Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113). Letters.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
XXII. To Maximus
YOU guessed correctly: I am much engaged in pleading before the Hundred. The business there is more fatiguing than pleasant. Trifling, inconsiderable cases, mostly; it is very seldom that anything worth speaking of, either from the importance of the question or the rank of the persons concerned, comes before them. There are very few lawyers either whom I take any pleasure in working with. The rest, a parcel of impudent young fellows, many of whom one knows nothing whatever about, come here to get some practice in speaking, and conduct themselves so forwardly and with such utter want of deference that my friend Attilius exactly hit it, I think, when he made the observation that “boys set out at the bar with cases in the Court of the Hundred as they do at school with Homer,” intimating that at both places they begin where they should end. But in former times (so my elders tell me) no youth, even of the best families, was allowed in unless introduced by some person of consular dignity. As things are now, since every fence of modesty and decorum is broken down, and all distinctions are levelled and confounded, the present young generation, so far from waiting to be introduced, break in of their own free will. The audience at their heels are fit attendants upon such orators; a low rabble of hired mercenaries, supplied by contract. They get together in the middle of the court, where the dole is dealt round to them as openly as if they were in a dining-room: and at this noble price they run from court to court. The Greeks have an appropriate name in their language for this sort of people, importing that they are applauders by profession, and we stigmatize them with the opprobrious title of table-flatterers: yet the dirty business alluded to increases every day. It was only yesterday two of my domestic officers, mere striplings, were hired to cheer somebody or other, at three denarii apiece: this is what the highest eloquence goes for. Upon these terms we fill as many benches as we please, and gather a crowd: this is how those rending shouts are raised, as soon as the individual standing up in the middle of the ring gives the signal. For, you must know, these honest fellows, who understand nothing of what is said, or, if they did, could not hear it, would be at a loss without a signal, how to time their applause: for many of them don’t hear a syllable, and are as noisy as any of the rest. If, at any time, you should happen to be passing by when the court is sitting, and feel at all interested to know how any speaker is acquitting himself, you have no occasion to give yourself the trouble of getting up on the judge’s platform, no need to listen; it is easy enough to find out, for you may be quite sure he that gets most applause deserves it the least. Largius Licinus was the first to introduce this fashion; but then he went no farther than to go round and solicit an audience. I know, I remember hearing this from my tutor Quinctilian. “I used,” he told me, “to go and hear Domitius Afer, and as he was pleading once before the Hundred in his usual slow and impressive manner, hearing, close to him, a most immoderate and unusual noise, and being a good deal surprised at this, he left off: the noise ceased, and he began again: he was interrupted a second time, and a third. At last he enquired who it was that was speaking? He was told, Licinus. Upon which, he broke off the case, exclaiming, ‘Eloquence is no more!’” The truth is it had only begun to decline then, when in Afer’s opinion it no longer existed: whereas now it is almost extinct. I am ashamed to tell you of the mincing and affected pronunciation of the speakers, and of the shrill-voiced applause with which their effusions are received; nothing seems wanting to complete this singsong performance except claps, or rather cymbals and tambourines. Howlings indeed (for I can call such applause, which would be indecent even in the theatre, by no other name) abound in plenty. Up to this time the interest of my friends and the consideration of my early time of life have kept me in this court, as I am afraid they might think I was doing it to shirk work rather than to avoid these indecencies, were I to leave it just yet: however, I go there less frequently than I did, and am thus effecting a gradual retreat. Farewell.