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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)

By Quintilian (c. 35–c. 95 A.D.)

MARCUS FABIUS QUINTILIANUS, for many years teacher of rhetoric and pleader of causes at Rome, and author of the most exhaustive treatise upon the art of oratory ever written, offers a marked example of that even balance of qualities and mild uniformity of moral and intellectual tint, which render it peculiarly difficult after a lapse of time either to form a vivid idea of a writer’s personality, or to receive a pungent impression from his work. Like his friend the epigrammatist, Martial, Quintilian was a native of Spain; and the two men were very nearly of the same age. Quintilian was born at Catagurris, now Calahorra, on the Ebro, about the year 40 A.D. He was educated at Rome, studying first under one Palæmon, a grammaticus or grammar-master, of worthless character but great ability, who had been born a slave; later with the noted rhetorician Domitius Afer of Nîmes, who flourished in the reigns of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Concerning the latter, Quintilian once told a class of his own pupils a striking anecdote. Domitius greatly resented, in his old age, the fashion which had sprung up of interrupting a speaker by rounds of applause,—“as if,” says Pliny junior, who has preserved the incident, “he were an actor, with a hired claque.” On one occasion, when Domitius was pleading a case before the Centumviri in his usual grave and deliberate manner, his voice was suddenly drowned by an unseemly uproar. He stopped short until the noise had subsided; then resumed, and was again interrupted. When this had happened for the third time, he abruptly concluded his harangue with the remark.—“Centumvirs, our art is dead!”

The father of Quintilian had also some reputation as a public speaker in Rome. Seneca speaks of having once listened to a declamation “by the Old Quintilian”; and the son, in that part of his magnum opus which treats of rhetorical ornament, quotes as a specimen of paronomasia, or play upon words, a not particularly brilliant pun of his father’s on the verbs immorior and immoror. Quintilian returned to Spain after his studies were finished, and presumably began the practice of his profession there; but went again to Rome in the train of Galba, the governor of Spain, when the latter was proclaimed Emperor, upon Nero’s death. Quintilian was now (68 A.D.) not far from thirty; and for the twenty succeeding years, though Rome changed rulers five times during the interval, he continued to prosper at the capital, as an orator and instructor in rhetoric. The younger Pliny was one of his pupils; Tacitus the historian was probably another. Quintilian had as a client, upon one occasion, that same Queen Berenice who once went, “with great pomp, to hear Paul of Tarsus plead at Cæsarea;” and the Spaniard also enjoyed the privilege of speaking apud ipsam,—in the presence of the royal, though no longer youthful, charmer.

The two collections of speeches which once passed under Quintilian’s name are now held to be all spurious; but he himself speaks of having been driven, by the nuisance of garbled reports and unauthorized publications, to edit his plea in the case of one Nævius of Arpinum; and he also makes repeated reference, in his main work, to a previous essay on the Decline of Oratory—which has perished. At the age of about fifty, he retired from the practice of his twofold calling, and applied himself to the composition of the treatise by which his name is remembered,—‘Institutionis Oratoriæ XII Libri’ (Twelve Books concerning the Education of an Orator), commonly known as the ‘Institutes.’ Thanks to heavy fees and imperial bounty,—for he was granted by Vespasian a handsome salary from the imperial treasury, and was the first rhetorician ever so endowed,—Quintilian was now a rich man, and had lately married a very young wife; probably out of that senatorial family into which one of his beloved and deeply mourned sons was early adopted. Beside a short preface addressed to his bookseller Trypho, and a general introduction, there are separate introductions to eight out of the twelve books of the ‘Institutio’; and from them we gather almost all the remaining facts which are to be learned concerning the life of Quintilian. In the proem to the fourth book he tells his friend Marcellus Victor, to whom the whole work is inscribed, that he finds a fresh incentive to care in its composition, in the fact that the Emperor Domitian has appointed him tutor to his grandnephews, the sons of Flavius Clemens and Vespasian’s granddaughter Domatilla. These boys had lately been adopted by the potentate, and named for succession to the throne; and Quintilian also received, at the request of their father, the appointment of Honorary Consul. He does not appear to have been particularly a sycophant; but he would have been more than human, and much more than first-century Roman, if he had not gone on to write of his imperial patron in a strain which is a little sickening when compared with what we know, from other sources, of that dull and ruthless tyrant.

In the preface to the sixth book of the ‘Institutes’ we see Quintilian in a nobler light, and are brought near for a moment to the unspoiled heart of the man. Very simply and affectingly he makes the avowal that he had all but abandoned, at this point, the labor of his life, in the despair occasioned by those crushing domestic breavements which made his latter days desolate. The girl-wife had died at nineteen, after giving birth to two boys: one of whom followed his mother in early infancy; while the other, a remarkably brilliant and promising child, lived to be only nine, and then succumbed to a long illness attended by great suffering, which he bore with the utmost courage and sweetness. “What shall I do?” cries the stricken father, “or what further use can there be in life for one to whom the gods are so hostile? What good parent could forgive me, if I could go calmly on with my studies, after having survived all my own?” Nevertheless, in the end, like Job when similarly afflicted, he “girded up his loins like a man,” and “answered” the Power which had bereft him, by renewed devotion to his work; finding there, no doubt, as many another sufferer has done, the best antidote to pain. It has been supposed by some, on the strength of an epistle of Pliny’s (Book vi., xxxi.), that Quintilian married again after sixty, and had a daughter who lived to maturity; but this is most unlikely. The Quintilian for whose daughter the Complete Letter-Writer incloses a wedding present of fifty thousand nummi (about $2500) was plainly another man. Pliny does allude in several places to the orator and his valued instructions, but always as though he were already dead; and the probability is that he did not long survive the accession of Trajan.

The contemporaries of Quintilian, even the most caustic of them, have nothing but good to say of the man. Martial decorates him with a honeyed epigram (Book xi., xc.):

  • “Quintiliane vagæ moderator summe juventæ
  • Gloria Romanæ, Quintiliane togæ.”
  • And even Juvenal, though protesting in his sixth satire, that only through unparalleled good fortune could a teacher of rhetoric ever have become a consul and a large landed proprietor, yet admits, very handsomely for him, that these distinctions were deserved in Quintilian’s case; and that he was “fortunate and handsome and clever; fortunate [again!] and wise, high-minded and open-hearted.” In his own writings Quintilian shows himself not merely the loving husband and father, but indulgent and sympathetic with all children; and remarkably gentle in his judgments, and temperate in his strictures upon other writers,—even on one whose foibles, personal and literary, were as distasteful to him as those of Seneca. He knew, so to speak, all that had been written in his day; and his own taste was excellent. He loved the best, and he loved it unaffectedly. Himself the purest Latin prose-writer of the “silver age,” his heart was in the “golden age”; and his feeling for Cicero and Virgil, as well as for Homer and the great Greeks, was almost a religion.

    The most interesting portions of the ‘Institutionis Oratoriæ?’ are the General Introduction, in which the scheme of the work is unfolded; the first and second books, which are devoted to infantile and primary-school education; the tenth, which enumerates the authors with whom an accomplished speaker should be familiar, and gives brief but often admirable criticisms of their best-known works; the eleventh, which deals with the personal graces an orator ought most to cultivate; and the twelfth, which amplifies the proposition laid down at the outset, that the orator who would achieve success must be essentially a good man. We note the fact that Quintilian, like the ancients generally, conceives of human knowledge as one organic whole, each of whose parts has a vital and necessary dependence upon all the rest. In Cicero’s time, he says, it was taken for granted that a great orator would also be a cultivated and conscientious man: but now Quintilian has to deplore what he rather affectedly calls “a most inartistic division of the great art”; insomuch that the mere causidicus, who will talk upon any side for pay, is considered as much an orator as he who gives eloquent expression to his own convictions.

    When he comes to treat of elementary instruction, Quintilian starts with the cheerful assumption that the vast majority of children are naturally clever and capable. A dull mind he thinks as rare among them as a deformed body. He would have the future orator’s training begin in the cradle; and insists that the nurse to whose charge he is committed for his first three years should be a woman of some instruction, and especially of refined speech, else he will never articulate properly. Our author observes, at this point, that it might be well for the infant also to have had a highly educated father, and a mother as able as the celebrated Cornelia, and the daughters of Lælius the wise. But he seems to admit that this is rather a pluperfect requirement, not easy to be met after the child is an accomplished fact. Let him have, at all events, an ivory alphabet among his playthings; for Quintilian thinks, though he does not clearly say why, that it is better to know the form of the letters by sight, before one learns the sound of them by the ear. He would have the little one taught to speak Greek first; yet not to use it so exclusively as to affect his pronunciation of Latin. He scouts the apparently favorite idea that regular study should not begin before the age of seven. A child, he says, is expected to have learned good manners before he leaves his nurse’s hands at three; and why not a little book knowledge as well? Nevertheless, he is always for a mild, encouraging, indulgent system. Let the child engage in little contests of skill with his elders; and be allowed to suppose, he naïvely adds, that he has won the victory.

    Quintilian is totally opposed, however, to the idea of private or home instruction for a boy, after his tenderest years are past. Let him be sent early to school. It is all-important that one who is to live and strive with men, especially one who aspires to influence them by his persuasive power, should learn betimes to fight his way and find his level among his kind. Quintilian does not blink the danger that a boy will have his morals corrupted at school, but he thinks it less than that of being permanently enervated by the senseless luxury of a wealthy Roman home. “What will he not expect in after years,” he says, “who has crept upon purple?” Yet that the little one may have all reasonable defense against the perils of the street and the playground, Quintilian would have the pædagogus, or slave who was told off to help the pupil prepare his lessons and attend him to his class, as rare a being in his way, as the ideal bonne. The requirements appear excessive; and one wonders how the supply of these highly accomplished attendants can have borne any proportion to the demand, until one remembers the multitude of cultured captives of both sexes, and fugitives from conquered Greek cities, who were then to be had in Rome almost for the asking.

    To commit to memory and recite, under careful correction, passages from the best writers, Quintilian considers an indispensable exercise in early youth. Tragedy is in the main good reading for boys. The lyric poetry of Horace (he never so much as names Catullus) will not hurt them if carefully expurgated. Elegy, and sentimental verse generally, he thinks very bad for them; comedy, useful in the way of widening their knowledge of men and things. The archaic Latin authors are healthful, “though most of them are stronger in genius than in art.”

    When the child has learned of his primary teachers to “read, write, and cipher,” and but little more, Quintilian would have him placed in a rhetorical school at an earlier age than is usually thought desirable. Here he would have him learn both music and geometry; using the words in their comprehensive Greek sense,—the former to include the whole range of the liberal arts; the latter, every branch of what then passed for physical science. Quintilian makes very light of the fear that the powers of a growing lad will be too heavily taxed by this extensive curriculum. Overstudy, in fairly vigorous youth, seems to him almost an impossibility. At no period of life, he truly says, is there so little suffering from fatigue; at none are impressions received and facts and precepts acquired so easily.

    But all this broad and varied culture is only preliminary to the special training which will be needful for the finished orator. That part of the ‘Institutio’ (Books iv. to ix. inclusive) which treats of the subject-matter and proper arrangement of a speech, and of elocution, gestures, and the outward graces of oratory, is excessively technical and minute; and Quintilian, with habitual humility before his idol, almost apologizes in his last book for having ventured so far beyond the bound observed by Cicero in his more popular essay ‘De Oratore.’ Of the maxims laid down in this main body of the work, some are now entirely obsolete; while others perhaps only appear trivial because they have so long been accepted without question. Quintilian writes always with the same good sense, good temper, and carefully chosen language; in a style which is as like Cicero’s as reverent imitation can make it. But then Cicero has a dozen styles—ranging all the way from the closest argumentation to the lightest chaff—and Quintilian has only one. He abounds in figures and illustrations; but these disappoint the reader a little by being taken so much more from other authors than from daily life and personal experience, whereby they shed little light upon Roman scenes and the manners of the time. Vivid pictures caught in passing, like that of the patrician baby upon its purple rug, and the “smooth-faced” dandy, with “hair fresh from the curling-tongs, and an unnaturally brilliant complexion,” are extremely rare in Quintilian. Now and then, however, he estimates a talent, or sums up a reputation, in a few strong and very apt words: as where he says that if Julius Cæsar had chosen to devote himself wholly to the forum he could have had no rival except Cicero, and that he spoke with the same fire with which he fought; and of Cicero’s friend Cælius, that he had much ability and a pleasant wit, and was “a man worthy to have had better thoughts and a longer life.”

    After the series of literary appreciations (Book x.), which the historian Gibbon said he had read many times, and never without both pleasure and profit, Quintilian returns, at the end of his treatise, to the moral qualifications of the perfect orator; and argues with much cogency and skill for the original proposition, that a great speaker must needs be a good man. When he descends to particulars under this head, it becomes evident that his standards were not always those which are held in our own time to be the highest. He thinks that one may sometimes tell a lie, or even excuse a vice, to promote a virtuous object; and he quite approves of endeavoring ingeniously to divert the attention of a judge from inconvenient aspects of the truth. He is an impenitent utilitarian, yet a high-minded one; and the sophisms which he gravely permits are mostly of the kind which are more apt, even now, to be condemned in theory than scrupulously avoided in forensic and parliamentary practice.

    The resurrection of the ‘Institutes’ at the Renaissance was due to the ardent researches of the humanist, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, in the convent library of St. Gall. He copied the whole of the MS. with his own hand, and that copy is still preserved in the Laurentian Library at Florence. The only complete and trustworthy English translation of his works is that of the Rev. John Selby Watson, head-master of Stockwell Grammar School (included in Bohn’s Classical Library), from which the following quotations have been made.