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Page history last edited by Ben Austin 9 years, 5 months ago








compiled by Ben Austin



Marcus Fabius Quintilianus

~35 - ~95 BCE


A man who practiced oratory in the legal arena and, more famously, taught what he had learned. His renown as a teacher/rhetor in Roman history is second only to Cicero, chiefly because of his Institutio Oratoria, the Institutes of Oratory .





Quintilian was born around 35 BCE in the Roman province of Calagurris (modern day Calahorra), located in northeastern Spain. Though not of noble origin, Quintilian's family was affluent and sent him to Rome to study.  His most influential tutor was Domitius Afer, a man with his own colorful history (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001).


Upon matriculation he returned home to begin work, but when Galba, the governor of Hispania (Spain), was declared Emperor in 68, Quintilian accompanied him back to the capital. Galba served for less than a year before he was assassinated, but Quintilian survived despite their association--an uncommon feat--and lived the rest of his life primarily in Rome. For thirty years he practiced and taught rhetoric, and after retirement spent a number of years composing the Institutes of Oratory, the culmination of his education and experience (James, 1996).


Little is known of Quintilian's ability in the courts, as very few of his orations survive. His retirement in 88 is a good indicator of success, however, and the fact that he rose to such prominence as a teacher indicates that he was effective enough in the courtroom to earn the respect of the pragmatic Romans. In 72, four years after returning to Rome, Emperor Vespasian rewarded his effort with a state teaching grant, making him the first ever national Chair of Rhetoric. Part of this appointment was probably also due his style--Vespasian was a proponent of straightforward declamation, eschewing showy and superficial wordplay, which fit with Quintilian's views on the matter (James, 1996).


Like many renowned teachers, Quintilian left a legacy with his students.  There are at least four whose names and accomplishments have survived to the modern day: Tacitus, Pliny the younger, Suetonius, and Juvenal (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001).


Shortly around or after his retirement, Quintilian suffered the losses of both his children and his wife. The death of his elder son was especially grievous, as he had seen potential in the boy. The Institutes was composed while yet grieving, and before the end of the first century Quintilian died (Enos, 1996).



The Institutio Oratoria:


Before jumping directly to the content of the work, a slight sketch of its own journey of two and a half millennia, from Rome to present-day academia, is deserved. Only fragments remained  by the twelfth century French Renaissance; these were influential, but the full text was not recovered until 1416, when Poggio Bracciolini uncovered a musty, complete manuscript in the basement of a monastery in Switzerland.  Recognizing the significance of his find, he set about transcribing the work, and it is to his credit that we have the text in completion today (James, 1996).


The Institutes concerns itself with producing superb orators. Quintilian acknowledges that the work is not particularly original, as he believes sufficient material exists already to achieve that end. Instead, his effort is: first, an analysis separating the useful from the useless or harmful of the existing handbooks and literature, and second, delineating the method of training best suited to the creation of good orators (pedagogy).


There are twelve books total in the Institutes, with five main themes: “My first book... the education preliminary to the duties of the teacher of rhetoric. My second will deal with the rudiments of the schools of rhetoric and with problems connected with the essence of rhetoric itself. The next... with Invention (… [and] Arrangement). The four following will be assigned to Elocution... .(Quintilian, 1922)”  The final book details what the complete orator will look like, in behavior and ability, and again stresses that virtue is necessary.


The operating idea throughout is that the true orator must be an upright man, an idea different from previous authorities.  Aristotle and Cicero, to name a few, defined rhetoric as that which aims toward effecting persuasion, a definition Quintilian would claim mistakes mere eloquence for true rhetoric.  Mastering oratory is therefore a long process, involving not just the technical aspects of apprehending vast stores of knowledge and skillfully expressing it, but holding oneself to a virtuous life (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001). 


The latter of these is simple but not easy. Moral philosophy itself is a complex subject, but Quintilian takes it for granted that man knows right and wrong.  The challenge is first to the teacher in forming the boy and youth, and then the adult to maintain his virtuous upbringing.  Technical training, Quintilian's pedagogy, is covered much more in depth. The first book introduces us to the idea that 'from the cradle' the child must be prepared for oratory. The nurse and parents should always speak in proper Latin, and should take pains to provide the best tutors for their son. The tutor, in his turn, will take pains to learn the character of his pupils, and so determine the style of teaching that works for each particular student. Tutors will treat their students as their intellectual children, and pupils will likewise treat tutors as their intellectual parents. In Chapter 10 of the Institutes there is an in-depth analysis of past and present poets and playwrights, of whom Homer and Virgil were Quintilian's favorites.  In matters of oratory, throughout the text, Cicero is the premier archetype (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001).


Finally, the Institutes give modern readers examples of exercises practiced by orators-in-training, beginning with the progymnasmata, exercises for boys, and the declamations, a practice begun in teen years and continuing for the rest of life. It should be noted that Quintilian did not practice hard and fast rules when it came to the maturation of the student's studies--it depended on the pace of the student.


The Progymnasmata

(copied directly from the Enos)


1.   Retelling a fable

2.   Retelling an episode from a poet or a historian

3.   Chreia, or amplification of a moral theme

4.   Amplification of an aphorism (sententia) or proverb

5.   Refutation or confirmation of an allegation

6.   Commonplace, or confirmation of a thing admitted

7.   Encomium, or eulogy (or dispraise) of person or thing

8.   Comparison of things or persons

9.   Impersonation (ethologia, ethopoeia, prosopopeia) or speaking or writing in the character of a given person

10. Description, or vivid presentation of details

11. Thesis, or argument for/against an answer to a general question (quaestio infinita) not involving individuals

12. Laws, or arguments for or against a law





Works Cited:


Bizzell, Patricia, and Herzberg, Bruce, (Eds.). (2001). The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. (2d ed.). Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.


Murphy, James. J. (1996). Encyclopedia of Rhetoric & Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age.  T. Enos, (Ed.). New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc.


Quintilian. (1922). The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian. (H.E. Butler, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: Heinemann.

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