<I>Exempla externa</I> in Cicero’s Orations

A Rhetorical Approach

by Damian Pierzak (Author)
©2021 Monographs 304 Pages


Historical exempla were an important part of the Roman political discourse. They could serve as a moral guide to conduct, but also lend credibility to an orator’s argument. In his extant orations, Cicero often draws parallels between his contemporaries and the old Romans or, less frequently, he compares the Romans of the present day with non-Roman individuals. Cicero himself calls such foreign examples ‘exempla externa.’ Using a theoretical framework that combines the precepts of ancient rhetorical theory and modern terminology, this book explores the ways in which Cicero employed exempla externa in oratorical practice. It argues that there were many different categories of exemplum for Cicero to choose and that exempla externa were not necessarily suitable for negative lessons.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • List of Abbreviations
  • A. Part One. Theoretical Background
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1. Exempla domestica and externa
  • 1.2. Research Aims, Methods, and Scope
  • 2. The Aristotelian Paradigm
  • 2.1. Aristotle’s First Example: The Greek Tyrants
  • 2.2. Aristotle’s Second Example: The Persian Invasion of Egypt
  • 2.3. Summary
  • 3. Exemplum in the Roman Context: Quintilian’s Degrees of Similarity
  • 3.1. Preliminary Remarks
  • 3.2. Similarity and Dissimilarity
  • 3.3. Refutatio and Faulty exempla
  • 3.4. Extreme Dissimilarity: The exemplum contrarium
  • 3.5. Arguments a fortiori: The Inequality
  • 3.6. Closing Remarks: Exempla and Commonplaces
  • B. Part Two. Exempla externa in Cicero’s Orations
  • 4. Confronting Theory and Practice
  • 4.1. ‘C. Fannius’ and the Greek Tyrants
  • 4.2. Cicero and the Greek Tyrants
  • 4.2.1. The Primary and Secondary Referents
  • 4.2.2. The Reversed Antonomasia
  • Semiramis illa
  • 4.3. Form and Function of exempla externa: A Summary
  • 5. The Series of exempla
  • 5.1. The Early Orations
  • 5.2. The Speeches of Cicero’s Consular Year
  • 5.3. The Post-exile Period
  • 5.4. The Philippics
  • 5.5. Summary
  • 6. Alexander of Macedon as Individual exemplum
  • 6.1. Identification
  • 6.2. Contrast
  • 6.3. A Missed Opportunity?
  • 7. Hannibal as Individual exemplum
  • 7.1. Identification
  • 7.2. Juxtaposition
  • 7.3. Contrast
  • 7.4. Counterexample
  • 7.5. A Stock exemplum
  • 8. Antiochus the Great as Individual exemplum
  • 8.1. Juxtaposition
  • 8.2. A Subsidiary exemplum
  • 9. Spartacus as Individual exemplum
  • 9.1. Identification
  • 9.2. An exemplum in the Making?
  • 10. Conclusions
  • 10.1. Similarity and Dissimilarity between Referents
  • 10.1.1. Identification
  • 10.1.2. Juxtaposition
  • 10.1.3. Contrast
  • 10.2. Means of Expressing the Degree of Similarity
  • 10.3. Single and Multiple Referents
  • 10.4. The Choice and Meaning of exempla externa
  • 10.5. Exempla externa as Tools of Praise and Blame
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Passages
  • Series index

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This book originates from a research project funded by the Polish National Science Center (UMO-2016/23/D/HS2/02408) entitled Argument from the Past in Cicero’s Orations. Theory and Practice. The task I have set myself is to develop a coherent methodology for studying Cicero’s use of historical exempla. More specifically, my aim is to explore to what extent the precepts of rhetorical theory concerning exemplum are applicable to practical oratory. As a consequence, this book has been divided into two parts. Part One comprises three chapters detailing the theoretical framework; Part Two begins with a chapter that sets the stage for the subsequent analysis of Cicero’s orations by recasting the ancient terminology into modern terms; of the five chapters that follow each deals with Cicero’s use of various historical figures as exempla. Thus, because the analytical portion of the book draws on the terminology developed in Chapters 1–4, the former part is a prerequisite for the latter, as it were. For reasons that will be explained in the introductory chapter, I have decided to narrow down the research area to exempla externa (‘foreign examples’). In the “Conclusion” my research findings are summarized and organized according to the proposed categories. With the exception of short quotations, Latin words, and titles, all the passages in the main body of the text are translated. Whenever possible, I have used recent translations available in English (esp. for Cicero). Otherwise, they have been taken from the Loeb Classical Library editions.

The first part of this book is largely based upon previously published articles. Earlier thoughts on what became Chapters Two and Four appeared as “References to Historical Figures as a Means of Persuasion in Ancient Rhetoric. A Research Methodology Applicable to Cicero,” in Scripta Classica 15 (2018), 13–35; Chapter Three is a slightly adapted version of “The Degrees of Similarity in Quintilian’s Discussion of Exempla. A Reappraisal,” Eos 106 (2) 2019, 259–288, while “Spartacus as a Point of Reference in Cicero’s Orations,” in: D. Słapek (ed.), Spartacus. History and Tradition, Lublin 2018, pp. 47–62, forms the basis for Chapter Nine of the monograph. All are reprinted here with the kind permission of the editors of the said volumes. The papers on the research methodology and Spartacus were read at conferences in Katowice and Lublin respectively. I am indebted to the participants in those events for valuable comments and suggestions.

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List of Abbreviations

The ancient authors and their works are for the most part abbreviated after LSJ and OLD. I have not included here the authors of standard editions, e.g. M for B. Maurenbrecher or R for O. Ribbeck.



K. Ziegler, W. Sontheimer (eds.), Der Kleine Pauly. Lexikon der Antike, Stuttgart 1964.



T. J. Cornell et al. (eds.), The Fragments of the Roman Historians, 3 vols, Oxford 2013.



G. Manuwald (ed.), Fragmentary Republican Latin. Oratory, Parts 1–3, Cambridge (Mass.)–London 2019.



H. Dessau (ed.), Inscriptiones Latinae selectae, 3 vols, Berlin 1892–1916.



A. Degrassi (ed.), Inscriptiones Latinae liberae rei publicae, 2 vols, Firenze 1957–1963.



R. Kühner, C. Stegmann, Ausführliche Grammatik der lateinischen Sprache: Satzlehre, 2 vols, München 41962.



H. G. Liddell, R. Scott (eds.), A Greek–English Lexicon, rev. by H. Stuart Jones, Oxford 91940.



T. R. S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic, 3 vols, New York–Atlanta 1951–1986.



S. Hornblower, A. Spawforth (eds.), The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford 32003.



P. G. W. Glare et al. (eds.), Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford 1968.



E. Malcovati (ed.), Oratorum Romanorum fragmenta liberae rei publicae, Torino 21955.



A. Pauly, G. Wissowa, W. Kroll (eds.), Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Stuttgart 1893–1980.



C. Halm (ed.), Rhetores Latini minores, Leipzig 1863 (repr. Frankfurt a. M. 1964).

←13 | 14→SB


D. R. Shackleton Bailey (ed.), Cicero’s Letters to Atticus, 7 vols, Cambridge 1965;

Idem (ed.), Cicero: Epistulae ad familiares, 2 vols, Cambridge 1977;

Idem (ed.), Cicero: Epistulae ad Quintum fratrem et M. Brutum, Cambridge 1980.



Thesaurus linguae Latinae, Leipzig 1900–.

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1. Introduction

This book examines the use of exempla externa in Cicero’s orations, a subject that has been seemingly neglected despite the vast scholarship that the exemplary discourse in Roman culture has recently attracted.1 In spite of (or perhaps due to) the fact that only about two dozen out of some 400 individuals invoked as exempla in Cicero’s speeches are non-Romans (cf. n. 62 below), there is no exclusive study of this particular means of persuasion.2 Therefore, it seems to be a promising area of investigation, not least because the number of passages to be scrutinized is relatively limited. The current introductory chapter begins with an overview of how the concept of exemplum had developed over the centuries, discusses the distinction between native and foreign examples and, finally, it establishes the aims, methods, and scope of the present study.

Antiquity’s most valuable theoretical accounts of exemplum are those of Aristotle, the author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero, and Quintilian.3 For the moment, I shall put aside the question of the Aristotelian paradigm, which is ←17 | 18→discussed in the next chapter, and focus on the more universal, Roman concept of exemplum. The way in which the earliest extant Latin definitions are formulated suggests that historical examples need to be specific, in the sense that the name of the agent or the object of an action has to be explicitly stated.4 This quality is what distinguishes exempla from more general comparisons.5 According to M. Stemmler, both definitions which I have just quoted in n. 4 (i.e. at Rhet. Her. and in Cicero’s De inventione) emphasize that exemplum’s efficacy rests upon the authority (auctoritas, resp. auctor) of that specific person whose action had been invoked as precedent.6 This authority, in turn, depends on the unique position the ancestors held among the Romans7 and is absent from the discussion of exempla in Greek theory (cf. n. 30 below).←18 | 19→

Modern definitions of exemplum (e.g. the influential one by H. Lausberg), on the other hand, usually draw on Quintilian’s notion of historical example.8 There is a general consensus among scholars that exemplum involves people and/ or events from the past but, depending on the literary genre under investigation, its function is variously determined.9 The ancient authors as well provide different insights into the matter.10 To put it very briefly, exemplum can serve as either a means of persuasion, as ornamentation, illustration of an argument or, finally, as a role model. The latter function is closely tied to the notion of mos maiorum (cf. n. 7) and it underlies the definitions of the author of Rhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero. Some of the precepts set forth by rhetoricians, however, are more suitable to poetry,11 especially that exemplum is often subsumed under the rubric “figures of thought.”12 We need to bear in mind that ancient manuals of rhetoric ←19 | 20→were concerned with poetry as much as with oratory. A good deal of illustrative material in the Rhetorica ad Herennium is drawn from republican tragedy, while Vergil is the second (next to Cicero) most often quoted author by Quintilian.

It is also apparent that the persuasive function of exempla had been gradually in decline since rhetoric had basically lost its political meaning at Rome during the Principate.13 In Livy, exemplum serves mainly as a moral guide for the characters of the Ab urbe condita “within the text.”14 Although from the Early Empire onwards, as the work of Valerius Maximus clearly indicates, exempla were increasingly becoming subordinate to the imperial policy,15 they have retained their educational value and the collections of facta et dicta were still useful to lawyers, declaimers, and writers.16 Later on, historical examples were often employed by philosophers and Christian writers as fitting illustrations for their arguments.17 The gradual detachment of exemplum from practical oratory eventually led to the development of a new literary genre in the Middle Ages, namely exempla as “parables” or “anecdotes.”18←20 | 21→

I am well aware that this sketch merely scratches the surface of the problem and might seem largely oversimplifying. It was intended to show that exemplum, in terms of its form and function, has been a very complex phenomenon. Even in the narrower sense of the term (i.e. rhetorical example), it applies to two different types of argumentation, one more general and one more technical. The former is closely associated with the mos maiorum and depends on the authority of the ancestors.19 The idea that one will benefit from contemplating the past in deciding future courses of action was of course not uncommon in antiquity,20 but the Romans became obsessed with it.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
Aristotle Quintilian Reversed antonomasia Roman republic Ancient oratory Hannibal
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 304 pp.

Biographical notes

Damian Pierzak (Author)

Damian Pierzak is former Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. His main research interests are Roman oratory and Latin literature of the republican period.


Title: <I>Exempla externa</I> in Cicero’s Orations