Pearls: On Oratory I

Deep-diving into Cicero’s book 1 “On Oratory” (De Oratore I*), I found a few 2,000-year-old pearls for sharing.

I then matched them up against photos from a spectacular old-school event that took place a couple of years ago, on 23 Aug 2014, at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.

I think the result is pretty cool.

* De Oratore I on the internet: latin | english – I enjoyed reading the Loeb Classical Library version.


1. original, referenced text

2. my very own translation

3. my witty commentary

I. viii. 32. Hoc enim uno praestamus vel maxime feris, quod colloquimur inter nos et quod exprimere dicendo sensa possumus.

In this one respect are we eminently superior to beasts: that we talk among ourselves and that, through speaking, we can express meaningful things.

Language: the archetypal science that puts humans at the top of the food chain – in theory at least.

I. xv. 64. […] si quis universam et propriam oratoris vim definire complectique vult, is orator erit mea sententia hoc tam gravi dignus nomine, qui, quaecumque res inciderit, quae sit dictione explicanda, prudenter et composite et ornate et memoriter dicet cum quadam actionis etiam dignitate.

If one wants to define and put a perimeter around an identifying characteristic that pertains to an orator, this orator will be, in my opinion, someone so worthy of such onerous title as to be able to expound on any topic he comes across or anything that needs an explanation put into words carefully, coherently, elaborately, impromptu and with the complement of what you may call a dignified stage presence.

Can’t blag it: erudition, decorum, a confidence of speech, poise are the fruits of dedication and hard work.

I. xvi. 73. ut qui pila ludunt, non utuntur in ipsa lusione artificio proprio palaestrae, sed indicat ipse motus, didicerintne palaestram an nesciant, et qui aliquid fingunt, etsi tum pictura nihil utuntur, tamen, utrum sciant pingere an nesciant, non obscurum est;

… when people play with a ball with no gym equipment in sight, it is the very way they move that reveals whether they are trained athletes or not; or also, if someone’s doodling, even though they are not using oils or watercolours it isn’t difficult to tell if they are knowledgeable or not in the art of painting.

Shortly after reading this passage, a young graduate asked me for advise on her CV: “is there any harm in sprinkling a few white lies and embellishments here and there?”.  I went to get the book, opened it and gave it to her, saying: “Let Cicero give you some advice from a long, long time ago, then draw your own conclusions”.

I. xxv. 116. adest enim fere nemo, quin acutius atque acrius vitia in dicente quam recta videat; ita quicquid est, in quo offenditur, id etiam illa, quae laudanda sunt, obruit.


There is almost nobody who wouldn’t notice more precisely and fastidiously the bad rather than the good stuff in your speech; the tiniest blemish will wipe-away anything praiseworthy.

Be prepared: listeners are unforgiving.

ut enim quisque optime dicit, ita maxime dicendi difficultatem variosque eventus orationis exspectationemque hominum pertimescit;

Even the best orator is terrified at the challenge of public speaking, of anything that may happen during his speech and of the expectations of the audience.

Performance anxiety: not just a sex thing.

I. xxvi. 121.  […] in me ipso saepissime experior, ut et exalbescam in principiis dicendi et tota mente atque artubus omnibus contremiscam

I experience it very often myself: at the beginning of my speech, I turn white and my whole mind and all my limbs convulse.

Even the best are shitting themselves.

I. xxviii. 128. In oratore autem acumen dialecticorum, sententiae philosophorum, verba prope poetarum, memoria iuris consultorum, vox tragoedorum, gestus paene summorum actorum est requirendus;


What should be demanded of a speaker? The sharpness of a logician, the thinking of a philosopher, the words of a poet, the memory of a lawyer, the intonation of a tragedian, the stage presence of the best of actors.

Very few qualified applicants for this job.

I. xxviii. 130. Hanc ego absolutionem perfectionemque in oratore desiderans, a qua ipse longe absum, facio impudenter; mihi enim volo ignosci, ceteris ipse non ignosco;


My ability to find excuses for the perfection in speaking that keeps eluding me is shameless, for I want to be forgiven while I don’t forgive anyone else.


I. xxx. 134. Quid censes […] nisi studium et ardorem quendam amoris? sine quo cum in vita nihil quisquam egregium, tum certe hoc, quod tu expetis, nemo umquam adsequetur.

(In response to the question: “but what does it really take to learn the ropes of oratory?”)

What do you think …other than dedication and the kind of fiery passion that you’d associate with Love? …Without which nobody would ever attain anything of worth.

Love conquers all (oops, that’s Virgil).

I. xxxi. 142. Cumque esset omnis oratoris vis ac facultas in quinque partis distributa, ut deberet reperire primum quid diceret, deinde inventa non solum ordine, sed etiam momento quodam atque iudicio dispensare atque componere; tum ea denique vestire atque ornare oratione; post memoria saepire; ad extremum agere cum dignitate ac venustate. [143] Etiam illa cognoram et acceperam, ante quam de re diceremus, initio conciliandos eorum esse animos, qui audirent; deinde rem demonstrandam; postea controversiam constituendam; tum id, quod nos intenderemus, confirmandum; post, quae contra dicerentur, refellenda; extrema autem oratione ea, quae pro nobis essent, amplificanda et augenda, quaeque essent pro adversariis, infirmanda atque frangenda.

The power and scope of an orator is made up of five parts:

  1. in the first place you ought to find out what to say;
  2. subsequently not only do you need to sort the findings according to order, but also distribute and sequence them according to timing and judgment;  
  3. then dress them up and embellish them in a speech;
  4. once you have done that, commit them to memory;
  5. finally act them out with with poise and elegance.

And having done and learnt this homework, before we start to put our argument forward, we must make initially put the audience at ease; then move on to demonstrate the case; afterwards we need to establish what is the bone of contention and move on to assert our objectives;  later, we ought to reject any of the arguments against and conclude our speech emphasising and bigging-up all the points in our favour, while weakening and tearing to pieces those that may benefit our adversaries.

War of words: it’s not about who shouts the loudest. Follow the rules (no shortcuts!) for a chance to win.

I. xxxiii. 152. neque ea quisquam, nisi diu multumque scriptitarit, etiam si vehementissime se in his subitis dictionibus exercuerit, consequetur;

Even if you practice your diction an awful lot, you won’t be successful unless you write continually and extensively.

The exercise of writing is an important aid to structuring your thoughts before delivering a speech.

I. xxxiii. 153. Ut concitato navigio, cum remiges inhibuerunt, retinet tamen ipsa navis motum et cursum suum intermisso impetu pulsuque remorum, sic in oratione perpetua, cum scripta deficiunt, parem tamen obtinet oratio reliqua cursum scriptorum similitudine et vi concitata.

As in a fast-moving ship, when the rowers stop, nonetheless the vessel retains its forward momentum despite the loss of energy and pull from the oars, so too in a flowing speech, when you can no longer refer to the written material, you can keep going by drawing inspiration and energy from what was written. 

Ditto – I love the metaphor. This is precisely what I am doing with this blog post. #recursion.

I. lx. 255. Subsidium enim bellissimum existimo esse senectuti otium.

Time to relax: I think it’s the best relief in old age.

Oh, yes.

I. lxi. 260. Imiteturque illum, cui sine dubio summa vis dicendi conceditur, Atheniensem Demosthenem, in quo tantum studium fuisse tantusque labor dicitur, ut primum impedimenta naturae diligentia industriaque superaret, cumque ita balbus esset, ut eius ipsius artis, cui studeret, primam litteram non posset dicere, perfecit meditando, ut nemo planius esse locutus putaretur; [261] deinde cum spiritus eius esset angustior, tantum continenda anima in dicendo est adsecutus, ut una continuatione verborum, id quod eius scripta declarant, binae ei contentiones vocis et remissiones continerentur; qui etiam, ut memoriae proditum est, coniectis in os calculis, summa voce versus multos uno spiritu pronuntiare consuescebat; neque is consistens in loco, sed inambulans atque ascensu ingrediens arduo.

Here’s someone, undoubtedly recognised as exceptionally gifted for his oratory power, to take as an example: Athenian Demosthenes, of whom it is said he worked so assiduously and with such effort to overcome natural impediments through diligence and hard work, given that at first he had a stammer so bad as to be unable to utter even the first letter of the art closest to his heart (“R”hetoric), but managed, through meditation, to get to the point where nobody would have been able to tell the difference between him and another speaker.  Then, to compensate for his shallow breathing, he achieved the feat of holding his breath so much that – as his writings testify – in one oratorical period he could rise and lower his tone twice; who also, as the story goes, was used to placing pebbles in his mouth and then, in a single breath,  recite many verses at the top of his voice… and this not even standing still, but walking and going up a steep slope.

No more excuses, but …remember to have a good party after your speech!!!

One comment

  1. Gabriele leggo solo oggi e sono orgogliosa di quanto riesci a scoprire, a fare a mettere insieme…. all’orgoglio si accompagnano meraviglia e ammirazione… bravissimo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: