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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a work of
C. Suetonius Tranquillus

published in the Loeb Classical Library,

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,
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 p435  Suetonius, On Rhetoricians1

1 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 The study of rhetoric was introduced into our country in about the same way as that of grammar, but with somewhat greater difficulty, since, as is well known, its practice was at times actually prohibited. To remove any doubt on this point, I shall append an ancient decree of the senate, as well as an edict of the censors:

"In the consulship of Gaius Fannius Strabo and Marcus Valerius Messala the praetor Marcus Pomponius laid a proposition before the senate. As the result of a discussion about philosophers and rhetoricians, the senate decreed that Marcus Pomponius, the praetor, should take heed and provide, in whatever way seemed in accord with the interests of the State and his oath of office, that they be not allowed to live in Rome." Some time afterwards the censors Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Lucius Licinius Crassus issued the following edict about the same class of men: "It has been reported to us that there be men who have introduced a new kind of training, and that our young men frequent their schools; that these men have assumed the title of Latin rhetoricians, and that young men spend whole days with them in idleness. Our forefathers  p437 determined what they wished their children to learn and what schools they desired them to attend. These innovations in the customs and principles of our forefathers do not please us nor seem proper. Therefore it appears necessary to make our opinion known, both to those who have such schools and to those who are in the habit of attending them, that they are displeasing to us."

By degrees rhetoric itself came to seem useful and honourable, and many devoted themselves to it as a defence and for glory. Cicero continued to declaim in Greek as well as Latin up to the time of his praetorship, and in Latin even when he was getting on in years; and that too in company with the future consuls Hirtius and Pansa, whom he calls "his pupils and his big boys."2 Some historians assert that Gnaeus Pompeius resumed the practice of declaiming just before the civil war, that he might be the better able to argue against Gaius Curio, a young man of very ready tongue, who was espousing Caesar's cause; and that Marcus Antonius, and Augustus as well, did not give it up even during the war at Mutina.3 The emperor Nero declaimed in the first year of his reign, and had also done so in public twice before. Furthermore, many even of the orators published declamations. In this way general enthusiasm was aroused, and a great number of masters and teachers flocked to Rome, where they were so well received that some advanced from the lowest estate to senatorial dignity and to the highest magistracies.

But they did not all follow the same method of teaching, and the individual teachers also varied in their practice, since each one trained his pupils  p439 in various ways. For they would explain fine speeches with regard to their figures, incidents and illustrations,4 now in one way and now in another, and compose narratives sometimes in a condensed and brief form, again with greater detail and flow of words. Sometimes they would translate Greek works, and praise or censure distinguished men. They would show that some practices in everyday life were expedient and essential, others harmful and superfluous. Frequently they defended or assailed the credibility of myths, an exercise which the Greeks call "destructive" and "constructive" criticism. But finally all these exercises5 went out of vogue and were succeeded by the debate.

The earlier debates were based either upon historical narrative, as indeed is sometimes the case at present, or upon some event of recent occurrence in real life. Accordingly they were usually presented with even the names of the localities included. At any rate that is the case with the published collections, from which it may be enlightening to give one or two specimens word for word.

"Some young men from the city went to Ostia in the summer season, and arriving at the shore, found some fishermen drawing in their nets. They made a bargain to give a certain sum for the haul. The money was paid and they waited for some time until the nets were drawn ashore. When they were at last hauled out, no fish was found in them, but a closed basket of gold. Then the purchasers said that the catch belonged to them, the fishermen that it was theirs."

 p441  "When some dealers were landing a cargo of slaves from a ship at Brundisium, they dressed a handsome and high-priced young slave in the amulet and fringed toga6 for fear of the collectors of customs, and their fraud easily escaped detection. When they reached Rome, the case was taken to court and a claim was made for the slave's liberty, on the ground that his master had voluntarily freed him."

Such discussions they formerly called by their Greek name of "syntheses,"7 but afterwards "debates"; but they might be either fictitious or legal.

The eminent teachers of the subject, of whom any account is to be found, are limited pretty closely to those whom I shall mention.

2 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Of Lucius Plotius Gallus, Cicero gives the following account in a letter to Marcus Titinnius:8 "I well remember that when we were boys, a certain Plotius first began to teach in Latin. When crowds flocked to him, for all the most diligent students of the subject were trained under him, I regretted not having the same privilege. But I was deterred by the advice of certain men of wide experience, who believed that one's mind could better be trained by exercises in Greek."a Marcus Caelius, in a speech in which he defended himself against a charge of violence, implies that this same Plotius, for he lived to a great age, supplied Caelius's accuser, Atratinus, with his plea;9 and without mentioning him by name, Caelius calls him a "barley-bread rhetorician," mocking at him as "puffy, light, and coarse."

 p443  3 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Lucius Voltacilius Plotius is said to have been a slave and even to have served as a doorkeeper in chains, according to the ancient custom, until he was set free because of his talent and interest in letters, and helped his patron prepare his accusations. Then becoming a teacher of rhetoric, he had Gnaeus Pompeius the Great for a pupil, and wrote a history of the exploits of Pompey's father, as well as those of the son, in several volumes. In the opinion of Cornelius Nepos, he was the first of all freedmen to take up the writing of history, which up to that time had been confined to men of the highest position.

4 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Marcus Epidius, notorious as a blackmailer, opened a school of oratory and numbered among his pupils Mark Antony and Augustus; and when they once jeered at Gaius Cannutius because he preferred to side with the political party of Isauricus, the ex-consul, Cannutius rejoined: "I would rather be a disciple of Isauricus than of a false accuser like Epidius." This Epidius claimed descent from Epidius of Nuceria, who, it is said, once threw himself into the source of the river Sarnusb and came out shortly afterwards with bull's horns on his head; then he at once disappeared and was reckoned among the number of the gods.

5 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Sextus Clodius of Sicily, a teacher of both Greek and Latin oratory and a man with poor sight and a sharp tongue, used to say that he had worn out a pair of eyes10 during his friendship with Mark Antony, the triumvir. He also said of the latter's wife, Fulvia, one of whose cheeks was somewhat swollen: "She tempts the point of my pen";11  p445 and by this witticism he rather gained than lost favour with Antony. When Antony presently became consul, Clodius received from him an enormous gift,12 as Cicero charges against Antony in his "Philippics":13 "For the sake of his jokes you employ a schoolmaster, elected a rhetorician by your vote and those of your pot-companions, and you have allowed him to say anything he likes about you; a witty fellow, no doubt, but it is not a hard matter to say clever things of you and your mates. But what pay does this rhetorician receive? Listen, senators, listen, and know the wounds which our country suffers. You made over to this rhetorician, Sextus Clodius, two thousand acres14 of the Leontine territory, and free of taxes too, that at so great a price you might learn to know nothing."

6 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Gaius Albucius Silus of Novara, while he was holding the office of aedile in his native town and chanced to be sitting in judgment, was dragged by the feet from the tribunal by those against whom he was rendering a decision. Indignant at this, he at once made for the gate and went off to Rome. There he was admitted to the house of the orator Plancus, who had the habit, when he was going to declaim, of calling upon someone to speak before him. Albucius undertook that rôle, and filled it so effectively, that he reduced Plancus to silence, since he did not venture to enter into competition. But when Albucius had thus become famous, he opened a lecture room of his own, where it was his habit after proposing a subject for a debate, to begin to speak from his seat, and then as he warmed  p447 up, to rise and make his peroration on his feet. He declaimed, too, in various manners, now in a brilliant and ornate style, and at another time, not to be thought invariably academic, speaking briefly, in everyday language and all but that of the streets. He also pleaded causes, but rather seldom, taking part only in those of greatest importance, and even then confining himself to summing them up. Later he withdrew from the Forum, partly through shame and partly through fear. For in a case before the Hundred15 he had offered his opponent, whom he was inveighing against as undutiful towards his parents, the privilege of taking oath but merely as a figure of speech, using the following language: "Swear by the ashes of your father and mother, who lie unburied"; and made other remarks in the same vein. His opponent accepted the challenge; and since the judges made no objection, Albucius lost his case to his great humiliation.16 Again, when he was defending a client in a murder trial at Mediolanum before the proconsul Lucius Piso, and the lictors tried to suppress the immoderate applause,17 he grew so angry, that lamenting the condition of Italy and saying that "it was being reduced once more to the form of a province," he called besides upon Marcus Brutus whose statue was in sight, as "the founder and defender of our laws and liberties"; and for that he narrowly escaped  p449 punishment. When already well on in years, he returned to Novara because he was suffering from a tumour, called the people together and explained in a long set speech the reasons which led him to take his life, and then starved himself to death.

The section that follows is not in the Loeb edition, but is my translation from Roth's edition (Teubner, 1904):

The remainder of Suetonius' work has not survived, but the index to it lists eleven more rhetoricians — any text after a dash being quoted from Jerome's Chronicon:

7 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 L. Cestius Pius — Cestius Smyrnaeus taught Latin rhetoric at Rome (sub anno A.U.C. 741).

8 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 M. Porcius Latro — M. Porcius Latro, who declaimed in Latin, exhausted by a double quartan fever, put an end to himself (a. 750‑751).

9 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Q. Curtius Rufus

10 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 L. Valerius Primanus

11 1  [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Verginius Flavus

12 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 L. Statius Ursulus — Statius Ursulus (or Sursulus or Surculus) of Tolosa, is teaching rhetoric in Gaul with great reputation (a. 810‑811).

13 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 P. Clodius Quirinalis — Clodius (or Claudius) Quirinalis, a rhetorician from Arelate, is a very prominent teacher in Rome (a. 797‑798).

14 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 M. Antonius Liberalis — M. Antonius Liberalis, a Latin rhetorician, is a great rival of Palaemon (a. 801‑802).

15 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Sex. Iulius Gabinianus — Gabinianus, a very famous rhetorician, taught in Gaul (a. 829‑830).

16 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 M. Fabius Quintilianus — M. Fabius Quintilianus was brought to Rome by Galba (a. 821) . . . Quintilianus, from Calagurris in Spain, who was the first to be granted a school and a stipend from the imperial treasury, became well-known (a. 838‑842).

17 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 1 Iulius Tiro

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 This word, like grammaticus, had a different force from that of the corresponding English word; it meant a teacher of declamation and oratory.

2 Cf. Seneca, Controv. 1 praef. 11 ff.

3 Cf. Aug. lxxxiv.1.

4 That is, stories and fables (Gk. ἀπόλογοι) introduced by way of illustration. Cf. Quint. 5.11.19 ff.

5 They corresponded in general with the Roman suasoriae, which with the controversiae formed the stock exercises of the schools of rhetoric.

6 The dress of a freeborn youth of good family; cf. Jul. lxxxiv.4. The bulla was also a badge of free birth.

Thayer's Note: "fringed" is a curious translation; "purple-bordered" would have been better. At any rate, see the articles in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities: Toga and Bulla.

7 Συνθέσεις, "Compositions."

8 The letter has not been preserved.

9 That is, his speech in support of the charge against Caelius.

10 Used in a double sense, implying that he had ruined his eyes by dissipation and late hours in Antony's company.

11 Used in a double sense; she tempts me (1) to write a sharp epigram on her; (2) to lance her cheek.

12 See note on Aug. xli.2.

13 2.17.42‑43.

14 The iugerum is literally about two-thirds of an acre.

15 See note on Aug. xxxvi.

16 The story is told in more detail in Seneca, Controv. 7, Praef. 7. The defendant wished to settle the case by taking oath to the truth of his contention, which was permitted, provided the opposing counsel gave his consent. Albucius said, "I consent, provided I may dictate the oath." But when he challenged his opponent to swear by the ashes of his father and mother who lay unburied, and the latter accepted the condition, Albucius declared that he was speaking figuratively, and had not intended to give his consent.

Thayer's Note: For details of this uniquely Roman legal procedure, see the article Jusjurandum in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

17 Pliny complains of this nuisance in Epist. 2.14.10 ff.

Thayer's Notes:

a When I was in French lycée, this was one of the standard reasons given for taking Latin; the virtue of it was usually ascribed to Latin itself, which was supposed to be highly logical, thus strengthening the reasoning abilities of the student's mind. As an adult now, it seems to me that the advantages of acquiring a second language, especially when we're young, probably has very little to do with the particular language, but rather with the flexibility and insight we acquire when viewing the world thru different pathways and categories than those of our mother tongue.

b There were several Italian towns by the name of Nuceria; mention of the river identifies it as Nuceria Alfaterna.

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