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Decorum consists of knowing and applying the rhetorically appropriate words, actions, mannerisms, volume, tone, and  general delivery to a given situation.  Though decorum seems to have taken a back seat in contemporary rhetorical theory, it was one of many elements which were essential to the Roman eloquence and statesmanship upon which we base Western rhetorical theory.  An attempt to evaluate its importance relative to other aspects of Roman oratory seems largely arbitrary: to the Romans, every aspect of oratory was important and should work together seamlessly in order to form an ideal oration.  Decorum, however, is an aspect of rhetoric and oratory that remains a bit difficult to pin down due to inexact translations between languages and over time.  The primary texts from Ancient Greece and Rome also lack explicit “how-to” discourse on effective decorum, despite having such explications for most other aspects of rhetoric.  Synonyms to decorum are particularly important to researching the topic due to the nuances of translation.  Decorum may also be translated as: appropriateness, rightness, deportment, propriety, etiquette, correctness, carriage, aptness, comportment, opportune usage, conduct, or courtesy. 





The contemporary definition from the Oxford English Dictionary that is most relevant to the Roman perception of decorum identifies decorum as “that which is proper to the circumstances or requirements of the case: seemliness, propriety, fitness.”[i]

The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition emphasizes the importance of decorum to the study of rheotric: “Decorum is the most rhetorical of rhetorical concepts, an idea that permeates the whole of classical rhetoric, and an important point of convergence for the social, moral, and aesthetic concerns of the rhetorical tradition.”[ii]


Greek Roots

There are two Greek concepts that seem to have contributed to the Roman concept of Decorum.  The first, more direct, source is to prepon, found in Aristotle’s On Rhetoric.  Aristotle’s to prepon is generally translated as “appropriateness” or “propriety.”  He devotes chapter 7 of Book 3 of On Rhetoric to the subject.  Aristotle maintains that “lexis will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character and is proportional to the subject matter” (3.7.1).  Appropriateness, here, depends upon the relationship between the words and the subject matter.  The words meet Aristotle’s theory of to prepon if they express the intended meaning, are paired with the appropriate emotion, and have the correct proportion between the delivery and the seriousness of the matter.  Appropriate use of the lexis, Aristotle goes on to say, can “mak[e] the matter more credible” because propriety in delivery makes the speaker seem truthful, even when he is not (3.7.4).  Aristotle also believed that “opportune or inopportune usage is a factor common to all species [of rhetoric]” (3.7.8).[iii] 

The second, possibly less direct, Greek contribution to the theory of Decorum is kairosKairos was a Pythagorean theory of appropriate universal balance.  The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition defines kairos as “right timing and proper measure—directly related to the rhetorical importance of time, place, speaker, and audience, the proper and knowledgeable analysis of these factors, and the faculty of using the proper means in a particular context to arrive at belief” (“kairos” 371).  Perhaps because Aristotle did not directly address kairos in On Rhetoric, it seems to have been neglected in much Greek and Roman rhetorical theory.  However, Gorgias applied the theory of kairos to his quest for “truth and ethical communication in a relativistic world” (“kairos” 317).  Certainly kairos’s emphasis on contextual appropriateness aligns it with Aristotle’s to prepon and, later, Roman decorum.[iv]


Cicero on Decorum

Cicero, while never outlining rules to follow in order to have appropriate decorum, addresses it in two of his major treatises on oratory. 

In De Oratore, Cicero’s characters comment on a lack of decorum (which May and Wise translate as being “tactless,” while providing a footnote that the word is a poor substitute for the original ineptus, the Latin word for a lack of decorum that—while we do have the English word “inept”—does not translate directly into English).  Cicero’s character Crassus attacks tactlessness, calling it one of the most “striking” words in Latin, for “when we call someone tactless, it seems to me that he bears a name that is derived from his lack of tact, and this notion is pretty widely applicable in our everyday speech.  For someone who does not understand what the occasion demands, or talks too much, or shows off, or takes no account of the standing or the interests of those whose company he is in, or, in short, who in some way or other is gauche or obtrusive—such a person is said to be tactless” (2.17).  Of the proper use of decorum, Crassus says: “Those who also regulate their speech in the way required by the relative importance of the subject matter and the people concerned, deserve praise for the quality that I call suitability and appropriateness” (3.53).[v]

In De Officiis, Cicero spends more time reflecting on the connection between decorum and a sort of morality, saying “In [propriety] we find considerateness and self-control, which give, as it were, a sort of polish to life; it embraces also temperance, complete subjugation of all the passions, and moderation in all things…For to employ reason and speech rationally, to do with careful consideration whatever one does, and in everything to discern the truth and to uphold it—that is proper” (1.27.93-94).  Whereas earlier rhetoricians—and Cicero himself in other texts—focus primarily on a purely persuasive oratorical use of decorum, in De Officiis, Cicero connects decorum to the ethical virtue of temperance.  This amplifies and complicates the rhetorical concept of decorum.[vi]


Quintilian on Decorum

Quintilian also addresses decorum, but he (or at least his translator) refers to it as “propriety” or “custom.”  Quintilian primarily focuses on decorum as appropriateness of word choice, stating that “[Words] are not in their nature either good or bad…but only as they are suitable and properly applied; or otherwise; and when our composition is best adapted to our subject, it becomes most pleasing from its variety” (10.2.13).  He emphasizes the need to learn a wide variety of words for different occasions because any word “may be excellently employed in some place or other; for we have sometimes occasion for low and coarse words; and such as would seem mean in the more elegant parts of a speech, are, when the subject requires them, adopted with propriety” (10.1.9).  Despite his focus on primarily just the “word choice” level of appropriate diction, Quintilian does seem to move beyond this when he suggests that “custom in speaking, therefore, I shall call the agreement of the educated, just as I call custom in living the agreement of the good” (1.6.45).  Like Cicero in De Officiis, Quintilian complicates his conception of decorum by adding an ethical conception of what is “good.”[vii]


Broader Implications

Though many classical rhetoricians stress the importance of decorum, none of them put forth a set of guidelines that would enable a student of oratory to practice effective decorum.  Perhaps there is no one “right” answer to what constitutes decorous behavior.  Perhaps the importance of cultural and situational context is so nuanced that it would be an enormous undertaking to establish a single set of rules.  However, when Greek and Roman thought was “reborn” in the Italian and English Renaissance, decorum was reconceptualized and given a new name: courtesy.  Castiglione, modeling his work loosely on Cicero’s De Oratore, attempts to fill in the gaps missing from Roman conceptions of decorum by writing a “how-to” manual on how to act courteously.  Interestingly, the guide is not well-received among the nobility, who would rather have had outsiders remain outsiders.  Perhaps there is the key to the absence of a Roman decorum guide: if anyone was able to act with decorum, class lines may blur.  Decorum, then, may have served as much a social function as a rhetorical one.




Michelle Golden (2012) 

[i] “Decorum.” Def. 1.c. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2012. Web.

[ii] “Decorum.” Walter H. Beale. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age. Ed. Theresa Enos.  New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

[iii] Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2007.  Print.

[iv] “Kairos.” Sheri L. Helsley. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age. Ed. Theresa Enos.  New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

[v] Cicero.  On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore). Trans. James M. May and Jakob Wise.  Oxford: Oxford U P, 2001.  Print.

[vi] Cicero. De Officiis. Trans Walter Miller.  Loeb ed. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1913.  Print.

[vii] Quintilian. On the Teaching and Speaking of Writing: Translations from Books One, Two, and Ten, of the Instituto Oratoria. Ed. James J. Murphy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1987.  Print.


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