Maccari-CiceroMost of the speeches of Cicero are under an hour in length, if you recite them aloud.  But in most universities studying one of his speeches might take a good chunk of an entire semester.  Could the Romans really have understood language this complex, live, in real time?

I trust I would not shock you if I said that both the study and the love of Shakespeare benefits greatly from the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are still performed. I have mused over the profundities of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for decades now – more on this later – but still my most personal memories come from when I saw it performed at my high school when I was a freshman. There was controversy about it – the senior who was considered the best actor did not get one of the romantic leads, which he very much wanted. I thought at the time he had been shamefully denied. I was by nature a bit more bookish, and I admired him greatly – he really was able to do anything on stage, seemingly without any shyness or shame at all, while I always felt myself to be more limited. In my literal youthfulness I thought he deserved the part with the most lines. Instead he was given the part of Bottom the Tailor, which of course is one of the immortal roles of Shakespeare, and to boot was utterly suited for him. I imagine those nights on the stage when he was seventeen must be one of that middle-aged man’s great memories. His performance certainly is one of the great memories for me: he was transcendently egotistical and shameless and completely histrionic, and now twenty-five years later I can still remember inflections of his voice from that performance.

But what about the situation in Classics? Is there anything we can learn from the cultural relevance that Shakespeare continues to have? Almost every year, some Shakespeare production emerges in New York City which the New Yorkers simply must see – and there are Shakespeare festivals all over the country. But for us Classicists – how many of us have heard Greek or Latin poetry performed live? – as we know it was experienced by the ancients – and how many of us have done it enough to really understand it that way? What about Classical political oratory? How many people have heard that performed? Here I’m sure the answer is almost no one at all. Even if we don’t imagine that there will be Cicero festivals in Ashland, Oregon, I bet there are things we can learn from hearing the Classics, and seeing them performed. We all know that a Shakespeare scholar who had never seen a Shakespeare play performed would be missing a vital ingredient for understanding Shakespeare. I’m sure they learn something new about his plays every time they see them performed. I suspect this because I recently happen to have heard – on July 7th of this year – the entire Third Catilinarian Oration of Cicero delivered live in the Roman Forum, and I was impressed by what I learned and the entire effect it had on me.

The performance was part of the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in Rome program. The speech was delivered by a group of thirty-six students – mostly American college students – each of whom memorized and declaimed a portion of the speech. They delivered it right at the foot of the Temple of Concord, where it was first pronounced 2078 years ago, on the slopes of the Capitoline overlooking the Forum. The performance took place late in the afternoon, as the shadows were creeping across the ruins – it was lovely at the end of the speech to hear Cicero talking about the approach of night, and how the citizens should go back home and guard their houses, just as the cool of evening was coming on. Merely to be there, to be standing in the Forum hearing Latin bouncing off the stones was something – though I got more out of it than just a general atmosphere.

The first thing that struck me was how Cicero had to deal with people in his speech. The Third Catilinarian is largely narratio – and so Cicero was faced with presenting to his audience a large number of names – of conspirators, witnesses, the law enforcement officials who assisted Cicero in detaining the conspirators – and he had to somehow transform those names into characters. This he does mainly with epithets – tags that identify people, much as in Homer. When you hear the names, they leap out from the Latin as being unfamiliar – they were probably at least somewhat unfamiliar to the crowd as well – and so Cicero identifies them. So we have phrases like Lucium Flaccum et Gaium Pomptinum praetores, fortissimos atque amantissimos rei publicae viros. Throughout the speech this is pretty consistent Ciceronian practice: his description is so colored it is basically a crowd reaction cue: “Clap here,” or “Boo here.” But unlike our State of the Union addresses, which are constantly interrupted by crowd reaction, Cicero seems to be intent on getting a fair amount of narration done, so he uses these especially when he transitions from one group to another – the good guys to the bad guys, or vice versa. You barely even need to know Latin to know that someone described as atque horum omnium scelerum inprobissimum machinatorem, Cimbrum Gabinium is a bad guy. While Gaius Sulpicius, fortem virum puts you back with the good guys. It was very easy to sit there and react like a groundling to the speech – Cicero makes it pretty clear what reaction you’re supposed to be having. Many modern writers look down on the adjective precisely for this reason – it is determinative rather than ambiguous – but for the clear divisions of political oratory it is simply a useful communicative tool.

Another thing which struck me was how steeped in religion the speech was. And I don’t mean just a few Di immortales! thrown in here or there. There’s a whole section about the Sibylline books, about who “the third Cornelius” of prophecy is, about giving Jupiter a new statue (it has to be bigger!), and then a pretty lengthy meditation by Cicero on how he really believed that the easy uncovering of the plot couldn’t have all just happened – it must have been the work of the gods. And standing there, just under the brow of the Temple of Saturn which was also the treasury of the state, hearing a speech which was given from another temple, about the image of Jupiter in yet another temple, and about the Sibylline books kept in yet another temple, and being very much surrounded by even more religious edifices, it’s hard not to be impressed at how completely intertwined Roman politics and religion really were. We occasionally transpose our ideas about the separation of church and state to the ancient world, probably just out of habit of mind. But even in the constitutional details in ancient Rome you can’t escape religion. Cicero in the speech talks about not having to worry about executing the praetor-conspirator Lentulus because he had resigned his office and no longer had immunity – but the term he uses for the immunity of magistrates from trial and punishment is “religio.” Gibbon thought that Cicero was being utterly cynical when he started talking religion, and believed that Roman magistrates simply found religion “useful” – to manipulate the masses. But standing there in the Forum you get the sense that even Cicero might have been confused, if religion was supposed to be the means and the state the end, where one ended and the other began.

CiceroI also feel that I got an answer, hearing the speech recited live, to a question which I think a lot of Classicists do ask – did the Romans actually understand Latin this difficult without the benefit of seeing it on the page? Struggling through speeches like this in third-year Latin, it seems almost impossible. Some classes will do a Catilinarian speech in a semester – we listened to the whole thing in an hour. And now I’m certain: they understood. I understood eighty percent of what I heard – not all, for sure, but certainly enough to convince me the Romans had no trouble with it. Some I could not understand because of the unevenness of the delivery – not all the memorization was perfect, nor was all the phrasing or pronunciation perfect (though I was impressed, in general, by how well it was all done). Other material I didn’t understand because I didn’t know really know the context – which an ancient listener would have known far better. And then some stuff was simply grammatically too difficult for me to understand, particularly when clauses were inserted inside clauses. But in general I understood the speech. I was helped, of course, by having read it before – but to tell the truth, I read it last in 1993, in high school, a full twenty-three years ago, and I didn’t remember very much of it (I really had no idea the Sibylline books were so important, or there was all this stuff about religion in there – maybe our Latin teacher left it out?). Then six sections (one-sixth) I knew because I had helped the students prep those sections. But in fact I understood those sections much better when I had the full context of the speech – that helped much more than going over the Latin in the classroom.

This leaves us with the basic fact, which continues to embarrass all our efforts as teachers and scholars, that the Romans stood around in the Forum popping glires and garum and understood as much Cicero in an hour as our students can in two or three months of classroom work. And I come fresh from the Forum with this certainty: we can produce people who really understand Latin, but we have to change our methods in order to achieve this goal. Wheelock will not do it. I gave you a test in the last paragraph, and let’s see if you passed it: did you find in the last paragraph the completely ridiculous, bizarre sentence that only a Classicist could think is normal? It’s the sentence “did the Romans actually understand Latin this difficult without the benefit of seeing it on the page?” This really is backwards. Our brains are wired for language, naturally, and only secondarily are they capable of reading and writing, and the processing power of our brain is far stronger in language spoken and heard. If you don’t believe me, try testing a group of students on a play of Shakespeare they have never been exposed to: give all of them three hours to prepare, and allow half to see the play performed, and the other half give nothing but a text. We all know which group will know the play better. Seeing it performed offers so many more cues than the mere page – tone, inflection, gesture, dynamic variation, pacing, etc. We very minimally reproduce this gesture-language with punctuation – now think about how difficult written language would be without punctuation – but performance is in every way a better use of one’s time.

And the more you do it, the better you get at understanding it. I could understand eighty percent of that Cicero speech because I have spoken and heard a great deal of Latin by this stage of my life. I didn’t start out this way. I read Cicero with the grammar-translation method in high school, slogging through the whole, looking up every word, decoding as I went. When I did it, I had never had a single conversation in Latin – not even of the simplest sort. Now, twenty-plus years later, I have probably logged two or three thousand hours of Latin conversation. In those thousands of hours, my powers of understanding Latin have grown so much that I can do what amouts to half a semester of college Latin in an hour. But let’s not kid ourselves: Cicero and every single one of his audience members had heard three thousand hours of spoken Latin before they were six months old. Their Latin was much better.

Ours is so bad because we really have been doing things backwards. In fact, I will return to the profundities of Shakespeare and Nick Bottom, who does things backwards better than anyone. Do you remember that part where he wakes from his dream?

Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream.

Is this not what we ask of our students? Are not the Classics Bottom’s Dream? We ask their eyes to hear Cicero, their ears to see him. Then when their hands are not able to taste, nor their tongues to conceive, nor their hearts able to report back on Cicero, we call on Classical expert opinion to expound it for us. Philology is the ballad of Peter Quince.

But a change is afoot, and I am become a laudator temporis futuri. Our mission at SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, whose mission it is to promote active-language methods for Latin, and in just that time I have been amazed at the appetite for living Latin and living Greek which is mushrooming over the country. We’re finding it difficult to produce enough programming for the demand: this year we will have three rusticationes, and at least two and probably more bidua. And we are starting to cooperate more with the Paideia Institute – hence my time in Rome with them – whose founders deserve enormous credit for getting the languages into the field, bringing Cicero back to the Forum, and Plautus to Ostia, and Horace and Sappho to the Auditorium of Maecenas, and so many other things. It’s exciting – I can see already how so many young people are so far ahead of where I was at their age, because of the training in speaking and listening and performing they already have. There’s a lot more to be done. But more and more people are becoming able to do it. And if it comes to your area, don’t miss the opportunity – I promise, the more you do it, the more you’ll understand, and the more convinced you’ll be.  It won’t just be Greek (or Latin) to you anymore.

Written by John Kuhner

5 Comments / Understanding Cicero.

[…] A piece I wrote for the SALVI blog about hearing Cicero performed, which answered for me one of the questions I have heard Classicists voice aloud: whether or not the Romans could really understand grammar and language as difficult as Cicero’s, in real time, live in the Forum.  An hourlong speech can take half a semester for American college students to read – and that at the best colleges.  How did the Romans pull it off?  Simple: the auditory equipment of the brain for processing language is far faster and more powerful than the analytical tools of philology.  Read for yourself. […]

Timotheus Smith

I remember a great story from my AP teacher, Henry Bender, who had to cover a colleague’s Latin III class in which they were reading the First Catilinarian. Oops, I mean they were translating Cicero, a distinctly different activity from reading. Anyway, one of the students, and mind you – these were juniors who were required to take three years or Latin – asked, ‘Hey Doc, how long do you think it took Cicero to give this speech?’ Dr. Bender replied that he had an old record in his office of someone reciting it and it lasted about an hour. ‘Man, Doc, those Romans sure could translate fast!’

Bene scriptum, amice. The anaology of Cicero to Shakespeare is apt. Nonetheless,it seems to me that a closer comparison is Cicero to Hamilton. The difficulty of reading (or, perhaps translating) one of the Federalist Papers in English, especially for an exchange student, brings into light the challenge of reading superior level English as much as the challenge of reading superior level Latin. At the end of the day, cultivating the ability to read such stuff is well worth the effort and context is everything. I find that reading a sentence from Hamilton or James Madison aloud (and with a decent colonial accent) does more to make it comprehensible than any amount of parsing.

John Bonner

I greatly enjoyed reading of your personal experience with “living Cicero.” However, I have a question and a comment.

Re reading Hamilton or James Madison aloud (and with a decent colonial accent) … What is considered a “decent colonial accent” as I am quite sure that a colonial in Bostonian New England pronounced his/her English in a different manner than a colonial in Charlestonian South Carolina. Hamilton was from New York and Madison from Virginia. Each would have pronounced English differently.

I’m also curious how you pronounce Latin. I am supposing that you and other members of Salvi pronounce it with the Classical pronunciation. I’m interested in how the pronunciation changed over time. Personally I prefer a slightly modified version of Church Latin (I grew up Roman Catholic and well remember services in Latin). Instead of pronouncing soft c as in Italian (ch), I prefer the Northern pronunciation which pronounces soft c as ts. I prefer pronouncing provincia as pro-vin-tsia rather than pro-wing-kia.


Well written, with a good point: how can we re-enact in ourselves the listening skills of a Classical language? I am sure, the structure of the Ciceronian sentences, inflections of the language, performance of the visible gestures, talent in the oratio, ritual of the gathering of people to taste the logos / of the zoon politikon fulfilled by the atmosphere of the Roman Forum, the striking descriptive / qualifying adjectives( epithets), the intertwining between religion and politics( in antiquity , there is more respect and understanding for the humanities and the human being specifically, on top of the fact that jobs / labor were considered sacred( see Mircea Eliade, History of religions/ ; I could only laugh when I watched on TV the Debates for presidency where the candidates were including religion , and speaking about their teary religious life- there was no connection between the two, even though the spoken language was trying hard to make one believe that religion is meanigful for the zoon politikon?!); “…The Romans stood around in the Forum popping glires and garum and understood as much Cicero in an hour as our students can in two or three months…Wheelock will not do it…”- at the University of Minnesota they are still using Wheelock , thinking that is going to help the students in Latin?!/ the spoken ciceronian oratorical language here was understood more efficiently because the official language was meant for the Roman citizen , even though the diversification of the people being Roman citizens was much richer than we think today, meaning that their natural language could not be dominated by the Latin- let’s just think of Apostle Paul and his effort to baptise people from all nations -….;
” Our brains are wired for language , naturally, and only secondary are they capable of reading and writing-, and the processing power of our brain is far stronger in language spoken and heard”- it depends what you mean by ” natural” aptitude of humans for language: you almost mean in the text that Latin is a ” natural” language for us , but there is no scientific data that the spoken language was innate for us, 70,000 years ago, let’s say. Besides, as Umberto Eco says, we understand what we want from a text, written or spoken, so it takes hermeneutics of the year 62 after Christ to take in the culture and history of that Roman era. Thank you for the awareness.

Allan R. Taylor

I agree that the natural and normal way to deal with language is the spoken form. That being said, the cultivated and ornate form of a language (if there is such a form) as used in formal presentations must generally be more difficult to process, since 1) it is not the usual spoken form and 2) you have to deal with more than just normal syntax. Remember that style can add many flourishes, and these must be recognized and processed. Someone well used to formal diction would take all of that in stride quite easily, from long habit and practice. Someone less familiar would be less successful.
I find it interesting that some human beings are impressed and stimulated by elevated (read complex and deliberately complicated) style. It seems to be an innate trait, since complex texts and complex recitation occur in languages world wide. (Cf. e.g.. Norse skaldic poetry or a Navaho healing rite, which can go on for days, and in an archaic form of language.)


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