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Tacitus on oratory and rhetorics.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56/58-120 BC), known first of all as a historian (see The Histories and The Annals) dedicated himself to studying the eloquence since his first apprentice years. As a young Roman yearning to have a brilliant public career, Tacitus attended intensely the Schools of Rhetoric (for example he attended the lectures of Aper and Secundus), where he trained himself to have a career as a lawyer, which he practiced it successfully for many years. He trained himself in the eloquence art being influenced by other professors, too. He probably attended the rhetoric Quintilianus' lessons in Rome and through the great teacher, he came closer to his literary and oratorical model, Cicero.

Besides the art of eloquence, Tacitus studied philosophy and history, succeeding in this way to acquire a rich knowledge, considered as indispensable for a real orator in Antiquity. The texts of Tacitus judicial discourses have not been saved until nowadays, but according to Pliny the Younger's hints, his former colleague at Quintilianus school, we only suspect that they enjoyed great success since they were written with talent, in an elevated style, similar to his later historical works.

Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Orators) (1) is a booklet of maturity (probably written between 100-105 BC), the result of systematic studies of rhetoric in the period of his youth. Tacitus renders a call held in the house of a distinguished poet and orator--Maternus, in the year 74 BC. The conversation is reproduced later from his memory and published, thus becoming one of the most read works of literary criticism the Latin antiquity left us.

The work is a short one and has 42 chapters divided into: a short preface (chap. I), introduction (chap. II-V, 2), three larger parts (chap. V, 3-XIII, XIV-XVII and XVIII-XL, 1) and a conclusion (chap. XL, 2-XLII).

In the preface, Tacitus states, as Quintilianus in Institutionis oratoriae libri XII, that his epoch had very few remarkable orators:

You often ask me, Justus Fabius, (2) how it is that while the genius and the fame of so many distinguished orators have shed a lustre on the past, our age is so forlorn and so destitute of the glory of eloquence that it scarce retains the very name of orator. That title indeed we apply only to the ancients, and the clever speakers of this day we call pleaders, advocates, counselors, anything rather than orators. (3)

In order to explain this situation he reproduces an older conversation in which the general causes of the oratorical decadence were being debated. The young Tacitus is present at the discussion but he does not take the floor, because he is too young. The present characters are real and historical: Curiatius Maternus, (4) brilliant orator, poet, tragedy graph, Marcus Aper (5) and Iulius Secundus, (6) talented lawyers and admirers of eloquence, Vipstanus Messalla, (7) a cultivated noble, partisan of literary and social circles already consecrated.

In the introduction, Tacitus describes the background, the characters and the starting point of the discussion. One day, the poet and orator Maternus reads his tragedy, Cato. The next day, his friends Aper, Secundus and the young Tacitus, visit him. Aper reproaches Maternus he is too much dedicated to poetry in the detriment of oratory. The dialogue focuses on sustaining a few totally opposite points of view: oratory or poetry, active life versus contemplative life. In the first part of his writing, Aper praised the orator and the active and practical life while Maternus emphasized the poetry and the contemplative life. Each of them provides persuasive arguments: benefits, satisfactions, celebrity and the dignity of the respective activity.

The second part of the Dialogues includes a comparative research on oratory during the Republic versus the Imperial-era oratory, a research occasioned by entry into scenes of the noble Messalla. Aper defends the contemporary orators as opposed to the oratory Messalla for whom the newer oratory, as an outcome of the uninterrupted and uninspired change, is in decline comparing to Cicero's epoch. In the third part of Dialogues on Orators, Tacitus, through Messala, answers indirectly to Quintilianus's questions concerning the different reasons of oratory's decline:

Messala continued. Far from obscure are the causes which you seek. Neither to yourself or to our friends, Secundus and Aper, are they unknown, though you assign me the part of speaking out before you what we all think. Who does not know that eloquence and all other arts have declined from their ancient glory, not from dearth of men, but from the indolence of the young, the carelessness of parents, the ignorance of teachers, and neglect of the old discipline? The evils which first began in Rome soon spread through Italy, and are now diffusing themselves into the provinces. (8)

Thus Messala offers a synthesis of education's problematic and emphasizes four causes of the eloquence corruption: moral depravation and lack of political liberties, professors's ignorance, parents's neglect and youth's passivity. The greatest obstructions in educating the citizen, the future statesmen or in developing real talents are the lack of emulation and political freedom, the gap between the acquired knowledge and reality:

The truth indeed is this, my excellent friends, that Cicero's wonderful eloquence wells up and overflows out of a store of erudition, a multitude of accomplishments, and a knowledge that was universal. The strength and power of oratory, unlike all other arts, is not confined within narrow and straitened limits, but the orator is he who can speak on every question with grace, elegance, and persuasiveness, suitably to the dignity of his subject, the requirements of the occasion, and the taste of his audience.

This truth was very well seen into by the ancients. To achieve this result, they understood that there was no need to declaim in the rectors' schools or to exercise only their language and voice with some imaginary debates and with no connection with reality, but to fill in their souls with the sciences in which good and bad, virtue and vice, justice and injustice are talked out; for this is the matter which must be discoursed upon by an orator. (9)

In conclusion, Maternus noticed that eloquence flourished and strengthened only in democratic states. But living in a society which imposed a greater internal order (the Imperial system) in opposition to passions and turmoil specific to a democratic society, he gave the impression that the oratory's ideal no longer corresponded to those times and should be changed with another one, as he himself did by dedicating to poetry.

Believe me--said Maternus--you, those who are the best men and, may I say, most eloquent, if you had seen the light of day in the past centuries or if those whom we admire had been born in our time and if some god had suddenly changed your lives and times, some with the others instead, you wouldn't have lacked the glow and glory of eloquence and they wouldn't have missed the moderation and restraining of today, either. But because no one can enjoy both a great reputation and a lot of silence in the same time, each of you should redeem the easements of his times without blackening the other ones. (10)

Thus, for Tacitus, the reasons of the oratory's decadence are the lack of real culture, including the political culture, the social depravation and, first of all, the existence of an authoritarian political regime. Even if the politics of that time put an end to the demagogy and fornication, bringing peace and safety, a necessary background for the development of the intellectual life, the political context is less generous to oratory. Tacitus does not dream of a return to the old oratorical ideal, but he suggests the adaptation to the contemporary political realities. Firstly, Tacitus suggests leaving defective oratorical education (formal and schematic) and adopting a humanistic and literary education, which offers a wide and varied general education. In Dialogues on Orators, it is not a coincidence that the best practical example is offered by Maternus who leaves the sterile fights from the forum and dedicates himself to the poetry and to the contemplative life. Later, Tacitus himself, will do the same thing dedicating himself to historical writings.

In Dialogues on Orators, following Cicero (indirectly Plato), Tacitus does not believe in a total democracy, in an unlimited freedom. Using the historical method, he does not perceive the oratorical decadence as an irreparable loss, but he suggests only changing the literary and educative ideals of his times. The oratorical decadence must have been a serious preoccupation during the Republic. But during the Imperial system, the orator had a less important part in leading the state, and the state needed other people having different training and skills. That's why the model offered by Maternus, showing optimism, quietness, study, spiritual and cultural independence, will be adopted by Tacitus as well. This adoption is not realized in a simplistic way. For Tacitus, most of the other participants to the dialogue seem to be examples to follow: Aper's realism and passion, Mesalla's nobility and nostalgia for the past, Secundus' perspicacity and the sense for nuances. But they are models that can not be followed in the present conditions. At the end of the Dialogue, it is not a coincidence the fact that nobody wins, nobody seems to impose his point of view, each of them keeps his position, and the conversation ends in high spirits.

If the issue of oratorical decadence was a subject en vogue for the Latin literature, after Dialogues on Orators had been published, this issue became a history subject. On the other hand, in Tacitus' historical works (De uita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, (11) De origine et situ Germanorum, (12) Historiae (13) and Annals (14)), the description of facts and discourses chosen for the books, fully benefits from the art of eloquence. Tacitus' works fascinate due to their form of utterance. The connection between history and eloquence, as well as the connection between prose and poetry represented a tendency of Latin culture development in the first century BC. We can find the source of this connection in Cicero's work, where he states that history is an oratorical art above all, and in Quintilianus' work, where he considers that history is very much related to poetry.


(1.) Tacitus, Dialogul despre oratori [Dialogue on Orators], bilingual edition, Iassy, Alexandra A. Terek Publishing House, Iassy, 1946, 114 pages or in Opere [Completed Works], vol I, Stiintifica Publishing House, Bucharest, 1958: 13-50.

(2.) Fabius Iustus, consul in 102 BC, friend of Tacitus and Pliny the Younger.

(3.) Tacitus, "Dialogul despre oratori" ["Dialogue on Orators"], in Opere [Completed Works], vol. I, Stiintifica Publishing House, Bucharest, 1958: 13. Tacitus, A Dialogue on Oratory, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, New York: Random House, 1942: 3.

(4.) Curiatius Maternus, a very cultivated senator and lawyer, defender of poetry. He wrote tragedies having as main themes scenes from Greek society (Medeea, Thyestes) or Roman society (Domitius, Cato).

(5.) Marcus Aper, originary from Galia, influent lawyer, former praetor, he is the defender of the newer eloquence, 1st Century BC.

(6.) Iulius Secundus, originary from Galia, he made his name as an orator in Rome, a very cultivated person and a great orator.

(7.) Vipstanus Messalla, a very cultivated aristocrat, interested in past events and having a remarkable oratoric talent, he notices the bad aspects of his contemporary society and he prefers to meditate to the old Republican liberties. In 69 BC he fought as a military tribune for Vitellius emperor and he wrote a treatise on history.

(8.) Tacitus, "Dialogul despre oratori" ["Dialogue on Orators"], Opere [Completed Works], vol I, Stiintifica Publishing House, Bucharest, 1958: 37. Tacitus, A Dialogue on Oratory, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, New York: Random House, 1942: 23.

(9.) Tacitus, "Dialogul despre oratori" ["Dialogue on Orators"], in Opere [Completed Works], vol. I, Stiintifica Publishing House, Bucharest, 1958: 39. Tacitus, A Dialogue on Oratory, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, New York: Random House, 1942: 25.

(10.) Tacitus, "Dialogul despre oratori" ["Dialogue on Orators"], in Opere [Completed Works], vol. I, Stiintifica Publishing House, Bucharest, 1958: 50. Tacitus, A Dialogue on Oratory, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, New York: Random House, 1942: 49.

(11.) Despre viata si moravurile lui Iulius Agricola (The Life and Mores of Iulius Agricola), mostly known as Agricola in 46 chapters published in 97-98 AD.

(12.) Despre originea si asezarea germanilor (The Origins and the Settlements of Germans), or the short name Germania (Germania), in 46 chapters published during the year of 98 AD.

(13.) Istoriile (Annals), it might have been projected to be written in 12 or 30 books (there are contradictory sourses), and only the first four books and the beginning of the fifth one have been kept. Here, the speech started at short time after tyran Nero's tragical death and ends with the despot Domitianus' violent death

(14.) Analele (Annals), the most valuable work of Tacitus, was accomplished in 16 or 18 books. Tacitus intended to realize a complete chronicle dedicated to Tiberius, Caligula, Claudiu and Nero, but the project interrupted while there is narrated Thraseas' death.


Spiru Haret University, Bucharest
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Title Annotation:Proceedings of the 5th World Congress on the Advancement of Scholarly Research in Science, Economics, Law, and Culture: May 27-30, 2010 New York; Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Author:Cazacu, Aurel M.
Publication:Economics, Management, and Financial Markets
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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