The Art Of Speaking And Writing Well

When Rome conquered Greece, it adopted many of her techniques of education.  One of these was the emphasis on rhetoric (the art of speaking and writing well) as an independent field of study.  Rhetoric became a sophisticated subject, and rhetorical training was in great demand in imperial Rome for anyone aspiring to a career in government or politics.  Rome had no formal “state prosecutor” system as we do today; individuals needed to bring their own criminal or civil cases before a tribunal (iudices) and hire lawyers to argue on their behalf.  Historians also were usually trained rhetoricians; the works of Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, Ammianus Marcellinus, and others are filled with robust speeches and artful epigrams that demonstrate the influence of rhetorical schooling.  But training in rhetoric was about more than improving one’s speaking and writing; properly understood, a program in rhetoric was only part of a larger focus on character development.

This article will give an overview of some the best rhetorical writings that have survived from this period.  The techniques that these old masters described are still valid today.  Who among us does not wish to improve his speaking or writing?  Who among us does not wish to improve his character?  A close study of Cicero, Seneca the Elder, and Quintilian show just how developed classic rhetorical techniques were.  I will treat each of these writers individually.


Cicero, of course, needs no introduction.  The only Roman who surpassed the Greek orators in eloquence and verbal dexterity, his speeches remain masterpieces of invective, persuasive power, and philosophical subtlety.  Space here prevents a detailed review of his career and works, but it is sufficient to say that the Catilinian orations, the Verrine orations, and his so-called Phillipics still stand today as exemplars of the rhetorical art.  Less well known, however, is his short treatise On the Classification of Rhetoric (De Partitione Oratoria).  Although a technical treatise, it contains much of value to the serious student of oratory.

According to Cicero, the functions of an orator were:  (1) inventio, the discovery of arguments meant to influence an audience;  (2) collocatio, the proper arrangement of arguments in a form suitable to maximize effect; (3) elocutio, the differing varieties of speaking styles; (4) actio, techniques of delivery; and (4) memoria, the cultivation of the memory.

A speech can be divided into these constituent parts:  (1) exordium, the introduction, designed to win favor with the audience; (2) narratio, the “statement of the case”, which should be direct, clear, and uncluttered; (3) confirmatio, a laying out of “proofs” by reciting facts or valid precedent; (4) reprehensio, a refutation of the opponent’s points; and (5) peroratio, the all-important summation, in which everything is brought together.  Cicero goes into great detail with each of these components of a speech, and the reader senses the hand of a master on every page of the treatise.


Theodore Roosevelt’s emphasis on character and oratorical skill places him squarely in the classical tradition

Seneca the Elder

Not to be confused with his more well-known son Seneca the philosopher, Seneca the Elder was a Spanish rhetorician who, late in his life, collected his lessons from a lifetime of teaching into a comprehensive handbook.  Seneca was concerned with two types of speeches:  the arguing of legal controversies (controversiae) and the presentation of suasoriae, which were speeches on deliberative topics.  Students improved their speaking and writing by means of “declamations” (declamationes), defined as the giving of imaginary speeches.  Seneca had an incredibly detailed memory, cultivated by years of practice in speech-giving.  The two volumes of his book contain his recollections of the sayings, advice, and sample exercises of other master rhetoricians.  Most of it appears to have been written directly from his prodigious memory.

How did these “declamations” work in practice?  The instructor would offer a proposition or legal issue, such as the following:

A man disinherited his son.  The disinherited son went to a prostitute and had a son by her.  He then fell ill and sent for his father.  When his father came, he entrusted his son to his father, and then died.  After his death, the father adopted the boy.  The man’s other son accuses the father of defective judgment (dementia).  [Controv. II.4].

Students would then have to argue the merits and issues of each side, within strict time limits.  Their techniques and logic would be critiqued by the instructor, and they would then have to argue the opposite side.

Seneca’s book is filled with interesting bits and pieces of rhetorical wisdom and amusing anecdotes accumulated from a lifetime in the oratorical trenches.  It is surprising that he is so obscure today; perhaps declamations and spoken artistry appeal only to lawyers.


The most complete study of the rhetorical art is to be found in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (The Orator’s Education).  This work, written in a clear and vigorous Latin, and filling five volumes in the Loeb Library series, is a virtual encyclopedia on proper speaking.  Quintilian was the rector of a school of rhetoric, and wrote his masterwork in old age for the intended use of his son; but tragedy overtook his family, and both his sons died at young ages.  He poured all his experience, his wisdom, and his repressed anguish into his work.  Perhaps we, his readers, should consider ourselves his sons; for on every page we feel the magnetism and rectitude of a strong character backed by an unwavering moral compass.

For Quintilian, a man cannot be a good speaker without having a sound moral character:

Noting is so preoccupied, so many-faceted, so mauled and torn apart by so many different emotions, as an evil mind.  When it is plotting something, it is tormented with hope, cares, and labor.  Even when it has attained its ends, it is racked by anxiety and remorse, and the expectation of punishment.  What room is there amid all this for literature and cultural life?  No more, to be sure, than there is room for a good crop where the land is given over to thorns and brambles. [Q. XII.1].

He believed that the aspiring orator should study music and dance to give himself balance and rhythm; athletics, to cultivate his physique; literature and philosophy, to mold his character and reasoning; and science, to sensitize himself to physical reality.  Here is a prescription not just to be a good speaker, but to be a good man.  He recognizes that his training program is arduous, and has no illusions that most will be up to the task.  Regarding the actual mechanics of giving a speech, Quintilian offers mountains of practical advice.  Among the best bits of wisdom are:

1.  Do not write your speech down unless you intend to deliver it verbatim, which will rarely happen.  It will interfere with the spontaneity of the delivery.  Instead, outline it, and know those topics thoroughly.

2.  Clarity is the most important virtue of all.  A written composition must be set aside for a time, then patiently revised again.  A piece of writing that is laid aside, and then approached again, will appear to be almost the writing of another hand.  Be ruthless with your pruning, and remember that your listeners will have little patience with verbosity.

3.  Avoid wild gesticulations when speaking, but seek the mastery of effective hand movements.  Quintilian has an entire section in his treatise on the proper types and employment of hand movements as an aid to communication.

4.  Seek a balance between traditional and modern styles of writing.  Between two extremes, the best course is often somewhere in the middle.

Tacitus and Pliny the Younger are counted among Quintilian’s pupils, and they represent some of the best in Latin literature.  He was a great influence on St. Augustine and many early Church fathers who received a rhetorical instruction in the later imperial period.  Nearly forgotten in the Middle Ages, interest in him was revived during the Renaissance when a complete manuscript of the Institutes was discovered by Poggio Bracciolini in a monastery in 1416.


Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. A.D. 35-100).  For him, character was the sine qua non of good oratory.

All in all, Quintilian embodies the best that classical rhetoric can offer.  We feel the immediacy of his message that the training of character is just as important as the importation of knowledge; and his pages resonate with the dignity, humanity, and wit of an experienced schoolmaster.  Modern education has done young men a disservice by neglecting the development of virtue and character.  One gets the sense, from reading the works of the ancients, that modern methods of instruction have pushed the acquisition of huge volumes of technical information at the expense of the development of character.  We are now paying dearly for this deficiency.

Perhaps the secret of Rome’s longevity lies in the fact that its educated elite emphasized good character as much as wisdom.  Its best and wisest men knew that, without character, a man was doomed.  Eloquence, for all its lustre, eventually loses its shine without a strong foundation in worldly virtue.  In words that our millennial generation would do well to remember, he cautions us:

The young should not be held back in an imaginary world, or accustom themselves to empty shadows to the point where they find it hard to abandon them.  The danger is that, coming out of the shady retreats in which they have almost grown old, they may shrink from the bright sunlight of real conflict. [Q.X.5].

The best teachers, to be sure, are not only transmitters of knowledge, but are also stimuli for our moral renovation.  We have never needed such teachers more than we do now.

Read More:  This May Be The Fastest Way To Learn A Language

49 thoughts on “The Art Of Speaking And Writing Well”

    1. Maybe as a gag, Quintus Curtus should write a terrible article, just to throw everyone off! 🙂

      1. It’s because he knows how to write. Sometimes, reading others’ articles, the message is distorted because I can’t get passed the grammar. It’s difficult to take a post or advice seriously when it’s riddled with errors. Luckily, with persistence, accumulating advice on this website has given me the ability to improve my general life.
        Thanks return of kings for your content!
        Thanks Mr. Curtius for having a gasp of class!

        1. Get “passed” the grammar? Nice. Maybe you should look into refreshing your own knowledge before pointing out flaws elsewhere.

        2. I think he was proving a point. It’s about the message anyway, don’t get so hung up on the vessel.

  1. Inspiring article Quintus.
    I like Quintillians idea of being well rounded. Helps to avoid coming across as full of hot air to an intelligent audience.

  2. There was a stigma attached to providing cunnilingus on a woman. Such man was never allowed to hold a public speech because he had Os impurum (filthy mouth). Cicero used it as an insult.

  3. “A piece of writing that is laid aside, and then approached again, will appear to be almost the writing of another hand.”
    This is very true. The work of fiction I’m writing now is going to need much pruning because of this.

    1. Not only with writing but very commonly with other art forms as well. I have experienced that in my music pieces as well.
      But in any case it is important for it to happen as it describes the author at a point in time. We are not the same in different temporal coordinates – product of our experiences.

  4. I like the part about being well rounded. I’ve recently considered improving my penmanship because it is an interesting discipline and shows care and consideration towards clarity and the aesthetic. I’m thinking Spencerian or the business script that developed from Spencerian.

  5. “Students would then have to argue the merits and issues of each side, within strict time limits.”
    Oh that our politicians could venture to do such a thing!

  6. excellent article. Once I get some more free time I will buy one of these books to improve my skills

    1. Brad:
      As you might have guessed, I’ve bought all of these books from the Loeb Series. It’s my favorite resource for classical texts, since you get both the original text and a professional translation. You also get an impressive critical apparatus, footnotes, introductions, indexes, etc.
      The problem for most people is price. Each volume is $26 and when you consider that the complete Quintilian is in five volumes, things can add up if you’re still a student. Since this type of thing is my passion, I don’t mind the expense. But for most guys, the Penguin series can be a good alternative.
      Seneca’s treatise is a strange book, and one I’d also recommend. Some of the things that were debated are just hilarious: all sorts of crimes, misdeeds, rapes, assaults, thefts, etc.
      As for Cicero, his writings are widely available and reasonably priced. The speeches I noted in the article are a good example of how to give an invective.

  7. 3. Avoid wild gesticulations when speaking, but seek the mastery of effective hand movements. Quintilian has an entire section in his treatise on the proper types and employment of hand movements as an aid to communication.

    A former German leader comes to mind 🙂 :

    As someone who is going back to school, I very much appreciate the article. It has motivated me to brush up on my sub-par presentation skills and writing.

    1. This German leader reportedly practiced the hand movements he would make for hours before his speeches.

    2. Purely from a standpoint of influence over listeners, Hitler was probably the most effective oratory of the 20th century. All of his speeches followed a predictable pattern, each phase of which was designed to elicit maximum emotional engagement from his audience.

      1. With Hitler and his ilk, there was no sense of restraint, no sense of moral compass, no sense of human decency that we find in the great leaders of the past, such as Caesar, Napoleon, and the emperors of the Antonine period.
        I’d like you to elaborate on that. Thank you.

        1. He was all passion, all emotion, all unrestrained will. There was no balance, no harness, and no moral compass.
          Such men are doomed.
          History is filled with characters such as this, men who are unable to master their baser sides, who end up self-destructing after achieving impressive things.
          Pick your role models wisely. Or they will pick you.

        2. Passion mean energy, energy means life. Most people are walking dead today, lacking passion and so choosing to stick to somebody else’s morality as an anchor which prevents from drowning.
          Setting the boundaries of morality is a dangerous business. His moral were right from his perspective, no man is a god to judge on morals.
          Morality makes stupid. Especially higher morality to which you refer, I guess.

        3. This is why modern thinkers depart from morality and move forward to the discovery of ethics.

      2. I think you are right although I hesitate to call Hitler a gambler. It seemed to me that his emotionalism and diplomatic naivety allowed him to be led around by the nose by more powerful and wiser men, such as Stalin. He backed himself into a corner where his only way out was straight into the meat grinder.
        Do you think Caesar had human decency? He committed unspeakable crimes and replaced a republic with a dictatorship, favoring himself. I don’t doubt his generalship but he certainly had no sense of human compassion.

    3. Hitler was the last true leader of the people. I agree with the following comment:
      I urge you to research the topic, research the man. You will quickly come to the conclusion that Adolf Hitler was the greatest leader of all time, horrendously defamed after the war was over, just as national socialism.
      Most of german was devoted to him for a reason, not because of blind fanaticism, that would be to allege that its possible and easy to deceive 70 million germans. These people loved him for very good reasons, but try to find any of those and you have to dig really really deep, there is a lot of omission, censorship and disinformation about this period of time.
      What I can tell you instantly is that national socialism is responsible for most modern necessities in terms of welfare, we are talking about the introduction of paid holidays, human factory conditions, animal and environment protection, cancer research, unemployment benefits, work programs, health care etc. Without national socialism there would be no welfare in the modern world.

      1. hitler’s demagoguery consisted of two things: emotionalism (the same thing you got with the death of Princess Di & just about the whole of touchy feely feminism and scapegoating, something fueled by the former. Girard identifies the impulse to sacrifice the scapegoat as something which societies use to create unity and internal cohesion, often when, as in Germany in the inter-war years, that cohesion has been sorely tested. I’m with Quintus in thinking Hitler was a bad man, not just for the usual reasons (he killed a lot of people and sought to exterminate an entire race), but because what fuelled his movement was the opposite of any kind of measured reasoning as the basis of persuasion. Hitler’s demagoguery works only because people give in to passion and feeling unchecked or tempered by the constraint of reason

        1. Q: And didn’t the people want their Fuehrer to have children?
          A: Yes, but for that he would have had to marry and become a husband. But he always said that he didn’t have time for that.
          I was with Hitler when he was just moving into his new headquarters,
          which was protected with concrete seven meters thick. And he entered his
          new bedroom where there was an ordinary soldier’s bed there for him,
          except that it had two mattresses on it. And when he saw that, he curtly
          asked: Since when does a soldier sleep on two mattresses?” An adjutant
          present looked embarrassed, and then Hitler said: “You can take away one
          of them.” And that’s what Hitler was like. He did not ask for any
          special consideration for himself.
          He paid for the entire defense perimeter around his general staff
          headquarters with his own money. He never received a penny of salary
          from the government. And until the end of the war, he paid for the
          defense perimeter himself, including the six kilometers of roadway,
          which cost a lot.
          Hitler was a wealthy man, particularly from royalties from the sale of his book, Mein Kampf, which sold more than a hundred million copies. But he never took a penny of government money.

        2. I fail to see how your rhetoric about his principles in making sure he was treated equally to his soldiers makes Hitler a man one of good character.

        3. “I was with Hitler when he was just moving into his new headquarters”
          Well that’s certainly an interesting “argument from authority”. I’m not sure though that here Hitler is doing more than ‘leading by example’ or sharing sharing hardships with his men, tactics which generals as leaders more than rhetoricians have often used to great effect. Hitler new how to acquire loyalty and devotion. Whether that had any kind of moral basis would seem doubtful even without all the general unpleasantness he seems to have been responsible for.

        4. I don’t think that can ever be right. The process matters as well as (as much as?) the goal, and indeed insofar as privileging the goal at the expense of the means is what permits all the evil deceptions and manipulations of the modern world (mind fuck psy-ops, feminism and the point blank lies of politics and marketing) wouldn’t it make more sense to say it is the means, the process, how something is done that should be the principal concern. Dishonest rhetoric is always ultimately exposed. People see through deceptions, and when they do the goals behind those deceptions, typically goals that have been hidden and mystified as part of that deception, become de-legitimised. Dishonest or disingenuous rhetoric is always a house of card waiting to collapse. Demagogugery fails because emotions are ephemeral, changing with the wind

        5. Hitler really believed in his mission, there was no dishonesty on his part.

        6. I was addressing your point about the goal justifying the means which certainly seems to imply some kind of departure from integrity and purity. No doubt Hitler was committed to his beliefs, including as expressed in his famous speeches / rants, but a demagogue isn’t just expressing beliefs he is working the crowd, manipulating their minds and emotions to carry them with him. When rhetoric / persuasion appeals to emotions / unconscious / subconscious impulses etc rather than to reasoned argument (which can still take emotional factors into account) then I think the honesty of the rhetorician in question should be questioned. Hitler had his beliefs, but he was also a pragmatist, who did whatever it took to bring the German people round to his way of thinking and to obedience to his leadership. One tool he used was demagoguery and I simply don’t believe demagoguery can be honest because manipulation and deceit is written into its practice: it is not just impassioned speech, but strategic use or rather abuse of such speech

  8. Quintus Curtius is incapable of writing a poor article if he tried. Automatic ‘click to read’ reflex every time the name shows up on the New Articles page.

  9. The the three highest values in ancient philosophy were Beauty, Truth and Goodness. Rhetorical art always struck me as something akin to calligraphy and poetry – a mean of turning mundane (speech) into a kind of divine, by making it beautiful. I don’t know Quintus if you are familiar with the concept of four core male archetypes (king, warrior, magician, lover), if not there is a good book written about them by Robert Moore and Douglas Gilette, For me rhetorical skills fall under the king archetype, it’s a skill of making speech fruitful, majestic and noble.

    1. I see your point. From a practical perspective, rhetoric was also very down-to-earth business. It was a skill that was in high demand. In an age where education and literacy were not as widespread as they are now, citizens needed people who could advocate for them in public and private forums, using verbal and spoken arts.

  10. This is a really important subject and I will read through this more thoroughly when I get time. One thing I would note though, separately to the study of classical rhetoric as something of great interest in its own right (and as the foundation of all subsequent study of rhetoric and persuasion) is the fact that the subject it treats of, has in many ways changed beyond all recognition, and I think for the worse.
    A number of times I’ve looked up works on rhetoric or encountered academic centres or institutes dedicated to the study of rhetoric only to discover that they were in fact pretty much marxist centres dedicated to the study of ideology.
    I’ve studied discourse in the modern sense and nearly all of it (in the last decade or so at least) has has been co-opted by the marxists & social justice warriors to not merely critique traditional society (for which read oppressive / dominant ideology) but also I believe to use it as a weapon of persuasion and attack.
    In fact, from feminism to gay rights, to the absolutely taken-for-granted self-evidence of the goodness of progressivism, reflects the success the far left has achieved in commandeering rhetoric and discourse for its own ends (coupled of course with the equally unscrupulous use of persuasion by the forces of capitalism to very often sell us the same)
    Much of this is manipulation but there is a sense though in which it has been sold as having a moral character to it in terms of the end to which it aspires (which in fact I believe is absent given the de facto abuse of rhetoric inherent to leftist ideology). Classical rhetoric though actually does have a moral character insofar as it adheres to rules, including as Quintus mentions self-restraint, proportion / moderation, and the need for the persuasive arts to reflect genuine principles of morality, reason and logic.
    What it boils down to perhaps (as in the example of hitler’s mastery of the dark arts of persuasion referred to in other comments) is the balance between reason and emotion.
    I think there will always be debate as to whether reason or emotion is more foundational to rhetoric, however even if emotion / pathos is the more foundational then it is reason that alone can guide it (at the risk of sounding like a dyed in the wool stoic).
    In this modern age where reasoned argument is so frequently dismissed reflexively by those who would have us feel our way to the truth, I think a renaissance of the ancient arts of rhetoric is desperately needed

  11. This article had a great blend of theory and practical advice. Really enjoyed it.

  12. This is an excellent article.
    I am a lawyer by trade and I enjoy reading articles that deal with oratory and how to best maximise one’s abilities when on one’s feet.
    The portion tackling Cicero was especially hard-hitting; Cicero’s technique is precisely what I utilise when drafting and when submitting. It’s refreshing (and a relief!) to see that my practice is in the shadow of the greats.
    Top-notch work and a fantastic piece.

    1. “I am a lawyer by trade and I enjoy reading articles”
      A lawyer friend of mine told me once that many law firms when looking to employ a new attorney are less interested in scores on written tests and more interested in one’s debate skills in the field.

  13. Very nice!
    I´ve already bought a few of the books recommended by Quintus and have had no regrets.
    I´m feeling strongly inclined to acquire the Institutio Oratoria, the only caveat being the long list of books in my shelves I still have to tackle!

    1. Henrique: It’s an impressive work. Very practical, packed with useful advice, and has a depth that today’s books just don’t have. You don’t need to read it cover to cover. You can just focus on the parts you like.

  14. …but the Romans and Greeks both strayed from this philosophy. It resulted in their downfall.

  15. TR is the best ever. Gotta be the most productive person in modern history. Goddamn, he’s to Chuck Norris what Chuck Norris is to the rest of us.

  16. Sauron666 is just a troll. Who else would be posting on a thread that has been quiet for 10 months? This is just a way to build a history of posts.

  17. Excellent article. I can say without hesitation that many college grads could do with further refinement of their speaking and writing skills. Many men write using words and expressions that at one time one would read and hear only from women.
    That said, it is my understanding that at UCLA, students pursuing an English major, it is not required to read Shakespeare, but one is required to study bullshit studies like gender studies, and all the other related equally retarded junk; and it wouldn’t surprise me if anal fisting is included.

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