Marcus Fabius Quintilian


Marcus Fabius Quintilianus

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus

Marcus Fabius Quintilian was a Roman orator, writer, and teacher of rhetoric who lived in the first century AD. He interpreted rhetorical theory from ancient Greece for his contemporaries during the heyday of rhetoric studies and practice in Rome. He paid special attention to Cicero, presenting and adding to Cicero’s ideas on rhetoric. Unlike Cicero who used Platonic dialogues to make his rhetorical case, Quintilian addressed his audience directly.

Quintilian, following the lead of Cicero, organized the practice of oratory into five canons or arts. In Quintilian’s words:

The whole art of oratory, as the most and greatest writers have taught, consists of five parts: invention, arrangement, expression, memory, and delivery or action.

Quintilian opened a public school for rhetoric in Rome. Perhaps for that reason he paid more attention than did Cicero to education and the teaching of rhetoric. Whereas Cicero called for a broad, general education, Quintilian’s suggested program of education in rhetoric was more focused, laying out the educational process step by step, from birth to adulthood.

In his classic book Institutes of oratory, completed around 95 AD, Quintilian discussed what is required for mastering each of the canons. Many later rhetoricians, especially those living during the Renaissance, derived their rhetorical theory directly from the Quintilian’s text. The book is made up of 12 sections or books on how to train to be an ideal orator. In it Quintilian covers topics such as the theory and practice of rhetoric, the nature and art or rhetoric, the role of emotion and language in oratory, and foundational ideas in education.

Quintilian was born in Spain around 35 AD and died in Rome, at around 95 AD. In recognition of his remarkable skill at teaching rhetoric, he received a regular income from the imperial treasury, the first rhetorician to be granted this honor.


Quintilian’s statue in Calahorra, La Rioja, Spain.

Quintilian on the five aspects of oratory

The whole art of oratory, as the most and greatest writers have taught, consists of five parts: invention, arrangement, expression, memory, and delivery or action (the last is designated by either of these terms). But every speech, by which any purpose is expressed, must of necessity consist of both matter and words.

2. …if it (a speech) is short and included in one sentence, it may perhaps call for no further consideration. But a speech of greater length requires attention to a greater number of particulars, for it is not only of consequence what we say and how we say it, but also where we say it; there is need therefore also for arrangement. But we cannot say everything that our subject demands, nor everything in its proper place, without the assistance of memory, which will accordingly constitute a fourth part.

3. And a delivery which is unbecoming either as to voice or gesture, vitiates and almost renders ineffectual all those other requisites of eloquence. To delivery therefore must necessarily be assigned the fifth place.

Quintilian on learning to speak, read, and write syllables, words, and phrases (an early version of the Van Riper method?):

For learning syllables there is no short way. They must all be learned throughout, nor are the most difficult of them, as is the general practice, to be postponed, that children may be at a loss, forsooth, in writing words.

Moreover, we must not even trust to the first learning by heart; it will be better to have syllables repeated and to impress them long upon the memory; and in reading too, not to hurry on, in order to make it continuous or quick, until the clear and certain connection of the letters become familiar, without at least any necessity to stop for recollection. Let the pupil then begin to form words from syllables and to join phrases together from words.

It is incredible how much retardation is caused to reading by haste; for hence arise hesitation, interruption, and repetition, as children attempt more than they can manage; and then, after making mistakes, they become distrustful even of what they know.

Let reading, therefore, be at first sure, then continuous, and for a long time slow, until, by exercise, a correct quickness is gained.

For to look to the right, as everybody teaches, and to look forward, depends not merely on rule, but on habit, since, while the child is looking to what follows, he has to pronounce what goes before, and, what is very difficult, the direction of his thoughts must be divided, so that one duty may be discharged with his voice, and another with his eyes.

Quintilian on speech problems

In sounds also occur those faults of utterance and pronunciation, of which specimens cannot be given in writing; the Greeks, who are more happy in inventing names, call them iotacisms, lambdacisms, ischnotetes, and plateiasmoi; as also koilostomia, when the voice is heard, as it were, in the depths of the throat.

There are also certain peculiar and inexpressible sounds, for which we sometimes find fault with whole nations. All the incorrectnesses, then, which we have mentioned above, being removed, there will result that which is called orthoepia, that is, a correct and clear utterance of words with an agreeableness of sound; for so may a right pronunciation be termed.

Quintilian References

Writings by Quintillian

Quintilian. Institutes of oratory. Ed. Lee Honeycutt. Trans. John Selby Watson. 2006. Iowa State U. Retrieved from on January 11, 2010.

Quintilianus, Marcus Fabius. (1920) Institutio Oratoria. Trans. H.E. Butler. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Quintilian. Quintilian’s institutes of oratory: or, Education of an orator in twelve books. 12 vols. Translated by Rev. John Selby Watson. London: George Bell and Sons, 1876.

Writings about Quintilian

Clarke, M.L. (1996) Rhetoric at Rome: A historical survey. New York: Routledge.

Cranz, F. Edward (2006) Quintilian as ancient thinker. In Asgate Altershot (Ed.) Idem, Re-orientations of western thought from antiquity to the renaissance. (Variorum Collected Studies Series).

Dominik, William J. (1997) The style is the man: Seneca, Tacitus, and Quintilian’s canon. In William J. Dominik (Ed.) Roman eloquence: Rhetoric in society and literature. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Fantham, Elaine (1982). Quintilian on Performance: Traditional and Personal Elements in “Institutio” 11.3 Phoenix, 36, 3 (Autumn, 1982), 243-263.

Fantham, Elaine (1995) The concept of nature and human nature in Quintilian’s psychology and theory of instruction. Rhetorica 13, 125-36.

France, Peter. (1995) Quintilian and Rousseau: Oratory and education. Rhetorica 13, 3, 301.

Gwynn, Aubrey S.J. (1926) Roman education from Cicero to Quintilian. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kennedy, George (1969). Quintilian. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Leitch, Vincent B., Ed. (2001) The Norton anthology of theory and criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Murray, Oswyn, John Boardman, and Jasper Griffin (Eds.) (1991). The Oxford history of the Roman world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, Donald C. (1979) The legacy of Quintilian. English Education 11, 103-17.

Quintilian Retrieved on March 1, 2010.

Quotes from Quintilian’s writings Retrieved on March 1, 2010.