A New Way to Appreciate Cicero’s Style

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Yelena Baraz, Classics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

I have always found teaching Latin literature in translation challenging. As someone who has been reading the texts in the original for many years, I have always been shocked by how much is lost when the beauty of the highly crafted inflected language is taken away. Consequently, I always feel that my students, the ones who don’t know Latin and are reading the English translations, are being shortchanged. This is particularly acute when understanding the author’s use of language is key to understanding the impact of his work, for example in oratory. Therefore, I found myself in a tough spot when I chose to teach Cicero’s orations to my Classics 100B class. These speeches are examples of some of the best Latin rhetorical writing, but the translation, understandably, focuses on getting the content right and most of Cicero’s brilliant rhetorical devices fall by the wayside.

If it was frustrating for me to teach these texts in English, it would also be frustrating for the students to read them. And sure enough, the grumbling started. “He is so full of himself,” “He is so repetitive,” “It’s so boring,” “I can’t believe people listened to this and liked it.” I was used to students complaining about Cicero’s personality, but in the past, when we were reading the speeches in the original, I could combat their irritation by getting them to appreciate the stylistic accomplishment, the beauty and the polish of the Latin. This time, though, Cicero wasn’t able to help me. Finally, I decided to focus on the question inherent in one of the complaints: what was it like to listen to a Cicero speech. I taught my students about Cicero’s style in the abstract: I put up on the board a list of rhetorical devices he likes to use and gave them examples of each type of device: where the translation kept the sentence structure of the original, I would point it out; otherwise, I found examples in English. And then I told them that, unlike their translation, the actual speeches were chock full of these things, and that the only way for them to understand what that was like would be to hear a speech written that way in English. I asked for volunteers to write short “Ciceronian” speeches on contemporary topics: the four students who were brave enough were told to use as many of the devices they learned about as they could manage. They would deliver speeches before the other students, who would try to identify the rhetorical devices as they listened.

As “speech day” approached, I got more and more nervous. What was I doing, asking my students to write Latinate speeches the likes of which they’d never read? I was anxious when I walked into the classroom and asked who wanted to go first. After the first couple of sentences I grabbed a piece of paper: a tricolon, and an ascending one at that! what a nice praeteritio! Cicero himself could be proud of such a clever word play as that! The other speeches lived up to the expectation set by the first. But the best part was the excitement of the audience-hands went up after each speech when I asked what they thought was Ciceronian in what they just heard. Students seemed mesmerized by the stylized flow of words. After all the speeches were over, we had a discussion about what they learned from listening to them. Someone said that it was now easy to see how people listened to Cicero and ignored the repetitions: the highly wrought language took over the content, blinded the audience, and made the job of persuasion much easier. We talked about listening to the less florid, but very present rhetoric in the speeches of contemporary politicians, and they students said they would now listen for the devices they learned. They still think Cicero is pompous, but they’ve gained some appreciation for what he does. But in the end they learned about more than Ciceronian style, they learned about the persuasive power of the rhetorical craft. And that is an impressively modern lesson to learn in a Classics course.