Cicero's Philippics and Their Demosthenic Model: The Rhetoric of Crisis

Cicero's Philippics and Their Demosthenic Model: The Rhetoric of Crisis

Cicero's Philippics and Their Demosthenic Model: The Rhetoric of Crisis

Cicero's Philippics and Their Demosthenic Model: The Rhetoric of Crisis


Although Cicero's Phillipics are his most mature speeches, they have received little attention as works of oratory. On the other hand, scholars in this century have considered Cicero's attitudes toward and dependence on Demosthenes to be an issue of importance. Cecil Wooten brings together these two concerns, linking Cicero's use of Demosthenes as a model in the Phillipics to precise analyses of style, rhetorical modulation, and narrative technique. In doing so he defines and demonstrates the effectiveness of a type of oratory that he terms "the rhetoric of crisis."

Characteristic of such rhetoric is the polarization of a conflict into a dichotomy between good and evil, right and wrong. The orator adopts a stance in which he is obsessed with the struggle, with victory, and with the preservation of a tradition. He defines his present crisis in terms of patterns that have appeared in the past, which means that he is likely to choose from the past a model for his own response to the crisis.

In Demosthenes, Cicero found a statesman that had faced a similar political situation. Demosthenes' speeches were directed against Philip of Macedon, whose expanding empire threatened the survival of the Greek city-states. Antony posed an equally severe threat to the Roman republic, and Cicero therefore turned to Demosthenes' speeches as a model for his own. The oratory of both was forged during a period of supreme crisis, at a critical turning point in civilization.

"Tremendous talent," Wooten writes of this oratory, "is coupled with the instinct for survival, the most basic of human impulses, to produce a form of oratory that is characterized by extreme clarity of vision, purposefulness, vividness, and rapidity of presentation, an oratory that is clean and direct and decisive, in which the organic synthesis of content, arrangement, and style is remarkable and striking."

Originally published 1983.


Cicero Philippics are his most mature speeches. They were delivered after more than forty years of busy, often intense activity as a courtroom advocate and as a practicing politician. During the ten years preceding the crisis that evoked them, he had been engaged in considerable speculation about oratorical technique and the nature of oratory itself. and they were delivered during one of the supreme crises of Roman history, when, after almost a century of internal discord, the direction that the Roman government would take for the next five hundred years was finally determined. Nevertheless, the Philippics have received very little critical attention as works of oratory. Most of the scholarship that has been done on them is historical in nature and does not deal with these speeches as rhetorical responses to distinct political situations. the purpose of this essay is to correct that lack. My goal is a fairly modest one: to deal with the various aspects of these speeches that make them effective oratory and that distinguish them from Cicero's earlier orations and to explain why they are different.

Because of their length and the complicated political situation in which they were delivered, Cicero Philippics are difficult to approach; and I think that this is one reason why there has been so little interest in them as works of oratory. It has often seemed to me, however, that the best way to approach these speeches would be to compare them with those of Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon, by which Cicero was surely influenced; and this is the approach that I have taken. Cicero's political situation in 43 B.C. was generally similar to that in which Demosthenes found himself in the middle of the fourth century . . .

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