Grecian and Roman Eloquence

by Ashur Ware

In the flourishing periods of the Grecian and Roman commonwealths, the forms of their governments, the state of society, and the passions and manners of the times, were more favorable to the developement of great talents, than have existed in any other age, or among any other people. In Athens and Rome, every citizen was a public man. The great powers of government were exercised by the people themselves in their primary assemblies. The practice of delegating the higher attributes of sovereignty to a small number of persons periodically elected is one of the greatest improvements, which the lights of modern experience have introduced into the constitutions of free governments. The advantages which are gained by this system in favor of internal tranquillity, the steadiness and permanency of political institutions and the security of private rights, can scarcely be estimated too highly, or purchased at too great a price. But nearly in the same proportion as this improvement contributes to the general tranquillity and the personal security of the citizen, does it narrow the field for the operation of great talents. The individual power of each man is hardly felt in the harmonious working of the great machine of government, and its character soon comes to depend much more on the system than on the genius of those by whom it is conducted. Precedents, fixed opinions, long established policy and constitutional maxims, throw an invisible net work over those, who are at the head of affairs, which a giant's strength cannot break through. An ordinary share of talent, enlightened by experience, is found to be about as useful in the regular movement of the system, as the highest gifts of genius.

But it was otherwise in the republics of Athens and Rome. There the power of the system was nothing, and the genius of the individual every thing. In the agitations of these popular commonwealths, the great actors on the stage were driven to a life of unremitted exertion. The revolutions of popular favor were sudden and appalling, and always liable to be carried to great extremes. A decisive moment lost might be fatal to the hopes of a whole life. Their powers were, therefore, constantly wound up to the utmost intensity of action. Second rate men, who are abundantly able to go through with the regular and quiet routine of official duty in our modern bureaus, would be quickly blown down by the storms which shook the tribunes of those turbulent democracies. The very imperfections in their political systems contributed to develope the genius of their statesmen, and necessarily called into action every faculty of the mind.

In all free and popular governments, eloquence is one of the principal instruments of power, and the fairest field is presented for its operations where the general powers of government are put in motion by the immediate agency of the mass of the people. In all the nations of modern Europe, where the semblance of deliberative assemblies is preserved, these are composed of a small and select number of persons; and in these small bodies, when a reasonable space is allowed for the coercive power of party training, for the operation of the subtle and diffusive poison of executive influence, and in some cases, for the gross and palpable application of direct corruption, the province of eloquence will be found to be greatly narrowed. Her most persuasive accents fall on ears that are spellbound by a mightier power, and on the most important questions, the votes are often counted, before deliberation commences. But this complicated machinery cannot be brought to bear with the same effect on the whole body of the citizens. If their movements are more irregular, and liable to greater excesses, they have their origin in the purer and more noble impulses of the heart. The natural love of equity, the instinctive principles of disinterestedness and generosity, originally implanted in the heart of man by the author of our being, cannot easily be extinguished in a whole people. After the tools of faction, and the minions of power, have exhausted the arts of corruption, these holier elements of our nature will kindle into spontaneous enthusiasm, when lofty and generous sentiments are brought home to the bosom in the accents of a manly and pathetic eloquence. The great and unsophisticated springs of human action are always touched with most effect in large assemblies. In these the prevailing tone of feeling, when highly exalted, spreads through the whole by a secret sympathy, with the rapidity of the electric fluid.

It was before such an audience that eloquence uttered her voice in ancient times. The orators of Greece and Rome brought their genius to bear directly on the popular mind. The public assemblies which were then held were for actual deliberation. It was not a mockery of consultation on matters upon which all opinions were definitely made up. They came together to be instructed, and were open to the seductive arts of their orators even to a fault. The objects of deliberation also were of the greatest moment, the fortunes of a province or a kingdom, the safety of the republic, the honor, or perhaps the life of the orator himself or his nearest friends. Every motive which hope or fear or pride or party could suggest, to animate the passions, was brought to act on the speaker's mind, and all depended on a doubtful decision, which was to be made on the spot, and before the separation of the assembly. These contests were not of rare occurrence. They were coming up continually. They were upon the most magnificent theatre in the world, and before judges who united a most refined and discriminating taste with an extraordinary degree of susceptibility to all the charms of a passionate and harmonious eloquence. The orators, therefore, were kept in constant training. Their faculties had no time to cool.

They had no intervals for luxurious repose. The dignities to which they had risen were watched by powerful and jealous rivals, always ready to wrest from them their honors, and they could be retained only by the same efforts by which they were won.

In these ancient republics eloquence was substantial and effective power and led to the highest dignities, which the most aspiring genius could hope to attain. It was cultivated with an assiduity bearing a just proportion to the honors with which it was crowned. The education of the orator commenced in his cradle, and did not terminate until he had reached the full maturity of manhood; or, to speak more correctly, it comprised the whole business of his life. All his studies were made subservient to the art of speaking, and the course of instruction descended into the most minute details which could improve him in his action or elocution. It was this entire devotion to a favorite and honored art, which raised it to a height of perfection, which it has never since been able to reach, and which produced those prodigies in the oratorical art, which have been the admiration and the despair of succeeding ages.

In the most brilliant period of antiquity there were two styles of eloquence cultivated by the different orators. One, calm, subtle and elegant, addressed almost exclusively to the understanding. In the time of Cicero this was called the Attic style, and those who belonged to this school assumed no little credit on the supposed purity of their Attic taste. The other affected a style of greater warmth and brilliancy, and intermingled with the scrupulous dialectics of the former, frequent appeals to the passions, and adorned their discourses with all the beauties which could captivate the imagination. What was then denominated the Attic style, forms the prevailing characteristic of modern oratory. It is cool and didactic. It relies almost wholly on the powers of a cultivated logic and seldom attempts to reach the understanding through the medium of the heart. It requires little reflection to determine which of these styles would bear away the palm before a popular audience. The former leaves one half the faculties of the hearer dormant, while the latter addresses itself to all the powers of man, the moral as well as the intellectual, instructs the reason while it agitates the passions, and gives at the same time one powerful and impetuous movement to the whole man. But if any one doubts upon this matter let him go to the pages of Demosthenes and especially to that most perfect of all his orations, in which he was contending with his great rival for the glory of a whole life in the presence of all that was most illustrious in Greece,—his oration for the crown. He will find from the beginning to the end, a clear and exact logic. But it is logic raised into enthusiasm by the dignity and elevation of sentiment by which it is surrounded. He will not find a metaphor or an observation introduced merely for the purposes of ornament. It is a continued stream of clear, rapid and convincing argument. But it is argument enveloped in a torrent of earnestness and exaggeration, environed with a blaze of anger and disdain and passion—it is argument clothed in thunder, which could no more be listened to with a composed and tranquil mind than the flashes of lightning could be viewed with an unblinking eye. Strip Demosthenes of these accompaniments, of these accessories, if you please to call them so, and you will leave enough perhaps to satisfy our modern Attics, but this residue will be no more like the living Demosthenes who "fulmined over Greece," than the unformed block of marble is like the Belvidere Apollo, or a naked skeleton like a living man.

It is said that the state of manners in modern society would not bear those bold appeals to the passions which abound in the ancient orators. We are ingenious in taking to ourselves credit even for our inferiority, and it is contended that our understandings are more cultivated and our passions more under the dominion of reason. If there be any foundation for this opinion it must be received with many qualifications. It has become a fashion of late to decry the manners and morals of the republics of antiquity. That their manners differed in many respects from the modes of fashion established in what is called good society in modern times is admitted, but it does not follow that the advantage is on our side. There is still less foundation for the opinion that in their intellectual powers the Greeks and Romans were less cultivated than the most polished nations of our times. There never existed a nation in which the intellectual education of the whole body of the people was carried to so high a pitch as in Athens. However extravagant the assertion may be thought, it is indisputably true that the "mob of Athens," as the people of that renowned commonwealth are affectedly called, were of a more refined, severe and critical taste in every thing that pertains to the beauties of eloquence than the members of the British House of Commons have been, at any period of its existence, from the first meeting of the Wittenagemote to the present day. They would allow, says Cicero, in their orators no violation of purity or elegance of language. Eorum religioni cum serviret orator, nullum verbum insolens, nullum odiosum ponere audebat. Many a speech has been cheered by the "hear hims" of the Treasury Bench in that house, which would have shocked the discriminating and critical ears, aures teretes ac religiosas, of that extraordinary people. The whole testimony of antiquity concurs in proving their extreme delicacy and fastidiousness in every thing which belongs to taste in letters and the arts.

There was another peculiarity in the circumstances of these ancient republics which favored the cultivation of eloquence. The press, that great engine by which public opinion is moved in modern times, was then unknown. Addresses in the assemblies of the people were not only the ordinary but almost the sole mode by which public men could influence or enlighten public opinion. All political discussion assumed this form and these popular harangues composed a very large portion of the literature of the times. The language of oral communication naturally assumes a tone of greater vivacity and passion than that of the closet. The predominance of this species of composition must have had a powerful influence in forming the national taste and would naturally impart its prevailing tone to every other species. Such seems to have been the fact. The philosophers and historians caught something of the animated and rhetorical manner of their public speakers, and in that species of eloquence which is suited to the nature of their subjects, surpass the moderns nearly as much as their orators do. Plato stands as far above all rivals in this particular, as his countryman and disciple Demosthenes. The easy and graceful movement of his dialogue, the splendid amplification and harmonious numbers of his declamation and the warm and animated glow of moral enthusiasm, which he has thrown over his mystical speculations, render his works the most perfect specimen of philosophical eloquence ever yet produced. His example will also show what importance was attached to style alone by the teachers of ancient wisdom. The last labors of a long life, which had been devoted to the most sublime philosophy of the age, were employed in retouching and remodelling the inimitable graces of his rich and flowing periods; muso contingens cuncta lepore.

A superiority scarcely less imposing in this respect will be found in their historians. Their genius was also kindled by a coal from the altar of the orators. I am ready to acknowledge the great merit of the classic historians of modern times. I am not insensible to the calm and sustained dignity of Roberston, to the melody of his full and flowing style, though it sometimes fills the ear without filling the mind. He must be a much more morose critic who is not delighted with the simple and unaffected elegance of Hume, and with that admirable facility with which he intermingles the most profound reflections in a narration always easy, copious and graceful. Nor can the historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire be forgotten in an enumeration of those who have done honor to this branch of literature. After all that has been said and written against him, he has left a work which the world will not willingly suffer to die. The Randolphs and Taylors and Chelsums by whom he was assailed, have passed into an easy oblivion, but the great work of the historian will always find a place in every library and a reader in every well educated man. The pomp and stateliness of his style sometimes bordering on the turgid may provoke a sneer from those who look only to the surface, but he had a mind enriched by various and extensive learning, which he has exuberantly and tastefully displayed in every page of his work. It may also be admitted that in modern times history has in its general character received something more of a philosophical tone. But what it has gained on the side of philosophy it has more than lost on that of eloquence.

Compare the triumvirate of English historians in this respect with the inestimable remains of antiquity, and there is a disparity as striking as it is difficult to be accounted for. In this, as in every other department of literature, the Romans were the imitators of the Greeks; but in history while they imitated they surpassed their masters. The two great historians of Rome stand above all that preceded as well as all that followed them. The history of the rise of the Roman republic, from a small band of outlaws to the uncontrolled mastery of the world, is the most extraordinary chapter in the history of the human race. The annals of mankind present nothing that resembles it. A splendid or an affecting story may be degraded or belittled by being told in an unworthy style. But the style of Livy never falls below the dignity of his subject. His eloquence is as magnificent as the fortunes of the eternal city. In splendor of language, in glowing and picturesque description, in warmth and brilliancy and boldness of coloring, and in the dignified and majestic movement of his whole narrative, there is nothing in the literature of any country which will bear a comparison with the Decads of Livy. He is always on the borders of oratory and poetry, without ever passing the soberness of history. Mille habet ornatus, mille decenter habet.

The golden age of letters in Rome was as short as it was brilliant. It scarcely surpassed in duration the ordinary term of human life. Commencing with Cicero, it closed with the generation who were his cotemporaries, the last who breathed the free air of the republic. But in the universal corruption of taste and morals that followed the extinction of liberty, there arose one man, Tacitus, whose genius belonged to a happier age. In his own, it has been remarked with as much truth as beauty, he stands like a column in the midst of ruins. It has been said that the secret of his style belongs to the circumstances of his life, as well as to the peculiar temperament of the man. He wrote the history of his own times, and they presented but few bright spots on which the eye could repose with pleasure. But he paints the features of that dark and fearful peace, of that awful and portentous silence of despotism, convulsed as it was by internal dissensions and agitated by all the vices of a profligate populace and an abandoned nobility, in words of enchantment. While they seem to express every thing that is terrible in tragedy, they suggest to the imagination more than meets the ear. No man could have described those scenes as he has done but one who had seen and felt them. His vivid and graphic pictures speak at once to the eye, to the imagination, and to the heart; and without any of the parade or ostentation of eloquence, he impresses on the mind of the reader all the feelings which seem to prevail in his own.

The current of fashion has for some time been setting strongly against classical learning. In an age of so much intellectual activity as the present, all sorts of new opinions are received with favor. The most extravagant have their hour of triumph until they are chased from the stage by some new absurdity, or until the restless love of change is drawn off to some more startling paradox. This insatiable thirst for novelty is carried into literature as well as other things. But the principles of good taste are unchangeable. They have their foundations deeply laid in nature and truth, and the tide of time which sweeps into oblivion the sickly illusions of distempered imaginations, passes over these unhurt. The Bavii and Maevii of former ages, who like those of later times enjoyed for their hour the sunshine of fashionable celebrity, have been long ago gathered to their long home, but the beauties of Homer and Virgil are as fresh now as they were at the beginning. Independent of the arguments commonly used in favor of classical learning, there are two considerations which recommend these studies to peculiar favor in this country. I advert to them the more willingly, because they have not been usually urged in proportion to their importance.

The first is addressed to our literary ambition. If there be any department of elegant literature in which we may hope to surpass our European ancestors and cotemporaries, it is in eloquence. It is the fairest and most hopeful field which now remains for literary distinction. In every other the moderns, if they have not equalled, are not far behind the ancients. Their poetry can scarcely claim an advantage over that of the moderns, except what it owes directly to the superiority of the ancient languages. But if we except some of the finest productions of the French pulpit in the reign of Louis XIV. there is nothing in modern literature which approaches the eloquence of antiquity. The most accomplished of our forensic and parliamentary speakers are at an immeasurable distance from the perfection of the ancient orators. If there be any modern nation, which may hope to emulate them with some prospect of success, it is our own. In our free institutions and in the free genius of our countrymen we have all that is necessary. The soil is prepared and we are already a nation of debaters. But if we would add to the faculty of fluent speaking the gifts of eloquence, these must be sought where the ancients found them, in a patient and persevering devotion to the art. We must be made sensible both of its dignity and its difficulty, and nothing can so effectually give us this knowledge as a familiar acquaintance with the inimitable remains of the orators of Greece and Rome.

The second consideration is of a political character. The feudal governments of Europe may have an interest in discouraging a taste for these studies. The literature of antiquity, in its prevailing tone and character, is deeply impregnated with the free spirit of the age in which it was produced. Nothing can be more repugnant to that temper of patient servility which it is the policy of such governments to foster. Nothing can more powerfully invigorate those generous feelings which are inspired by the consciousness of freedom, than a familiarity with the historians and orators of Greece and Rome. There is an uncompromising spirit of liberty breathing its divine inspirations over every page, wholly irreconcilable with that courtly suppleness which is adapted to the genius of these governments. These proud republicans had no superstitious veneration for anointed heads. They were accustomed to behold suppliant royalty trembling in the antichambers of their Senate, or its haughty spirit still more humbled in swelling the triumphal pomp of their generals and consuls. These sights served to nourish a profound feeling of the dignity, which is attached to the person of a freeman, a feeling more deeply engraved on the spirit of antiquity than any other sentiment of the heart. It seems to have constituted the very soul of their genius, and it breathes its sacred fires through every ramification of their literature. So intimately was it incorporated with the very elements of their intellectual nature, that nothing could extinguish it short of those calamities which spread their deadly mildews over the fires of genius itself. After the constitutional liberty of the country sunk under the weight of military despotism, its scattered flames still broke out at intervals in the few great men who arose to throw a gleam of brightness over the surrounding gloom. It shewed itself in the pathetic and affecting complaints of Tacitus, and burst forth in the bitter and indignant sarcasms of Juvenal. The venerable father of song declared in prophetic numbers that the first day of servitude robbed man of half his virtue, and Longinus, the last of the ancient race of great men, holds up the lights of fifteen centuries experience to verify the words of the poet. It is democracy, says he, that is the propitious nurse of great talents, and it is only in democracy that they flourish. Let the minions of legitimacy then extinguish if they can the emulation of ancient eloquence; it is their most dangerous enemy; but let us, who inherit the liberties of the ancient republics, cherish it with a sacred devotion. It is at once the child and the champion of freedom.