Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - declamations

The Major Declamations

attributed to

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Major Declamations

Title: The Major Declamations
Author: [Quintilian]
Genre: Declamations
Written: ca. 1st/2nd cent. (Eng. 2021)
Length: 1098 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: The Major Declamations: I, II, and III - US
The Major Declamations: I, II, and III - UK
The Major Declamations: I, II, and III - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Latin title: Declamationes maiores
  • Attributed to Quintilian, but likely by various authors
  • Translated by Michael Winterbottom
  • Edited by Antonio Stramaglia
  • With Notes by Biagio Santorelli and Michael Winterbottom
  • Published in three volumes
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Latin text facing the English translation
  • Previously also translated as The Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian by Lewis A. Sussman (1987)

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : bizarre but thoroughly fascinating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Classical Review* . (35:1) 1985 D.A.Russell
Gnomon* . (57:2) 1985 Janet Fairweather

[* review of another edition of The Major Declamations]

  From the Reviews:
  • "No classical text is more continuously testing, not to say tormenting, to the reader than the Major Declamations. (...) Connoisseurs of black wit and verbal paradox can feast on Cadaveribus pasti or Infamis in matrem; the rudimentary detective story of Paries palmatus and the Virgilian elegances of Apes pauperis have a more obvious appeal. Moreover, the rhetorical techniques have their interest, especially where (as with Infamis in matrem) we have both sides of the case, and the fantasy world of the schools can be seen more fully exposed here than in any other surviving Latin declamations." - D.A.Russell, The Classical Review

  • "Obviously they are of interest to the historian of literature (.....) The social historian will find the declamations replete with effusions on general issues from natural liberty (...) to public torture (...), all of some interest, but of course to be used with extreme caution as historical evidence. To the literary critic the declamations offer a challenge of great difficulty." - Janet Fairweather, Gnomon

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       As Biagio Santorelli and Antonio Stramaglia explain in the helpful General Introduction to the three volumes of The Major Declamations, learning how to compose and deliver 'declamations': "was the final stage in the traditional Greco-Roman rhetorical training, which was considered the necessary preparation for public activity throughout the Roman imperial age".
       There are two kinds of declamations: the suasoria -- "a speech of advice addressed to a mythological or a historical character on the verge of making an important decision" -- and the controversia, "a speech purporting to be delivered on behalf of either the prosecution or the defense in an imaginary trial", the case in each case itself based on: "a fiction tacitly accepted both by the speaker and by its audience". Surprisingly few declamations have come down to us, and the nineteen major ones ascribed to Quintilian are among the leading available examples. (To get it out of the way: there seems to be universal scholarly agreement that The Major Declamations are not by a single author; some may be by students of Quintilian, with several possibly dating to the late third century; the question of authorship is discussed at some length in the General Introduction; for the sake of simplicity I will, however, refer to the author simply as 'Quintilian' here.)
       The Major Declamations are controversia, where, as Santorelli and Stramaglia explain:

     In order to create a suitable occasion for reflection and debate, the themes of our declamations usually featrued one or more laws, intended to channel their far-fetched starting situation into a judicial hearing; here, before an imaginary court, the speaker will be required to exercise the analytical and rhetorical skills developed in his curriculum.
       This presentation of what are essentially court cases might seem unusual in that most of them do not feature actual debate; the opposing side does not make its case, and instead of a back and forth we only have a single speech. (The exceptions are declamations 14 and 15 ('The hate potion') and then 18 and 19 ('The son suspected of incest with his mother'), which feature both sides.) Speakers do themselves address what the counterarguments to their own position might be, but on the whole the declamations read basically like the closing statements a lawyer might make in a legal case. Significantly, also, there is no resolution to these cases -- no verdict is issued, no judgment rendered; the jury, as it were, remains out. This lack of closure is not as unsatisfying as one might think; unlike contemporary courtroom dramas, the point here really is the argument and how it is made, not the disposition of the case.
       In many of the declamations, the petitioners are the ones declaiming, stating their case -- though notably in the case of women it is always an advocate who speaks on their behalf. Among the challenges speakers face is that of navigating societal standards and norms -- as, for example, this is still a world in which filial duty and obligation are taken much more seriously; part of the rhetorical challenge comes in, for example, still displaying due deference to the parental figure even as his or her actions are challenged (whereby its noteworthy how outlandish many of the parental demands and expectations are).
       The 'laws' that feature are, for the most part, also inventions, having: "little or no correspondence with actual Roman laws". Nevertheless, they are not entirely far-fetched or bizarre. Despite the fact that these aren't bona fide legal disputes, as Santorelli and Stramaglia note: "a controversia has ideally to be as close as possible to a real judicial oration, and the speaker follows the traditional precepts of rhetoric in order to compose a speech capable of persuading his audience" and the 'laws' allow for a solid and relatable foundation on which to argue the various cases.
       Each declamation here follows the same pattern. They open with a brief Proem, a concise summing-up of what the case is about. This is followed by a Narration, presenting the facts of the case, and then the Argumentation -- the heart of the disputation, in which the speaker makes his case. Finally, there is a summing-up in an Epilogue.
       In this edition of The Major Declamations, each declamation is preceded by a brief Introduction (largely written by Santorelli, with some input from Antonio Stramaglia and Donald Russell) which also sums up and comments on the case at hand; the structure of the declamation is also mapped out (pointing out which parts correspond to which sections of the text). These Introductions are a helpful starting point -- though the declamations themselves are fairly straightforward as well, the presentation necessarily a clear one, as the speakers are, after, all, trying to state their case and position in a clear manner.
       If the laws that figure in the cases are mostly more or less plausible, and mostly reflect societal norms and expectations, the situations are often wonderfully far-fetched. The twists, in particular, of grievance are often striking: the complicated set-up of 'The Gladiator' (declamation 9), for example, begins with a rich man and a poor man being enemies (a recurring theme); their sons, however are friends. The rich man's son is captured by pirates (another common occurrence in these declamations: "the fate of most travelers in declamation", as is dryly noted in the preface to the piece), but the father takes his time responding to the ransom demands, so the fed-up pirates finally sell the youth to a gladiator-outfit, meaning his fate will then be to be thrown into the arena (with basically no chance of survival). His friend, the poor man's son, takes his place and quickly gets himself killed while the rich man's son returns home a free man. So what is the case about ? The rich man's son had promised his friend that, should he find his father, the poor man, in need, he would help support him -- which he then honorably does. As a consequence however, his own father, the rich man, disowns him -- and the case has the son challenging that disownment.
       Another twisted kind of case is 'Torture for a poor man' (7), which again features a poor man and a rich man who are enemies. The poor man's son was killed while walking home at night with his father -- and the poor man, the only witness to the crime, maintains the rich man was the murderer. The case does not revolve around the rich man's guilt, however; instead, the poor man is petitioning to be tortured (!), in order to prove that his testimony is truthful; the rich man opposes the poor man being tortured, because as the *law* states: 'It shall be unlawful for a free man to be tortured'.
       Some of the premises are wonderfully preposterous: in 'The spell on the tomb' (10), for example, a mother is visited in her dreams by her dead son. When she reveals this to her husband, he calls in a sorcerer who puts a spell on the tomb that ends the nightly visits -- so the mother is now accusing her husband of ill-treatment, arguing that this cruel act amounted to spousal abuse. Most famously, there's 'The people who fed on corpses' (12), whose title already gives some of its horrors away ..... Here an envoy is being brought up on charges of harming the state. He had been sent out to purchase grain by a certain date by a city facing famine; after initially purchasing the grain, his ship was blown off course -- a situation he took advantage of to sell the grain at double the price, returning to buy more, and only then returning home with the goods -- all within the time originally set for the undertaking. Unfortunately, the famine had gotten out of hand by then; though technically he fulfilled his mission exactly as charged, the claim is that he really should have tried a lot harder to get there sooner -- much sooner. Yes, there was a lot of ... mutual consumption in the city in the meantime ..... As the speaker for the prosecution eloquently puts it: "The result of your business dealings is indeed highly impressive: I have grain, but a people I do not have." Because they ate each other .....
       With their often sensational plots -- featuring pirates ! murder ! incest ! cannibalism ! -- there is a lot of rich, vivid material to work with here, and many of the speakers do their best to milk it for all it's worth. Even though often the most sensational aspects are secondary to the case at hand, the declaimers do often weave in some very striking scenes in their speeches.
       The first declamation, 'The handprints on the wall', already deals with murder: a man is killed in his bed, with his blind son and his wife (the boy's stepmother) accusing each other of the deed. The declamation is by the son's advocate, not the son himself, but paints quite the picture of the scene -- not least the trail of bloody handprints leading back from the crime scene to the boy's room, the advocate sarcastically noting: "What a wonderful stroke of luck: the gore didn't run out before he arrived !" as he implies that so much of the evidence against the boy -- including this trail of bloody handprints -- was fairly obviously planted.
       In 'The people who fed on corpses' the speaker conveys just how horrible the fate of those waiting for the grain was, as the city endured: "a plague novel and unheard of, a curse that left man nothing except man". As one of the many who starved -- and did the unthinkable --, he speaks from the heart -- nicely put as: "There still seethe, buried in my stomach, organs related to mine" ..... He doesn't hold back, either:
     Accordingly, we fell upon the corpses like mad things. Closing our eyes, as if seeing was worse than knowing, we kept biting, and ate them up. At times there ensued horror at the deed, disgust, self-loathing, wailing; but after we had fled from the ill-omened food, hunger began to torment us again, and we had to collect up what we had just spat out of our mouths. Now I see the foul, abhorrent sight -- the torn limbs, the stripped bones, the cavity of the chest with the skin ripped off. Now in front of me are the vitals poured out, the livid flesh, the diseased blood spurting up beneath our teeth, the marrow sucked from the bones (how little of the body did hunger leave behind !).
       There's even a nice touch of acid humor as he describes the envoy's arrival, finally, with the grain -- long after the city's population had descended into this horrible state:
Who would believe it ? I was able to refrain from eating him, though I was both hungry and angry.
       This declamation seems particularly effectively argued -- more obviously, perhaps, because of its very extremes -- and not least in how the speaker pulls back and asks for justice:
Let everything be done meticulously, I beg you. We have survived unlawfully; see to it, that we are angry lawfully.
       Some of the life and death conundrums make for curious cases. In 'The astrologer' (4) a son is petitioning to be allowed to commit suicide: before he was born his father consulted an astrologer who predicted that the boy would become first a hero, then a parricide -- and the son, having become a hero, wants to kill himself to avoid the second part of that prophecy, but his father won't let him. One of the two *laws* at issue here is that: 'Someone who has committed suicide without giving his reason to the senate is to be cast out unburied' -- a fate the boy wants to avoid, which is why he is pleading his case. He makes the case for controlling one's destiny, to the extent possible:
Let us rather make a remedy out of our end, a consolation out of what must happen. Let us make our exit voluntarily, deliberately, free of care and giving thanks. The only man who has lived as long as he wished is the one who chooses to die.
       He is absolutely convinced of fate -- and wants to preëmpt it out of his deep love for his father, certain, otherwise, that he will commit the heinous deed:
I am quite certain that I do not wish it. But what then is fate, if not what happens and yet has no causes ?
       He has returned to the city a hero -- but argues that his acts of heroism were not so much his but those (pre)ordained for him:
I was not casting spears, or hurling fiery darts: I was -- alas ! -- myself ablaze with the torches of the Furies, and this breast had not been encased in plate of iron but in terrifying coils of snakes. That was no fight, no battle line: in war I conquered -- as a parricide. My feats went beyond mere human strength: whatever was done was the work of madness and insanity. I proclaim, I declare with all solemnity: it is not I who will kill my father; it was not I who played the hero.
       The taking of one's own life is also at issue in 'The rich man accused of treason' (11), in which a poor man and a rich one again stand at odds. When the city went to war, the rich man went off to fight as a general -- and in his absence the poor man spread the rumor that he was a traitor, leading to the masses to take it out on the rich man's three sons, killing them. When the rich man has returned as a victorious hero he demands revenge, in the form of the poor man's three sons being put to death; the poor man has petitioned to be punished in their stead, saying he should be the one killed; the rich man objects and it is he who pleads his case here.
       Among his main arguments is that a guilty party should not have a say in the punishment he receives:
I beg you, judges: do not allow the guilty the choice of their punishment ! It is less wrong for a guilty an to escape punishment than to make mock of it.
       'The sick twins' (8) has a mother charge her husband with ill-treatment. Their twins were sick and the doctor claimed the only way to save one was to vivisect the other. Without consulting his wife, the husband agreed -- and chose which child was to die. While the other child was cured, the mother's advocate argues, among other things, that there is no way of knowing whether or not both would have died, and that it's entirely possible the recovery of the one might just as well have happened to both. As he points out: "Whether the doctor healed the one is a question for fortune; what is undeniable is that the doctor killed the other".
       The mother takes particular issue with not being consulted; indeed, the father didn't consult anyone except the doctor -- and he is painted as a rather dubious figure. The advocate makes the case that: "there is no illness whose cause can be detected from the butchering of a body" -- and then describes that in quite some gory detail, as:
     The wretched youth endured, as it roamed through every part of his gaping breast, the reckless wandering of a fumbling skill.
       Obligations to parents figure prominently in many of the declamations, with parents placing very high demands of filial obligation on their sons (there are no daughter-issues here). In 'The friend who stood surety' (16) a boy falls into the hands of a tyrant, a tragedy that causes his mother to "weep till she lost her sight" (another fairly common occurrence in these declamations ...); the tyrant is willing to let the boy visit his mother if someone takes his place for the time-being, as a friend of the boy's then does -- with the understanding that he will be killed if the boy does not return. The boy visits his mother and then wants to return -- but she won't let him, condemning his friend to death. The son pleads his case, to be released from his obligation to his mother.
       Just how serious parents can be about this kind of thing is also on display in 'The body cast up by the sea' (6), in which a boy, against the will of his (yes, blind-by-weeping) mother, takes his father's place after the latter was taken by pirates. The son dies in captivity, but the body fortuitously washes up on the shores of his homeland -- but the mother forbids a proper burial, which the father now petitions for.
      The son was between a rock and a hard place: "The law bade him help his parents in distress: both parents were in the grip of distress, but one person could not help both". A particularly nice touch here is that at this point it's already pretty late in the day to be dealing with the mortal remains, as the father observes, speaking also directly to his wife:
Already the form of a human being has been almost effaced by the passing hours, already the flesh has slowly drained away into the earth, already the skin has dissolved and the bones are being laid bare. However hard your heart may have become, you could not bear the sight of these things, if you could see.
       Meanwhile, in 'Sick son ransomed' (5), two brothers were -- yes, of course -- captured by pirates, and the father ransomed the prodigal son when he fell ill. This son died on the way home, while the healthy, thrifty son then escaped; the father's petition now is that the surviving son remains obligated to support him (despite his having only bailed his brother out).
       A nice corrective is slipped into 'The friend who stood surety', where the son observes: "A mother's case is very weak, judges, if the law is the strongest point in it", and indeed filial devotion and the demands placed on children are shown to be extremely strong, regardless of what the legal obligations are, with the declamations featuring a neat variety of scenarios testing these. The law winds up generally only being a last resort, in an extreme situation (which is what we have here, time after time).
       Among the better-known declamations is also 'The poor man's bees' (13) which again pits a poor man against a rich man. The poor man nicely relates how the rich man took over more and more local land: "My wealthy neighbor's land advanced further and further like a flood, uprooting all the boundary stones it came across". The poor man keeps bees, and the rich man kills them by spreading poison on his own flowers. It raises a number of interesting issues, all addressed by the poor man, including whether it can be considered a 'loss' for the poor man -- after all, the bees were free to fly away and only limitedly under his control -- and why the rich man should be blamed at all as, after all: "the bees came to their deaths of their own free will".
       One might think that the (two) cases where the two sides both come to voice -- declamations 14 and 15, and 18 and 19 -- might be even more effective, but especially the second, 'The son suspected of incest with his mother', is a bit of a dud. The case is sensational enough: a father has tortured and killed his son, believing the local gossip about the boy having an incestuous relationship with his mother and having tried to torture the truth out of him. Typically, the father isn't on trial for the torture and murder, but rather has been charged by the mother for ill-treatment -- because he won't reveal what, if anything, the boy said under torture. As, however, the editors note in their brief introduction to the declamation (in which the father gets his say, after his wife's advocate had put forth her position in declamation 18): "it is difficult to find a coherent strategy in this declamation: the speaker is not interested in persuading the audience, but just in piling up suspicions and allegations".
       The father does have an odd way of defending himself -- not least in admitting:
I killed him, slowly, taking my time. Do you call that an interrogation ? It was, rather, a punishment, an execution, the way out of all my troubles.
       And as far as any sort of confession from the boy under torture, the father at one point even admits: "Suppose the youth did say something: I could hear nothing". Psychologically, it's certainly an interesting monologue -- but as a controversia it falls largely short, a curious flailing effort. (Not that all the others convincingly make their cases, either, but those are pretty much all much more adeptly argued.)
       The Major Declamations makes for surprisingly good entertainment -- helped in no small part by just how unusual the cases being argued are -- often quirkily amusing, especially from a contemporary point of view. It's remarkable to think that this sort of thing was the highpoint of Roman rhetorical learning -- tackling not the real issues of the day, but fantastical theoretical ones, which often lend themselves to sophistry. Valuing the art of making the argument over its actual substance, it's easy to see this as a sign of the society's degeneration; no wonder Rome was on its way down at this point.
       Much of the rhetorical power of the speeches does come through in the fine English translation, though presumably there's much more in the Latin original, especially for an audience well-versed in the tricks and tools of that trade of yore. In both the Latin -- readily consulted on the facing pages -- and English, the language is direct and to the point. The sentences don't run on, the speakers get more or less straight to their (many) points, often with vivid examples. While there is calculated argument, there's a lot of heart and emotion, too -- in no small part because of the identity of many of the speakers, sons or victims who have a true hurt to express. Even where an advocate speaks for a woman, he will often channel her words directly, almost giving her (emotional) voice in the matter.as well.
       Well-annotated as well, the Loeb edition of The Major Declamations is an edition that should serve both the serious scholar and the casual reader equally well. As for the work itself, it's an odd piece of work -- but eminently readable and fascinating in its strangeness, both as regards form and content.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 April 2022

- Return to top of the page -


The Major Declamations:
  • Harvard University Press publicity pages for volumes one, two, and three
Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus) lived ca. 35-100 AD. He is best known for his The Orator's Education (Institutio Oratoria); though attributed to him, he is likely not the author of The Major Declamations.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2022 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links