The phrase opus oratorium maxime has been discussed at great length by many scholars, and indeed one must not underestimate its importance, given that it is one of the few generalizing remarks we possess from the ancient world about the nature of history. Many scholars have emphasized the rhetorical aspect of this phrase, the suggestion that history is not much different from, or is at the very least strongly dependent upon, rhetoric, which is here made to seem the sine qua non of historiographical narrative.
Two points must be noted. First, the Latin term orator can indeed mean ‘speaker’ but its root meaning, of course, is ‘pleader’, one who advocates, such that the phrase opus oratorium maxime can be translated as ‘a task more than any other suitable for an advocate’ or (perhaps even more provocatively) ‘a task more than any other suitable for a lawyer’. Once put it in these terms, the nature of historiographical contestation becomes immediately evident: the historian is the one who will build a case, argue an interpretation, persuade the jury (of readers? of the future?) that his account is true. Second, it is essential to keep in mind that Cicero’s discussions of historiographical activity, unlike those of Dionysius, Plutarch, or Lucian, for example, occur in dialogues, in which several sides of an issue are aired and discussed. The point, in fact, is not to come to any conclusion, but to show the various ways in which history had been and could be used, and, secondarily, to show how contestation is built into the historiographical project by its very nature.
As a man interested in history and as a politician who often ‘used’ history, Cicero was aware of the often competing claims made on the past. In the de Legibus Atticus relentlessly pursues Marcus and Quintus about the exact nature of the tree in Cicero’s Marius but is kept at bay by the brothers who posit different rules for poetry and history, while in the Brutus Atticus playfully allows Cicero to keep ‘his’ version of Themistocles’ suicide, cognizant, as he is, that history and oratory approach the past in different ways. Much depends on circumstances and context.
The way in which writers fought over history is a testament to how valuable the past was in these societies. Cicero comes across as a man who knows what should be done in the realm of history but can’t help himself, and he embodies many of the contradictions that the ancients displayed towards that past. On the one hand, they knew very well that one could make true and false statements about the past. But there was also the past and its allure. To persuade the people, to motivate them, to move them, to win renown for oneself – well, if that required the speaker ementiri in historiis, that might be a small price to pay, because the past could materially influence the present. A good story could be put towards ‘useful’ ends: that was the value of using history and also the danger.