Roman rhetoric : an overview
by: M. Horatius Piscinus


L. Plotius Gallus was the first to open a school of rhetoric at Rome that was conducted entirely in Latin. He opened the school in 93 BCE and it was closed the following year because the senatorial class feared its potential for training political rivals. Roughly ten years later two works were written on the subject, "Ad C. Herennium," possibly written by Cornificus, and Cicero's "De inventione rhetorica" of 84 BCE. Later in 55 BCE Cicero wrote his "De oratore" in which he echoed the fears against Gallus in that he considered rhetoric more than a matter of techniques used by orators, it was a powerful weapon that was not to be pleced in irresponsible hands.

The civic life of Roma antiqua revolved around litigations made in a variety of specialized courts. There was no policing force in Rome per se, and so often a private citizen resorted to taking his neighbors to court to plead his complaint. The advantage was always with the party who could present a better argument and sway opinion. Such an ability extended into the comitia where political authority actually rested. Roman politics was not dominated by the clientele system, nor was it a democratic system, but instead was composed of a number of self interest groups, often made up of the leading members of the vici acting as ward chairmen. Decisions made in a court or comitia might be based on self interest, defering to the wishes of a patron, who in turn had to make deals with many of the leaders of the vici, but the Romans were also a people who enjoyed a good argument and were not easily swayed. The Senate held a number of individuals who had already proven their rhetorical abilities in having won election. As an institution, the Senate did not have any real political powers, but it was instead a place where differences could be argued out and compromises reached. The Senatores were well aware of any issues or personalities involved in any argument, so they could not be expected to be persuaded in their opinions, but a well argued perspective could decide on a course of action to be taken. Thus the avenue to success in Rome, at any level, rested in an ability to argue effectively.

From Cicero we may find the names of the leading orators of Rome. C. Papirius Carbo, consul in 120 BCE was the leading legal advocate of his day. Cicero refers to C. Gracchus as possessing "surpassing genius." In his "De oratore" Cicero presents two of the leading orators from the generation before his own, L. Crassus and Marcus Antonius (grandfather of Marc Antony). We should note the orators who were contemporary with Cicero, as they provide us with the different styles of oratory that haddeveloped by the end of the Republic.

Beginning with Ser. Sulpicius Galba, consul in 144 BCE, Greek influence of oratorical skills were introduced to Rome. There were three general schools of rhetoric, each represented at Rome. The first was the Attic School, exemplified by C. Licinius Calvus (b. 28 May 82; d. 47 BCE). His style was direct and forceful, a natural way of speaking but with great knowledge, and primarily relied on building a logical argument. He had a good manner for presenting a legal case, but his style was not showy, could be dry, and not always effective in a political arena.

Cicero's leading rival was Hortenius, who exemplified the Asiatic School that relied more on display than substance. His method was concerned more with showmanship, entertaining the crowds with stories, elegant diction, displays of affection and emoting with exaggerated gestures like a very poor Shakespearean actor. The substance of his speeches elicited ideas and ideals more than facts, and were never so serious or burdened with a discussion of details that his argument might be lost to his audience. His style was more an appeal to emotions.

Cicero himself exemplified the Rhodian School, an off-branch of the Asiatic School with strong Attic influence. Posturing, basing arguments on ideals, using techniques that were considered ornamentations, yet with a directness towards issues and an enumeration of details. In his own day Cicero was often criticized for his exaggeration, display of false pathos, and the use of artificial rhetoric. He relied more on an appeal to emotions, but did so in a manner that was meant to appear as a logical argument.

Another manner of rhetoric can be seen in Cato the Elder, exemplifying a Roman naturalness of speech which was not influenced by Greek rhetorical skills. Cato was noted for being very direct, even pointed. He employed humor with slight cutting remarks. Most important, he was very brief, getting his point across without flamboyance. In some ways his style was like Licinius Calvus, but his was more of an expression of his own viewpoint rather than an attempt to build a line of reasoning topersuade others.

For our own purposes, writing to an email list, each member should consider these different styles. You may recognize in the posts of some of our members how they exemplify a certain style of writing. Do they only express an opinion without backing it up with facts, in the manner of a Cato? Do they instead bury you with facts, a Calvus who never seems to get to the point? Or maybe they rely on a bombast of emotional appeals hoping people will see things their way, after the manner of a Cicero? Emotional appeals do not work well in an email, no matter how often you capitalize, throw in stars or exclamation marks. A preponderance of details, and a lack of details, are equally ineffective in making an argument. Humor does not always come across, and witticisms do not translate well. The key to arguing on the internet is brevity, and therefore the ability of presenting a well structured argument will prove most effective.

In my next essays on Roman rhetoric, I will try to offer the steps in formulating an argument, structuring an argument, and analyzing an argument, that is used in writing history papers and may be helpful for those who may wish to participate in our project of trying Cicero.

© 2001-2014 Societas Via Romana