Old-School Rhetoric

by Chris Schlect
Fellow of History

Cicero’s orations against Cataline were not built in a day. The recovery of classical rhetoric is no small task, beset with heavy lifting and blind groping. This year I designed a new elective course in an attempt to recover some old Roman teaching methods. I wanted to give the Romans an opportunity to expose weaknesses in our own rhetorical training. So I revived the ancient declamation exercises that the Romans so highly valued to see what we could learn from them. The results were promising, and the students had a great time.

Here is a sample declamation problem, taken from Seneca the Elder:

Violating a tomb carries a penalty. While the city was at war, a hero lost his weapons in battle, and removed armor from the tomb of a dead hero. He fought heroically, then put the weapons back. He was rewarded for his prowess in battle. Now he is accused of violating the tomb. (Seneca the Elder, Controversiae IV.4)

This declamation problem has two elements, as most problems do: a statement of law and a brief fact pattern. Students must prepare and deliver a speech that either prosecutes or defends the hero. In the Roman world, these exercises became popular outside the schools, and some of the more proficient orators dazzled crowds with speeches that extended beyond an hour. Their expectations for students were more modest. My NSA students spoke for about seven minutes.

The value of the exercise derives from the sparseness of the problem scenario. Because it sets forth a fictitious law and a fictitious situation, there is no repository of information for students to research. This forces students to build up their skills in rhetorical invention. Without facts to research, how do they come up with something to say? Students must turn to stasis theory, which for the Romans was the hallmark of rhetorical invention.

The Romans developed systems for classifying the various issues that might arise in a courtroom. According to Hermogenes’ classification scheme, the example above is a counterstatement. Counterstatements occur when the defense admits doing the act and accepts responsibility for it, yet defends the act on the basis of its beneficial consequences. Another system, set out in the Rhetorica ad Herennium, would classify this as an issue of comparison with the alternative. These writers then present advice for how a speaker would argue one side or the other for the given issue at hand.

Here are some more examples. My students had fun with this one:

The law grants landowners exclusive right to take game on their own property. The state deems a certain animal to be a menace and advertises a bounty to anyone who kills one that is discovered within the realm. A man discovers one of these animals in his neighbor’s field and kills it. Both the man and his neighbor claim the bounty. Students must advocate for either the man or his neighbor.

Most Roman systems classify the problem above as an issue of conflicting laws. The following problem calls for similar treatment; it is an issue of definition.

The law forbids exporting wool from Tarentum. A Tarentine shepherd sells sheep from his flock to a foreigner. His punishment is sought. (adapted from Quintilian VII.8.4)

The foregoing examples involve disputes over what the law says or how it applies to the scenario. This one is different.

A foreigner was discovered sneaking into the assembly while it deliberated over important matters of state security. As the bailiff seized him, the foreigner cried out that he was bearing an important secret. The bailiff cast him out so roughly that he died. A week later, the dead foreigner’s people invaded the country. After the invasion was finally repelled after much difficulty and loss of life, the bailiff was accused of conspiring with the enemy. Students will either prosecute or defend the bailiff. (adapted from Libanus, Declamation 44)

This is called a conjectural issue. Conjectural issues are disputes over what actually transpired.

These problems forced my students to study their Roman rhetoric texts more closely than they have before. Passages in these texts that may have seemed dry or obscure on a quick read now came to life. Students pored over these texts for insight and advice about how to devise arguments that met their situations. In the process, they learned about the Romans and they developed their own skills in thinking and eloquence.

Roman rhetoricians loved the law courts more than any other speaking venue. Their teachers framed their entire approach to rhetoric around the law courts. Some scholars attribute this to the unique prominence of courtrooms in Roman life. A better explanation, I think, is that the Romans viewed the courtroom as the best arena for building eloquence in their students. This was true regardless of whether these students went on in their adult lives to litigate in actual court trials. If you can persuade in a courtroom, they believed, then you can persuade anywhere else. Their approach has merit.