When Rome conquered Greece, it adopted many of her techniques of education.  One of these was the emphasis on rhetoric (the art of speaking and writing well) as an independent field of study.  Rhetoric became a sophisticated subject, and rhetorical training was in great demand in imperial Rome for anyone aspiring to a career in government or politics.  Rome had no formal “state prosecutor” system as we do today; individuals needed to bring their own criminal or civil cases before a tribunal (iudices) and hire lawyers to argue on their behalf.  Historians also were usually trained rhetoricians; the works of Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, Ammianus Marcellinus, and others are filled with robust speeches and artful epigrams that demonstrate the influence of rhetorical schooling.  But training in rhetoric was about more than improving one’s speaking and writing; properly understood, a program in rhetoric was only part of a larger focus on character development.

This article will give an overview of some the best rhetorical writings that have survived from this period.  The techniques that these old masters described are still valid today.  Who among us does not wish to improve his speaking or writing?  Who among us does not wish to improve his character?  A close study of Cicero, Seneca the Elder, and Quintilian show just how developed classic rhetorical techniques were.  I will treat each of these writers individually.


Cicero, of course, needs no introduction.  The only Roman who surpassed the Greek orators in eloquence and verbal dexterity, his speeches remain masterpieces of invective, persuasive power, and philosophical subtlety.  Space here prevents a detailed review of his career and works, but it is sufficient to say that the Catilinian orations, the Verrine orations, and his so-called Phillipics still stand today as exemplars of the rhetorical art.  Less well known, however, is his short treatise On the Classification of Rhetoric (De Partitione Oratoria).  Although a technical treatise, it contains much of value to the serious student of oratory.

According to Cicero, the functions of an orator were:  (1) inventio, the discovery of arguments meant to influence an audience;  (2) collocatio, the proper arrangement of arguments in a form suitable to maximize effect; (3) elocutio, the differing varieties of speaking styles; (4) actio, techniques of delivery; and (4) memoria, the cultivation of the memory.

A speech can be divided into these constituent parts:  (1) exordium, the introduction, designed to win favor with the audience; (2) narratio, the “statement of the case”, which should be direct, clear, and uncluttered; (3) confirmatio, a laying out of “proofs” by reciting facts or valid precedent; (4) reprehensio, a refutation of the opponent’s points; and (5) peroratio, the all-important summation, in which everything is brought together.  Cicero goes into great detail with each of these components of a speech, and the reader senses the hand of a master on every page of the treatise.


Theodore Roosevelt’s emphasis on character and oratorical skill places him squarely in the classical tradition

Seneca the Elder

Not to be confused with his more well-known son Seneca the philosopher, Seneca the Elder was a Spanish rhetorician who, late in his life, collected his lessons from a lifetime of teaching into a comprehensive handbook.  Seneca was concerned with two types of speeches:  the arguing of legal controversies (controversiae) and the presentation of suasoriae, which were speeches on deliberative topics.  Students improved their speaking and writing by means of “declamations” (declamationes), defined as the giving of imaginary speeches.  Seneca had an incredibly detailed memory, cultivated by years of practice in speech-giving.  The two volumes of his book contain his recollections of the sayings, advice, and sample exercises of other master rhetoricians.  Most of it appears to have been written directly from his prodigious memory.

How did these “declamations” work in practice?  The instructor would offer a proposition or legal issue, such as the following:

A man disinherited his son.  The disinherited son went to a prostitute and had a son by her.  He then fell ill and sent for his father.  When his father came, he entrusted his son to his father, and then died.  After his death, the father adopted the boy.  The man’s other son accuses the father of defective judgment (dementia).  [Controv. II.4].

Students would then have to argue the merits and issues of each side, within strict time limits.  Their techniques and logic would be critiqued by the instructor, and they would then have to argue the opposite side.

Seneca’s book is filled with interesting bits and pieces of rhetorical wisdom and amusing anecdotes accumulated from a lifetime in the oratorical trenches.  It is surprising that he is so obscure today; perhaps declamations and spoken artistry appeal only to lawyers.


The most complete study of the rhetorical art is to be found in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (The Orator’s Education).  This work, written in a clear and vigorous Latin, and filling five volumes in the Loeb Library series, is a virtual encyclopedia on proper speaking.  Quintilian was the rector of a school of rhetoric, and wrote his masterwork in old age for the intended use of his son; but tragedy overtook his family, and both his sons died at young ages.  He poured all his experience, his wisdom, and his repressed anguish into his work.  Perhaps we, his readers, should consider ourselves his sons; for on every page we feel the magnetism and rectitude of a strong character backed by an unwavering moral compass.

For Quintilian, a man cannot be a good speaker without having a sound moral character:

Noting is so preoccupied, so many-faceted, so mauled and torn apart by so many different emotions, as an evil mind.  When it is plotting something, it is tormented with hope, cares, and labor.  Even when it has attained its ends, it is racked by anxiety and remorse, and the expectation of punishment.  What room is there amid all this for literature and cultural life?  No more, to be sure, than there is room for a good crop where the land is given over to thorns and brambles. [Q. XII.1].

He believed that the aspiring orator should study music and dance to give himself balance and rhythm; athletics, to cultivate his physique; literature and philosophy, to mold his character and reasoning; and science, to sensitize himself to physical reality.  Here is a prescription not just to be a good speaker, but to be a good man.  He recognizes that his training program is arduous, and has no illusions that most will be up to the task.  Regarding the actual mechanics of giving a speech, Quintilian offers mountains of practical advice.  Among the best bits of wisdom are:

1.  Do not write your speech down unless you intend to deliver it verbatim, which will rarely happen.  It will interfere with the spontaneity of the delivery.  Instead, outline it, and know those topics thoroughly.

2.  Clarity is the most important virtue of all.  A written composition must be set aside for a time, then patiently revised again.  A piece of writing that is laid aside, and then approached again, will appear to be almost the writing of another hand.  Be ruthless with your pruning, and remember that your listeners will have little patience with verbosity.

3.  Avoid wild gesticulations when speaking, but seek the mastery of effective hand movements.  Quintilian has an entire section in his treatise on the proper types and employment of hand movements as an aid to communication.

4.  Seek a balance between traditional and modern styles of writing.  Between two extremes, the best course is often somewhere in the middle.

Tacitus and Pliny the Younger are counted among Quintilian’s pupils, and they represent some of the best in Latin literature.  He was a great influence on St. Augustine and many early Church fathers who received a rhetorical instruction in the later imperial period.  Nearly forgotten in the Middle Ages, interest in him was revived during the Renaissance when a complete manuscript of the Institutes was discovered by Poggio Bracciolini in a monastery in 1416.


Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. A.D. 35-100).  For him, character was the sine qua non of good oratory.

All in all, Quintilian embodies the best that classical rhetoric can offer.  We feel the immediacy of his message that the training of character is just as important as the importation of knowledge; and his pages resonate with the dignity, humanity, and wit of an experienced schoolmaster.  Modern education has done young men a disservice by neglecting the development of virtue and character.  One gets the sense, from reading the works of the ancients, that modern methods of instruction have pushed the acquisition of huge volumes of technical information at the expense of the development of character.  We are now paying dearly for this deficiency.

Perhaps the secret of Rome’s longevity lies in the fact that its educated elite emphasized good character as much as wisdom.  Its best and wisest men knew that, without character, a man was doomed.  Eloquence, for all its lustre, eventually loses its shine without a strong foundation in worldly virtue.  In words that our millennial generation would do well to remember, he cautions us:

The young should not be held back in an imaginary world, or accustom themselves to empty shadows to the point where they find it hard to abandon them.  The danger is that, coming out of the shady retreats in which they have almost grown old, they may shrink from the bright sunlight of real conflict. [Q.X.5].

The best teachers, to be sure, are not only transmitters of knowledge, but are also stimuli for our moral renovation.  We have never needed such teachers more than we do now.

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