A Dialogue Concerning Oratorical Partitions – (also called De Partitione Oratoria Dialogus, Partitiones Oratoriae, or De Partitionbus Oratoriae, translated to be “On the subdivisions of oratory”) is a rhetorical treatise, written by Cicero. According to the method of the Middle Academy, the treatise is sometimes described as a “catechism of rhetoric,” for it is presented in the form of questions and answers.1 Cicero wrote it as a little handbook for his young son, Marcus. It is structured as a dialogue between Cicero and his son. His son asks questions and Cicero provides answers.
There is much debate regarding when exactly it was written, either in 54 BCE or in 46 BCE. Around 54 BCE, Cicero was extremely interested in his son Marcus’ education, and he was not satisfied with the boy’s teacher. He expressed interest in teaching Marcus himself. At this time, Marcus was eleven years of age; the simple structure of the treatise of questions and answers would have been very appropriate for his age. However, some scholars believe boys at the age of eleven were too young to be taught by a rhetor. These scholars argue that the treatise was written in 46 BCE, just before then 19- year-old Marcus left for Athens to study rhetoric. At this time, Cicero was teaching oratory and the treatise would have been useful to his son. But the treatise is somewhat elementary and the structure seems better suited for an eleven-year-old rather than a nineteen-year-old. Furthermore, there is no written proof that Cicero composed the treatise as preparation for his son in 46; the evidence points towards the earlier date, where Cicero relates in his letters that he is very interested in Marcus’ education.2
By this time in his life (from the year 56 onwards), Cicero could no longer voice his political principles without the risk of exile. “He had lost his freedom of speech and speech was his life.”3 He resorted to writing treatises. A Dialogue Concerning Oratorical Partitions is one of Cicero’s treatises in this period of his life, written after his most famous dialogue on rhetoric De oratore. 4
The treatise begins when Cicero’s son asks his father,
“I wish…to hear the rules concerning the principles of speaking…Into how many parts is the whole system of speaking divided?” (486).
His father replies,
“Is there anything, my Cicero, which I can be more desirous of than that you should be as learned as possible?” (486).
Cicero then undertakes a systematic discussion of eloquence. He says rhetoric is arranged under three headings – “first of all, the power of the orator; secondly, the speech; thirdly, the subject of the speech” (486). The power of the orator consists of ideas and words, which must be “discovered and arranged.” “To discover” applies mostly to ideas and “to be eloquent” applies more to language (487). There are five “companions of eloquence” - “voice, gesture, expression of countenance,…action,…and memory” (487). There are four parts of a speech: two of them explain a subject – “narration” and “confirmation;” two of them excite the minds of the hearers – “the opening” and “the peroration” (the conclusion) (487). The narration and confirmation add credibility to the speech while the opening and conclusion should produce feelings (493).
He then goes on to say the “cause” or subject of a speech is “divided according to the divisions of hearers” (489). There are three kinds of subjects: embellishment, aimed to give pleasure; judicial, aimed to either make a judge punish or forgive; and deliberation, aimed to persuade the assembly to either hope or fear (see Aristotle on rhetorical genre) (489). Of these causes, Cicero goes deepest into judicial oratory, therefore emphasizing “the desirableness of maintaining the laws, and the danger with which all public and private affairs are threatened (525).”
Cicero ends his treatise with a humanistic view of rhetoric that praises expansive education.
“And without a knowledge of these most important arts how can an orator have either energy or variety in his discourse, so as to speak properly of things good or bad, just or unjust, useful or useless, honourable or base?”(526).5
This work shows Cicero’s shifted view of rhetoric. In his earlier writings, he favored an exclusive, technical idea of rhetoric. But as he aged, his view changed to an “all-encompassing” idea. This idea is modeled on Philo’s rhetorical teachings. Philo, Cicero’s teacher from the Academy, taught Cicero “Academic dialectic,” in which rhetoric included both the particular, forensic question and the general, philosophic question. Previous to and during Cicero’s lifetime, there was a quarrel between rhetoricians and philosophers over whether rhetoric was restricted to only the forensic and technical sphere, or if it included the abstract and philosophical realm. “Specifically, Cicero suggest[s] ascending from the [restrictive] to the [general] in a speech.”6 This work thus gives rhetoric the more simplistic treatment as a teachable art at the same time as it continues the themes of De Oratore, praising the ideal orator who appreciates and utilizes expansive education and training.
1 Taylor, Hinnis. Cicero: A Sketch of his Life and Work. Chicago: A. C. McClurg,
1916. pg. 330.
2 Gilleland, Brady B. Classical Philology, Vol: 56, No. 1. Ch. The Date of Cicero’s
“Partitiones Oratoriae.” pg. 29-32. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
: . .
3 Fantham, Elaine. The Roman World of Cicero’s De Oratore. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2006. pg. 9.
4 May, James M. and Jakob Wisse. Cicero: On the Ideal Orator. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2001. pg. 22.
5 Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Translr. Yonge, C. D. The Orations of Marcus
, , and , .
Tullius Cicero. Vol. 4. Ch. A Dialogue Concerning Oratorical Partitions. pg.
486-526. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1921.
6 Reinhardt, Tobias. The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 50. Ch. Rhetoric in the Fourth
Academy. pg. 531- 535. The Classical Association. Great Britain: Cambridge
University Press, 2000.
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