Roman oratory and rhetoric – book review

by | Sep 1, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

For a citizen of ancient Roman republic oratory, the skill of speech, and rhetoric, discipline of it, were of supreme importance in public sphere of his activities. While distinctly different Roman oratory and rhetoric were closely tied to their Greek counterparts and should always be considered as parts of continuum of classical era of rhetoric. In this post I will introduce three excellent secondary sources for those who wish to learn about Roman rhetoric, but let’s first take a brief look on why the subject is of importance in understanding ancient Roman culture.

A free man, citizen, of Roman republic, was expected to be able to handle his affairs with both those higher and lower in society, to be able to create a career for himself in politics and as military commander, to be able to defend his interests in courts of law and finally, but not least importantly, to be able to deliver public speech at funerals of his close relatives, especially of his father. These were the places and settings where Roman citizen depended on his skills of speech and where his success was measured by this. This can be compared to Greek citizen of for example Athens, and indeed Romans learned a lot from Greek rhetoric, even while the civic institutions were significantly different.

Roman rhetoric and oratory also had their roots in local ancient traditions, which had a great impact on both social occasions where speech was of importance but also to the style and aesthetical preferences the Romans had. Still, Roman rhetoric was mainly thaught in Greek by Greek slaves and visiting Greek philosophers and speakers during the centuries of republic and the influence of Greek rhetoric can hardly be overstated.

For Roman rhetoric the main places were the funeral orations, speeches for the electorate during the election period, speeches delivered for the troops by the commander before battle and speeches at the courts of law as either as prosecutor or as defendant or their representatives. While all these occasions called for different kind of skills in speech, the classical theory of rhetoric covered all of them being both very general and very practical. All these occasions were also integral part of individuals life in ancient Rome, the audience had a lot of expectations and oratorical skills could be a decisive advantage for a Roman. An intriguing example of this is Cato the elder, who had a maxim “Rem tene, verba sequentur” (Grasp the subject, words will follow), meaning that one didn’t need fancy skills in speaking, it was enough to know what one was talking about. With easy-to-remember and easy-to-understand maxims like this Cato consciously built a reputation for himself as true hard Roman, who was opposed to Greek fancies. Still his tactic in itself was constructed according to the Greek rhetorical rules and his success in his career depended heavily on his skills of speech! There is no escaping from the fact that rhetoric was a civic skill above others.

For us modern people the importance of rhetoric is sometimes not obvious. Few of us directly owe our success in life and society to our skills of speech, but still some do. Also to understand classical rhetorical devices and techniques gives one even in our time great advantage in being in the audience: the rhetorical devices are still the same as they were more than 2000 years ago and understanding them gives one ability to penetrate into core of the issues as well as in the politics, business and in the academic world! So learning about classical rhetoric might have as big influence in the life and thoughts of modern people as learning about ancient philosophy can have.

So where to start learning about classical rhetoric? I’ll introduce next three very different books, all of which are valuable and can serve as starting point for anyone interested in classical rhetoric and oratory.


Catherine Steel: Roman oratory

About 80 pages long Steel’s book is a gold mine and a very easy starting point in the journey to understand Roman oratory. The book is divided into four sections: The Orator in Roman Society, Channels of Communication, The Practising Orator, The Orator’s education. The book gives a broad outlook on the subject and help understand the importance of the rhetoric in the Roman republican era society.

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George A. Kennedy: A new history of classical rhetoric

Kennedys book covers the whole period of classical rhetoric from Greek beginnings into late antiquity. As such it offers unique overview on the relations of Greek and Roman rhetoric and to their development. Kennedy introduces us the most notable speakers of ancient era, the theory of rhetoric and history of discipline of the rhetoric in the ancient world. The book requires some basic knowledge from Greek and Roman history and culture to give its most to the reader and is scholary by nature, but these should be praises for the book and underline to usefulness of it as both general reader and for an academic alike.

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William Dominik and Jon Hall (ed.): A companion to Roman rhetoric

This indispensible work contains articles by 31 scholars and gives all-around view on the Roman rhetoric. It forms a logical next step after one has finished Kennedys book and opens up the subject for deeper looks. With excellent references, recommendations for further reading and citations from primary sources the Companion leaves little room to wish for more. For most people, excluding those academics who are specialising on the subject these three works give broad and deep enough view on the subject and Companion also points out directions for further research on the subject.

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Now that I have given my thoughts about some books about Roman oratory, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts about them. Which ones are your favourites? Perhaps you would like to recommend some other books on the subject? Different books for different readership? Please feel free to share your thoughts below or write to me privately!

L. Licinius Lucullus
(Mikko Sillanpää)
Consul Res Publica Romana