Cicero: On the Best Style of Orators

This little piece was composed by Cicero as a sort of preface to his translation of the Orations of Demosthenes and Aeschines de Coronâ; the translations themselves have not come down to us.

I. THERE are said to be classes of orators as there are of poets. But it is not so; for of poets there are a great many divisions; for of tragic, comic, epic, lyric, and also of dithyrambic poetry, which has been more cultivated by the Latins, each kind is very different from the rest. Therefore in tragedy anything comic is a defect, and in comedy anything tragic is out of place. And in the other kinds of poetry each has its own appropriate note, and a tone well known to those who understand the subject. But if any one were to enumerate many classes of orators, describing some as grand, and dignified, and copious, others as thin, or subtle, or concise, and others as something between the two and in the middle as it were, he would be saying something of the men, but very little of the matter. For as to the matter, we seek to know what is the best; but as to the man, we state what is the real case. Therefore if any one likes, he has a right to call Ennius a consummate epic poet, and Pacuvius an excellent tragic poet, and Caecilius perhaps a perfect comic poet. But I do not divide the orator as to class in this way. For I am seeking a perfect one. And of perfection there is only one kind; and those who fall short of it do not differ in kind, as Attius does from Terentius; but they are of the same kind, only of unequal merit. For he is the best orator who by speaking both teaches, and delights, and moves the minds of his hearers. To teach them is his duty, to delight them is creditable to him, to move them is indispensable. It must be granted that one person succeeds better in this than another; but that is not a difference of kind but of degree. Perfection is one thing; that is next to it which is most like it; from which consideration it is evident that that which is most unlike perfection is the worst.

II. For, since eloquence consists of words and sentences, we must endeavour, by speaking in a pure and correct manner, that is to say in good Latin, to attain an elegance of expression with words appropriate and metaphorical. As to the appropriate words, selecting those which are most suitable; and when indulging in metaphor, studying to preserve a proper resemblance, and to be modest in our use of foreign terms. But of sentences, there are as many different kinds as I have said there are of panegyrics. For if teaching, we want shrewd sentences; if aiming at giving pleasure, we want musical ones; if at exciting the feelings, dignified ones. But there is a certain arrangement of words which produces both harmony and smoothness; and different sentiments have different arrangements suitable to them, and an order naturally calculated to prove their point; but of all those things memory is the foundation, (just as a building has a foundation,) and action is the light. The man, then, in whom all these qualities are found in the highest perfection, will be the most skilful orator; he in whom they exist in a moderate degree will be a mediocre orator; he in whom they are found to the slightest extent will be the most inferior sort of orator. All these, indeed, will be called orators, just as bad painters are still called painters; not differing from one another in kind, but in ability. So there is no orator who would not like to resemble Demosthenes; but Menander did not want to be like Homer, for his style was different.

This difference does not exist in orators; or if there be any such difference, that one avoiding gravity aims rather at subtlety; and on the other hand, that another desires to show himself acute rather than polished: such men, although they may be tolerable orators, are certainly not perfect ones; since that is perfection which combines every kind of excellence.

III. I have stated these things with greater brevity than the subject deserves; but still, with reference to my present object, it was not worth while being more prolix. For as there is but one kind of eloquence, what we are seeking to ascertain is what kind it is. And it is such as flourished at Athens; and in which the genius of the Attic orators is hardly comprehended by us, though their glory is known to us. For many have perceived this fact, that there is nothing faulty in them: few have discerned the other point; namely, how much in them there is that is praiseworthy. For it is a fault in a sentence if anything is absurd, or foreign to the subject, or stupid, or trivial; and it is a fault of language if any thing is gross, or abject, or unsuitable, or harsh, or far-fetched. Nearly all those men who are either considered Attic orators or who speak in the Attic manner have avoided these faults. But if that is all their merit, then they may deserve to be regarded as sound and healthy, as if we were regarding athletes, to such an extent as to be allowed to exercise in the palaestra, but not to be entitled to the crown at the Olympic games. For the athletes, who are free from defects, are not content as it were with good health, but seek to produce strength and muscles and blood, and a certain agreeableness of complexion; let us imitate them, if we can; and if we cannot do so wholly, at least let us select as our models those who enjoy unimpaired health, (which is peculiar to the Attic orators,) rather than those whose abundance is vicious, of whom Asia has produced numbers. And in doing this (if at least we can manage even this, for it is a mighty undertaking) let us imitate, if we can, Lysias, and especially his simplicity of style: for in many places he rises to grandeur. But because he wrote speeches for many private causes, and those too for others, and on very trifling subjects, he appears to be somewhat simple, because he has designedly filed himself down to the standard of the inconsiderable causes which he was pleading.

IV. And a man who acts in this way, even if he be not able to turn out a vigorous speaker as he wishes, may still deserve to be accounted an orator, though an inferior one; but even a great orator must often also speak in the same manner in causes of that kind. And in this way it happens that Demosthenes is at times able to speak with simplicity, though perhaps Lysias may not be able to arrive at grandeur. But if men think that, when an army was marshalled in the forum and in all the temples round the forum, it was possible to speak in defence of Milo, as if we had been speaking in a private cause before a single judge, they measure the power of eloquence by their own estimate of their own ability, and not by the nature of the case. Wherefore, since some people have got into a way of repeating that they themselves do speak in an Attic manner, and others that none of us do so; the one class we may neglect, for the facts themselves are a sufficient answer to these men, since they are either not employed in causes, or when they are employed they are laughed at; for if the laughter which they excite were in approbation of them, that very fact would be a characteristic of Attic speakers. But those who will not admit that we speak in the Attic manner, but yet profess that they themselves are not orators; if they have good ears and an intelligent judgment, may still be consulted by us, as one respecting the character of a picture would take the opinion of men who were incapable of making a picture, though not devoid of acuteness in judging of one. But if they place all their intelligence in a certain fastidiousness of ear, and if nothing lofty or magnificent ever pleases them, then let them say that they want something subtle and highly polished, and that they despise what is dignified and ornamented; but let them cease to assert that those men alone speak in the Attic manner, that is to say, in a sound and correct one. But to speak with dignity and elegance and copiousness is a characteristic of Attic orators. Need I say more? Is there any doubt whether we wish our oration to be tolerable only, or also admirable? For we are not asking now what sort of speaking is Attic: but what sort is best. And from this it is understood, since those who were Athenians were the best of the Greek orators, and since Demosthenes was beyond all comparison the best of them, that if any one imitates them he will speak in the Attic manner, and in the best manner, so that since the Attic orators are proposed to us for imitation, to speak well is to speak Attically.

V. But as there was a great error as to the question, what kind of eloquence that was, I have thought that it became me to undertake a labour which should be useful to studious men, though superfluous as far as I myself was concerned. For I have translated the most illustrious orations of the two most eloquent of the Attic orators, spoken in opposition to one another: Aeschines and Demosthenes. And I have not translated them as a literal interpreter, but as an orator giving the same ideas in the same form and mould as it were, in words conformable to our manners; in doing which I did not consider it necessary to give word for word, but I have preserved the character and energy of the language throughout. For I did not consider that my duty was to render to the reader the precise number of words, but rather to give him all their weight. And this labour of mine will have this result, that by it our countrymen may understand what to require of those who wish to be accounted Attic speakers, and that they may recall them to, as it were, an acknowledged standard of eloquence.

But then Thucydides will rise up; for some people admire his eloquence. And they are quite right. But he has no connection with the orator, which is the person of whom we are in search. For it is one thing to unfold the actions of men in a narration, and quite a different one to accuse and get rid of an accusation by arguing. It is one thing to fix a hearer’s attention by a narration, and another to excite his feelings. “But he uses beautiful language.” Is his language finer than Plato’s? Nevertheless it is necessary for the orator whom we are inquiring about, to explain forensic disputes by a style of speaking calculated at once to teach, to delight, and to excite.

VI. Wherefore, if there is any one who professes that he intends to plead causes in the forum, following the style of Thucydides, no one will ever suspect him of being endowed with that kind of eloquence which is suited to affairs of state or to the bar. But if he is content with praising Thucydides, then he may add my vote to his own. Moreover, even Isocrates himself, whom that divine author, Plato, who was nearly his contemporary, has represented in the Phaedrus as being highly extolled by Socrates, and whom all learned men have called a consummate orator, I do not class among the number of those who are to be taken for models. For he is not engaged in actual conflict; he is not armed for the fray; his speeches are made for display, like foils. I will rather, (to compare small things with great,) bring on the stage a most noble pair of gladiators. Aeschines shall come on like Aeserninus, as Lucilius says-

No ordinary man, but fearless all,
And skill’d his arms to wield–his equal match
Pacideianus stands, than whom the world
Since the first birth of man hath seen no greater.

For I do not think that anything can be imagined more divine than that orator. Now this labour of mine is found fault with by two kinds of critics. One set says; “But the Greek is better.” And I ask them whether the authors themselves could have clothed their speeches in better Latin? The others say, “Why should I rather read the translation than the original?” Yet those same men read the Andria and the Synephebi; and are not less fond of Terence and Caecilius than of Menander. They must then discard the Andromache, and the Antiope, and the Epigoni in Latin. But yet, in fact, they read Ennius and Pacuvius and Attius more than Euripides and Sophocles. What then is the meaning of this contempt of theirs for orations translated from the Greek, when they have no objection to translated verses?

VII. However, let us now come to the task which we have undertaken, when we have just explained what the cause is which is before the court.

As there was a law at Athens, that no one should be the cause of carrying a decree of the people that any one should be presented with a crown while invested with office till he had given in an account of the way in which he had discharged its duties; and another law, that those who had crowns given them by the people ought to receive them in the assembly of the people, and that they who had them given to them by the senate should receive them in the senate; Demosthenes was appointed a superintendent of repairs of the walls; and he did it at his own expense. Therefore, with reference to him Ctesiphon proposed a decree, without his having given in any accounts, that he should be presented with a golden crown, and that that presentation should take place in the theatre, the people being summoned for the purpose, (that is not the legitimate place for an assembly of the people;) and that proclamation should be made, “that he received this present on account of his virtue and devotion to the state, and to the Athenian people.” Aeschines then prosecuted this man Ctesiphon because he had proposed a decree contrary to the laws, to the effect that a crown should be given when no accounts had been delivered, and that it should be presented in the theatre, and that he had made false statements in the words of his motion concerning Demosthenes’s virtue and loyalty; since Demosthenes was not a good man, and was not one who had deserved well of the state.

That kind of cause is indeed inconsistent with the precedents established by our habits; but still it has an imposing look. For it has on each side of the question a sufficiently clever interpretation of the laws, and a very grave contest as to the respective services done by the two rival orators to the republic. Therefore the object of Aeschines was, since he himself had been prosecuted on a capital charge by Demosthenes, for having given a false account of his embassy, that now a trial should take place affecting the conduct and character of Demosthenes, that so, under pretence of prosecuting Ctesiphon, he might avenge himself on his enemy. For he did not say so much about the accounts not having been delivered, as to the point that a very bad citizen had been praised as an excellent.

Aeschines instituted this prosecution against Ctesiphon four years before the death of Philip of Macedon. But the decision took place a few years afterwards; when Alexander had become master of Asia. And it is said that all Greece thronged to hear the issue of the trial. For what was ever better worth going to see, or better worth hearing, than the contest of two consummate orators in a most important cause, inflamed and sharpened by private enmity?

If then, as I trust, I have given such a copy of their speeches, using all their excellencies, that is to say, their sentiments, and their figures, and the order of their facts; adhering to their words only so far as they are not inconsistent with our customs, (and though they may not be all translated from the Greek, still I have taken pains that they should be of the same class,) then there will be a standard to which the orations of those men must be directed who wish to speak Attically. But I have said enough of myself–let us now hear Aeschines speaking in Latin. 

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