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Minimal Muscle, Maximal Charm: The Middle Style in Roman Oratory

Joanna Kenty

University of New Hampshire

The controversy between Asianist and Atticist orators, or between advocates of grand and plain styles of oratory, is well-worn territory in the study of ancient rhetoric.  The third, middle style is often neglected in favor of the two extremes, or misunderstood as merely a halfway point between the two. In this paper, I argue that Cicero defines the middle style as a set of aesthetic and ethical criteria quite distinct from the plain and grand styles. I then apply those criteria to the orators of the Brutus and trace a distinct genealogy or tradition of orators who were exemplary particularly by the heuristic of the middle style. I argue that this tradition has been overlooked, its exemplars often wrongly assigned to an Atticist camp. By taking a new look at this style, I aim to contribute to a more complete view of Cicero’s discussion of developments in oratorical style at Rome.

The neglect of this style is partially a consequence of Cicero’s own focus on the opposition between advocates of the plain and grand styles, sometimes to the exclusion of the middle style. This bipartite scheme, however, as Gotoff and Fantham pointed out decades ago, is strategic, allowing Cicero to associate himself firmly with the grand style and to avoid criticisms associated with the middle style. The middle style, when executed badly, strayed into rococo over-ornamentation and an emasculating failure to arm oneself adequately for contests in the forum. When done well, however, it was a useful and indeed admirable mode of speech for Roman orators.  In Cicero’s Orator (91-6), he writes that the middle style gives an orator unlimited license to use metaphors, figures, and prose rhythms to demonstrate artistic virtuosity, unlike the plain style, which demands that art be concealed. And compared with the intense exertions and vehement appeals to emotion characteristic of the grand style, the orator in the middle style is relaxed, congenial, and easygoing. The middle style thus both borrows and avoids qualities from each of its two counterparts (20-1). Its labor is aesthetic or artistic, rather than emotional (grand style) or intellectual (plain). Its effect is therefore impressive as well as likeable, but not as overwhelming as inescapable logic (plain) or as thundering pathos (grand).  Cicero also uses evocative metaphors of light, water, elasticity, and other corporeal phenomena to distinguish the middle style from its counterparts.

We can apply this set of criteria to Cicero’s Brutus in order to detect orators who were known especially for this kind of style, and renowned for “bright,” “sweet,” “liquid,” or “mild” ways of speaking. I trace a series of such orators, including Laelius, Catulus, and most notably Calidius. In the Brutus, Cicero pairs Calidius and Calvus as two of the most promising and accomplished orators of the younger generation. His description of Calidius is remarkably elaborate, idiosyncratic, and positive, although not without reservations. Despite Douglas’ demonstration that Calidius does not fit Cicero’s descriptions of Attic or plain style orators, scholars have continued to mischaracterize or ignore him. I show that not only Calidius but these other, earlier orators cultivated qualities matching Cicero’s description of the middle style. These orators constitute an appreciable and distinct diachronic group who sidestepped the controversy between the other two styles, while achieving considerable reputations for eloquence in their own right. Their styles influenced philosophy, declamation, and historiography – the natural territory of the middle style, in Cicero’s scheme (Orat. 62-6) – as well as oratory itself. By shining a light on this style’s defining characteristics, and by setting against its stylistic siblings instead of letting it fade into the background, we gain a fuller comprehension of ancient aesthetic theory and literary criticism.  

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Use and Power of Rhetoric

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