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IV. The Arts in Ancient Rome

Lucius Annaeus Seneca
The Roman philosopher Seneca (4-65 AD) is listed among the saints by St. Jerome and is known to have corresponded with St. Paul the Apostle.

In the first lesson, we considered the philosophical foundations of the classical liberal arts curriculum and tracked its earliest progress. In the second lesson, we considered the development of the liberal arts in ancient Israel in the lives of David and Solomon. We reflected upon the fact that while the liberal arts curriculum was not yet organized into a deductive system, it was nevertheless present as a less organized whole in the minds of ancient wise men. In chapter 3, we saw that the best of the Greek philosophers sought not to promote new ideas, but to recover and systematize the teachings of the ancients.

In this fourth lesson we will consider the liberal arts curriculum as it continues to develop among the Romans, demonstrating that the Romans added the language of the curriculum and the art of Rhetoric. Once again, the essence of the liberal arts curriculum (the goal of which is true Wisdom) is not changed, but the beauty of the program is enhanced and the systematizing of yet another part is completed.

An Initial Distinction

All Christians know that the word “Christian” is almost never used justly. Some use the term to refer to anyone or anything that is not Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Atheist. Some use the term to separate themselves from “Catholics” (who are therein judged not to be Christians). This same trouble occurs when we speak of the Romans. Throughout the history of ancient Rome there were two distinct classes of men: one good and the other bad. We must be careful to distinguish them.

The “Romans” on the one hand were pagans who were selfish, greedy, violent and immoral. It is these Romans we think of when we discuss the corrupt emperors and bloodthirsty mobs of Rome. These Romans were lovers of pleasure who used the wealth and freedom of Roman life as a means of sinful self-indulgence. We hear stories of Romans banqueting until they vomited, then starting again. We read of drunken orgies, crowds cheering as gladiators butcher one another in the Colosseum and so on. Indeed, these were the Romans.

However, from the beginning of Roman history, there was a moral Roman tradition, which is second to none for piety and selflessness. When we think of the Romans, we must also remember men like Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), Cicero (106-43 BC), Caesar (100-44 BC), Virgil (70-19 BC), Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). The writings and virtue of these men are among the most praiseworthy of all history–especially when considered in light of the moral desert they lived in.

In the CLAA, when we speak of the Romans, we generally do not mean the worst of Rome, but the best. Stories of the wicked Romans make for great library books and Hollywood films, but it was by her greatest men that Rome became what it was and remains the greatest empire the world has ever known.

The Roman Contribution

It has been made explicit from the beginning of this course that the classical liberal arts curriculum was revealed to the human race throughout history by God through chosen men each uniquely gifted and placed in time and location. The Jews, from the most ancient time and most central location, gave us the content and end of true education: the knowledge of the one true God and His will. The Jews taught mankind the knowledge of the origin and history of the world, the origin of evil and the natures of God, men and the angels. Israel also gave the moral law and the motivation to observe it through the narratives of God’s grace and Israel’s hardness of heart. The Jews taught the world the essence and purpose of true music as well as the foundations of all true philosophy and theology. The debt owed to them by the human race is immeasurable and is the reason for their deserved seat of honor, protected by God through all time.

The Greeks, second to the Jews in antiquity and equally central in geography, gave us the method of true education (Logic) as well as the materials to teach it (Aristotle). What we also received from the Greeks was the icon of Socrates who represents the truth-seeker to us: surrounded by darkness, poor, lonely, despised and ultimately killed, yet in truth full of light, wealthy beyond measure, friend of Wisdom and praised by history’s greatest men. His image and the inspiration he lends to men everywhere cannot be overemphasized.

The Romans, inheriting all of this added two equally important gifts of their own. First, the Romans, through their sense of destiny and discipline provided the language for true education. The Latin language, unlike the Greek, was developed with a consciousness of what was needed of language for the perfection of philosophy and theology. Lucretius (99-55 BC), the Epicurean, writing in the early part of the first century BC complained of “how hard it is to make clear in Latin verses the dark discoveries of the Greeks”. Yet by the end of the same century we find Vergil, the prince of poets, writing the most elegant verse the world has ever known…in Latin. The development of Latin, conscious of the needs of those seeking wisdom, was crafted to become the language of the learned for all time.

The Place of Latin

Wycliffe Bible Translators identify their mission as making God’s Word accessible to all people “in the language of their heart”. The group explains that certain ideas and teachings can only be effectively communicated to people in the language they best understand, i.e., their own native language. While their mission is based on a subtle flaw (they not being the possessors of the original ideas have not the authority to judge whether the “heart language” parallel is accurate or not), it helps us to discover this true principle by reflection: The languages in which ideas are communicated are essential, not accidental to those ideas. Read that carefully and let it sink in.

Therefore, we would be wise to make our own that language in which the world’s most significant ideas were originally expressed. Otherwise, how can we hope to possess them? The original expressions of the greatest ideas is the closest mankind can ever get to the true ideas themselves. We would then be pressed to answer the question, “What language would that be?”. Would it be Hebrew for the original writings of the ancient Jews? Would it be Greek for the original writings of the Greek philosophers and New Testament? No.

The language that history would commend to us is Latin.

Latin did not stumble into wide use due to a fortunate turn here or there as many other languages have. Latin was born, like Romulus and Remus, out of a human and divine marriage. From the day Aeneas first set sail from Troy, the Romans were destined to rule the world and Latin would be the medium by which they communicated that rule. The modern skeptic would doubt and deny all of these supernatural influences and revelations, but they are commended to us by their fulfillment and, whether fabricated or not, were believed to be true by the Romans who acted upon them.

As Latin grew, she was molded in the Roman courts, which will forever be the center of human law and justice. So heavy was her influence in the development of law that the study of law has never since been attempted without her.

Further, to Latin was added the knowledge of all international government, military strategy and trade. To her alone was known the details of international politics, communications, business and culture. What language has ever enjoyed so diverse and elite an upbringing as Latin? What language has ever enjoyed primacy of place in every land under heaven, but Latin?

If we were to stop here in our consideration of the virtues and privileges of the Latin language, we would have already established her as the queen of all languages. However, when we consider that these are merely the achievements of her youth, we must reflect upon all that her mature years added. The Son of God chose to enter the world not when Hebrew or Greek ruled, but during the reign of Latin. To the Hebrews and Greeks He said, “I have many things to tell you which you are not able to bear.” These loftier truths were reserved for the Church, which made Latin their chosen tongue to publish them. Thus to Latin was added the wisdom of all Church councils, creeds and treatises. To Latin were added the songs of the Church, along with her prayers and sacred liturgies. Scripture as well was translated from the Hebrew and Greek to live forever in the Church and among her people in Latin.

Later still, as the arts and sciences flourished throughout Christendom in the light of true religion, they did so never apart from Latin. The writings of history’s greatest theologians is, by no accident, to be read in Latin. The founding works in all of the modern sciences belongs to her as well. When we seek the official name of any plant or animal, we are directed to Latin for the answer. Moreover not only did her reign extend through every subject in all the world, but that for nearly half of known human history.

Thus, whether we consider her mind, beauty, length of life, force or fortune, we find Latin exalted far beyond all other languages as we find the Blessed Virgin beyond all the sons and daughters of men. Only when we find a rival to the Mother of God among mankind, will we find a rival to the Latin tongue. Thus, as we continue in our study of the contributions made by the Romans to the development of the classical liberal arts, let us be persuaded that their gift is among the greatest of all–never to be surpassed. Latin is the language of learning for all time.

The Art of Rhetoric

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) is one of history’s greatest masters of the art of Rhetoric.

Proceeding naturally from the Romans’ gift of language was the art of communication. It is to the Romans that we must look for the perfection of this art and in the persons of five masters: Julius Caesar, Cicero, Vergil, Horace and Livy. Among these five masters are three separate genres: History, Poetry and Oratory. Each of these genres was brought near to perfection under the Romans through their mastery of the art of Rhetoric.

To Julius Caesar we look for the earliest perfection of historical (prose) writing. Famous for his political career, Caesar is less known today for his life as a writer and speaker. One old teacher wrote:

“Caesar’s genius was many-sided, and he might have been no less eminent as an orator and an author than as a statesman and a general, if he had chosen these fields of activity for their own sake.”

Later, Livy wrote the history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita (From the City’s Foundation), which again helped to establish and model all of the virtues of historical narrative: Perspicuity, Probability, Brevity and Suavity.

Vergil led the way of the poets with his eternal masterpiece, the Aeneid. Students today know only the story through English translation, but the virtue of Vergil’s work is found in his heroic meter (dactylic hexameter) and the language which he brought to poetic perfection. Horace added the model for all in lyric poetry, which is employed for the expression of human emotion, often to the music of the lyre. Despite the great poets time has produced, none has ever approached the sublimity of the Roman masters.

Lastly, Cicero is universally acknowledged to be the greatest communicator to ever have lived. Cicero perfected the art of oratory in every detail and, by God’s grace, recorded the principles of his art for us in his De Oratore and other rhetorical writings. No author can ever equal him for circumstances, experience, success, influence, erudition or fame. He is the world’s teacher in the art of Rhetoric.

One final name that must be mentioned is that of Quintilian. Living in the first century AD, Quintilian composed a uniquely practical guide On the Education of an Orator, which remains in print to this day. This timeless and most helpful guide directs the complete course of training from a rhetorician who is as near to Cicero himself as any can be. From the earliest studies of letters and pronunciation to the exercises of the mature orator, Quintilian’s contribution to the art of Rhetoric is no less important than those of the original masters themselves.

Rhetoric across the Curriculum

The essential difference between “classical literature” and “modern literature” is not to be found in its time or location of writing, but in its purpose. Modern literature is composed in a spirit of individualism that began in the Renaissance (we’ll learn the details later). This spirit establishes self-expression as the end of all arts, with the audience reckoned but a fly on the wall. Classical literature was composed in a spirit of community, where composition was meant not to satisfy the author, but the audience.

When we consider the goal of composition (of any kind) to be the affecting of a desired response in an audience, we find a great deal of knowledge to be necessary to the author. An author must understand the influence of his own person and perspectives on the audience’s judgment. He must understand the emotions and their causes in his audience. He must also understand the art of persuasion as it relates to human reason and the power of arguments. This knowledge is pursued in the study of the arts, not only of Rhetoric, but also Dialectic, Logic, Moral Philosophy and Politics. Whether we consider the content, the structure, the language or the appeals employed by the author, we find classical literature to have been composed with careful regard for the principles of these arts.

Therefore, we cannot analyze or appreciate the virtues and genius of classical authors until we learn of their art. Once we gain mastery of the arts ourselves, we will stand in awe of the masters’ wisdom and diligence in applying them throughout their writings and speeches. The student of the classical liberal arts, then, studies the arts not only for his own use in composition, but also for the sake of literary interpretation and art appreciation. Through them our eyes and ears are opened to see and hear rightly.

There is no such understanding of modern literature possible. Inasmuch as we cannot hope to possess the spirit of the men who wrote modern works, we cannot confidently explain their meaning or intentions in writing as they are written independent of any art or rule. The works of modernity, being composed for the author’s sake are to be buried with their authors for whom they exist. It is for this reason that the CLAA gives little attention to modern authors in formal studies. The relativism that surrounds their interpretation is inevitable because of the manner of their composition.

Likewise, for a student to be “classically” trained in writing and speaking he or she must first master and then commit to follow the principles of these arts. It is by careful adherence to these principles that our writings are guarded from misinterpretation and by them also that they are rightly analyzed. Our consistent adherence to the rules of the arts leaves our readers a map by which they may, in any age, find the treasures we intended for them and no others. It is for this reason that all learned discourse was conducted in Latin, so as to protect the original ideas expressed from misinterpretation by those ignorant of the principles of their articulation, and the reason why the Protestants demanded that they be thrown to the common people–an undeniably evil design. It is for this reason also that the CLAA does not waste energy in teaching young children to write or interpret what they read. Our focus is on their mastery of each of the classical liberal arts in their due order that they may posses the art that will later enable them to wield writing and speaking as swords under their full control, rather than stones to be cast by the handful at uncertain targets.

Lastly, we learned from the Greeks that the goal of education is a knowledge that applies to all men and all subjects. Logic and Rhetoric, above all subjects, supply this demand. Whether our students pursue religious vocations, technical trades, literary careers or business pursuits, the arts of Logic and Rhetoric will equip them for strategic missions and communications in their work, rather than the hopeful abandonment to luck that characterizes most today.


In the first lesson, we considered the philosophical foundations of the classical liberal arts curriculum and tracked its earliest progress through Moses. In the second lesson, we considered the development of music and philosophy in ancient Israel in the lives of David and Solomon. In our study of the Greek philosophical tradition, we learned how the Greeks identified and arranged the classical liberal arts, and how Aristotle supplied us with the first deductive textbooks on Logic, Rhetoric, Poetry and the branches of Philosophy. In this lesson, we have seen yet another wave of development among the Romans as they add to the classical liberal arts the language by which they will forever be communicated and the perfection of instruction in the art of Rhetoric.