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Rhetorica ad Herennium, Quintilian, and Cicero Walk Into a Bar….

“It is not surprising, then, to find that instruction in writing and speaking in Rome should have become as systematic as other elements in the society” (Murphy 37).


The works from Roman rhetoricians demonstrate the systematic treatment of rhetoric within a framework of institutional education discussed by James Murphy in his chapter on Roman Writing Instruction. In a sense, I see the work of Cicero as a bridge between Rhetorica ad Herennium and Quintilian, where overlapping ideas can be seen across all works, showing the type of values and practices that have survived and been passed on through Western education and history. All three texts also note the importance of writing in the development of rhetorical skill, a practice that seemed more contested amongst the Greeks.


Rhetorica ad Herennium goes into great detail about stylistic applications, dividing these tropes and figures into multiple categories along with examples of their execution. This systematic explication could be used to influence pedagogical methods, not only naming and defining these figures, but also offering concrete examples of them. The anonymous author of this text also discusses the “three kinds of style, called types, to which discourse, if faultless, confines itself: the first we call the Grand; the second, the Middle; the third, the Simple” (248). The author then goes on to explain how, where, and why to employ each of these types or styles of speech, along with examples of the same scenario described in each style. This idea of three styles is then echoed in Cicero (and later Augustine) which indicates that it was likely a larger or common part of the Roman rhetorical system.


Cicero likewise echoes the applicability of three styles of speech depending upon the occasion, indicating that understanding how, when, and why to use these styles effectively is a mark of eloquence. For Cicero, one is “eloquent who can discuss commonplace matters simply, lofty subjects impressively, and topics ranging between in a tempered style” (343). This stylistic consideration, and the ability to shift between styles, makes an orator effective depending upon the subject and situation in which he speaks. Though not assigned for this week, in De Oratore, Cicero discusses his version of the ideal orator, which for him is “he who on any matter whatever can speak with fullness and variety,” thus claiming a need for broad knowledge and wisdom in order for success (297). This idealized speaker is likewise shown in the work of Quintilian, for whom “goodness” is the highest quality for an orator to possess. Though it is noted in The Rhetorical Tradition that Cicero did not have many (any?) rhetorical followers in his own time, the repetition of this concept of an ideal speaker seems to indicate some underlying or reoccurring value in Roman society, as it returns to prominence via Quintilian.


Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory offers a comprehensive educational system for people (or rather, male people) from young childhood through old age. This system offers suggestions for specific exercises, as well as pedagogical considerations that have more to do with the treatment of people than with subjects. Quintilian advises that “in amending what needs correction, let [the teacher] not be harsh, and, least of all, not reproachful,” advising that students can become despondent when corrected or reprimanded too harshly (366). For Quintilian, moral/ethical development is the most important aspect of oratory and rhetorical skill, thus though it is not stated, it seems that his resistance to corporeal punishment and harsh judgment is similarly an ethical choice. It may follow, too, that in treating students ethically it becomes more likely that they will make ethical choices in the future and/or be able to discern the difference.


All three of these writers (though one is unknown) point toward a systematic rhetorical and educational framework that instilled particular practices and ideologies in its participants. I find it interesting that this ranges from very dissected stylistic constraints and a move toward idealism in what rhetoric is or can accomplish. Rhetoric is a powerful tool that can create culture (Cicero) and that encompasses within it all of the faculties of philosophy (Quintilian). I am struck by the potentially prescriptive measures on one hand, and the optimistic idealism on the other. These qualities, taken together, point toward some aspect of Roman cultural and ideology that I am not quite able to name, but which I note nonetheless.


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