Roman rhetoric aims to present practical and theoretical guidelines for effective verbal persuasion. In ancient Rome such precepts found an application most regularly in speeches made in the criminal and civil courts, but they were relevant also to debates on political policy in the senate and at popular assemblies. All of these oratorical activities were traditionally restricted in ancient Rome to men of the elite classes. The main principles of Roman rhetoric derive largely from earlier Greek rhetorical theory, which achieved impressive levels of sophistication during the fourth century bce, and which formed the major focus of formal education in the Hellenistic world. As these Greek-speaking communities were gradually incorporated into the Roman Empire from the second century bce onwards, the value of rhetorical training came to be appreciated by members of the ruling elite, although the process of acceptance and integration took considerable time. The first teachers of rhetoric in Rome essentially reproduced the existing Greek system; it is not until 92 bce that we hear of Latin being used as a language of rhetorical instruction in the city. Over the next 50 years or so, formal training in rhetoric finally became established as a central feature of upper-class Roman education.
Rhetorica Ad Herennium
The three most influential works of Roman rhetoric are Rhetorica ad Herennium (“Rhetorical precepts addressed to Herennius,” author unknown), Cicero’s De Oratore (“On the orator”), and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (“The education of the orator”). The first takes the form of an instructional manual or handbook, probably written sometime between 88 and 82 bce, and presents many of the conventional tenets of ancient rhetoric (Gaines 2007). Oratory is thus divided into three broad types (1.2): legal (iudiciale), deliberative (deliberativum), and epideictic (demonstrativum). Similarly the orator’s job is viewed as consisting of five main tasks (officia; 1.3): deciding on the most appropriate arguments and subject matter (inventio); arranging these arguments effectively (dispositio/ordo); casting them in a suitable linguistic style (elocutio); memorization of the final text (memoria); and finally the persuasive delivery of the speech (pronuntiatio/actio). Some of these aspects receive greater emphasis than others. Greek intellectuals had been particularly interested in analyzing and categorizing types of argument, especially those applicable in legal contexts, and the Rhetorica ad Herennium reproduces this bias (see 2.1). Similarly, linguistic style is discussed in great detail, with some 80 stylistic devices (such as anaphora, tricolon, metaphor, and so on) catalogued, defined, and illustrated by example (4.19–4.46).
As a whole, the work is closely modeled on contemporary Greek works, although it does demonstrate the advances made in forging a new Latin terminology to match the technical vocabulary of Greek rhetoric (see, e.g., Pernot 2005, 102–104). Such handbooks placed a strong emphasis on systematization and practical utility, and the work illustrates well the main methodological hallmark of ancient rhetoric: the extensive use of categorization and taxonomy. (See, for example, the discussion at 1.8 of the four possible ways of gaining a jury’s goodwill.) This kind of approach has the pedagogical virtues of clarity and order, and introduces into the study of persuasion an impressive logical rigor. Indeed, at its best, this form of analysis represents one of the most remarkable intellectual achievements of Greek and Roman scholars. It can also, however, encourage a rather formulaic approach to speech-making. As successful practitioners of oratory such as Cicero recognized, these “rules” of rhetoric offered only an initial framework for a speaker’s attempts at persuasion. The realities of each specific rhetorical challenge usually called for some adaptation or variation to be introduced. As Cicero stresses, rhetorical precepts should be viewed primarily as a codification of oratorical “best practice” rather than an infallible and sacrosanct intellectual system (see De Oratore 1.146; 2.81–2.84; 2.131).
Cicero’s De Oratore (written in 55 bce) is a more complex and ambitious work that combines features of the standard rhetorical handbook with elements of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical dialogue. Especially noteworthy is Cicero’s attempt to raise the social and intellectual prestige of rhetoric. A longstanding challenge to the discipline was that it presented little more than a slick system of verbal tricks to be cynically applied by the orator for often immoral ends (Wisse 2002; the criticisms derive largely from Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus). Cicero responds by asserting that a training in rhetoric ideally provides a wellrounded education, in which the orator learns to analyze and debate a wide range of subjects and gains a deep understanding of the world through the accompanying study of law, literature, and philosophy (De Oratore 1.72–1.73; 2.68; 3.143). This argument has its own biases and self-interested elements, but no less so perhaps than Plato’s (Vickers 1988, 83–147). This controversy over rhetoric’s ethical status was to be rehearsed in various forms in the Renaissance and beyond (Vickers 1988, 178–213).
De Oratore also reasserts the importance of the orator’s exploitation of ethos (character) and pathos (strong emotion), aspects given prominence by Aristotle but often underplayed by the standard handbooks (Wisse 1989). Cicero’s own oratorical practices, which made considerable use of emotional pleas, may have been a further factor in his decision to stress these aspects (Hall 2007). De Oratore expands the traditional horizons of Roman rhetorical handbooks in another way too, through its inclusion of an analysis of oratorical humor (2.217–2.290). Although earlier Greek treatises on wit and humor existed, Cicero’s incorporation of the topic into his framework of rhetorical theory seems to be an innovative step (Rabbie 2007). His discussion of the subject was influential enough to convince Quintilian to include humor as a topic for analysis in his own treatise written over a century later.
Quintilian’s treatise, a massive undertaking that took several years to complete (c. 93–95 ce), is the most comprehensive and detailed discussion of rhetoric to come down to us from the ancient world (Fernández López 2007). The work addresses all the features regularly found in the handbooks, and extends its discussion to include the very earliest stages of the orator’s training (Book 1). Its level of scholarship is impressive: Quintilian frequently summarizes the contrasting views expressed on a topic over the centuries by various (often otherwise unknown) rhetoricians and displays sound judgment in his handling of them. He seizes shrewdly on the decisive issues that bear upon a particular debate and cuts through fussy, over-complicated elaborations of theory. He also presents sensible, humane views on the challenges of educating and motivating young students.
In many ways, Quintilian serves as an authoritative guide to virtually every issue in Roman rhetoric. He is more, however, than just a synthesizer of earlier scholars’ views. His discussion of oratorical delivery in particular seems to have addressed the subject with far more rigor and detail than earlier treatments. Rhetorical theory had previously shown only limited interest in the performative elements of oratory such as hand gestures and facial expression; Quintilian by contrast treats the subject in considerable detail, documenting some 30 or so hand gestures available for use by the orator (Institutio Oratoria 10.3; Hall 2004). This discussion influenced Andrea de Jorio’s pioneering study of nonverbal communication in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Naples (de Jorio 2000), and thus has in turn influenced more recent analyses of body language (e.g., Kendon 1986). Quintilian’s observations regarding the orator’s need for careful image management also anticipates several other lines of approach in modern social studies. He urges the speaker, for example, to pay attention to his gait, dress, and overall bearing (or, to use Bourdieu’s term, habitus); and several modern studies have identified ways in which Roman rhetoric’s precepts regarding self-presentation and image management encode societal norms of masculinity (e.g., Gleason 1995; Richlin 1997).
Quintilian’s treatise as a whole demonstrates the extent to which rhetoric by this time had been embraced by the Roman elite as a central part of the educational system. (Suetonius’ work De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus [“On grammarians and rhetoricians”] provides brief biographies of some of the renowned teachers of this period.) It was to retain this place until the fragmentation of the Roman Empire around the fifth century ce, and, during the Renaissance, rhetorical handbooks such as Rhetorica ad Herennium enjoyed a renewed prominence as they came to form the basic educational texts of the elite classes learning Latin for both administrative and broader cultural purposes (Ward 2007).
The Literature On Roman Rhetoric
Several other discussions of Roman rhetoric survive from the classical period: Cicero’s De Inventione, Brutus, Orator, De Partitione Oratoria, De Optimo Genere Oratorum, and Topica (written between 91 and 44 bce); Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus (c. 96–102 ce); and Iulius Victor’s Ars Rhetorica (probably fourth century ce). Also extant are some 50 speeches by Cicero from legal trials, senatorial debates, and political assemblies, which provide illuminating examples of rhetorical theory put into practice.
Useful surveys of the main features of Roman rhetoric and its historical development can be found in Kennedy (1972), Clarke (1996), and Pernot (2005). Lausberg (1998) presents a compendious treatment of the technical elements of Greek and Roman rhetoric. Dugan (2007) provides an excellent synopsis of recent scholarly trends in the study of Roman rhetoric. These range from analyses of the influence of rhetorical training on Roman poets and historians, to the role played by educational declamatory exercises (such as the suasoria and controversia) in shaping upper-class social attitudes and ideals. All these approaches testify to the tremendous impact of rhetoric on the lives of the Roman elite. By the first century ce, the young men of this class were highly trained in analyzing moral, legal, and political issues from an essentially rhetorical perspective, and could deploy with great facility a formidable arsenal of persuasive techniques.
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- de Jorio, A. (2000). Gesture in Naples and gesture in classical antiquity (trans. A. Kendon). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (Original work published 1832).
- Dominik, W., & Hall, J. (eds.) (2007). Blackwell companion to Roman rhetoric. Oxford: Blackwell.
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