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Pliny the Younger (61/62-113 CE):

Letters, II.14: The Decline of Oratory

[Davis Introduction]:

As political freedom gradually ceased under the Empire, oratory was more and more confined to the courts. But, in the argument of cases, an interest was maintained that was often entirely disproportionate to the importance of the suit. Forensic oratory was practically the only public way a young man of good family could distinguish himself unless he joined the army. In the opinion of true lovers of the art, however, by 100 CE. the advocate's profession was in a very bad state, and in great danger of falling into contempt. Its evils and abuses are here explained by Pliny.

Yes, you, Maximus [Pliny's correspondent], are quite right: my time is fully taken up by cases in the Centumviral Court, but they give me more worry than pleasure, for most of them are of a minor and unimportant nature. Most of the advocates are young men without standing, and make their first beginnings on the hardest subjects. Yet, by Heaven, before my time---to use an old man's phrase---not even the highest-born youths had any standing here, unless they were introduced by a man of consular rank.

Now all modesty and respect are thrown to the winds, and one man is as good as another. So far from being introduced they burst in. The audiences follow them as if they were actors, bought and paid to do so; the agent of the orator is there to meet them in the middle of the courthouse (basilica), where the doles of money are handed over as openly as doles of food at a banquet; and they are ready to pass from one court to another for a bribe. They are made fun of for their readiness to cry "bravo"; yet this disgraceful practice gets worse every day. Yesterday two of my own nomenclators---young men I admit, about the age of those who have just assumed the toga---were enticed off to join the claque for three denarii apiece. Such is the outlay you must make to get a reputation for eloquence!

At that price you can fill the benches, however many there are; you can obtain a great throng and get thunders of applause as soon as the conductor gives the signal. For a signal is absolutely necessary for people who do not understand, and do not even listen to the speeches; and many of these fellows do not listen at all, though they applaud as heartily as any. If you chance to be crossing the courthouse, and wish to know how any one is speaking, there is no need to stop to listen. It is quite safe to guess on the principle that he who is speaking worst gets the most applause.

The sing-song style of this clique only wants the clapping of hands, or rather cymbals and drums, to make them like the priests of Cybele, for as for howlings---that is the only word to express the unseemly applause---they have enough and to spare.


William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp.239-244

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton.

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