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The Student’s Cicero: Rhetoric and Politics in Pliny, Epistulae 1.20

Konrad Charles Weeda

University of Chicago

By comparing Quintilian’s treatment of Cicero as a paradigm for political speech and action (Quint. Inst. 12.1.14-22) with Piny’s, this paper seeks a way through what Joy Connolly calls “one of the limits of working with rhetorical treatises… the silence of the student” (Connolly, 140). In a letter to Tacitus, Pliny (Quintilian’s student) gives a hint of how he incorporates some of his teacher’s ideas into his own thought while setting aside others: his practical account of Cicero’s example in Epistulae 1.20 both depends on and departs from Quintilian’s assessments of Cicero’s style and politics in book XII of the Institutio. Pliny’s embrace of features of Ciceronian style toward which Quintilian urges caution indicates differences between his own mode of political action and the variety that Quintilian claims Cicero exemplifies.

Addressing various criticisms of Cicero, Quintilian suggests that there is some truth to the view that Cicero’s style was marked by nimii flores et ingenii adfluentia (Quint. Inst. 12.10.13). This criticism may apply to the style of Cicero’s early speeches, and those of a similar style, such as pro Cluentio (Winterbottom, 260; cf. Cic. Orat. 107). But the pro Cluentio is the very speech that Pliny singles out for praise in his defense of long speeches (Ep. 1.20.4, 8). Quintilian’s Cicero is an example of how to think about style (Inst. 12. pr. 4; Winterbottom, 254).  He also displays the qualities of the optimus ciuis (Inst. 12.1.16), especially at the hour of his death (Inst. 12.1.17). Quintilian goes so far as to say that he could speak more freely if he thought badly of Cicero (Inst. 12.1.21). If Quintilian’s treatment of Cicero as a political example depends above all on Cicero’s principled stand at the end of his life, then his ambivalence toward fulness of style may reinforce his claims about politics (cf. Johnson, 4).

While Quintilian does not explain how a style of speaking works in service of a style of politics (i.e. how the style of the Philippics would represent their political character), I will argue that Pliny’s defense of long speeches and stylistic abundance points to a politics that differs from that exemplified by Quintilian’s Cicero. Quintilian’s treatment of Cicero may fall into nostalgia under the politically chilled atmosphere of Domitian’s reign, while Pliny seeks aspects of Cicero’s example that might be more actively applied under Trajan (Cova, 93). The value of a copious style is its ability to move different people in different ways, and to make them sympathetic by making them suppose that the speaker’s thinking has followed their own (Ep. 1.20.12-13; cf. Gibson and Morello, 87, 244). Turning to a political example, Pliny attributes Pericles’ powers of persuasion to copia dicendi spatiumque (Ep. 1.20.18; cf. Cugusi, 105), but is silent about the statesman’s character. For the aspiring orator under Trajan, Pliny seems to say that Pericles’ powers of persuasion, cultivated through the plenitude of Cicero’s style, are more immediately desirable than Cicero’s inflexible virtues.

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Hidden Transcripts

Session/Paper Number

55.3

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