Fronto on Cicero: A Font of Eloquence with Predictable words

M. Cornelius Fronto to Marcus Aurelius (c. 139 CE) 1.3

“Up to now, you have perhaps been wondering in what number I might place Marcus Cicero who is the peak and the origin of Roman eloquence. I think that he used the most beautiful words all the time and that he was ahead of all other orators in making magnificent whatever topic he wished to illustrate. But, he seems to be to have been less than scrupulous in selecting his words—either because of the hugeness of his mind, in avoidance of extra work, or because of a trust that without even seeking it he would find present what barely appears when others search for it.

And so, as someone who has repeatedly read all of his writings most carefully, I believe that I have sensed that he managed every kind of word most effectively—direct words, metaphors, simple and compound words—and what shines through everywhere in his writings, noble words and often quite charming ones. But still, in all of his speeches you will discover very few works which are uncommon or unexpected, the types of words which cannot be hunted down without study, and concern, and work, and a great memory of old poems.

I am calling an uncommon and unexpected word one which is offered beyond the hope or expectation of those reading or listening so that, if you take it away and ask the reader to finish the meaning, he would discover no other word or at least none so well matched to what the phrase means.”

3. Hic tu fortasse iamdudum requiras quo in numero locem M. Tullium, qui caput atque fons Romanae eloquentiae cluet. Eum ego arbitror usquequaque verbis pulcherrimis elocutum et ante omnes alios oratores ad ea, quae ostentare vellet, ornanda magnificum fuisse. Verum is mihi videtur a quaerendis scrupulosius verbis procul afuisse vel magnitudine animi vel fuga laboris vel fiducia, non quaerenti etiam sibi, quae vix aliis quaerentibus subvenirent, praesto adfutura. Itaque comperisse videor, ut qui eius scripta omnia studiosissime lectitarim, cetera eum genera verborum copiosissime uberrimeque tractasse, verba propria translata simplicia composita et, quae in eius scriptis ubique dilucent, verba honesta, saepenumero etiam amoena: quom tamen in omnibus eius orationibus paucissima admodum reperias insperata atque inopinata verba, quae non nisi cum studio atque cura atque vigilia atque Vat.145multa veterum carminum memoria indagantur. | Insperatum autem atque inopinatum verbum appello, quod praeter spem atque opinionem audientium aut legentium promitur, ita ut, si subtrahas atque eum qui legat quaerere ipsum iubeas, nullum aut non ita significando adcommodatum verbum aliud reperiat.

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What Good Is Speech? Hesiod on A Good King

Palaiophron’s post on the words of Piccolomini reminded me of a passage from the other end of Classical Antiquity, the opening of Hesiod’s Theogony, where the poet, somewhat unexpectedly, digresses on the importance of poetic speech to kings:

Theogony, 80-93:

[Kalliope] is the Muse who attends to kings and singers.
Whomever of the god-raised Kings the daughters of great Zeus
Honor and look upon when he is born,
On his tongue they pour sweet dew
And gentle words flow out of his mouth. Then the people
All look upon him as he judges the laws
With straight decisions. He speaks confidently
And quickly resolves a conflict with skill.
For this reason, kings are intelligent, so that they
May effect retributive actions in the assembly when men are harmed,
And with ease as they persuade everyone with gentle words.
When he walks into the contest ground people propitiate him
Like a god with gentle reverence, and he stands out among the assembled.
Such is the gift of the muses for men.

ἡ γὰρ καὶ βασιλεῦσιν ἅμ’ αἰδοίοισιν ὀπηδεῖ.
ὅντινα τιμήσουσι Διὸς κοῦραι μεγάλοιο
γεινόμενόν τε ἴδωσι διοτρεφέων βασιλήων,
τῷ μὲν ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ γλυκερὴν χείουσιν ἐέρσην,
τοῦ δ’ ἔπε’ ἐκ στόματος ῥεῖ μείλιχα· οἱ δέ νυ λαοὶ
πάντες ἐς αὐτὸν ὁρῶσι διακρίνοντα θέμιστας
ἰθείῃσι δίκῃσιν· ὁ δ’ ἀσφαλέως ἀγορεύων
αἶψά τι καὶ μέγα νεῖκος ἐπισταμένως κατέπαυσε·
τούνεκα γὰρ βασιλῆες ἐχέφρονες, οὕνεκα λαοῖς
βλαπτομένοις ἀγορῆφι μετάτροπα ἔργα τελεῦσι
ῥηιδίως, μαλακοῖσι παραιφάμενοι ἐπέεσσιν·
ἐρχόμενον δ’ ἀν’ ἀγῶνα θεὸν ὣς ἱλάσκονται
αἰδοῖ μειλιχίῃ, μετὰ δὲ πρέπει ἀγρομένοισι.
τοίη Μουσάων ἱερὴ δόσις ἀνθρώποισιν.

Whatever one’s political leanings, the ideals for a leader in this passage resonate in almost any era–that a leader should use speech to resolve conflicts (rather than create them), to use speech with justice in mind, and, through both, to create a safer, more unified public.


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