Roman Rhetoric V
by: M. Horatius Piscinus

Pars V : Style and performance

A view of Roma antiqua which persists among many moderns is that of grand architectural edifices of pure white marble. Few realize that the buildings and statues were painted rather brightly. Similarly we tend to view Roman orators as having been rather dignified in making their speeches. That was not the case. There are some descriptions, most often critical, of how orators moved about with wild gestures. One orator was famed for the way he would point, extending out his arm so far that his knee would nearly touch the floor, in the manner of a fencer thrusting forward his epee. Some would run about, waving their hands wildly and screaming at the top of their lungs. In the US we would compare the performance of Roman orators to revivalist shows or televangelists.

When you read about Cicero it is hard to imagine him giving such a performance. A very different picture emerges when you read Cicero himself. His speeches are filled with exaggerated praise of some men, and some very crude remarks about others. Sometimes we do not pick up on all he says because he uses some very subtle references when he is throwing a sting at his opponents. Some comments about Cicero have survived, pointing to what was critically viewed as his excessive degree of exaggeration both in his language and in his gestures. Sallustius' "Invective against Cicero" is a rather nasty bit of exaggerated criticism, yet typical of what demonstrativa could be like. Cicero's own "Second Oration Against Catalina" is another example of a purposeful slandering. What Sallustius had to say about Cicero was mostly untrue, and we should remember that Cicero's statements about Catilina were just as untrue.

One criticism made of Cicero by modern writers is that his trial speeches do not go into details about evidence in a manner we would expect a modern lawyer to do. Cicero's speech against Verres is an exception to this, where he did enter into many details, and one should also note the very different tone it takes from some of his later speeches. Some of this can be explained by the fact that in his later period Cicero worked with other orators. The facts of a case, handled in a judiciale, were given by other members on his team. After Cicero had established himself as an orator he was in the habit of taking the final position, acting as a closer. The facts having been discussed by his colleague, Cicero's job was to cast doubt on the case presented by his opponents and emphasize only certain key points made by his own side. It is unfortunate that we do not have the speeches given by Cicero's opponents, or by his colleagues, as much of what Cicero did say was made in a context we can only guess at.

Another thing to remember about Cicero's speeches is that none of the ones we have received were ever actually delivered. What he did say was recorded in shorthand and later he would edit these, adding in some parts to make his point better, and deleting other parts that did not go well in the actual trial. Sallustius, too, provided us with orations supposedly made by Marius, Catilina, and others, meant to be inserted into his history for dramatic effect. We have no idea how closely he may have followed shorthand notes or whether he invented these speeches entirely. What else we have is only a few scraps quoted by different authors. We never have a picture of the give and take that must have occured between opposing orators and between an orator and his audience.

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