Skip to main content

This paper provides a reading of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria as a deconstructive work, or ‘unteaching,’ associated with Flavian aristocratic reassessment. The Institutio has received intermittent scholarly attention: earliest as a repository of data on Roman education (Marrou, Gwynn); later, reassessed as political philosophy (Morgan).Recently, W. Martin Bloomer used the Institutio to suggest the origins of liberal education (Bloomer 2011). I frame Quintillian’s pedagogical practice in its Flavian political context, demonstrating that the Insititutio ‘unteaches’ by moving from traditional aristocratic competition to communal interaction and sentimental reinforcement.

I begin with an examination of the semantic possibilities of the Latin verb, dedocere. Dedocere is rare in Classical Latin, and it is usually used as a modification to the traditional teaching verb, docere. Cicero uses it multiple times (De or. 2.72.12, Fin. 1.20.10 and 1.51.13, Tusc. 2.60.5). Quintilian, Horace, the elder Seneca, and Statius each use the verb once (Inst., Carm. 2.2.20, Controv., and Theb. 2.409). In several of these instances, particularly in the Carmina and Thebais, dedocere’s meaning is one of ‘teaching the opposite.’ In Horace’s second ode, for example, Virtus teaches the people not to use false words (…Virtus populumque falsis dedocet uti vocibus…). For Cicero and Quintilian, however, dedocere is usually paired with a second verb of teaching or instructing and has the meaning of ‘unteaching’ or ‘re-teaching’ a person or concept. This pairing focuses our attention on the difference between teaching in its original sense and a type of new teaching, or ‘unteaching.’

Situated in the tumultuous Flavian period, Quintilian’s subtle deconstructions, or ‘unteachings,’ take on new meaning. Supported by ranking equestrians like Quintilian, the Flavians distanced themselves from their predecessors. Quintilian’s work, as argued by Morgan, is a Flavian text even though it often pretends not to be (Morgan). It responds to the Julio-Claudian period with a mixture of detachment and distaste, continuously citing republican examples and exempla in an effort to remove itself from any contact with an imperial regime. Aristocrats of the imperial period, unable to pursue traditional paths to power, chose alternative methods to express their aristocratic values (Talbert, Roller). Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria is a guide to the education of a generation with reassessed values. As such it operates to deconstruct republican political and aristocratic ideals while promoting a new, imperial aristocracy bound together in bureaucratic, civic service to the emperor and empire.

I conclude with three examples from within the Institutio Oratoria illustrating Quintilian’s subtle ‘unteachings’: moments of dedocere that shift assumptions and call into question cultural habits. First, Quintilian redefines the mentor-student relationship as paternal, individual, and yet, communal (esp. Inst. 1.2.1-5). Second, he flagrantly insists on education happening out in the open, or ‘public’ education. Third, he displays a sentimental concern for children’s safety. In each of these examples, Quintilian illustrates the concept of dedocere, taking what had been habitual and converting it toward the ends of a new aristocracy. These examples undermine the individualistic conflicts Cicero (and most modern historians) blamed for the collapse of the republic, focusing classical education on the promotion of a bureaucratic aristocracy capable of supporting itself and the empire. For Quintilian, the proper application of education can lead anyone of even small talent to a successful aristocratic career. In this way, the Institutio Oratoria ‘unteaches’ the essence of the aristocracy as a closed body of birth, and promotes public education as a path to prestige.