The Society for Ancient Languages

Roman Oratory

   This essay is reproduced in its entirety from "Introduction: II. Roman Oratory", Select Orations and Letters of Cicero. ed. J.B. Greenough & G.L. Kittredge. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1902.
NOTE: Where references to footnotes were placed in the original text, the actual footnote is placed between brackets []. Italics, unless otherwise noted, are from the original text. When there are hyperlinks to different parts of the text (in order to explain or define something), after jumping and reading, just use the back button on your browser to return to your original position. --Webmaster.

ROMAN ORATORY
TO THE TIME OF CICERO

   From the earliest times of which we have historical knowledge, up to the establishment of the Empire as the result of Civil War, the constitution of Rome was republican, in so far that all laws were passed and all magistrates elected by a vote of all the citizens. The principle of "representation," however, which to us seems inseparable from republican institutions, was unknown to the Romans. All laws were passed, and all officers were elected, at what we should call a mass meeting of the entire body of citizens, convened at the central seat of government. The absence of newspapers, also, made a distinct difference between ancient political conditions and those of our times. Conversation and public addresses were the only means of disseminating political ideas. And even the scope of public addresses was much limited; for meetings could be called by a magistrate only, and could be addressed by only such persons as the presiding magistrate would permit. Obviously, under such a regime, public speaking, which even now has a distinct potency in state affairs, must have been far more efficacious as a political instrument than it is today.
   To this must be added the fact that under Roman polity the only means of social advancement was success in a political career. The Senate, the Roman peerage, consisted practically only of persons who had been elected to one or more of the three graded magistracies, quaestorship, praetorship, consulship (the cursus honorum). Hence every ambitious Roman, of high or low estate, had to become a politician and follow the regular course of office-holding. The curule magistrates were at once generals, judges, and statesmen. To achieve success, therefore, a politician had to show ability in all of these directions. Occasionally, to be sure, a man succeeded by virtue of a single talent,--like Marius, who owed his advancement solely to his valor and military skill; but such instances were rare. Next to military fame, the strongest recommendation to the favor of the people was oratorical ability. Then, as now, the orator's power to move the multitude in public affairs was the readiest means of advancement. Further, political prosecutions, and private suits prompted by political motives, were of the commonest occurrence, and these afforded an eloquent advocate abundant opportunity to make himself known and to secure the favor of large bodies of supporters. Again, the Senate was a numerous and somewhat turbulent body, always more or less divided in a partisan sense; and, though it had no legislative functions, it still exercised a very strong influence on politics. To be able to sway this large assembly by force of oratory was of great moment to an aspiring Roman. Finally, though the contention for office ceased with the consulship, there still continued among the consulares, who formed almost a distinct class in society and public life, a vehement rivalry to be regarded as the leading man in the state. For all these reasons, the art of oratory was perhaps more highly esteemed and of greater practical value in the later period of the Roman Republic than at any other time in the history of the world.
   But even from the very establishment of the commonwealth, oratory was highly praised, and Cicero gives a long roll of distinguished orators from the First Secession of the Plebs (B.C. 494) to his own time. The most eminent of those whose art was still uninfluenced by Greek rhetoric, was Cato the Censor (died B.C. 149), who may be called the last of the natural Roman orators. His speeches are lost, but more than a hundred and fifty of them were known to Cicero, who praises them as acutae, elegantes, facetae, breves. [Actually, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford UP, 1996, reports that fragments of eighty of his speeches have been found so far. --webmaster.]
   It was in Cato's lifetime that the introduction of Greek art and letters into Rome took place; and oratory, like all other forms of literature, felt the new influence at once. The oration, though still valued most for its effectiveness, soon came to be looked on as an artistic work as well. The beginning of this tendency is seen in Ser. Sulpicius Galba (consul B.C. 144) and M. Lepidus (consul B.C. 137). Galba, in the words of Cicero, "was the first of the Latins to employ the peculiar arts of the orator,--digressions to introduce ornament, the art of captivating the minds of his hearers, of moving them with passion, of exaggerating a case, of appealing to pity, and the art of introducing commonplaces [That is, digressions on general subjects which would fit any particular oration when a point of the kind arose.]" It was in Lepidus, however, that the full effect of Greek art first manifested itself, not to such a degree as to destroy originality, but sufficiently to foster native talent and develop a truly national school of speaking. Cicero, who had many of his orations, declares that he was "the first Roman orator to show Greek smoothness and the unity of the period." His influence was particularly felt by C. Papirius Carbo (consul B.C. 120), the best advocate of his time, Tiberius Gracchus, the illustrious tribune, and Caius Gracchus, his younger brother. Of the last mentioned, Cicero speaks with great admiration as a man "of surpassing genius" and of unequalled excellence, whose early death was a heavy loss to Latin literature. [A little fragment of one of his speeches became classic at Rome and used to be learned by heart. "Wretched man that I am! Whither shall I go? In what direction shall I turn? To the Capitol? But it is reeking with the blood of my brother. To my home? To see there my mother crushed with grief and lamentation?" --"These words," says Cicero, "were delivered in such a way, by the help of eyes, voice, and gesture, that even his enemies could not restrain their tears."]
   In the generation immediately preceeding Cicero, in which oratory was enthusiastically cultivated and carried to a high pitch of perfection, two figures tower above all others, Marcus Antonius (the grandfather of Mark Antony), and L. Crassus. Both were Cicero's masters in his youth, and he finds it hard to prefer one to the other; but, on the whole, he seems to regard Crassus as the greater orator. "The lofty earnestness and dignity of his nature were relieved by the brightest humor and the wittiest vein of genius. His diction was as choice and elegant as it was free and unaffected, and with the mastery of tasteful exposition he united the clearest logical development of thought."
   Crassus appears in the De Oratore as the exponent of Cicero's own views of the aim, function, appointments, and preparation of the orator. To Crassus the orator was no mere handicraftsman, confined to manipulating juries and popular assemblies, but statesman and philosopher as well, requiring for his equipment all the knowledge that could be gained on the highest subjects that interest mankind. He was himself familiar with all the ancient systems of philosophy as expounded by the wise from Plato to Diodorus, and had discussed the nature and functions of oratory with the philosophers of his time in person at Athens. This ideal of the orator, contrasted with Cato's definition vir bonus dicendi peritus, shows the advance of the art as such between the earliest times and those of Cicero.
   Yet in the Roman orations, addressed as they were to an intensely practical people, matter had always been more attended to than manner, effective force than artistic elegance. Even Cicero himself, in his public addresses, conceals, and even disparages, his knowledge of Greek art, philosophy, and literature. But in his time the study of oratory as an art began to be pursued for a definite end,--the acquiring of a distinct style. And in this study two different styles offered themselves to the choice of the aspiring young Roman,--namely, the Asiatic and the Attic.
   The precise difference between the two styles cannot be exactly determined; but from the middle of the first century B.C., both were advocated and practised by enthusiastic partisans in a controversy like that between realism and romanticism, or Wagnerism and classicism.
   It would seem, in a general way, that Atticism stood for directness, force, and naturalness, while Asiaticism (or Asianism) represented display and affectation in all its forms. Cicero says in one place [Brutus, XCV, 325], "The styles of Asiatic oratory are two,--one epigrammatic and pointed, full of fine ideas which are not so weighty and serious as neat and graceful; the other with not so many sententious ideas, but voluble and hurried in its flow of language, and marked by an ornamented and elegant diction." From these hints, as well as from the practice of imperial times (in which this style had full sway), we may gather that the "Asiatic" orators sought the applause of the audience and a reputation for smartness, and were overstrained and artificial. [This Asiatic oratory was the decayed development of the highly ornamented style cultivated by Isocrates (B.C. 436-338).]
   About Cicero's time a reaction had set in, and a school had arisen which called itself Attic, and attempted to return to the simplicity of Xenophon and Lysias. But in avoiding the Eastern exaggeration, it had fallen into a meagreness and baldness very different from the direct force of Demosthenes. Probably this tendency was really no more sincere than the other, for both styles alike aimed to excite the admiration of the hearer rather than to influence his mind or feelings by the effective presentation of ideas.
   Hortensius, the great contemporary and rival of Cicero, was a special example of the Asiatic school. He was a somewhat effeminate person, with a dandified air both in composition and delivery. "His voice," we read, "was resonant and sweet, his motions and gestures had even more art than is suitable for an orator." [Brutus, XCV, 326]
   The extreme Attic school was represented by C. Licinius Calvus [born May 28, B.C. 82; died before B.C. 47.] "Though he handled his style with knowledge and good taste," writes Cicero, "yet being too critical of himself, and fearing to acquire unhealthy force, he lost even real vitality. Accordingly, his speaking, repressed by too great scrupulousness, was brilliant to the learned and those who listened to him attentively, but by the crowd and the Forum it was swallowed like a pill." [Brutus, LXXXII, 284]
   It is important to settle Cicero's own position in this contest. He himself fancied that he followed the true and best form of Atticism. We see by his oratorical works that his ideas were formed on the best models; that he was familiar with all the rhetorical systems of the Greeks of the best period, and fully appreciated all the excellencies of the earlier Roman orators, as well as the simplicity and directness of Demosthenes. But taste had declined, and everything had to be overdone to satisfy the public. Cicero seems to have taken a middle course, following the style of the Rhodian school, a branch or outgrowth of the Asiatic, with strong Attic tendencies. It professed to abhor the luxuriance and affectation of Asianism and to aim at the old directness and true feeling; but Cicero was assailed in his own time for exaggeration, false pathos, and artificial rhetoric, such as were characteristic of Asianism. Nor could we expect anything else. He could not restore a style which the age could not appreciate, nor rise to a height for which his native genius was insufficient. With him, however, Latin oratory reached the acme of its development.
   Immediately after Cicero, came the Empire with its suppression of free thought, and in this the extreme style of Asiatic exaggeration and posing became the rage. Many literary men endeavored to stem this tide, but in vain. The younger Pliny attempted to take Cicero as his model, but the only oration of his that we possess is merely a fulsome rhetorical exercise. Quintillian wrote a treatise on the education of the orator, full of sound learning and good sense. Oratory was the favorite study of all literary men, and even emperors entered the lists to contend for pre-eminence. But "art for art's sake" had become the aim in literature generally; and oratory, now divorced from real feeling, could not but end in affected brilliancy and false emotion, such as mark all we know or later Roman work.
   Before the Romans came into contact with Greek oratory, that art had been reduced to a very elaborate and even pedantic science. All the principles by which a public speaker could proceed had been formulated into rules which even to this day, with or without the speaker's knowledge, guide all discussion. Without going into the minute details of the system, one may well notice the scientific principles which had been carefully mastered by Cicero, and which formed the basis of his skill as an orator.
   Naturally the first matter to be attended to was the settlement of the question at issue (constitutio causae). As the ancient science of rhetoric had to do with discourse of every kind, all questions that might arise were divided into two classes: those whose discussion was directed to acquiring knowledge merely (quaestiones cognitionis), and those directed to determining what action should be taken as the result of the enquiry (quaestiones actionis). With the former we have nothing to do here. They are confines to philosophical discussion only, and the orations of Cicero are all on practical subjects.
   The practical questions included under the quaestiones actionis were of several different kinds: they might be judicial questions coming before some form of court (genus iudiciale); they might be deliberative and come before an assembly or senate (genus deliberativum); or they might be questions of praise or blame in reference to some particular person or act not under judicial investigation (genus demonstrativum). The last class would include eulogies and the like.
   The oration itself had also its divisions, which were established particularly in regard to the genus iudiciale as the most important of the three kinds. The exordium contained necessary preliminary remarks and the approach to the subject. The narratio gave the facts on which the argument was founded. The propositio was the statement of the theme or view to be maintained, and often contained a partitio or division of the proposition. The argumentatio embraced the confirmatio or arguments for the main thesis, and the confutatio (refutatio) or refutation of real or supposed arguments of the opponent. The address ended with the peroratio, the place for such application of the argument, or appeal to the hearers, or general remarks, as were suitable to the occasion. Naturally, as the art of speaking came before the science, and was at all times more or less free from scientific trammels, these divisions could not well cover the whole ground, and each of them was accordingly subdivided into several smaller parts, which varied according to the character of the oration. Thus the exordium contained a principium and an insinuatio (the suggestions to be made in order the gain the favorable attention of the hearer), and all the various forms of proof had their place as well as their names in the confirmatio. Even the main divisions are not at all clearly marked, but generally they can be made out in Cicero's speeches.
   With the same particularity were the necessary duties of the orator divided, and furnished each with its technical name: inventio, the gathering of material, dispositio, the arrangement; elocutio, the suitable expression in language, memoria, the committing to memory; actio, the delivery. Under each of these, again, was a body of lore with its technical phrases. Elocutio embraced the whole doctrine of what we should call style, and the use of all rhetorical devices, ornaments (lumina), and forms of speech. So that no science was ever more completely digested and labelled than this of oratory.