What the Romans did for us

Can’t remember if I blogged this, from the BBC

Roads, obviously. Sanitation. But no great buildings from their
time in Britain. But the greatest legacy is how we use language to
persuade, says Lisa Jardine.

In a rapidly changing world, I am intrigued to find that the
ability to use Latin with confidence continues to provoke widespread
wonder and admiration.

Last week, at the opening of the exhibition on the Roman
Emperor Hadrian at the British Museum, the Mayor of London addressed
the assembled company in Latin, to general acclaim.

And what have the Romans ever given us in return?
The aqueduct?
Oh. Yeah, they did give us that. That’s true, yeah.
And the sanitation.
Yeah, the sanitation. Remember what the city used to be like?
I’ll grant you the aqueduct and sanitation, the two things the Romans have done.
And the roads.
Obviously the roads. The roads go without saying, don’t they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads…
Irrigation. Medicine. Education.
Yeah, yeah, all right, fair enough.
From The Life of Brian

Why, he asked the long-dead Emperor rhetorically, had he failed to
build in Britain a monument to match the Pantheon in Rome (whose
remarkable dome Hadrian is supposed to have designed)? Instead, the
Mayor continued, Hadrian’s architectural legacy to us is something as
humdrum as a wall.

Perhaps those who admire the Latin language are right. Heroic
buildings are, as Boris Johnson observed, one of the Roman Empire’s
great legacies. But more lasting and far-reaching even than these is
the influence of the Roman rhetorical tradition – an array of
instructions and strategies for using language to persuade.

Our legal system, public debating conventions, and even the way
contentious issues are argued over daily in newspapers and on
television, have all been shaped and defined by a method credited to
the great Roman orator Cicero, and reduced to a set of practical rules
in the Oratorical Institutes of the later pedagogic writer Quintilian.

At the heart of this system are techniques for arguing in
utramque partem – being able to take either side on any contentious
issue. The importance of “argument on both sides” derives from the
assumption that there are few debatable matters that can be settled
simply by mustering the facts for and against. More usually, opinions
on one side or the other of any argument are formed, and audiences
swayed, on the basis of astute manipulation of limited evidence, backed
up by an array of persuasive tactics, designed to construct a
convincing case.

Boris salutes campaigners dressed in togas

Boris Johnson is a passionate advocate of a classical education

Quintilian calls such arguments controversiae – from which we get
the word controversial. In the Roman law courts this leads to a method
of arguing forensically which is still known today as adversarial.

As these words suggest, arguing in utramque partem arouses
strong feelings on both sides. Anticipating and controlling strong
emotions is part of the training both Cicero and Quintilian advocate at
an advanced stage in the preparation of anyone whose career requires a
mastery of rhetoric in all its complexity.

As Cicero puts it, in his lastingly influential work On the
perfect orator (De Oratore): “The man who can hold forth on every
matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue
for and against every proposition that can be laid down – such a man is
the true, the complete, and the only orator.”

So the great persuaders are those who can not only marshal the
evidence on behalf of any question, but can also organise that material
rhetorically, to present their case in the best possible light. And if
called upon to do so, they can also present the opposite side of the
argument just as convincingly. Except in cases of absolute certainty –
where truth and falsehood are clear and incontrovertible –, there is
likely to be at least one accomplished advocate on either side of the

For and against

Roman discussions of exemplary forms of public debate are
particularly relevant today. Our press and broadcast media currently
thrive on the lurid presentation of controversy, particularly in the
areas of science and medicine. Some of us are beginning to think that
the tradition of adversarial argument is being tested to the limit.

Read the rest
(there’s no more about the Romans – it’s global warming)

One Response

  1. I tried to see the Hadrian exhibition but with a partial evacuation at the British Museum my schedule went awry – it needs another attempt.

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