Ancient Oratory a fine art.
Ancient oratory is a fine art, an art regarded by its cultivators, and by the public, as analogous to sculpture, to poetry, to painting, to music and to acting. This character is common to Greek and Roman oratory; but it originated with the Greeks, and was only acquired by the Romans. The evidence for this character may be
considered as internal and external1
. The internal
evidence is that which is afforded by the ancient orations themselves. First, we find in these, considered universally, a fastidious nicety of diction, of composition and of arrangement, which shows that the attention bestowed on their form, as distinguished from their matter, was both disciplined
and minute. Secondly, we find the orator occasionally repeating shorter or longer passages—not always striking passages—from some other speech of his own, with or without verbal amendments; or we find him borrowing such passages from another orator. Thus Isokrates, in his Panegyrikos,
borrowed from the Olympiakos
of Lysias, and from the so-called Lysian Epitaphios. Demosthenes, in the speech against Meidias, borrowed from speeches of Lysias, of Isaeos and of Lykurgos, in like cases of outrage. In many places Demosthenes borrowed from himself. This was done on the principle that τὸ καλῶς εἰπεῖν ἅπαξ περιγίγνεται, δὶς δὲ οὐκ ἐνδέχεται
: A thing can be well said once, but cannot be well said twice2
. That is, if a thought, however trivial, has once been perfectly expressed, it has, by that expression, become a morsel of the world's wealth of beauty. The doctrine might sometimes justify an artist in repeating himself;
as an excuse for appropriation, it omits to distinguish the nature of the individual's property in a sunset and in a gem; but, among Greeks, at least, it was probably not so much indolence
as solicitude for the highest beauty, even in the least details, that prompted such occasional plagiarisms.
Thirdly, we find that the orators, in addressing
Speakers criticise each other's style.
juries or assemblies, criticise each other's style. Aeschines, in a trial on which all his fortunes depended, quotes certain harsh or unpleasant figures of speech which, as he alleges, Demosthenes had used. ‘How,’ he cries to the jurors, ‘how, men of iron, can you have supported them?’ And then, turning in triumph to his rival, ‘What are these, knave? ῥήματα ἢ θαύματα
; metaphors or monsters?’ (Aesch. In Ctes. §§ 166 f.
) When a poet, a painter or a musician thus scrutinises a brother artist's work, the modern world is not surprised. But a modern advocate or statesman would not expect to make a favourable impression by exposing in detail the stylistic shortcomings of an opponent.
The external evidence is supplied by what we
know of the orators, of their hearers and of their critics. Already, before the art of Rhetoric had
become an elaborate system, the orators were accustomed to prepare themselves for their task by laborious training, first in composition, then in delivery. They make no secret of this. They are not ashamed of it. On the contrary, they avow it and insist upon it. Demosthenes would never speak extemporarily when he could help it; he was unwilling to put his faculty at the mercy of fortune3
. ‘Great is the labour of oratory,’ says Cicero,
2 Appreciation shown by hearers.
‘as is its field, its dignity and its reward.’ Nor were the audiences less exacting than the speakers were painstaking. The hearers were attentive, not merely to the general drift or to the total effect, but to the particular elegance. Isokrates speaks of ‘the antitheses, the symmetrical clauses and other figures which lend brilliancy to oratorical displays, compelling the listeners to give clamorous applause’ Isokr. Panath. (Or. XII.) § 2.
). Sentences, not especially striking or important in relation to the ideas which they convey, are praised by the ancient critics for their artistic excellence4
3. Pamphlets in the oratorical form.
Further, when an orator, or a master of oratorical prose, wished to publish what we should now call a pamphlet, the form which he chose for it, as most likely to be effective, was that, not of an essay, but of a speech purporting to be delivered in certain circumstances which he imagined. Such are the Archidamos,
and the Symmachikos
of Isokrates in the Deliberative form, and his speech On the Antidosis
in the Forensic. Such again is the
famous Second Philippic of Cicero. Then we know
4 Collections of commonplaces.
that orators compiled, for their own use, collections of exordia or of commonplaces, to be used as occasion might serve. Such was that volumen prooemiorum
of Cicero's which betrayed him into a mistake which he has chronicled. He had sent Atticus his treatise ‘De Gloria’ with the wrong exordium prefixed to it—one, namely, which he had already prefixed to the Third Book of the Academics. On discovering his mistake, he sends Atticus a new exordium, begging him to ‘cut out the other, and substitute this5
.’ Lastly, the ancient critics habitually compare the
5. Ancient critics compare Oratory with Sculpture or Painting.
pains needful to produce a good speech with the pains needful to produce a good statue or picture. When Plato wishes to describe the finished smoothness of Lysias, he borrows his image from the sculptor, and says ἀποτετόρνευται
. Theon says:—‘Even as for him who would be a painter, it is unavailing to observe the works of Apelles and Protogenes and Antiphilos, unless he tries to paint with his own hand, so for him who would become a speaker there is no help in the speeches of the ancients, or in the copiousness of their thoughts, or in the purity of their diction, or in their harmonious composition, no, nor in lectures upon elegance, unless he disciplines himself by writing
from day to day6
.’ Lucilius, from
whom Cicero borrows the simile, compares the phrases, lexeis,
each fitted with nicety to its setting in a finished sentence, with the pieces, tesserulae,
laid in a mosaic7
. But among the passages, and they are innumerable, which express this view there is one in Dionysios that can never be too attentively
considered by those who wish to understand the real nature of ancient, and especially of Attic, oratory. He is explaining and defending—partly with a polemical purpose at which we shall have to glance by and by—that minute and incessant diligence which Demosthenes devoted to the perfecting of his orations. It is not strange, says the critic, ‘if a man who has won more glory for eloquence than any of those that were renowned before him, who is shaping works for all the future, who is offering himself to the scrutiny of all-testing Envy and Time, adopts no thought, no word, at random, but takes much care of both things, the arrangement of his ideas and the graciousness of his language: seeing, too, that the men of that day produced discourses which resembled no common scribblings, but rather were like to carved and chiselled forms,— I mean Isokrates and Plato, the Sophists. For Isokrates spent on the Panegyrikos,
to take the lowest traditional estimate, ten years; and Plato ceased not to smooth the locks, and adjust the
tresses, or vary the braids, of his comely creations, even till he was eighty years old8
. All lovers of literature are familiar, I suppose, with the stories of Plato's industry, especially the story about the tablet which, they say, was found after his death, with the first words of the Republic
—κατέβην χθὲς εἰς Πειραιᾶ μετὰ Γλαύκωνος τοῦ Ἀρίστωνος
—arranged in several different orders. What wonder, then, if Demosthenes also took pains to achieve euphony and harmony, and to avoid employing a single word, or a single thought, which he had not weighed? It seems to me far more natural that a man engaged in composing political discourses, imperishable memorials of his power, should neglect not even the smallest detail, than that the generation of painters and sculptors, who are darkly showing forth their manual tact and toil in a corruptible material, should exhaust the refinements of their art on the veins, on the feathers, on the down of the lip and the like niceties9
.’ Repeating this passage, slightly altered, in the essay on Demosthenes, Dionysios adds that we might indeed marvel if, while sculptors and painters are thus conscientious, ‘the artist in civil eloquence (πολιτικὸς δημιουργός
) neglected the smallest aids to speaking well—if indeed these be the smallest10