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Oratory is the practice of persuasive public speaking.
Homer included speeches in his works in c.750 BC and those speeches were admired
through antiquity. The Greeks in Syracuse, Sicily in the 400s BC were the first
recorded in antiquity to set down rhetorical rules. The philosophers considered
the aim of philosophical rhetoric to be to impart knowledge and other oratory separately
to be for persuading audiences to some call to action, resolving court cases and
praising or blaming.
Very early on, three types of oratory were identified:
genus iudiciale judicial questions, before a court
genus deliberativum deliberative, before an assembly/senate
genus demonstrativum praise/blame to some person or act, eg. funeral speeches.
Aristotle noted that the person of the orator was crucial, as was the mood he induces
in his audience and so was the argument/facts presented.
All speeches should follow a set pattern of essential parts to be achieved:
inventio the finding/gathering of material
dispositio the arrangement,
eg. Put your weakest points in the middle
elocutio the suitable expression in language & style: Figures, tropes, word-order,
memoria committing to memory
Four outstanding speeches/orators were:
1. Pericles’ funeral oration after mass funerals in the Peloponnesian War 431
2. Demosthenes (384-322 BC) was the most famous Greek orator, driving Athens’ foreign
policy and speaking against the advancing Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s
Cicero (106-43 BC) was deemed by Romans (Quintilian at least!) to be a genius
and equal and more to Demosthenes.
3. The last Roman orator before Greek influence took hold in 200s/100s BC was
Cato the Censor – practical, not ‘arty’ in any way; the ‘art’ of the orator developed
after his day, as Greek influences turned a practical skill into a literary art-form. This
caused a dilemma and friction for the Romans; a good Roman education was full of
culture, Greek literature and philosophy but they wanted to consider their literature
to be their own and to equal or surpass the Greeks (whom they had, after all, conquered). Cicero
wallowed in Greek culture but rather played down Greekness in his speeches.
By Cicero’s day, an Asiatic style was renowned for display and artificial affectation,
while a reactive Attic style looked back to the directness and true feeling of ancient
Greek orators. Cicero chose a middle (‘Rhodian’) Attic approach that hated affectation
but which played to the crowds as much as any Asiatic style oratory.
4. Cicero, in the 1st century BC was the greatest Roman orator. His 40-year career
included being Consul (top Roman) and he prosecuted Gaius Verres (governor of Sicily)
and Catiline, and delivered 14 bitter invectives against Mark Antony and his despotic
ways. The latter got him included in Mark Antony’s proscriptions. Cicero was killed
as he half-heartedly fled to take a ship to save his life (but where does a great
Roman orator go to anyway – what point is there in fleeing to a land where he cannot
be Cicero the Statesman and Orator?).
Imperial oratory was stifled by suppression of free thought in a world dictated to
by the Emperor’s total power; the art-form of the artificial, constructed Asiatic
style won the day, most speeches being literary performances and exercises.
In the first century AD, Quintilian’s institutio oratoria urged wide education for
students of oratory; an orator must also be a vir bonus(as Cato had said 300+ years
earlier) working for the good of the state. Rome’s view of oratory was that it was
the ‘noblest of professions’, providing status, power, career – and it was a vital
part of how Rome operated.
Roman education was dominated by learning the art of oratory. All the effort and
skill that it required was put to new uses in the new imperial age though - the Golden
Age of Roman literature that began in the Republic and went on through Augustus’
reign was dominated by poetry, not oratory ...