LIVES OF EMINENT RHETORICIANS by Suetonius – Read online







Rhetoric, also, as well as Grammar, was not introduced amongst us till a late period, and with still more difficulty, inasmuch as we find that, at times, the practice of it was even prohibited. In order to leave no doubt of this, I will subjoin an ancient decree of the senate, as well as an edict of the censors:—“In the consulship of Caius Fannius Strabo, and Marcus Palerius Messala 904: the praetor Marcus Pomponius moved the senate, that an act be passed respecting Philosophers and Rhetoricians. In this matter, they have decreed as follows: ‘It shall be lawful for M. Pomponius, the praetor, to take such measures, and make such provisions, as the good of the Republic, and the duty of his office, require, that no Philosophers or Rhetoricians be suffered at Rome.’”

After some interval, the censor Cnaeus Domitius Aenobarbus and Lucius Licinius Crassus issued the following edict upon the same subject: “It is reported to us that certain persons have instituted a new kind of discipline; that our youth resort to their schools; that they have assumed the title of Latin Rhetoricians; and that young men waste their time there for whole days together. Our ancestors have ordained what instruction it is fitting their children should receive, and what schools they should attend.

These novelties, contrary to the customs and instructions of our ancestors, we neither approve, nor do they appear to us good. Wherefore it appears to be our duty that we should notify our judgment both to those who keep such schools, and those who are in the practice of frequenting them, that they meet our disapprobation.”

However, by slow degrees, rhetoric manifested itself to be a (525) useful and honourable study, and many persons devoted themselves to it, both as a means of defence and of acquiring reputation. Cicero declaimed in Greek until his praetorship, but afterwards, as he grew older, in Latin also; and even in the consulship of Hirtius and Pansa 905, whom he calls “his great and noble disciples.” Some historians state that Cneius Pompey resumed the practice of declaiming even during the civil war, in order to be better prepared to argue against Caius Curio, a young man of great talents, to whom the defence of Caesar was entrusted.

They say, likewise, that it was not forgotten by Mark Antony, nor by Augustus, even during the war of Modena. Nero also declaimed 906 even after he became emperor, in the first year of his reign, which he had done before in public but twice. Many speeches of orators were also published. In consequence, public favour was so much attracted to the study of rhetoric, that a vast number of professors and learned men devoted themselves to it; and it flourished to such a degree, that some of them raised themselves by it to the rank of senators and the highest offices.

But the same mode of teaching was not adopted by all, nor, indeed, did individuals always confine themselves to the same system, but each varied his plan of teaching according to circumstances. For they were accustomed, in stating their argument with the utmost clearness, to use figures and apologies, to put cases, as circumstances required, and to relate facts, sometimes briefly and succinctly, and, at other times, more at large and with greater feeling. Nor did they omit, on occasion, to resort to translations from the Greek, and to expatiate in the praise, or to launch their censures on the faults, of illustrious men.

They also dealt with matters connected with every-day life, pointing out such as are useful and necessary, and such as are hurtful and needless. They had occasion often to support the authority of fabulous accounts, and to detract from that of historical narratives, which sort the Greeks call “Propositions,” “Refutations” and “Corroboration,” until by a gradual process they have exhausted these topics, and arrive at the gist of the argument.

Among the ancients, subjects of controversy were drawn either from history, as indeed some are even now, or from (526) actual facts, of recent occurrence. It was, therefore, the custom to state them precisely, with details of the names of places. We certainly so find them collected and published, and it may be well to give one or two of them literally, by way of example:

“A company of young men from the city, having made an excursion to Ostia in the summer season, and going down to the beach, fell in with some fishermen who were casting their nets in the sea. Having bargained with them for the haul, whatever it might turn out to be, for a certain sum, they paid down the money. They waited a long time while the nets were being drawn, and when at last they were dragged on shore, there was no fish in them, but some gold sewn up in a basket. The buyers claim the haul as theirs, the fishermen assert that it belongs to them.”

Again: “Some dealers having to land from a ship at Brundusium a cargo of slaves, among which there was a handsome boy of great value, they, in order to deceive the collectors of the customs, smuggled him ashore in the dress of a freeborn youth, with the bullum 907 hung about his neck. The fraud easily escaped detection. They proceed to Rome; the affair becomes the subject of judicial inquiry; it is alleged that the boy was entitled to his freedom, because his master had voluntarily treated him as free.”

Formerly, they called these by a Greek term, syntaxeis, but of late “controversies;” but they may be either fictitious cases, or those which come under trial in the courts. Of the eminent professors of this science, of whom any memorials are extant, it would not be easy to find many others than those of whom I shall now proceed to give an account.


Of him Marcus Tullius Cicero thus writes to Marcus Titinnius 908: “I remember well that when we were boys, one Lucius Plotius first began to teach Latin; and as great numbers flocked to his school, so that all who were most devoted to study were eager to take lessons from him, it was a great trouble to me that I too was not allowed to do so.

I was prevented, however, by the decided opinion (527) of men of the greatest learning, who considered that it was best to cultivate the genius by the study of Greek.” This same Gallus, for he lived to a great age, was pointed at by M. Caelius, in a speech which he was forced to make in his own cause, as having supplied his accuser, Atracinus 909, with materials for his charge. Suppressing his name, he says that such a rhetorician was like barley bread 910 compared to a wheaten loaf,—windy, chaffy, and coarse.


is said to have been a slave, and, according to the old custom, chained to the door like a watch-dog 911; until, having been presented with his freedom for his genius and devotion to learning, he drew up for his patron the act of accusation in a cause he was prosecuting. After that, becoming a professor of rhetoric, he gave instructions to Cneius Pompey the Great, and composed an account of his actions, as well as of those of his father, being the first freedman, according to the opinion of Cornelius Nepos 912, who ventured to write history, which before his time had not been done by any one who was not of the highest ranks in society.


About this time, 913 having fallen into disgrace for bringing a false accusation, opened a school of instruction, in which he taught, among others, Mark Antony and Augustus. On one occasion Caius Canutius jeered them for presuming to belong to the party of the consul Isauricus 914 in his administration of the republic; upon which he replied, that he would rather be the disciple of Isauricus, than of Epidius, the false accuser. This Epidius claimed to be descended from Epidius Nuncio, who, as (528) ancient traditions assert, fell into the fountain of the river Sarnus 915 when the streams were overflown, and not being afterwards found, was reckoned among the number of the gods.


a native of Sicily, a professor both of Greek and Latin eloquence, had bad eyes and a facetious tongue. It was a saying of his, that he lost a pair of eyes from his intimacy with Mark Antony, the triumvir 916. Of his wife, Fulvia, when there was a swelling in one of her cheeks, he said that “she tempted the point of his style;” 917 nor did Antony think any the worse of him for the joke, but quite enjoyed it; and soon afterwards, when Antony was consul 918, he even made him a large grant of land, which Cicero charges him with in his Philippics 919. “You patronize,” he said, “a master of the schools for the sake of his buffoonery, and make a rhetorician one of your pot-companions; allowing him to cut his jokes on any one he pleased; a witty man, no doubt, but it was an easy matter to say smart things of such as you and your companions.

But listen, Conscript Fathers, while I tell you what reward was given to this rhetorician, and let the wounds of the republic be laid bare to view. You assigned two thousand acres of the Leontine territory 920 to Sextus Clodius, the rhetorician, and not content with that, exonerated the estate from all taxes. Hear this, and learn from the extravagance of the grant, how little wisdom is displayed in your acts.”


of Novara 921, while, in the execution (529) of the office of edile in his native place, he was sitting for the administration of justice, was dragged by the feet from the tribunal by some persons against whom he was pronouncing a decree. In great indignation at this usage, he made straight for the gate of the town, and proceeded to Rome. There he was admitted to fellowship, and lodged, with Plancus the orator 922, whose practice it was, before he made a speech in public, to set up some one to take the contrary side in the argument.

The office was undertaken by Albutius with such success, that he silenced Plancus, who did not venture to put himself in competition with him. This bringing him into notice, he collected an audience of his own, and it was his custom to open the question proposed for debate, sitting; but as he warmed with the subject, he stood up, and made his peroration in that posture. His declamations were of different kinds; sometimes brilliant and polished, at others, that they might not be thought to savour too much of the schools, he curtailed them of all ornament, and used only familiar phrases. He also pleaded causes, but rarely, being employed in such as were of the highest importance, and in every case undertaking the peroration only.

In the end, he gave up practising in the forum, partly from shame, partly from fear. For, in a certain trial before the court of the One Hundred 923, having lashed the defendant as a man void of natural affection for his parents, he called upon him by a bold figure of speech, “to swear by the ashes of his father and mother which lay unburied;” his adversary taking him up for the suggestion, and the judges frowning upon it, he lost his cause, and was much blamed.

At another time, on a trial for murder at Milan, before Lucius Piso, the proconsul, having to defend the culprit, he worked himself up to such a pitch of vehemence, that in a crowded court, who loudly applauded him, notwithstanding all the efforts of the lictor to maintain order, he broke out into a lamentation on the miserable state of Italy 924, then in danger of being again reduced, he said, into (530) the form of a province, and turning to the statue of Marcus Brutus, which stood in the Forum, he invoked him as “the founder and vindicator of the liberties of the people.”

For this he narrowly escaped a prosecution. Suffering, at an advanced period of life, from an ulcerated tumour, he returned to Novara, and calling the people together in a public assembly, addressed them in a set speech, of considerable length, explaining the reasons which induced him to put an end to existence: and this he did by abstaining from food.


[ This senatus consultum was made A.U.C. 592.]
[ Hirtius and Pansa were consuls A.U.C. 710.]
[ See NERO, c. x.]
[ As to the Bullum, see before, JULIUS, c. lxxxiv.]
[ This extract given by Suetonius is all we know of any epistle addressed by Cicero to Marcus Titinnius.]
[ See Cicero’s Oration, pro Caelio, where Atracinus is frequently mentioned, especially cc. i. and iii.]
[ “Hordearium rhetorem.”]
[ From the manner in which Suetonius speaks of the old custom of chaining one of the lowest slaves to the outer gate, to supply the place of a watch-dog, it would appear to have been disused in his time.]
[ The work in which Cornelius Nepos made this statement is lost.]
[ Pliny mentions with approbation C. Epidius, who wrote some treatises in which trees are represented as speaking; and the period in which he flourished, agrees with that assigned to the rhetorician here named by Suetonius. Plin. xvii. 25.]
[ Isauricus was consul with Julius Caesar II., A.U.C. 705, and again with L. Antony, A.U.C. 712.]
[ A river in the ancient Campania, now called the Sarno, which discharges itself into the bay of Naples.]
[ Epidius attributes the injury received by his eyes to the corrupt habits he contracted in the society of M. Antony.]
[ The direct allusion is to the “style” or probe used by surgeons in opening tumours.]
[ Mark Antony was consul with Julius Caesar, A.U.C. 709. See before, JULIUS, c. lxxix.]
[ Philipp. xi. 17.]
[ Leontium, now called Lentini, was a town in Sicily, the foundation of which is related by Thucydides, vi. p. 412. Polybius describes the Leontine fields as the most fertile part of Sicily. Polyb. vii. 1. And see Cicero, contra Verrem, iii. 46, 47.]
[ Novara, a town of the Milanese.]
[ St. Jerom in Chron. Euseb. describes Lucius Munatius Plancus as the disciple of Cicero, and a celebrated orator. He founded Lyons during the time he governed that part of the Roman provinces in Gaul.]
[ See AUGUSTUS, c. xxxvi.]
[ He meant to speak of Cisalpine Gaul, which, though geographically a part of Italy, did not till a late period enjoy the privileges of the other territories united to Rome, and was administered by a praetor under the forms of a dependent province. It was admitted to equal rights by the triumvirs, after the death of Julius Caesar. Albutius intimated that those rights were now in danger.]
[ Lucius Fenestella, an historical writer, is mentioned by Lactantius, Seneca, and Pliny, who says, that he died towards the close of the reign of Tiberius.]
[ The second Punic war ended A.U.C. 552, and the third began A.U.C. 605. Terence was probably born about 560.]




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