That style, like almost all Roman prose of Sallust’s century and the next, took its color and tone from the oratory of the Forum and the courts. The development of the legal profession, and the growth of a talkative democracy, had widened the demand for public speaking. Schools of rhetoric were multiplying despite governmental hostility; “rhetoricians,” said Cicero, “are everywhere.” Great masters of the art appeared in the first half of the first century before Christ: Marcus Antonius (father of Mark), Lucius Crassus, Sulpicius Rufus, Quintus Hortensius. We may imagine the strength of their lungs when we hear of audiences that overflowed from the Forum into neighboring temples and balconies. The flamboyant eloquence and purchasable conscience of Hortensius made him the darling of the aristocracy and one of Rome’s richest men; he left his heirs 10,000 casks of wine. His delivery was so animated that famous actors like Roscius and Aesopus attended the trials at which he pleaded, to perfect their acting by studying his gestures and his delivery. Following the example of old Cato, he revised and published his speeches- an art which his rival Cicero perfected, and which furthered the influence of rhetoric upon all Roman prose. It was through oratory that the Latin language reached its full height of colorful eloquence, masculine power, and almost Oriental grace. Indeed, the younger orators who came after Hortensius and Cicero condemned the luxurious adornment and passionate turbulence of what they called the “Asianic” style; and Caesar, Calvus, Brutus, and Pollio pledged themselves to a calmer, chaster, sparer “Attic” speech. Here, so long ago, the battle lines formed between “romanticism” and “classicism”- between the emotional and the intellectual view of life and domination of style. Even in oratory, the young classicists complained, the East was conquering Rome.


Proud of his speeches, and aware that they were making literature, Cicero felt keenly the criticism of the “Attic” school, and defended himself in a long series of treatises on oratorical art. In lively dialogues he sketched the history of Roman eloquence and laid down the rules for composition, prose rhythm, and delivery. He did not admit that his own style was “Asian”; he had modeled it, he claimed, upon that of Demosthenes; and he reminded the Atticists that their cold and passionless speech drove audiences to sleep or flight. The fifty-seven orations that have come down to us from Cicero illustrate all the tricks of successful eloquence. They excel in the passionate presentation of one side of a question or a character, the entertainment of the auditors with humor and anecdote, the appeal to vanity, prejudice, sentiment, patriotism, and piety, the ruthless exposure of the real or reported, public or private, faults of the opponent or his client, the skillful turning of attention from unfavorable points, the barrage of rhetorical questions framed to make answer difficult or damaging, the heaping up of charges, in periodic sentences whose clauses are lashes, and whose torrent overwhelms. These speeches do not pretend to be fair; they are defamations rather than declamations, briefs that take every advantage of that freedom of abuse which, though forbidden to the stage, was allowed in the Forum and the courts. Cicero does not hesitate to apply to his victims terms like “swine,” “pest,” “butcher,” “filth”; he tells Piso that virgins kill themselves to escape his lechery, and excoriates Antony for being publicly affectionate to his wife. Audiences and juries enjoyed such vituperation, and no one took it too seriously. Cicero corresponded amiably with Piso a few years after the brutal attack of the In Pisonem. It is to be admitted, further, that Cicero’s orations abound rather in egotism and rhetoric than in moral sincerity, philosophical wisdom, or even legal acumen or depth. But what eloquence! Even Demosthenes was not so vivid, vital, exuberantly witty, so full of the salt and tang of the human fray. Certainly no man before or after Cicero spoke a Latin so seductively charming and fluent, so elegantly passionate; this was the zenith of Latin prose. “You have discovered all the treasures of oratory,” said the generous Caesar in dedicating his book On Analogy to Cicero; “and you have been the first to employ them. Thereby you have laid the Roman people under a mighty obligation, and you honor your fatherland. You have gained a triumph to be preferred to that of the greatest generals. For it is a nobler thing to enlarge the boundaries of human intelligence than those of the Roman Empire.”