cicero saw his beloved Republic under threat. It was his belief that the Republic provided the ideal theatre for a necessary conflict between the old aristocratic powerhouses and the people[1]; a conflict which promoted a desirable constitutional evolution and kept the oligarchic power of the aristocracy in check. However, at the time of the concordia ordinum, the populares were perverting the tribunicial institutions that were meant to drive reform beneficial to the res publica and they were endangering the libertas of the people by becoming dictators. One significant aspect of this policy was that its success (albeit temporary) lay in the danger posed by Catiline – implying the Republic could only be unified in the event of a catastrophe that could very well be the end of it, and such harmony would be shaky at best. Another point of significance is that Cicero likely did not intend for the concord to be permanent; merely to hold off the advances of the populares and once the threat to the Republic had dissipated, start the conflict of the orders anew, thus setting off a new cycle of Republican constitutional progression. A third is that its short-lived success further illuminated the significance of military power.

            The Catiline Conspiracy, and the political motions leading up to it, were inextricably linked to the concordia ordinum. Examining Cicero’s motives and actions in his attempt to unite the tax-farmers (publicani) and optimates, and understanding the significance of Catiline’s effect on the Republic, it can be shown that the concordia revealed an inherent weakness of the Republic. Cicero began his political career with a collection of personal convictions which, for the most part, he endeavoured to adhere to. He often stuck to his morals when arguing in the law-courts, and his steadfast refusal to abandon the concordia ordinum and join with the first triumvirate lends credence to the assumption that he truly intended to preserve the Republic in a way he thought best. As such, when he began as consul with a promise to be a consul popularis[2], his subsequent actions – though sincerely intended to help the Republic – were his take on what would help the people, rather than their own. Eagle points out that Cicero’s political advance was done so under the aegis of certain noble houses[3]. This was a big factor in Cicero’s general favour towards the elite aristocracy, rather than the people. It was the nature of this support alongside his own political convictions that convinced Cicero the answer to saving the Republic lay in an alliance between the publicani and the optimates[4], an alliance that was the first step towards his concordia ordinum. Unfortunately, these factions hated each other and were ever at odds, something already pointing to the existing instability of the Republic. However, in 64 BCE, the publicani had succeeded in getting Pompey to push for new investment opportunities, and with fresh profit on the horizon, they didn’t want the populares upsetting their affairs, leading them to adopt a momentarily conservative stance. The optimates, not wanting any more military figures like Caesar and Crassus to acquire as much power as Pompey and threaten their position therefore made it easy for Cicero to unite both publicani and optimates against the common threat. This was done with the ‘help’ of none other than Catiline himself. Disregarding the first Catiline Conspiracy as of little significance – prior to 63 BCE, it has been posited that very little beyond aggressive ambition set Catiline apart from other anti-optimates ­aristocrats[5] and Cicero himself asserted that there was originally no harm in associating oneself with him[6] – it was with the second that Cicero further harmonised the orders. Catiline, attempting to restore the dignitas and wealth of his family using the benefits of being consul-elect, such as provincial command and social status, ran for office in both 64 and 63 BCE. Defeated in 64 by Cicero, his resentment and hatred of the optimates would have increased, leading to a renewed fervour against them in the election of 63, again against Cicero. Following Catiline’s announcement that he would champion those in financial distress with the implication of a debt-cancellation program, the publicani financiers and wealthy optimates were easily swung to ally behind Cicero. Caesar and Crassus, whom Cicero had constantly labelled as revolutionary war-mongers, could not risk being associated with someone with such an anti-debt position, thus pulled from Catiline all their support in the face of the latter’s radical change of direction. Left without political backing, Catiline, still playing to the sound of Cicero’s pipe, assaulted Rome, allowing Cicero to present a Rome in danger and demonstrate his own ability to legislate. With the danger averted, the equites too enlisted their aid to Cicero’s coalition as a police force, further reinforcing the concordia ordinum. The significance of this is that it took a serious of very tumultuous political mishaps to make these factions realise that they should ally, demonstrative of the Republic’s psyche of mistrust and cynicism. The concordia, in marking just how far events needed to go for the Republic’s survival instinct to kick in, revealed it to be in its twilight days.

Reading his De Republica, it is heavily insinuated that Cicero believed concordia was to be of a temporary nature[7]. Connolly makes an excellent case for this, describing such moments of harmony as a ‘fleeting respite from the struggle that guarantees senatorial dignitas and popular libertas.[8] Unfortunately, the struggle (the Conflict of the Orders) had become unbalanced by the populares who were using the power of the tribunes and the military to amass unprecedented power. Cicero praises Scipio Nasica for his killing of Tiberius Gracchus[9] who was using the position of tribune irresponsibly, and recognised the threat to the Republic posed by the first triumvirate. With the success of those such as Marius, the Gracchi and Caesar in mind, it should be pointed out that Cicero’s concordia ordinum was a flagrant example of realpolitik designed to maintain and control class conflict by resetting the socio-political scales. Book two of De Republica has Cicero make clear that Rome is at its best when progressing through constant reconstitution, fuelled through ‘struggles between the haves and the have-nots, its constitutional evolution as a series of conflicts where the powerful minority always seeks to maximize its domination and the people staunchly resist’[10]. In the face of disruption to this cycle, Cicero saw demagogues like Caesar and Crassus taking too much power, preventing either the senate to maintain control, or the people to push forth their own desires. As such, the concordia ordinum would have been intended as a momentary lapse in this natural political struggle, designed to cement together Republican factions in an attempt to throw off the threat of Caesar and Crassus until the danger had passed and constitutional progression could again begin. Cicero held an evidently platonic view of politics, as laid out by his character Scipio Aemilianus in De Republica: ‘What the musicians call harmony in a song is concord in the state, the tightest and best bond of safety in a state, and it can in no way exist without justice’[11], meaning the state was best run by a proficient aristocratic elite, keeping the spirits and appetites of the underclasses in check. From this, a rather cynical side of Cicero is revealed. From his concordia ordinum, the state would be in harmony and thus performing at its optimum level. This would place it in the best position to resist the disruptive actions of the populares. However, the evidently temporary nature of this concord suggests Cicero did not believe that Plato’s idealistic Callipolis was realizable, instead advocating deliberate class conflict when the danger of the populares had passed so as to best benefit the Republic. Rather than act in the interests of the people or the senate, Cicero preferred to play them off against each other in order to preserve the Republic, hence the aforementioned label of realpolitik. Examining the concordia ordinum in this way reveals it to be far from a pillar of political justice.

The third, albeit relatively minor point of significance the concordia ordinum is concerned with relates to the relationship between military leaders and statesmen in the field of politics. Cicero, whilst having provincial command in his life, was not a military leader, unlike Caesar and Crassus. The short-lived success of Cicero’s policy was demonstrative of a career statesman’s inability to maintain control over Rome’s affairs. For years prior to 64 BCE there had been a surge in the success of military men as their armies provided them with more power, and as the Republic approached an Empire, it became clearer that an army was a requisite for power, heralding an unavoidable change to the status quo. As Smith points out, greater numbers of soldiers and veterans were reliant upon leaders to ameliorate their standards of living from Sulla onwards, and the needs of these men were displacing those of other Romans[12]. Though Cicero was able to manipulate the political state of affairs in a time of perceived crisis to further his own ends, it did not take much time after 64 BCE for his dominance to be supplanted by the military men of the first triumvirate.

To conclude, the concordia ordinum brought to attention three points of significance; two concerning the state of the Republic, and one an insight into Cicero’s own character and motives. With the addition of the equites to the concordia in the wake of Catiline’s dissentious behaviour – marking the height of the policy’s success – it became obvious that concord was only possible set against a time of crisis. Without the conspiracy, Cicero may not have been able to unite the orders at all. This simply illuminates the fractures beginning to break the Republic apart. When considering that Cicero was unable to hold the orders together after the conspiracy, it goes to show that without an army dependent on him, he just didn’t carry the political sway that the triumvirate was to once they supplanted him. His political ability, though clearly considerate, was still insufficient to maintain power for very long. Finally, by interpreting Cicero’s concept of concord from De Republica as a temporary lapse in a class conflict that is expedient to beneficial constitutional evolution, the nature of his concordia ordinum has been posited by Connolly to be rather Machiavellian in its pragmatism[13].



  • Berry, D. H. and Cicero (2000) Cicero: Defence Speeches (Oxford).
  • Blakiston, H. E. D. and Cicero (2015) The Speeches of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Against Catiline and Antony and For Murena and Milo (Classic Reprint).
  • Connolly, J. (2010) Cicero’s Concordia Ordinum: A Machiavellian Reappraisal.
  • Eagle, E. D. (1914) Catiline and the “Concordia Ordinum” (Classical Association of Canada).
  • Rudd, N. and Cicero (2009) The Republic and The Laws (Oxford).
  • Smith, R. E. (1966) Cicero: the statesman (Cambridge).
  • Yonge, C. D. and Cicero (1913) The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero (London).

[1] Cicero, De Republica

[2] Cicero, De Lege Agraria 2.3.6

[3] Eagle (1949)

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Cicero, Pro Caelio 5.12

[7] Cicero, De Republica 2.50-63

[8] Connolly, J (2010)

[9] Cicero, Cat 1.3

[10] ibid

[11] Cicero, De Republica 2.69

[12] Smith (1966)

[13] Connolly (2010)