Front Page Titles (by Subject) XIV: To Cornelius Tacitus - Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
XIV: To Cornelius Tacitus - Marcus Tullius Cicero, Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero 
Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero: with his Treatises on Friendship and Old Age, trans. E.S. Shuckburgh. And Letters of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, trans. William Melmoth, revised by F.C.T. Bosanquet (New York: P.F. Collier, 1909).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
To Cornelius Tacitus
I have frequent debates with a certain acquaintance of mine, a man of skill and learning, who admires nothing so much in the eloquence of the bar as conciseness. I agree with him, that where the case will admit of this precision, it may with propriety be adopted; but insist that, to leave out what is material to be mentioned, or only briefly and cursorily to touch upon those points which should be inculcated, impressed, and urged well home upon the minds of the audience, is a downright fraud upon one’s client. In many cases, to deal with the subject at greater length adds strength and weight to our ideas, which frequently produce their impression upon the mind, as iron does upon solid bodies, rather by repeated strokes than a single blow. In answer to this, he usually has recourse to authorities, and produces Lysias1 amongst the Grecians, together with Cato and the two Gracchi, among our own countrymen, many of whose speeches certainly are brief and curtailed. In return, I name Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides,2 and many others, in opposition to Lysias; while I confront Cato and the Gracchi with Caesar, Pollio,3 Caelius,4 but, above all, Cicero, whose longest speech is generally considered his best. Why, no doubt about it, in good compositions, as in everything else that is valuable, the more there is of them, the better. You may observe in statues, basso-relievos, pictures, and the human form, and even in animals and trees, that nothing is more graceful than magnitude, if accompanied with proportion. The same holds true in pleading; and even in books a large volume carries a certain beauty and authority in its very size. My antagonist, who is extremely dexterous at evading an argument, eludes all this, and much more, which I usually urge to the same purpose, by insisting that those very individuals, upon whose works I found my opinion, made considerable additions to their speeches when they published them. This I deny; and appeal to the harangues of numberless orators, particularly to those of Cicero, for Murena and Varenus, in which a short, bare notification of certain charges is expressed under mere heads. Whence it appears that many things which he enlarged upon at the time he delivered those speeches were retrenched when he gave them to the public. The same excellent orator informs us that, agreeably to the ancient custom, which allowed only of one counsel on a side, Cluentius had no other advocate than himself; and he tells us further that he employed four whole days in defence of Cornelius; by which it plainly appears that those speeches which, when delivered at their full length, had necessarily taken up so much time at the bar were considerably cut down and pruned when he afterwards compressed them into a single volume, though, I must confess, indeed, a large one. But good pleading, it is objected, is one thing, just composition another. This objection, I am aware, has had some favourers; nevertheless, I am persuaded (though I may, perhaps, be mistaken) that, as it is possible you may have a good pleading which is not a good speech, so a good speech cannot be a bad pleading; for the speech on paper is the model and, as it were, the archetype of the speech that was delivered. It is for this reason we find, in many of the best speeches extant, numberless extemporaneous turns of expression; and even in those which we are sure were never spoken; as, for instance, in the following passage from the speech against Verres:—“A certain mechanic—what’s his name? Oh, thank you for helping me to it: yes, I mean Polyclitus.” It follows, then, that the nearer approach a speaker makes to the rules of just composition, the more perfect will he be in his art; always supposing, however, that he has his due share of time allowed him; for, if he be limited of that article, no blame can justly be fixed upon the advocate, though much certainly upon the judge. The sense of the laws, I am sure, is on my side, which are by no means sparing of the orator’s time; it is not conciseness, but fulness, a complete representation of every material circumstance, which they recommend. Now conciseness cannot effect this, unless in the most insignificant cases. Let me add what experience, that unerring guide, has taught me: it has frequently been my province to act both as an advocate and a judge; and I have often also attended as an assessor.5 Upon those occasions, I have ever found the judgments of mankind are to be influenced by different modes of application, and that the slightest circumstances frequently produce the most important consequences. The dispositions and understandings of men vary to such an extent that they seldom agree in their opinions concerning any one point in debate before them; or, if they do, it is generally from different motives. Besides, as every man is naturally partial to his own discoveries, when he hears an argument urged which had previously occurred to himself, he will be sure to embrace it as extremely convincing. The orator, therefore, should so adapt himself to his audience as to throw out something which every one of them, in turn, may receive and approve as agreeable to his own particular views. I recollect, once when Regulus and I were engaged on the same side, his remarking to me, “You seem to think it necessary to go into every single circumstance: whereas I always take aim at once at my adversary’s throat, and there I press him closely.” (’Tis true, he keeps a tight hold of whatever part he has once fixed upon; but the misfortune is, he is extremely apt to fix upon the wrong place.) I replied, it might possibly happen that what he called the throat was, in reality, the knee or the ankle. As for myself, said I, who do not pretend to direct my aim with so much precision, I test every part, I probe every opening; in short, to use a vulgar proverb, I leave no stone unturned. And as in agriculture, it is not my vineyards or my woods only, but my fields as well, that I look after and cultivate, and (to carry on the metaphor) as I do not content myself with sowing those fields simply with corn or white wheat, but sprinkle in barley, pulse, and the other kinds of grain; so, in my pleadings at the bar, I scatter broadcast various arguments like so many kinds of seed, in order to reap whatever may happen to come up. For the disposition of your judges is as hard to fathom as uncertain, and as little to be relied on as that of soils and seasons. The comic writer Eupolis,6 I remember, mentions it in praise of that excellent orator Pericles, that
But could Pericles, without the richest variety of expression, and merely by the force of the concise or the rapid style, or both (for they are very different), have thus charmed and pierced the heart. To delight and to persuade requires time and great command of language; and to leave a sting in the minds of the audience is an effect not to be expected from an orator who merely pinks, but from him, and him only, who thrusts in. Another comic poet,7 speaking of the same orator, says:
But it is not the close and reserved; it is the copious, the majestic, and the sublime orator, who thunders, who lightens, who, in short, bears all before him in a confused whirl. There is, undeniably, a just mean in everything; but he equally misses the mark who falls short of it, as he who goes beyond it; he who is too limited as he who is too unrestrained. Hence it is as common a thing to hear our orators condemned for being too jejune and feeble as too excessive and redundant. One is said to have exceeded the bounds of his subject, the other not to have reached them. Both, no doubt, are equally in fault, with this difference, however, that in the one the fault arises from an abundance, in the other, from a deficiency; an error, in the former case, which, if it be not the sign of a more correct, is certainly of a more fertile genius. When I say this, I would not be understood to approve that everlasting talker8 mentioned in Homer, but that other9 described in the following lines:
Not but that I extremely admire him,10 too, of whom the poet says,
“Few were his words, but wonderfully strong.”
Yet, if the choice were given me, I should give the preference to that style resembling winter snow, that is, to the full, uninterrupted, and diffusive; in short, to that pomp of eloquence which seems all heavenly and divine. But (it is replied) the harangue of a more moderate length is most generally admired. It is:—but only by indolent people; and to fix the standard by their laziness and false delicacy would be simply ridiculous. Were you to consult persons of this cast, they would tell you, not only that it is best to say little, but that it is best to say nothing at all. Thus, my friend, I have laid before you my opinions upon this subject, and I am willing to change them if not agreeable to yours. But should you disagree with me, pray let me know clearly your reasons why. For, though I ought to yield in this case to your more enlightened judgment, yet, in a point of such consequence, I had rather be convinced by argument than by authority. So if I don’t seem to you very wide of the mark, a line or two from you in return, intimating your concurrence, will be sufficient to confirm me in my opinion: on the other hand, if you should think me mistaken, let me have your objections at full length. Does it not look rather like bribery, my requiring only a short letter, if you agree with me; but a very long one if you should be of a different opinion. Farewell.
[1 ]An elegant Attic orator, remarkable for the grace and lucidity of his style, also for his vivid and accurate delineations of character.
[2 ]A graceful and powerful orator, and friend of Demosthenes.
[3 ]A Roman orator of the Augustan age. He was a poet and historian as well, but gained most distinction as an orator.
[4 ]A man of considerable taste, talent, and eloquence, but profligate and extravagant. He was on terms of some intimacy with Cicero.
[5 ]The praetor was assisted by ten assessors, five of whom were senators, and the rest knights. With these he was obliged to consult before he pronounced sentence. M.
[6 ]A contemporary and rival of Aristophanes.
[7 ]Aristophanes, Ach. 531.
[8 ]Thersites. Iliad, ii. v. 212.
[9 ]Ulysses. Iliad, iii. v. 222.
[10 ]Menelaus. Iliad, iii. v. 214.