Free Speech Freeze

S.F. Bonner

Roman Declamation in the Late Republic and Early Empire (Chp. 2)

Under the Republic, oratory had been essential for success in public life, and the whole subject was alive and keenly debated; but under the principate it had lost much of its political value. It was not so much that the courts had lost a great deal of their power; there were still civil and criminal cases to attract the advocate. It was rather the lack of assured success in public life,
which the good orator in Republican days could naturally expect. Under the principate, so much depended upon Imperial and Court patronage; and it became necessary to choose one’s words rather too carefully when speaking in public for the practice to be a popular one. Writing under Tiberius (if not Caligula) the elder Seneca could look back upon the Augustan Age as a time when there was ‘so much liberty of speech’; but even then that freedom which the author of the Dialogues and the philosopher in Longinus consider so essential for good oratory, was fast disappearing from Roman public life.

And so oratory betook itself to the safer arena of the schools, where a man might air his Republicanism without fear of consequences, and where one might be recompensed for the loss of political prestige by the plaudits of one’s fellow-citizens. The term scholastica came into vogue – a ‘school oration’ as opposed to the genuine public speech, and the exponents of these display-speeches became known as ‘schoolmen’ – scholastici.

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