And Now, A Brief Word from Cicero

by Michele Kennerly
And Now, A Brief Word from Cicero

Photo from Oxford English Dictionary online.

Assistant Professor, Dept. of Communication Arts & Sciences and Dept. of Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies

Though emolumentum launched into language in ancient Rome, it is not a frequently used word in classical Latin. (Transformed, it ends up in Old English in the fifteenth century after a journey through Old French.) What can we learn from its appearance in a famous rhetorical text?

Gratissima autem laus eorum factorum habetur quae suscepta videntur a viris fortibus sine emolumento ac praemio […]”

“But the very most gratifying praise belongs to deeds that seem to have been undertaken by commanding men without profit or payment.”

Cicero, De Oratore 2.85.346

Cicero is known for his words but not for being brief. His prolixity results from his taking on complex questions about how to live a public life. In 55 BCE, while Julius Caesar amassed increasingly more military power, Cicero composed De Oratore (On the Orator), a lengthy work constructed like a dialogue and whose central preoccupation lies with establishing the qualities that make for a good orator, essentially, a spokesperson for res publica (literally, the public thing).

The excerpt above hails from a part of the conversation in which the élite men talk amongst themselves about speeches of praise and what virtues do the most potent public work. One of the category-sets of virtue they discuss distinguishes communal virtues (e.g., trustworthiness, kindness) from individual virtues (e.g., dignity). It is not long thereafter that the excerpted sentence appears. The use of the superlative form (“gratissima”/“most gratifying”) in the excerpt tells us there’s no controversy on the matter of what actions from what sort of people in what sort of conditions earn the praise most pleasing for a community to hear. A public person’s being appropriately motivated is something communities recognize as in their interest to know, and that has long been so. The “seems” (videntur) in the excerpt is noteworthy, and stereotypically Ciceronian: we usually cannot know, definitively, whether a public figure received “profit or payment” for their deeds, but we need to read the signs.