Roman Eloquence: Rhetoric in Society and Literature

By William J. Dominik | Go to book overview

7

The contexts and occasions of Roman public rhetoric

Elaine Fantham

Both the vast scale of modern political societies and the overwhelming increase in communication by images or through the intimacy of electronic media explain why the concept of oratory has become alien and archaic, needing a social commentary to explain it to the modern reader. But the difference between Greek civic democracies and Rome also meant that interpretation was needed for a Roman to understand how an orator differed from an Athenian rhetor. Indeed, his course of study with Greek teachers of rhetoric would hardly prepare him for the divergence between oratory as practised at Rome and its past or current uses in Hellenistic Greece. My concern is with practice, not etymology, but it is still useful to take as guidance the earliest recorded uses of orator (from orare, 'to pray', 'request', 'plead'): these men are envoys in public life or intermediaries in the private world of comedy between erring lovers or sons and their mistresses and fathers. 1

In classical Athens the rhetor was above all the politician, not as elected magistrate but as one with power to persuade the popular assembly. When the herald announced, 'Who wishes to address the people?' (Ar. Ach. 45), 2 the democratic principle entitled any citizen to speak, but reality ensured that officials would be recognized first and foremost. Although the first hearing in Aristophanes' mock assembly is given to ambassadors newly returned from Persia, this would normally go to established political figures. Yet we know that young men tried to become established in politics through speaking. In Xenophon's Memorabilia Socrates interrogates a young kinsman of Plato, Glaucon, who has embarrassed his friends by leaping up to speak in the assembly and persisting even when people try to drag him down from the speaker's platform (3.6). Glaucon wants to be a

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