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1.1 Orators in Politics

Although the field of Cicero's ideal orator is universal, the conviction that his primary task is in the political arena is hardly ever forgotten. It is sometimes held that Cicero provides a philosophical basis for the importance of eloquence in politics (Conley 1990: 37), but that is incorrect. This importance was a given, as is illustrated by Cicero's own career as a politician and statesman, which was for the most part built on his enormous powers as an orator. Accordingly, in De oratore the fundamental role of oratory in politics is nowhere argued for; it is, on the contrary, often used as a premise for other arguments (e.g., 3.63–66). The power of oratory in the Roman State rested chiefly on two pillars.

In the first place, political oratory played a great part in decision-making, which took place in the Senate and in assemblies. The *Senate was Rome's council of State, composed, in essence, of all those who held or had held a *magistracy. Membership was thus, in principle, for life, which made the Senate a powerful source of continuity (and conservatism) in Roman politics. Though it had only advisory powers in some areas, it had great prestige, and magistrates usually put before it all matters of any importance. Before a vote was taken, there was debate, all senators being called upon to give their opinion. Roman respect for authority greatly determined the influence of the individual members, but good speakers naturally had an enormous advantage (cf. De or. 2.333). The system of Roman *assemblies and of the voting in them was complicated.1 The so-called centuriate assembly, which elected the senior magistrates (praetors, consuls, censors), was dominated by the rich, but most legislation as well as the elections for the *tribunes of the plebs was carried on in the assembly of the plebs, where the common people had more power. So-called *public meetings (contiones), held separately or just before the actual voting, provided politicians with oppor-pg 5tunities to address the people on such legislation and other matters, and thus to influence their decisions. To use these opportunities and, in fact, to exert such influence was not easy, for these meetings could be unruly or even violent. Yet the skill to do so was a great asset, since it was here, even more than in the Senate, that oratory often had great impact (cf. 2.334, 337–340).

The role of violence in political struggles reached its peak in the 50s bc, when Cicero was writing; but as many passages in De oratore illustrate, it played a large part already during the lifetime of the interlocutors (e.g., 2.197–199). Indeed, Roman politics was fairly chaotic in other respects also.2 There were no parties or stable factions, and politics was often no more than a personal power game. The great divide was that between the conservatives, the "good men" in their own (including Cicero's) view, and the so-called populares. The former set great store by what they regarded as the traditional power of the Senate; the latter were ready to derive power from their influence with the common people in the public meetings. Whether the populares were usually driven by real concern for the poor or simply used their popular influence to gain power is a much-debated question, but one largely irrelevant to De oratore. What is important to realize is that Roman politics, in which the orator was supposed to function, was such an untidy affair.

The second reason for the political importance of oratory was that criminal as well as civil trials were dominated by it, much more so than in modern times. Part of the explanation for this is, no doubt, that neither the pleaders nor the judges and jury members were necessarily legal experts. Cicero does make Crassus, his mouthpiece in the first book of De oratore, plead for a thorough knowledge of the civil law (1.166–200), and Cicero himself knew the law well; but among orators, he was atypical in this as in other respects.3

The political importance of these trials was, in turn, twofold. On the one hand, pleading someone's case was to do him a great service, and in the Roman social system, this meant that one could expect services in return (also because pleading was supposed to be unpaid). Being a pleader therefore created many opportunities for building a network of supporters and friends, an essential asset in the political power game. On the other hand, criminal trials of the late Republic often concerned offenses directly related to politics, e.g., electoral malpractice (ambitus), public violence (vis), extortion in the provinces (repetundae), and "impairing the *majesty of the Roman People" (maiestas). In addition, for some of these offenses the penalty was loss of civic status (in practice, exile), which made such trials a potent weapon for getting rid of political opponents. The pleading of cases was, therefore, a frequent and important activity of most Roman politicians, both in and out of office, and throughout their career.

pg 6Eloquence, of course, was not the only way of acquiring influence. Being a legal expert could lend much authority and prestige, and forge ties of obligation as well. Moreover, Rome was almost constantly at war, and successful military commanders could enjoy great power and popularity; Caesar and Pompey are well-known examples. In these circumstances, civil wars became almost inevitable, and Cicero himself witnessed several (see § 2). But even Caesar originally built part of his power by using his far from negligible capacities as a speaker. Hardly any politician could afford, or would want, to neglect the central role of oratory.

1.2 Greeks and Romans

In many passages in De oratore, a contrast is made between Greek and Roman attitudes. This reflects the fact that while many elements of Greek culture, which was introduced on a large scale in the second century bc, had become fairly normal in Roman society by Cicero's youth, their acceptance was by no means universal. Many Romans still viewed the Greeks with suspicion, regarding them as theoretical, impractical, and arrogant. Cicero's openness to Greek culture earned him the jibe that he was a "little Greek" (Graeculus).

It is precisely the pervasiveness of elements of Greek culture in Roman life that makes matters in De oratore so complicated. It is obvious that many regarded philosophy as typically Greek, and that Cicero had to try to avoid the stigma that came with this image. But technical rhetoric, though more acceptable to many Romans, was also Greek, and Cicero often phrases his rejection of impractical rhetoricians as a rejection of a typically Greek attitude. Cicero himself aimed at combining the best of what the Greeks and the Romans had to offer, but he also wanted to persuade his more sceptical fellow Romans of the validity of his views. For this reason, a tension can be detected throughout De oratore between acceptance and rejection of things Greek.


1 See Taylor 1966; Staveley 1972; a brief account in CAH IX2: 43–45.

2 On the issues of this paragraph, see the survey by Andrew Lintott in CAH IX2:1–15.

3 Modern descriptions of Cicero and other orators as "lawyers" are therefore seriously misleading.

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