BMCR 2005.09.05

The Roman World of Cicero’s De Oratore

, The Roman world of Cicero's De oratore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (vii, 354 pages). ISBN 9781429470698. $120.00.

The first time I read De Oratore in the 1960s, the assistance available to student readers was minimal: Wilkins’s nineteenth-century commentary was not a great work even when it was new, and is much less helpful than its German equivalent by Piderit/Harnecker/Adler, and his Oxford text is not nearly so good as the Clark/Peterson texts of the orations (aside from the fact that he merely copied the index of his commentary into the OCT). By the time I first taught it to graduate students in the late 1970s, there was at least a first-rate text in Kumaniecki’s Teubner edition, but there was still not much useful secondary material available. Since then, of course, there has been a resurgence of Ciceronian studies including, on De Oratore, the massive commentary by Leeman, Pinkster, et al., and a careful and annotated English translation by May and Wisse. But, to the best of my knowledge, Elaine Fantham’s The Roman World of Cicero’s De Oratore is the first book in English devoted to De Oratore; as she says (v), students of rhetoric tend to know little about history and literature, and vice versa, and her book, based on her graduate teaching, is intended to bridge that divide for students and other first readers of the text.

De Oratore is neither short nor easy, but it is a crucially important text not only for the history of rhetoric but for the more general problem of the adaptation of Greek culture in first century BCE Rome. It is also a major source for Roman history and law — not to mention its status as a monument of Ciceronian style. F. has devoted many years to the work, and her treatment of its metaphors in her first book ( Comparative Studies in Roman Republican Imagery, 1972) remains essential reading. She is also one of the few scholars who have the range of knowledge to explain with equal assurance the historical, social, and rhetorical backgrounds of a demanding and often oblique work.

The basic structure of F.’s book follows that of Cicero’s. After three introductory chapters (on the Ciceronian background, on the lives and characters of the two protagonists of the dialogue, and on the Platonic background), chapters 4-6 deal with topics arising from the first book of De Oratore (the introductory discussion of the nature of oratory and the training of the orator, the orator’s knowledge of law, and the literary equipment of the orator), chapters 7-9 with book 2 ( inventio, wit, and deliberative oratory), chapters 10-12 with book 3 ( elocutio, the treatment of the tropes and figures, and memoria and actio), and chapter 13, as epilogue, with the general interpretation of the dialogue and its reflection in Cicero’s own De Re Publica and Tacitus’ Dialogus. At the same time, however, F. views (305) her own overarching theme as the juxtaposition of ‘its recommendations for creating the ideal public orator and statesman with the radical change from the cultural and political context of Crassus and Antonius … to the experience of Cicero himself’ in the political turmoil of the 50s, when Cicero was writing it.

To combine these two goals, neither of them unambitious separately, is a very delicate task. F.’s accounts of various aspects of the dialogue itself are often superb: I learned a great deal from her discussion of the lives and oratory of Crassus and Antonius; and her discussions of some of the more technical aspects of rhetoric as derived from Aristotle and deployed by Cicero are excellent, particularly her exploration of the difference between Crassus’ version of elocutio and traditional accounts. F. is a true expert on the history of rhetoric, and she manages to make sense of, and explain the importance of, even some of the most technical aspects of the subject. For that alone, one can heartily recommend this book to students, and indeed to anyone who needs to know something about Roman rhetoric.

On the other hand, when she moves, as she does in almost every chapter, from exegesis of De Oratore to exploring a topic as it pertains to Cicero’s later life and writing, she is often unsuccessful, and much of what she says degenerates into summary of speeches or fairly superficial accounts of Roman law or political history. There are jarring switches between extremely detailed comments on particular problems (e.g. the dating of Ad Atticum 4.6 (12-13)) and very elementary descriptions of the standard career of the Roman politician. In chapter 12 (‘Into Action: The Orator as Public Figure’), she moves from a detailed exposition of Cicero’s prescriptions on voice and gesture to what amounts to little more than a list of the first speeches of famous men. Her point in this, as revealed at the end of the chapter (304), is to bring out the variety of contexts of the entries into public careers of great men in the late Republic, but it is never clear what, if anything, that has to do with De Oratore. While I have few doubts about the accuracy of what F. says and while I rarely find her arguments unconvincing, I was constantly perplexed at her choice of what to include: the implied audience for this book veers back and forth between the complete novice and the relatively experienced scholar. What is more, arguments about the differences between political or rhetorical culture in the 90s and in the 50s run a risk of circularity, as F. well knows: De Oratore is itself a major part of the evidence for the courts of the 90s, and there is often no way to know whether Cicero is being accurate or if he is reflecting his own circumstances back into the world of Crassus and Antonius. An important instance of this, not faced by F., is the case of Antonius’ defense of Norbanus, for which Cicero provides our main evidence — but part of the defense, as Cicero reports it, looks suspiciously like Cicero’s own defense of the tribune Cornelius in 66 BCE. Did Cicero model his own speech on Antonius’ famous oration, or did Cicero model his account of Antonius’ speech on Pro Cornelio ? Or is it simply that defenses of radical tribunes must necessarily take certain populist positions? F. knows the complexity of the source problems, but she consistently avoids facing them directly.

While F. is both learned and clear on the rhetorical aspects of De Oratore and a reliable guide to the historical circumstances,1 she is far less interested in the philosophical context, and that is a pity. Her chapter on the Platonic background consists to far too great a degree of summaries of the Gorgias and Phaedrus — and she wrongly suggests (63) that Gorgias was written in the 390s, and equally wrongly ascribes that dating to E. R. Dodds — and, while she rightly shows that Cicero glides over the problem of the immoral orator both in his echoes of Plato and elsewhere in the dialogue, she never quite comes to grips with the issue either. Nor, indeed, does she ever address the fact that it is Callicles’ position on the relationship of philosophy to public life that is adapted in Cicero’s argument: both Antonius at De Oratore 2.156 — a passage F. seems to mention only in a footnote (143n.), in connection with the citation of Ennius — and Laelius at De Re Publica 1.30 echo Gorgias 485e-486a, and, while Cicero (and his characters) certainly have no sympathy for Callicles’ Nietzschean view of morality and power, all of them consistently and constantly use Plato to reject Platonic ideas about the autonomy of philosophy and the inadequacy of rhetoric. F. knows that Socrates is in many respects the villain of De Oratore, but she does not seem to recognize the importance of that argument: her explorations of Antonius’ account of historiography in book 2 and of Crassus’ history of philosophical rhetoric in book 3 skim over Cicero’s complex manipulation of Hellenistic arguments (ultimately stemming from Plato) about the relative supremacy of rhetoric and philosophy. All too frequently, F. simply restates what Cicero says, without asking why it appears and why it takes the form that it does. In that sense, rather than encouraging students to read the dialogue, F. seems to provide a substitute for reading it.

What is largely missing from F.’s account of Cicero in terms both of philosophy and of rhetoric, is the Hellenistic world. In terms of rhetoric, she grudgingly refers to Hermagorean stasis-theory a few times, but the name of Hermagoras is absent from the index (which is, in any case, seriously inadequate). In this respect, it is instructive to compare her De Oratore with that of Jakob Wisse in the recent Brill’s Handbook to Cicero’s Oratory and Rhetoric : Wisse’s Cicero is a close student of the detailed disputes of Hellenistic rhetorical theory and pays little attention to Plato and Aristotle; F.’s Cicero is a close student of Plato and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and has very little interest in the intellectual developments of the two centuries after Aristotle. In fact, he was a close student of both, and one of the astonishing intellectual feats of De Oratore is the way in which he tries to bring the two together. Which is the master art, philosophy or rhetoric? Standard Hellenistic teaching (probably as expressed by Hermagoras) believed that general issues ( thesis) were the province of the philosopher, while the rhetorician was qualified to deal with only the details ( hypothesis) of particular cases and would turn to philosophers to find out and explain the moral issues from which these cases emerged. But Cicero’s speakers, following at least one strand of Hellenistic theory (the mysterious name of Athenaeus appears once in connection with the argument), turn the relationship of thesis and hypothesis upside down: the general emerges from the particular, broad ethical questions are subordinate to specific issues, and rhetoric is the master art to which philosophy is, or ought to be, subservient. In Cicero’s hands, this is an oblique response to Plato’s arguments in Gorgias and Phaedrus and a major element in his claim — which F., in her conclusion (esp. 313-314) rightly recognizes as central to the originality of De Oratore — for the educated orator as statesman and enlightened leader.

‘Fremant omnes licet, dicam quod sentio’: So Crassus, introducing his claim that the Twelve Tables have more of value than all the books of the philosophers (1.195). My own claim may provoke equal disagreement: De Oratore is not only the single greatest surviving work of classical Latin prose but also the most ambitious attempt of one of Rome’s most original thinkers to provide a moral justification for Roman public life and to ground it in establishing a complex balance between Greek philosophy, past and present, and Roman ethics and history (he attempted something similar, and perhaps grander, in De Re Publica, but that part of the argument is largely lost). F. almost entirely ignores the passage about the Twelve Tables, to my mind a statement of Roman inherent intellectual excellence that is at once highly ironic and deadly serious.2 Aside from scattered remarks here and there and a few excellent pages in her conclusion, F. seems to me to give short shrift to the sheer grandeur of Cicero’s intellectual vision while focussing on particular passages and particular issues.

F.’s book, as her preface makes clear, originated in graduate seminars that she has given on De Oratore, and it displays both the virtues and the failings of its origins. F. is clear, patient, informative, and sometimes sharp: readers who have heard her wonderful classical comments on Weekend Edition will certainly recognize her voice. Her chapters can easily be envisaged as classes on particular questions raised by the text; she allows herself to digress (as do we all) when it appears that her students/readers might not control the necessary background material or history; as she occasionally notes, she returns more than once to certain issues or texts, and the book is therefore, particularly in the opening chapters, unnecessarily repetitive. She also brings in analogies to contemporary culture or political practice, and makes her own positions admirably clear. In her conclusion (or should I say peroration?), F rejects emphatically the suspicious and ungenerous attitudes of some modern scholarship (327): ‘I do not understand how fine scholars who admire Cicero and the culture he gave to Rome can treat his work as a quest for power, as if we could not acquire and apply other men’s knowledge without besting them in some sort of zero-sum game’; she goes on to lament that ‘it has become old-fashioned to praise a liberal education …’ Perhaps I am over-reading, but passages such as these sound like nothing so much as the preface to De Oratore itself: the combination of wide intellectual sympathies, immense learning, and a sense of regret for a world which (in Cicero’s case at least) had never existed in the fashion in which he recreates it. I value what F. has written about Cicero; I only wish that she had said more.


1. There are, it should be noted, a few strange errors. Cicero’s relative by marriage C. Visellius Aculeo makes his first appearance as C. Aculeus (26n.), and Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus first appears as Dialogus de claris oratoribus (298; the subtitle of Cicero’s Brutus). Scaevola Augur (the participant in the dialogue) and Scaevola Pontifex (Cicero’s instructor in law) are repeatedly confused (e.g. 94, 106, 109); in a single paragraph (50-51) F. states both that Curio’s dialogue is earlier than De Oratore and later than it.

2. I have discussed this passage in more detail in “Plato with Pillows: Cicero on the Uses of Greek Culture” in Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome. Studies in Honour of T. P. Wiseman (Exeter, 2003) 119-138.