XLI. Eloquence changes with the times. Every age has its own peculiar advantages, and invidious comparisons are unnecessary.
XLII. Conclusion of the dialogue.
The time of this dialogue was the sixth of Vespasian’s reign.
Year of Rome—Of Christ Consuls.
828 75 Vespasian,
6th time; Titus his son,
A DIALOGUE CONCERNING ORATORY, OR THE CAUSES OF CORRUPT ELOQUENCE.
I. You have often enquired of me, my good friend, Justus Fabius [a], how and from what causes it has proceeded, that while ancient times display a race of great and splendid orators, the present age, dispirited, and without any claim to the praise of eloquence, has scarcely retained the name of an orator. By that appellation we now distinguish none but those who flourished in a former period. To the eminent of the present day, we give the title of speakers, pleaders, advocates, patrons, in short, every thing but orators.
The enquiry is in its nature delicate; tending, if we are not able to contend with antiquity, to impeach our genius, and if we are not willing, to arraign our judgement. An answer to so nice a question is more than I should venture to undertake, were I to rely altogether upon myself: but it happens, that I am able to state the sentiments of men distinguished by their eloquence, such as it is in modern times; having, in the early part of my life, been present at their conversation on the very subject now before us. What I have to offer, will not be the result of my own thinking: it is the work of memory only; a mere recital of what fell from the most celebrated orators of their time: a set of men, who thought with subtilty, and expressed themselves with energy and precision; each, in his turn, assigning different but probable causes, at times insisting on the same, and, in the course of the debate, maintaining his own proper character, and the peculiar cast of his mind. What they said upon the occasion, I shall relate, as nearly as may be, in the style and manner of the several speakers, observing always the regular course and order of the controversy. For a controversy it certainly was, where the speakers of the present age did not want an advocate, who supported their cause with zeal, and, after treating antiquity with sufficient freedom, and even derision, assigned the palm of eloquence to the practisers of modern times.
II. Curiatius Maternus [a] gave a public reading of his tragedy of Cato. On the following day a report prevailed, that the piece had given umbrage to the men in power. The author, it was said, had laboured to display his favourite character in the brightest colours; anxious for the fame of his hero, but regardless of himself. This soon became the topic of public conversation. Maternus received a visit from Marcus Aper [b] and Julius Secundus [c], both men of genius, and the first ornaments of the