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When is a Fragment not a Fragment? The Problem of Fragmentary Roman Oratory

Catherine Steel

Fragmentary oratory raises a specific and challenging set of problems for the classicist. As with other

genres, fragmentary texts pose familiar questions of authorship, ordering and the interpretation of

syntactically and semantically incomplete material. In addition, however, the ambiguous relationship

between oratory as performance and oratory as text generates fresh concerns. The importance of

oratory within ancient historiography makes authorial ascription of ‘fragments’ highly problematic: it

is often impossible to determine whether a quoting author was reading the text of a speech as

disseminated by its author or the reconstruction of a speech in a historian’s account of the events

during which it was delivered. Moreover, all oratorical texts, even those which happen to survive

complete, are arguably themselves fragments of a larger and more extensive corpus of all an orator’s

public speech: no orator engaged in total self-record, nor could have done so. Cicero’s surviving

speeches are defined both by the occasions which he chose not to record (Crawford 1984) as well as

by those texts which have not survived (Crawford 1994).

The existence of Cicero’s unpublished speeches can be traced in a wide variety of texts by both

Cicero himself and other writers. Texts in a variety of genres also provide testimonia for the activity

of other orators; the contention of this paper, and of the European Research Council project of which

it is a product (‘The Fragments of Republican Roman Oratory’, #283670)), is that fragmentary oratory

from the Roman Republican period can only be understood by combining what purport to be textual

fragments with a comprehensive collection of the testimonia to oratorical performance, whether or not

such performances were then recorded in textual form. The absence in any consistent format of

testimonia from Malcovati’s standard edition of the fragments (1976-1979) is thus a serious limitation

to this invaluable work.

By bringing testimonia to bear on the fragments of Republican oratory we can record oratorical

activity which was not subsequently disseminated in written form. Recent studies of the political

history of the Roman Republic have emphasised the central importance of oratory in political

decision-making (Millar 1984, 1986; Morstein-Marx 2004), but we lack so far the tools to understand

oratory and orators in detail. A comprehensive account of Republican oratory also allows us to trace

the historiography of oratory through its quoting authors and explore the reception of public speech in

the literature of imperial Rome. The evolution of key concepts, including the res publica, libertas and

imperium, can then be traced within an account of how Republican oratory and the political system it

operated within came to be understood from antiquity onwards. This paper will use the data generated

by the FRRO project to demonstrate the challenges and gains which testimonia bring to the study of

oratorical fragments.

Session/Panel Title

New Approaches to Fragments and Fragmentary Survival

Session/Paper Number


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