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Aequitas in Quintilian and the Minor Declamations

Nikola Golubovic

University of Pennsylvania

In this paper I offer a comparative analysis of the concept of aequitas in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (IO) and the Minor Declamations (MD) ascribed to Quintilian. I argue that the author of the MD knew Quintilian’s discussion of the concept, but deliberately moved away from Quintilian’s morally problematic deployment of it. Instead, he gave it new ethical meaning to suit his own purposes.

Whether Quintilian wrote the MD is still debated, but in this paper I consider the author to be a different person, although someone well-acquainted with the IO. Aequitas (and its cognate adjective and adverb) can roughly be explained as “fairness” in trials, but analyses of the concept have been cursory. Winterbottom in his commentary on the MD is satisfied to remark about “argumentation from aequitas”, without further examination, and Dingel in his comparative study spends less than a page on it. However, it is both possible and important for purposes of comparison to describe aequitas in more specific terms.

Quintilian does not define aequitas, but he first mentions it at IO 2.17.27, when he defends rhetoric from the accusations of lying and manipulation. The orator will excite emotions if that is the only way the judge can be swayed to try fairly (si aliter ad aequitatem perduci iudex non poterit), even if it means deceit (in hoc ipsum fallendi sint, ne errent). Aequitas is a goal to be achieved by any means. At 7.1.62–63, it is a means to an end: nihil libentius iudices audiunt; aequitate iudicem praeparemus. Here Quintilian suggests strategic use of aequitas to make the judges feel good about themselves. He implicitly admits that the concept is empty of ethical meaning and can be weaponized for any purpose.

In the MD aequitas is treated much less cynically. The author defines it as the crucial ethical imperative when assuming an argumentative position in declamation (summum in omnibus controversiis, 249), as expressed in the instructional sermones. Moreover, aequitas amounts to “the good of the sate” (266). There is distinction between aequitas and ius, but they are not opposed to each other (haec ad ius, illa ad aequitatem, 250). Other declamations discuss the concept too (254, 270, 280, etc.). Though military language is used regularly, such metaphors are never used of aequitas. All these factors point that the author of the MD knew Quintilian’s deployment of the term and chose to smooth out its moral ambiguity. He fixed its meaning and made aequitas a guiding moral principle. When used in this way, it contributes to the student’s instruction in civic ethics as well as rhetoric. Quintilian’s teaching is shown to be falling short of the vir bonus ideal.

In such a way, this paper presents an instance of the MD’s engagement with Quintilian’s doctrine. It goes to the heart of Quintilian’s ethical instruction and illustrates features of both texts. This analysis can be a model for productive study of ethics in Quintilian and the MD.

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