The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome

The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome

The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome

The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome


Rhetorical theory, the core of Roman education, taught rules of public speaking that are still influential today. But Roman rhetoric has long been regarded as having little important to say about political ideas. The State of Speech presents a forceful challenge to this view. The first book to read Roman rhetorical writing as a mode of political thought, it focuses on Rome's greatest practitioner and theorist of public speech, Cicero. Through new readings of his dialogues and treatises, Joy Connolly shows how Cicero's treatment of the Greek rhetorical tradition's central questions is shaped by his ideal of the republic and the citizen. Rhetoric, Connolly argues, sheds new light on Cicero's deepest political preoccupations: the formation of individual and communal identity, the communicative role of the body, and the "unmanly" aspects of politics, especially civility and compromise.

Transcending traditional lines between rhetorical and political theory, The State of Speech is a major contribution to the current debate over the role of public speech in Roman politics. Instead of a conventional, top-down model of power, it sketches a dynamic model of authority and consent enacted through oratorical performance and examines how oratory modeled an ethics of citizenship for the masses as well as the elite. It explains how imperial Roman rhetoricians reshaped Cicero's ideal republican citizen to meet the new political conditions of autocracy, and defends Ciceronian thought as a resource for contemporary democracy.


Just as Rome's legions left their mark on the map of Europe, Roman ideas about citizenship and constitutions helped frame Western political thought. the concept of individual liberty guaranteed by law, the beliefs that the end of political rule is the common good and that the community stands and falls on the civic virtue of its citizens, a strong notion of collective identity expressed in terms of cultural solidarity and common love for the fatherland—these compose the core of republican political ideas that, through the texts of Sallust, Cicero, Vergil, and Livy, were revived starting in the twelfth century by European thinkers seeking to develop alternatives to feudal government, and that remain matters of concern to political theorists today. in this book I pursue a new approach to republican political thought in Rome, one that explores notions of civic virtue and collective identity in texts that seek to guide and govern public speech—in writings belonging to the discipline known since Plato's time as rhetoric. I treat rhetoric, especially the work of Cicero, as an extended engagement with the ideals and demands of republican citizenship. Above all, I concentrate on rhetoric's representation of the ideal orator, which I read as an exploration of the ethos of the ideal citizen. Just like the persuasive speech he utters, this citizen is a complex, paradoxical construction, at once imperious and responsive, masterly and fragile, artifical and authentic, who seeks civil concord through the exercise of seductive authority.

Active, reactive, and rich with resources for self-reflection, rhetoric in Rome always meant much more than learning to deliver a speech, which is why it has lived for so many centuries not in dusty library corners or the memories of curious antiquarians but at the center of European culture, in monasteries, rural schools, and royal courts. One of the three members of the trivium of the liberal arts, along with grammar and dialectic, rhetoric constituted the core of study for educated Romans by (at the latest) the first century bce. With the emergence of a cosmopolitan Greek- and Latin-speaking elite in urban centers across the empire, rhetoric formed the pedagogical and political bedrock of a common imperial culture stretching from Spain to Syria and from southern Britain to north

“We obey nothing and no one but our own laws,” Sallust, Hist. 1.55; “all of us are
slaves to the law so that we may be free,” Cicero, Cluent. 146: discussion in Viroli,
Republicanism, 47–52, 69–76, 79–90.

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