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Cicero has produced quite a lot of Latin prose in what is considered excellent style. I would like to find ways to demonstrate briefly what Cicero's style is all about. If you had to demonstrate Cicero's prose style with one sentence from his works, what would it be and why? How does it reflect his style? Such examples with explanations could easily be given to students or the general public to give an idea of what makes Cicero special.

To answer, give a sentence (or at most two if they are short) from Cicero and explain what makes it so characteristic of his style. Please give also a sufficiently precise citation to make the passage easy to find online corpora and in various translations.

This question is originally from this meta discussion.

3 Answers 3

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The first example that comes to my mind is the beginning of the Second Catilinarian:

Tandem aliquando, Quirites, L. Catilinam furentem audacia, scelus anhelantem, pestem patriae nefarie molientem, vobis atque huic urbi ferrum flammamque minitantem, ex urbe vel eiecimus, vel emisimus, vel ipsum egredientem verbis prosecuti sumus. Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit.

C. D. Yonge's translation:

At length, O Romans, we have dismissed from the city, or driven out, or, when he was departing of his own accord, we have pursued with words, Lucius Catiline, mad with audacity, breathing wickedness, impiously planning mischief to his country, threatening fire and sword to you and to this city. He is gone, he has departed, he has disappeared, he has rushed out.

Cicero packs a lot of rhetorical devices and effects into these two sentences:

  • chiasmus: furentem audacia, scelus anhelantem
  • coordinated lists whose members increase in length: furentem audacia, scelus anhelantem, pestem patriae nefarie molientem, vobis atque huic urbi ferrum flammamque minitantem; vel eiecimus, vel emisimus, vel ipsum egredientem verbis prosecuti sumus
  • a vivid metaphor in scelus anhelantem: Catiline is so evil he actually breathes crime
  • alliteration: pestem patriae, ferrum flammamque
  • assonant pairs of verbs that differ only by one syllable: eiecimus / emisimus, evasit / erupit

Finally, perhaps the most striking feature of this passage is the contrast between the syntactically complex, periodic first sentence and the extremely simple and punchy second sentence, which consists of just four verbs in a row. Cicero pretty much defines the Latin periodic style, but he was also a master of variety and could intersperse complex and simple structures to great effect.

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    This is a great example. His characterization of Catiline—perhaps the technique he is best known for throughout both his Asianist- and Atticist-leaning days—is in full bloom here.
    – cmw
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:05
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    Brilliant, isn't it? In the mind's eye, one can just imagine Cicero standing there in his full consular dignity and rolling it out. It has made me recall his brutal Vixerunt! to the mob after the executions that he'd just witnessed.
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 7:11
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Hic enim dies vobis, patres conscripti, inluxit, haec potestas data est, ut, quantum virtutis, quantum constantiae, quantum gravitatis in huius ordinis consilio esset, populo Romano declarare possetis. — Cicero Phil. V, 2 init.

Your question sent me straight to the Philippics. Brutus, after reading this, commenting in this letter to Cicero, thought it worthy indeed of the title Philippic (borrowed from Demosthenes) which its writer had facetiously given to the series:

iam concedo ut vel Philippici vocentur, quod tu quadam epistula iocans scripsisti. — Cic. ad Brut II, V.3

This is Cicero at his most stirringly patriotic. It has the orotundity characteristically seen in his best forensic speeches, yet does not (to me, at any rate) seem contrived. Although it was not delivered in speech, it positively rolls off the tongue when spoken aloud.

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The Meministīne mē ante diem duodecimum Kalendās Novembrēs dīcere in senātū fore in armīs certō diē, quī diēs futūrus esset ante diem sextum Kalendās Novembrēs, Gāium Manlium, audāciae satellitem atque administrum tuae? Num mē fefellit, Catilīna, nōn modo rēs tanta, tam atrōx tamque incrēdibilis, vērum, id quod multō magis est admīrandum, diēs? Dīxī ego īdem in senātū caedem tē optimātium contulisse in ante diem quīntum Kalendās Novembrēs, tum, cum multī prīncipēs cīvitātis Rōmā nōn tam suī cōnservandī quam tuōrum cōnsiliōrum reprimendōrum causā profūgērunt.
part of the first Catilinarian is quite something to hear because of the brēs part of the word Novembrēs!
And then, just when you think he's done saying anything like the brēs part, he surprises us one line later by saying bri, as in the bri part of the word Novembribus! Not only does he surprise us by saying bri one line later, but this time, unlike brēs in the word Novembrēs, which is at the end of the word, bri is towords the end of the word! Here is a recording by Thomas Bervoets of the first Catilinarian! The Novembrēs and Novembribus parts start at 7:19! https://www.stilus.nl/catilina/CicCatPrima.htm

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  • So the thing that makes this descriptive of Cicero's style is the use of the sound -br-?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 8:27
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    I think this answer is pointing out the assonance. Am I reading that right?
    – cmw
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 16:02
  • I think that's what it is!
    – Ana Maria
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 21:58

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