In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cicero's Rhetorical Works

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Influence and Reception

Classics Cicero's Rhetorical Works
James M. May
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0357


Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) rose to prominence in the state during the final decades of the Roman Republic. Blessed with a goodly measure of natural ability, an extraordinary amount of self-discipline, and a remarkably broad and deep education not only in rhetoric but also in philosophy and the other noble arts, Cicero employed his oratorical skill to establish himself in the courts and on the Rostra as Rome’s finest orator. He was elected to the state’s chief political offices at the youngest possible age, and during the final months of his consulship (63 BCE), he foiled a plot by L. Sergius Catilina to overthrow the government. His decisive action in that affair was the source of great glory and pride in having saved the state, but also of great pain and heartache, for some five years later he was forced into exile for his part in the summary execution of Catilinarian co-conspirators who were also Roman citizens. Following his return to Rome, he found himself at loggerheads with members of the so-called “First Triumvirate,” a situation that resulted for him in something like a forced retirement from political activity. A decade later, in the wake of Julius Caesar’s victory in the civil war and subsequent dictatorship, Cicero was placed in a similar situation. During both these occasions (namely, the mid-50s and mid-40s BCE), he channeled his energies in the direction of his other great love, i.e., contemplation, study, and writing. Remarkably, these two periods saw him produce nearly a score of treatises, including his most important and influential rhetorical writings, wherein he enunciated his deeply-held conviction that eloquent speech (coupled with reason) was a chief civilizing factor in human society—a glue that binds and builds well-ordered communities when employed responsibly by its most expert practitioners. Following the assassination of Caesar and the emergence of Marcus Antonius as a force who appeared to be aiming to secure his own dictatorial powers, Cicero once again took up the mantle of the Republic, hoping for its restoration. He opposed Antonius and his actions by writing and delivering to the Senate and people a series of speeches known as the Philippics. But on the brink of success, young Caesar Octavianus allied himself with Antonius, and Cicero’s name found a prominent place on the list of those proscribed: his head and hands, severed by Antonius’s henchmen, were gruesomely displayed on the speaker’s platform in the Roman forum. See the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Classics Cicero for a general and more comprehensive bibliography of Cicero and his other works. Other Oxford Bibliographies articles that may be of interest include Greek Rhetoric, Latin Rhetoric, and Rhetoric.

General Overviews

Cicero, to be sure, viewed himself primarily as a statesman and a speaker, not as a rhetorician. Nevertheless, his native intellectual curiosity, his extensive oratorical training, and his desire to pass on to subsequent generations his thoughts on the art of verbal persuasion prompted him to compose several treatises on rhetorical subjects at various junctures in his career. Kennedy 1972 offers a useful survey of all the rhetorical works; Fantham 1989 and Dugan 2013 provide general observations on the chief treatises, while Douglas 1973 and Wisse 2002 supply important background information for the rhetorical works. May 2002 contains dedicated essays on the major rhetorica, while Dominik and Hall 2007 present articles on manifold aspects of Roman rhetoric in general as well as specific essays on Cicero. Dugan 2005 and Connolly 2007 focus more narrowly on particular works as they relate to the broader themes covered in their analysis.

  • Connolly, J. 2007. The state of speech: Rhetoric and political thought at Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A thoughtful analysis of Cicero’s political thought as revealed in his rhetorical works, particularly De oratore, Brutus, and Orator.

  • Dominik, W. J., and J. C. R. Hall, eds. 2007. A companion to Roman rhetoric. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Offers a dedicated essay on Cicero as rhetorician as well as thirty-one other articles on most all aspects of Roman rhetoric.

  • Douglas, A. E. 1973. The intellectual background of Cicero’s rhetorica: A study in method. In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt I. 3. 95–138. Berlin and New York: DeGruyter.

    Provides general information on Cicero’s dependence on Greek rhetorical theory, theories of style, and Roman Atticism.

  • Dugan, J. 2005. Making a new man: Ciceronian self-fashioning in the rhetorical works. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An exploration of the ways in which Cicero endeavors to fashion a favorable portrait of himself, and create for himself a place within Roman culture via the authorship of his rhetorical treatises. Concentrates primarily on De oratore, Brutus, and Orator.

  • Dugan, J. 2013. Cicero’s rhetorical theory. In The Cambridge companion to Cicero. Edited by C. E. W. Steel, 25–40. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Informative general essay covering De inventione, De oratore, Brutus, and Orator.

  • Fantham, E. 1989. The growth of literature and criticism at Rome. In The Cambridge history of literary criticism. Vol. 1, Classical criticism. Edited by G. A. Kennedy, 220–244. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    General essay that includes valuable observations on De inventione, De oratore, Brutus, and Orator.

  • Kennedy, G. A. 1972. The art of rhetoric in the Roman world 300 BC–AD 300. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Still the best starting point for an overview of Cicero’s rhetorical works; a clear, incisive, and succinct survey of the rhetorica.

  • May, J. M., ed. 2002. Brill’s companion to Cicero: Oratory and rhetoric. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Contains contributions by leading experts that cover in varying degrees of detail Cicero’s rhetorical works and the intellectual climate surrounding their composition. A useful, comprehensive bibliography (up to 2002) is included.

  • Winterbottom, M., et al. 1983. Cicero, rhetorical works: De oratore, Brutus, Orator. In Texts and transmission: A survey of the Latin classics. Edited by L. D. Reynolds, 102–109. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Outlines the transmission and texts of Cicero’s three chief rhetorical works.

  • Wisse, J. 2002. The intellectual background of Cicero’s rhetorical works. In Brill’s companion to Cicero: Oratory and rhetoric. Edited by James M. May, 331–374. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Places the rhetorical works within the intellectual context of Cicero’s Rome, including sections on Greek influence, the disciplines of grammar and rhetoric, the quarrel between rhetoricians and philosophers, and the Atticist controversy.

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