War of words
Ever wondered if those languorous language lessons back in the classroom were of any use? 44’s Jordan Taylor comes to the defence of Rome, rhetoric and writing (the 3 ‘Rs’) in his latest time-travelling instalment.
Some things in life are crystal clear – just like the seas I’m longing to dip my toes in this summer.
Take Churchill for example; most agree he was born to lead. He took the nation through some of its most turbulent waters, weathered the storm when modern politicians might have jumped ship and emerged as a national symbol of resilience, patriotism and victory.
And the source of his power? I’d say that’s equally as clear – he surfed to eminence on a wave of rhetoric, foaming with tricolons, similes, metaphors and other such devices.
Those who know me or have read my previous blog may know where I’m leading you. Yes, that’s right. I’m taking you back in time to the Temple of Jupiter Stator 63BC to a real humdinger of a speech.
Quick, push past the throngs of togas! There, at the centre of the crowd, you can catch a glimpse of Marcus Tullius Cicero. A novus homo – a Roman citizen without noble or ancient lineage – who’s rising through the political ranks armed with a mastery of oration to become consul.
We join him as he warms up for a superb speech against Lucius Sergius Catilina, an unscrupulous senator who’s been charged with the murder of Senate members and conspiring to overthrow the Republic.
Hush now, he’s starting:
“When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?”
Boom! His rhetoric hits you – three rhetorical questions, each one longer than the last, as he builds his argument exponentially with outstanding energy. There’s assonance, too, if you’re listening to the Latin: ‘Quo usque… Quam diu etiam… Quem ad finem…’.
Don’t forget those loaded words as well: ‘abusing’, ‘madness’, ‘mock’, ‘audacity’. Cicero’s charged every single word with meaning, each one carefully carrying forward his argument. He’s in complete control and Catiline doesn’t know what’s hit him.
Cicero continues with a series of anaphoric questions as the modern listener ticks off yet more rhetorical devices from their GCSE English language checklist:
“Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill—do not the watches posted throughout the city—does not the alarm of the people, and the union of all good men—does not the precaution taken of assembling the senate in this most defensible place—do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you?”
Do you feel that Catiline is indifferent to the city he should love? Excellent, Cicero’s magic is working. But wait, there’s more…
There are metaphors galore when he imagines the authority of the Senate as a blade which has grown blunt and is hidden in a sheath. He also uses contrasts to juxtapose the ideal state of affairs with the reality the Republic finds itself in. I could point out more rhetorical devices but they’re as unrelenting as the barrage of his invective.
Let there be no surprises when I tell you that his words worked. By the end of his first speech, senators hurled abuse at Catiline and chased him out of the temple. And, by the end of his fourth speech, the conspirators were sentenced to death.
As Cicero stands basking in his political prime – an orator armed with words to save a nation from teetering over the cliffs of destruction – you’re reminded of Churchill. He too used rhetorical devices unashamedly. He too achieved remarkable things in his professional life. He too has been immortalised by the language he’s used.
Yet you’d be foolish to think that such a legacy is limited to politicians. Whether you’re speaking at an after-dinner party, writing a letter to a workforce or telling a story to a friend, the power of words should never be underestimated. After all, if a Roman invalid who takes his family name from a chickpea – Cicero – can do it, so can you.