Trials of Character: The Eloquence of Ciceronian Ethos

Trials of Character: The Eloquence of Ciceronian Ethos

Trials of Character: The Eloquence of Ciceronian Ethos

Trials of Character: The Eloquence of Ciceronian Ethos


By its very nature, the art of oratory involves character. Verbal persuasion entails the presentation of a persona by the speaker that affects an audience for good or ill. In this book, James May explores the role and extent of Cicero's use of ethos and demonstrates its persuasive effect. May discusses the importance of ethos, not just in classical rhetorical theory but also in the social, political, and judicial milieu of ancient Rome, and then applies his insights to the oratory of Cicero.

Ciceronian ethos was a complex blend of Roman tradition, Cicero's own personality, and selected features of Greek and Roman oratory. More than any other ancient literary genre, oratory dealt with constantly changing circumstances, with a wide variety of rhetorical challenges. An orator's success or failure, as well as the artistic quality of his orations, was largely the direct result of his responses to these circumstances and challenges. Acutely aware of his audience and its cultural heritage and steeped in the rhetorical traditions of his predecessors, Cicero employed rhetorical ethos with uncanny success.

May analyzes individual speeches from four different periods of Cicero's career, tracing changes in the way Cicero depicted character, both his own and others', as a source of persuasion- changes intimately connected with the vicissitudes of Cicero's career and personal life. He shows that ethos played a major role in almost every Ciceronian speech, that Cicero's audiences were conditioned by common beliefs about character, and finally, that Cicero's rhetorical ethos became a major source for persuasion in his oratory.


The Ethos of Auctoritas and the Persona of a Consul

Great is the name, great the splendor, great the dignity, great the majesty of a consul. That greatness your narrow mind cannot comprehend nor your shallow nature recognize; your spiritless heart and feeble understanding cannot grasp it; nor can you, with your inexperience of prosperity, sustain a persona so eminent, so dignified, so August. (In Pisonem 24)

The year 63 B.C. marked the high point in Cicero's life and public career. His accession to the consulship, the final and highest step in the cursus honorum, and his subsequent disclosure of the Catilinarian conspiracy, which obliged him to exercise his consular potestas in an extraordinary and memorable way, would remain for him a source of pride, influence, and renown and provide for his enemies an almost continual source of irritation, annoyance, and grudging envy. Cicero had won, at least temporarily, his struggle for dignity, authority, influence, and reputation, even in the eyes of, or perhaps in the face of the nobilitas. He certainly had a right to be proud of his achievement, and he did not hesitate for a moment to assume the consular persona, a mask that, despite its unaccustomedness, seemed to fit quite comfortably.

Cicero's first official act as consul was to speak in opposition to the agrarian law proposed by Rullus. in his oration to the people, the consul projected this new dimension of his ethos and underlined the magnitude and uniqueness of his accomplishments. the comments Cicero makes concerning himself in the opening sections of the speech provide a convenient principium for our examination of the consular ethos.

With his election to the consulship--the first "new man" to be so honored in a very long time--the Roman people had broken . . .

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