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“Why is it impossible to do it well?” Aristotle and Quintilian on Narrative Brevity in Forensic Oratory

Sidney Kochman

Indiana University - Bloomington

Although scholars in recent years have written about the contents of the narratives contained in forensic orations (e.g. Johnstone, 1999; Roisman, 2006; and Wohl 2010), they have given less attention to the form of those narratives. Ancient rhetoricians, on the other hand, because they wanted to teach people how to compose speeches, provided a great deal of information about narrative form that has yet to be studied. In this paper I resolve an apparent conflict between Quintilian and Aristotle on the ideal length of narratives in forensic rhetoric by looking at their statements on narrative length in comparison with what the Attic Orators say on the topic in their forensic orations.

When Quintilian says that he agrees with Isocrates that a narrative in a forensic speech should be clear, brief and plausible (4.2.31-2), he says that Aristotle mocked the idea that narratives should be brief. Indeed, when Aristotle discusses narrative in his Rhetoric, he says that asking whether a narrative should be long or short is like the man who asked the baker whether you should knead bread hard or soft, to which the baker responded “why is it impossible to do it well?” (3.16.4). Aristotle advocates for a measured narrative, which he defines as one that will clarify what happened for the jury (3.16.4).

While Aristotle may reject brevity as a goal, this is not true of the Attic Orators. They frequently accompany the transition from proem to narrative with a promise to provide the facts of the case as briefly as possible. For example: Lysias (12.3), Demosthenes (54.2), and Isocrates (19.4) all introduce their narratives with this assurance of efficiency. They are not, as Aristotle implies, proposing to leave out vital facts. In each of these cases they make it clear that they intend to convey the necessary information about the case as efficiently as possible.

Since Lysias had in 12.1 already mentioned that his opponent’s crimes were too numerous to recount within the time limits of a case, his promise of brevity is a promise to confine himself to the facts relevant for the current dispute. Although Demosthenes may promise to relate the events as briefly as possible, he also promises to show that he has been wronged and to narrate how each of the events happened (54.2). Isocrates 19, being an inheritance dispute, could easily turn into a complete narrative of the lives of the speaker and the testator. This possibility is the reason that Isocrates chooses to delimit his narrative by starting at the point “from which you [the jury] will be able to learn most quickly about what we are in disagreement” (19.4).

In each of these cases, the promise of brevity is not a promise to speak for a short amount of time, rather it is a promise that the speaker will confine himself to the facts of the case, giving enough information to judge what crime the speaker alleges to have occurred. This promise to stick to the necessary facts is particularly meaningful given the lack of restriction about speech contents and the loose standards of relevance in the Athenian courts. This further emphasizes the fact that, as Lanni (2006) points out, character evidence was considered necessary information for judging a case.

When Quintilian defined brevity in the Institutio Oratoria, he understood what orators meant when they advocated a brief narrative. He says that “a narrative will be brief if we begin to lay out the facts from where they concern the judge and then if we say nothing outside the case” (4.2.40). Although Quintilian claims that Aristotle disagreed that brevity was a recommended quality for narrative, his definition is no different from what Aristotle says that a measured narrative will include.

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