“Surely you warned us against comparing and preferring,” said a Sixth Form pupil on reading E. C. Marchant’s comments about Cicero and Tacitus (see last post).

Yes: and for once the great Marchant’s comment is less than helpful. It is tempting to put things in dualistic terms—Cicero versus Tacitus— but there was no ‘palm’ for Latin prose composition; the chosen life’s work of Tacitus was different from that of Cicero (whom he admired); and furthermore it would be misleading to put these men at extremes, the concise and the verbose.

In speaking or writing, the ancients believed, there are two qualities that conflict: brevitas and copia—brevity and fulness. The writer should not be long-winded, but nothing important must be omitted.

Erasmus is concerned about this, and wrote a treatise, De Copia, for the use of John Colet. At the beginning he commends ‘a speech exuberant with rich fulness of thoughts and words, like a river of gold’; but the unsuccessful speaker, he says, falls into useless verbosity: he has piled up his material with little judgement, and so he both obscures the issue and burdens the ears of his listeners. Thoughts and words have to be carefully assembled, and to give training in this skill is one of Colet’s most important tasks.

Cicero himself commends brevitas:

  • Habet paucis conprehensa brevitas multarum rerum expeditionem. Quare adhibenda saepe est, cum aut res non egent longae orationis aut tempus non sinet commorari. (Rhetorica ad Herennium IV.14)
  • Brevity, comprised in few words, makes a brisk presentation of much material. Therefore it is often to be used, when either the matters need no long expression or time does not allow delay.

But he was criticised, and still is criticised, for verbosity. Perhaps it is a matter of taste. He says he was indebted to Isocrates, of whose composition R. C. Jebb remarks: ‘instead of aiming at the vigorous compression fittest for real contests, it has a certain rich diffuseness. Dionysius speaks of the ὑπαγωγική περίοδος, the ‘meandering’ periods of Isocrates— having in his mind such an image as that of the river which leads us on from bend to bend through the soft beauties of its winding course.’ (Selections from the Attic Orators, Macmillan, pp. 281-2)

Perhaps the listeners to a Roman orator did so in more leisurely fashion than the crowd in the Athenian ἐκκλησία.