Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.08.41

Catherine Steel, Roman Oratory. Greece & Rome. New Surveys in the Classics, no. 36.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Pp. 90.  ISBN 978-0-521-68722-5.  $19.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrea Balbo, Università di Torino (

Table of Contents

Oratory is one of the most studied topics in classical philology and its bibliography is obviously very wide. We have at our disposal many books about single orators such as Cicero, the fragmentary ones, Pliny, Apuleius, late Panegyrists and so on; scholars have written a lot of interesting and important works about history of oratory, but at the moment in this mare magnum the books concerning the social and communicative aspects of orator's activity are still few. The subject is difficult, first of all because it is not easy to find a balance between the wealth of information about Cicero and the lack of data about other authors. Catherine Steel (henceforward S.) is aware of this problem, and has written a useful book, that starts to fill this gap in the research. S.'s work is conceived as an introduction to public speaking in Rome, for advanced students and people who need a first but solid starting point to study ancient oratory. In particular, S. exploits Cicero, about whom she has written some interesting books,1 but in this volume she wants to cross over the boundaries of Ciceronian experience, painting a picture of the role of the orator in Roman society with a special attention to his activities, his education and his ways of communicating with other people. She defines some exact boundaries; in her book the reader can find very little about late Empire and nothing about the Second Sophistic; no attention is paid to orations in Roman historians and fragmentary ones; the analysis of single speeches is narrow. However, the topics she deals with are sufficient to create an interesting book.

The first chapter, The Orator in Roman Society, examines the contexts where the Roman orator carried on his activity: contiones, Senate, law courts, funerals. In few pages S. describes in a clear way the social meaning of speaking to people, how a speech could be carefully prepared to strengthen a political decision, what possibilities a good speaker might have to achieve success in a trial and what the role of epideictic oratory in Rome could be. S. discusses some examples of orations, but mainly focuses on general questions, achieving the result of a good summary of complex problems.

The second chapter, Channels of Communication, is the most interesting one. Oratory, like oral poetry, for instance, implies the problem of the link between oral performance and written text. The problem of the relations between written and spoken versions is important, because it pertains also to the possibility of using forensic orations as a truthful source for history and jurisprudence. S. rightly points out that "our text-based perception of Roman oratory can obscure the fact that written versions of speeches are rather peculiar things which occupy an inescapably secondary position, deriving their origins and much of their meaning from an event of which they are now the only, partial record" (p. 26); but, from the other side, "the lack of a script does not mean that a speech could not be reconstructed consequently" (p. 27), even if "a Roman orator was always faced with a choice of whether or not to produce a written version which could then be disseminated" (p. 30). Therefore, from the same speech it was possible to read different versions, but it was also possible that nothing else existed except the notes of the speaker. Here, in my opinion, it would have been better to pay more attention to the literary side of eloquence, but S. conceives oratory first of all as a spoken phenomenon.2 Scrutiny of the sources from Cicero to Quintilian, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger compels S. to observe that during the passage from Republic to Empire the ways of disseminating a speech have changed: "the impulse to memorialise oratory persisted into the imperial period; but the changing impact of oratory and above all the distorting presence of the emperor made other forms of recording oratory attractive" (p. 43). The main example of this situation for S. is Claudius's speech about the admission to the Senate of inhabitants of Gallia Comata (Tac. Ann. 11, 23-24): the public character of this speech needs a new rhetoric, where the extratextual elements, lost in the passage from spoken to written oration, return in the form of the inscription.

The third chapter, The Practising Orator, describes the figure of the orator and tries to explain "how the expectations concerning his behaviour are set up" (p. 45). The definition of some criteria to divide good from bad orators was an important issue; a public and educational activity like oratory needed examples and models. The role of young men in prosecution speeches, the importance of public speaking for the status of aristocracy and Senate members, the idea of oratory as a system to attack enemies, the necessity of avoiding charges of professionalism and the importanceof remaining an amateur of high profile are only some of the subjects discussed here.

The fourth and last chapter, The Orator's Education, concerns the orator's training and it does not provide great innovation. S. underlines the connection between experience, knowledge and relationships in the growing up of the young orator. The book finishes with a summarizing conclusion, a bibliography and a short index.

S.'s work is clear and exhaustive in its synthesis;3 in my opinion, its bibliography could be extended. In fact, it is possible to feel the lack of some important books that students could read with advantage. For instance she does not quote L. Pernot, La Rhétorique dans l'Antiquité Paris 2000 or A. Cavarzere, Oratoria a Roma. Storia di un genere pragmatico, Roma 2000 or S. Rutledge, Imperial inquisitions. Prosecutors and informants from Tiberius to Domitian, London 2001. In addition, she shows an evident preference for English and American books.4 Apart from these small drawbacks, the book attains its aim of confronting a difficult problem in a clear and appropriate way.


1.   Cicero, Rhetoric and Empire, Oxford 2001 and Reading Cicero. Genre and Performance in Late Republican Rome , London 2005.
2.   About this problem the bibliography is very great. She quotes and discusses the very important book of J. Humbert, Les plaidoyers écrits et les plaidoyers réelles de Cicéron, Paris 1925, and the recent work of J. G. F. Powell and J. J. Paterson (eds.), Cicero the Advocate, Oxford 2004, but between them E. Narducci, Dal discorso pronunciato al discorso scritto. L'eloquenza come prodotto letterario, in Cicerone e l'eloquenza romana. Retorica e progetto culturale Bari, 1997, pp. 157-173, is worth recalling..
3.   Some assertions are often not very clear. S. writes: "without the possibility of spoken performance, the texts of Cicero's Verrines, or Second Philippic, become pointless, even though these particular speeches were never actually delivered". It is not entirely true: in fact it is commonly known that first Verrine was indeed delivered.
4.   The only article quoted by Narducci is "Orator and the definition of the ideal orator" in Brill's Companion to Cicero : Oratory and Rhetoric, ed. J. M. May, Leiden 2002. For Seneca's De clementia there is no mention of E. Malaspina's L. Annaei Senecae De clementia libri duo, Prolegomeni, testo critico e commento, Alessandria 2005 (second edition); about the speech of Tac. Ann. 11, 23-24 no mention of either A. De Vivo, Tacito e Claudio. Storia e codificazione letteraria. Napoli 1980 or Gerhard Perl, "Die Rede des Kaisers Claudius für die Aufnahme römischer Bürger aus Gallia Comata in den Senat (CIL XIII 1668)", Philologus 140, 1996, 114-138.

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