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Reviewed by:
  • The Roman World of Cicero's 'De Oratore'
  • Alison Keith (bio)
Elaine Fantham. The Roman World of Cicero's 'De Oratore' Oxford University Press. x, 354. $180.00

Elaine Fantham, widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on ancient rhetoric in general and Cicero in particular, is the author of several previous articles on Cicero's De Oratore and she included in her very first book (Comparative Studies in Republican Latin Imagery, University of Toronto Press 1972) a discussion of Cicero's use of metaphors in the dialogue. This volume offers a distillation of her views on De Oratore, the fruit of a lifetime of study and teaching. It is especially to be welcomed as the first book-length English-language study of the most important work on Roman oratory by the greatest Roman orator. [End Page 224]

Fantham opens the volume with an assessment of 'Cicero at 50' in 56 BCE, the year before he embarked upon the composition of De Oratore, to establish the historical and political context in which Cicero, back from exile but sidelined by the so-called 'First Triumvirate,' found himself on the margins of Roman political life and made the decision to devote himself to writing in his enforced leisure. Chapters 2 and 3 consider, respectively, 'The Public Careers of L. Licinius Crassus and M. Antonius,' the chief interlocutors of the dialogue, and the Platonic philosophical background on which Cicero draws in 'Constructing the Dialogue.' Fantham's evocation of the Roman sociocultural background of Cicero's dialogue in the first two chapters is masterful, but her sketch of the philosophical background in the third chapter is limited to the contribution of Plato and omits the important refinements of the problem of political rhetoric negotiated in the Hellenistic philosophical schools to which Cicero himself was sensitive as an adherent of the New Academy.

After the three introductory chapters, Fantham turns to discussion of the dialogue itself, devoting three chapters each to each of the three books of De Oratore. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 explore important themes treated in De Oratore I: the training of the orator, the role of law and the law courts in Roman rhetoric, and the relationship between oratory and literature in ancient Rome. These chapters provide helpful historical and social contextualization of the informal culture of oratorical apprenticeship in republican Rome and the uneven reception of Greek rhetoricians and rhetorical teaching in this period; the political importance of Roman law and the law courts, in which political and judicial oratory flourished at Rome; and the interpenetration of literary and rhetorical theory at Rome.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 consider topics explored in De Oratore II: Cicero's return to Aristotle's teachings on rhetoric, his endorsement of the use of wit and humour in oratory, and the political dimensions of Roman oratory. Fantham well illustrates the consistency and complexity of Cicero's debt to Aristotle's theory of rhetoric but offers no account of Cicero's debt to Hellenistic rhetorical and philosophical discussion of oratory. She emphasizes the importance of humour as a form of invective and ridicule in political debate but also its deployment in more tempered and restrained form in support of political allies in judicial contexts. Her analysis of political persuasion in De Oratore highlights Cicero's oratorical accomplishment as an innovator in the Roman political tradition in his deployment of eloquence in the political speeches he made in the Senate and Assembly.

Chapters 10, 11, and 12 examine the major themes of De Oratore III: an account of elocutio (the diversity of oratorical styles), the manipulation of words (in figures and tropes), and the delivery of the orator's speech. Here Fantham attends in particular to the criticisms of oratory articulated by the Greek philosophical schools and in challenging those criticisms traces the adaptation of Greek theory to Roman practice. A final chapter, 'The [End Page 225] Statesman and the State in De Oratore and After,' concludes the volume by contrasting the political context of rhetoric in Cicero's day first with that of the setting of the dialogue, a generation before Cicero, and then with developments in the principate, a century after...


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