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Tacitus: Dialog on Oratory Book 1 [40]

40. Again, what stimulus to genius and what fire to the orator was furnished by incessant popular assemblies, by the privilege of attacking the most influential men, and by the very glory of such feuds when most of the good speakers did not spare even a Publius Scipio, or a Sulla, or a Cneius Pompeius, and following the common impulse of envy availed themselves of the popular ear for invective against eminent citizens. I am not speaking of a quiet and peaceful accomplishment, which delights in what is virtuous and well regulated. No; the great and famous eloquence of old is the nursling of the licence which fools called freedom; it is the companion of sedition, the stimulant of an unruly people, a stranger to obedience and subjection, a defiant, reckless, presumptuous thing which does not show itself in a well-governed state. What orator have we ever heard of at Sparta or at Crete? A very strict discipline and very strict laws prevailed, tradition says, in both those states. Nor do we know of the existence of eloquence among the Macedonians or Persians, or in any people content with a settled government. There were some orators at Rhodes and a host of them at Athens, but there the people, there any ignorant fellow, anybody, in short, could do anything. So too our own state, while it went astray and wore out its strength in factious strife and discord, with neither peace in the forum, unity in the senate, order in the courts, respect for merit, or seemly behaviour in the magistrates, produced beyond all question a more vigorous eloquence, just as an untilled field yields certain herbage in special plenty. Still the eloquence of the Gracchi was not an equivalent to Rome for having to endure their legislation, and Cicero's fame as an orator was a poor compensation for the death he died.   40. Iam vero contiones assiduae et datum ius potentissimum quemque vexandi atque ipsa inimicitiarum gloria, cum se plurimi disertorum ne a Publio quidem Scipione aut [L.] Sulla aut Cn. Pompeio abstinerent, et ad incessendos principes viros, ut est natura invidiae, populi quoque ut histriones auribus uterentur, quantum ardorem ingeniis, quas oratoribus faces admovebant. Non de otiosa et quieta re loquimur et quae probitate et modestia gaudeat, sed est magna illa et notabilis eloquentia alumna licentiae, quam stulti libertatem vocitant, comes seditionum, effrenati populi incitamentum, sine obsequio, sine severitate, contumax, temeraria, adrogans, quae in bene constitutis civitatibus non oritur. Quem enim oratorem Lacedae- monium, quem Cretensem accepimus? Quarum civitatum severissima disciplina et severissimae leges traduntur. Ne Macedonum quidem ac Persarum aut ullius gentis, quae certo imperio contenta fuerit, eloquentiam novimus. Rhodii quidam, plurimi Athenienses oratores extiterunt, apud quos omnia populus, omnia imperiti, omnia, ut sic dixerim, omnes poterant. Nostra quoque civitas, donec erravit, donec se partibus et dissensionibus et discordiis confecit, donec nulla fuit in foro pax, nulla in senatu concordia, nulla in iudiciis moderatio, nulla superiorum reverentia, nullus magistratuum modus, tulit sine dubio valentiorem eloquentiam, sicut indomitus ager habet quasdam herbas laetiores. Sed nec tanti rei publicae Gracchorum eloquentia fuit, ut pateretur et leges, nec bene famam eloquentiae Cicero tali exitu pensavit.

41. And so now the forum, which is all that our speakers have left them of antiquity, is an evidence of a state not thoroughly reformed or as orderly as we could wish. Who but the guilty or unfortunate apply to us? What town puts itself under our protection but one harassed by its neighbours or by strife at home? When we plead for a province, is it not one that has been plundered and ill-treated? Surely it would be better not to complain than to have to seek redress. Could a community be found in which no one did wrong, an orator would be as superfluous among its innocent people as a physician among the healthy. As the healing art is of very little use and makes very little progress in nations which enjoy particularly robust constitutions and vigorous frames, so the orator gets an inferior and less splendid renown where a sound morality and willing obedience to authority prevail. What need there of long speeches in the senate, when the best men are soon of one mind, or of endless harangues to the people, when political questions are decided not by an ignorant multitude, but by one man of pre-eminent wisdom? What need of voluntary prosecutions, when crimes are so rare and slight, or of defences full of spiteful insinuation and exceeding proper bounds, when the clemency of the judge offers itself to the accused in his peril?

Be assured, my most excellent, and, as far as the age re-quires, most eloquent friends, that had you been born in the past, and the men we admire in our own day, had some god in fact suddenly changed your lives and your age, the highest fame and glory of eloquence would have been yours, and they too would not have lacked moderation and self-control. As it is, seeing that no one can at the same time enjoy great renown and great tranquillity, let everybody make the best of the blessings of his own age without disparaging other periods.

Maternus had now finished. There were, replied Messala, some points I should controvert, some on which I should like to hear more, if the day were not almost spent. It shall be, said Maternus, as you wish, on a future occasion, and anything you have thought obscure in my argument, we will again discuss. Then he rose and embraced Aper. I mean, he said, to accuse you before the poets, and so will Messala before the antiquarians. And I, rejoined Aper, will accuse you before the rhetoricians and professors.

They laughed good-humouredly, and we parted.

  41. Sic quoque quod superest [antiquis oratoribus fori] non emendatae nec usque ad votum compositae civitatis argumentum est. Quis enim nos advocat nisi aut nocens aut miser? Quod municipium in clientelam nostram venit, nisi quod aut vicinus populus aut domestica discordia agitat? Quam provinciam tuemur nisi spoliatam vexatamque? Atqui melius fuisset non queri quam vindicari. Quod si inveniretur aliqua civitas, in qua nemo peccaret, supervacuus esset inter innocentis orator sicut inter sanos medicus. Quo modo tamen minimum usus minimumque profectus ars medentis habet in iis gentibus, quae firmissima valetudine ac saluberrimis corporibus utuntur, sic minor oratorum honor obscuriorque gloria est inter bonos mores et in obsequium regentis paratos. Quid enim opus est longis in senatu sententiis, cum optimi cito consentiant? Quid multis apud populum contionibus, cum de re publica non imperiti et multi deliberent, sed sapientissimus et unus? Quid voluntariis accusationibus, cum tam raro et tam parce peccetur? Quid invidiosis et excedentibus modum defensionibus, cum clementia cognoscentis obviam periclitantibus eat? credite, optimi et in quantum opus est disertissimi viri, si aut vos prioribus saeculis aut illi, quos miramur, his nati essent, ac deus aliquis vitas ac [vestra] tempora repente mutasset, nec vobis summa illa laus et gloria in eloquentia neque illis modus et temperamentum defuisset: nunc, quoniam nemo eodem tempore adsequi potest magnam famam et magnam quietem, bono saeculi sui quisque citra obtrectationem alterius utatur."