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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of the
Institutio Oratoria


published in Vol. I
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

(Vol. I) Quintilian
Institutio Oratoria


Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was, like Seneca, of Spanish origin, being born about 35 A.D. at Calagurris. His father was a rhetorician of some note who practised with success at Rome. It is not surprising therefore to find that the young Quintilian was sent to Rome for his education. Among his teachers were the famous grammaticus Remmius Palaemon, and the no less distinguished rhetorician Domitius Afer. On completing his education he seems to have returned to his native land to teach rhetoric there, for we next hear of him as being brought to Rome in 68 A.D. by Galba, then governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. At Rome he met with great success as a teacher and was the first rhetorician to set up a genuine public school and to receive a salary from the State. He continued to teach for twenty years and had among his pupils the younger Pliny and the two sons of Domitilla, the sister of Domitian. He was also a successful pleader in the courts as we gather from more than one passage in his works. Late in life he married and had two sons. But both wife and children predeceased him. He died full of honour, the possessor of wide lands and consular rank. The date of his death is unknown, but it was before 100 A.D. He left behind him a treatise "On the causes of the decadence of Roman oratory" (De causis corruptae eloquentiae), the present work, and a speech in defence of a certain Naevius Arpinianus, who was accused of murdering his wife. These are the only works known to have been actually published by him, though others of his speeches had been taken down in shorthand and circulated against his will, while an excess of zeal on the part of his pupils resulted in the unauthorized publication of two series of lecture notes. The present work alone survives. The declamations which have come down to us under his name are spurious. Of his character the Institutio Oratoria gives us the pleasantest impression. Humane, kindly and of a deeply affectionate nature, gifted with a robust common sense and sound literary judgment, he may well have been the ideal school-master. The fulsome references to Domitian are the only blemishes which mar this otherwise pleasing impression. And even here we must remember his great debt to the Flavian house and the genuine difficulty for a man in his position of avoiding the official style in speaking of the emperor.a

As a stylist, though he is often difficult owing to compression and the epigrammatic turn which he gives his phrases, he is never affected or extravagant. He is still under the influence of the sound traditions of the Ciceronian age, and his Latin is silver-gilt rather than silver. His Institutio Oratoria, despite the fact that much of it is highly technical, has still much that is of interest to‑day, even for those who care little for the history of rhetoric. Notably in the first book his precepts as regards education have lasting value: they may not be strikingly original, but they are sound, humane and admirably put. In the more technical portions of his work he is unequal; the reader feels that he cares but little about the minute pedantics of rhetorical technique, and that he lacks method in his presentation of the varying views held by his predecessors. But once he is free of such minor details and touches on themes of real practical interest, he is a changed man. He is at times really eloquent, and always vigorous and sound, while throughout the whole work he keeps the same ideal unswervingly before him.

Thayer's Note:

a Though his flattery of Domitian (IV.Praef.2‑3) is indeed appalling, I too will lay the moral blame on that emperor's reign of terror rather than on Quintilian; what will we not do to survive?

But while agreeing overall with Prof. Butler's assessment of the man, I regret to have to add something worse: he flatly states that the end justifies the means, and condones the principle of lying to save his client's neck (II.XVII.26 ff.); and sure enough, he comes back to this, explicitly approving of lying to a judge (XII.I.36); and appears very much to condone coaching a witness in giving false evidence (V.VII.13‑14), although maybe not (see my note to that passage).

Such a latitudinarian approach to Truth is in keeping with many humane characters, as Quintilian's undoubtedly was; and the above instances of it shade into the proposition, that he never explicitly applies to them, that it is permitted to lie in order to save a life. A difficult question — or commonplace, to use our author's technical term of rhetoric; personally, I'm a bit to the right of him.

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Page updated: 17 Feb 04