Quintilian and the Ideal Orator

Quintilian and the Ideal Orator

As a classical educator, I find it ironic that we do not have many texts on education from the classical period. We can make some inferences based on the dialogues of Plato or anecdotal evidence in the writings of Aristotle, but there are few extant, comprehensive texts on how to set up and run a classical classroom from the classical world. The exception is the Roman educator Quintilian (35-100 AD), one of the few successful teachers from the ancient world and Rome’s most famous teacher of rhetoric.

Quintilian was born in the province of Spain into a wealthy family. Quintilian lived during Rome’s “Silver Age,” the era that produced writers like Tacitus and Suetonius and satirists like Juvenal and Martial. His father sent him to Rome to study rhetoric and after completing his education, Quintilian returned to Spain where he may have practiced law. Quintilian would later return to Rome during the chaotic “Year of the Four Emperors” in AD 69. Once the dust had settled and the Emperor Vespasian had brought some semblance of order back to the Empire, Quintilian set up shop and started teaching rhetoric. His reputation grew, and soon he was tutoring the sons of Rome’s wealthiest families, including grandsons of the emperor Domitian.

It is this first-hand experience as a teacher that makes Quintilian’s work especially helpful for classical educators. Quintilian poured his insights into one massive 12-volume work: Institutio Oratoria, or, “On the Education of an Orator.” The Institutio covers education in general and the teaching of rhetoric in particular, down to the teaching of phonics for toddlers. In his writing, Quintilian displays not only a brilliant grasp of classical rhetoric but also a fatherly-like care and concern for his students and their emotional well-being.

Quintilian recommends that parents, nursemaids, paedagogi, grammarians, teachers—indeed, anyone and everyone involved in the education of that particular child—should try to instill two loves in their students from infancy: a love of learning and a love of virtue. These two loves form Quintilian’s “ideal orator,” a public speaker who is as eloquent and persuasive as he or she is committed to truth, goodness, and wisdom.

The love of learning is a common emphasis in the Institutio. Quintilian recommends, for instance, that parents and nursemaids should begin educating their children as soon as they show curiosity about the world around them. Parents should read to their children, enunciating carefully, and patiently demonstrate for them letter shapes and word sounds—all skills related to phonics and early literacy.  Teachers, for their part, should make it their “chief object” to be “in every way” a “kind friend and may have regard in [our] teaching, not so much to duty, as to affection” (Quintilian 15). Student success depends on “memory,” to “receive [new information] with ease and retain it with fidelity,” but the teacher knows this felicity “depends on the will, which cannot be forced” (Quintilian 18-19). The teacher can help guide and shape the will of the student to love their studies by praise, encouragement, and a dose of healthy competition, as students have opportunities to excel under the direction of a capable and compassionate teacher. Quintilian’s hope is that students will associate learning with the care, love, and concern for their wellbeing, and that they will love learning all the more. It was as true in the Roman world as it is in ours that if students do not love the process of taking in and retaining new knowledge, their education will be a hard endeavor. This Quintilian says is a kind of “barrenness . . . not curable by any labor.”

But to what goods should teachers direct their students? That preeminent good, Quintilian says, is virtue. Teachers should both model good character and teach the elements of exemplary behavior at every possible opportunity. Even the youngest students, learning to write sentences for the first time, should not copy “useless sentences, but such as convey some moral instruction,” (Quintilian 12). At study and at play, the teacher should observe the interactions amongst his or her students and remind them all that they “must do nothing too eagerly, nothing dishonestly, nothing without self-control”  (Quintilian 19). Quintilian recognizes he is preparing his students—the scions of Rome’s patricians, after all—for public service and leadership, and thus he teaches them to the best of his ability to love virtue and wisdom.

In Rome, public speaking was nigh-synonymous with public service. The orator shaped and directed public action. To lead, one must communicate a vision that one’s audience could not only understand but also believe in. The audience must feel so convicted by the orator’s words that they would take up the prescribed course of action for themselves. It stands to reason that the best orators, and the orators that serve the city best, should be committed to speaking the truth. Recognizing what is good and articulating it forthrightly, they possess the eloquence to convince others people to choose what is right.

Quintilian’s model for the “ideal orator” was none other than the Roman senator Cicero (106-43 BC). Cicero reached not only the heights of eloquence but courageously leveraged that eloquence against the tyranny of Marc Antony, an ideal foil. Marc Antony, himself an accomplished speaker, would never have earned Quintilian’s acclaim as an “orator,” much less an “ideal” one. Marc Antony’s gifts of eloquence advanced only his private interests, and not those of the Republic as a whole, to whose destruction he contributed much. Cicero, meanwhile, was not only a gifted rhetorician (perhaps the most gifted in Roman history), but also possessed a heroic love of wisdom and virtue.

The earthly rewards of virtue can, of course, be scarce. Cicero was assassinated, and Marc Antony had his head displayed on a pike in the Forum. But Marc Antony died in ignominy, and Cicero’s memory has been celebrated for millennia. The marriage of eloquence and virtue can be a mighty, world-changing force: a force, says Quintilian, that empowers students not merely “to speak or plead, but as was the case with Pericles, to hurl forth lightning and thunder.”


Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory: Or, Education of an Orator. Edited by Curtis Dozier, Lee Honeycutt, and Lee Honeycutt. Translated by John S Watson and John Watson. Louisville, Kentucky: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Kennedy, George, ed. Quintilian: A Roman Educator and His Quest for the Perfect Orator. Sophron, 2013.

Winston Brady is the Director of Curriculum and Thales Press at Thales Academy, a network of classical schools with campuses in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and South Carolina. A graduate of the College of William & Mary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Winston writes on the intersection of history, politics, and culture, as seen through the lens of classical wisdom and virtue. He lives in Wake Forest with his wife Rachel of 10 years and his three boys, Hunter, Jack, and Samuel, all of whom will one day learn Latin.


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