Cicero was the master rhetorician of the late Republic period. He was not a philosopher, and he knew it. In the Cambridge Classic volume on The Late Republic includes a good and somewhat extensive chapter on Cicero by L.P. Wilkinson (pp 56-93). Since some time ago I have reviewed one of the best biographies on Cicero on this blog I will not focus on that aspect of this chapter. Like many a good rhetor, Cicero placed emphasis on the force of one’s arguments, not the weight of the authority of the speaker, which often could be overly influential in deciding court cases and other matters. Cicero was deeply influenced by Aristotle, perhaps particularly Aristotle’s insistence that one see and argue both sides of a matter before deciding which side to be on. Interestingly, Cicero, without diminishing the fact that higher education should focus on rhetoric, was concerned as Wilkinson reminds us to promote humane education, to promote being a well-rounded, kind, cultured person. He himself modelled such an approach to things, being well educated in philosophy, history, natural science, law and other things. It is fair to characterize the man as a moralist, very concerned about ethical rectitude. Because of this, he got a reputation with some of his peers as a prude when it came to various things. He did not like Epicureanism but leaned more in the direction of Stoicism. Cicero was very concerned with history and his own reputation long after he was gone. About history he says that the person ignorant of history remains a child for life. I wish some Christians would heed this warning.
So important was oratory to the intellectual and practical life of Rome that both Latin literature and higher education focused on it and were deeply indebted to it. Speeches were the essence of trials in Roman courts, but there were also rhetorical speeches to the popular assemblies, in the Senate, to troops before battle (see e.g. the movie Gladiator) and of course at funerals, though Romans placed less emphasis on epideictic rhetoric than Greeks did. Cicero clearly understood the power of emotion, indeed he was want to say that when dealing with a jury it was more important to engage and move their emotions than to persuade or convince them with facts or logic. While a traditional Roman like Cato preferred a pithy, unadorned directness of speech, Cicero knew that this was not adequate and so he preferred in a trial to go last, and to deal with both the more superficial and deeper emotions effectively. The ongoing effects of the 2nd Sophistic were such that advocates were often given to exaggeration, generalizations, and histrionics of various sorts. George Kennedy says that Marc Antony speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar gives us a clear picture of such speaking (‘Friends, Romans countrymen, lend me your ears’). The speech is full of irony, saying one thing, but meaning the opposite (‘Brutus and Cassius are honorable men’).
In an oral culture how a combination of words sounds matters a great deal, as does one’s modulation of tone of voice. And he was perfectly capable of using a panoply of rhetorical devices effectively, rhetorical questions, repetition of key terms for emphasis, deliberately mentioning things that the audience is told he will not mention (‘I will not be speaking about the questionable ethics of my opponents client…..’) and so on. Cicero knew the history of rhetoric and that Hellenistic writers had stressed there were three styles– the grand, the middle, and the plain, which in the Orator 69 Cicero aligns with the three different aims of oratory– to move, to please, and to convince. The grand style was forceful, weighty highly emotional and ornate. This is the sort of rhetoric that moderns normal mean when they say something is rhetorical. For example, C.S. Lewis’s lament about himself ‘all this is flashy rhetoric about loving you…’ Cicero, seeing which sort of rhetoric won more trials, went to the trouble to be trained in and write about Asiatic rhetoric which he defines as being of two sorts (Brutus 325): 1) the epigrammatic and brilliant which tried to charm the audience and relied on tidy or neat discourse; 2) the swift and impetuous, meant to sweep the audience along by its verbal pyrotechnics.
Letter writing in the Hellenistic age was already something that fell under the heading of literary rhetorical form of communication when done well and was not merely plebean, and Cicero exploited this, wanting some of his letters to be published and read not just by its original recipient or recipients. But to his closest friend, Atticus, the many letters do not appear to be of this sort by and large. It’s the plain unvarnished Cicero we get in those letters, with an occasional rhetorical flourish. As for his published speeches, Quintilian (10.7.30-31) tell us that Cicero wrote out before hand the exordium, the peroration and the most vital passages, and he memorized those , the rest he outlined or had certain notes to guide him when speaking (see p. 76). One of the interesting things that differed in Roman as opposed to Athenian trials is that in Rome the set rhetorical speeches were delivered before the calling of witnesses, whereas in Athens it was the reverse. Another major difference was that in Athens, the litigant himself was supposed to deliver the speech, whereas in Rome it was the litigants advocate who did so, and since he did not have to react to the witnesses the orator like Cicero in Rome could range more widely in his approach and content. In Rome the advocates personality and auctoritas counted for much, however much Cicero could be unhappy about that when he opponent was someone notable, notorious, or otherwise famous— like Caesar. Of the more than a hundred speeches Cicero gave in court we know that he won 74 cases and lost 16, and we don’t know the results of the 50 or more other cases. And without question, it was Cicero’s rhetorical tour de force, full of sound and fury, that often won him the day. Early in his career it had to be that way because he was not a traditional Roman of patrician stock, he was a ‘new man’ from Arpinum, who had to overcome his lack of ancestral pedigree. In our own age, I would commend to my readers the Philippics speeches because they are advocating for republican and even democratic freedom against dictatorial tendencies and policies, against the threat to freedom of autocracy. There is much more to be gleaned from Prof. Wilkinson’s learned treatment of Cicero and I commend the whole chapter to you. There is a reason why I have the statue of Cicero on the cover of my NT Rhetoric book— he set the pattern for orators after him, including some NT ones like Paul, and the author of Hebrews….