The Offices

Author: Marcus Tullius Cicero  | Date: 44 BC

XXXVII. - Decorum shows itself in speaking- Rules about the manner, subjects, and measures of public oratory and our common talk.

Another great instance in which this becomingness shows itself, is our speech and discourse: but whereas of this there are two sorts, the one proper only for argument and contention, the other for common and ordinary talk; we should make use of that when we plead at the bar, or speak in the senate and public assemblies; of this when we meet and discourse with our friends, when we walk in any of the public places, or are sitting at table, and over a glass of wine. There are teachers of rhetoric who give rules about the former; but there are no rules given about the latter; not but that I think there might be some invented; but the business is, there is nobody to be found that would study them if they were; otherwise masters would never be wanting, if there were but learners that would study and employ them. Hence we are almost overrun with rhetoricians, though no small part of the rules which they give, viz. those that concern either the words or the sense, may be very well applied to our ordinary discourse. The voice is that whereby we can talk, and convey our inward thoughts from one to another; in which there are two things chiefly required; first, that it be clear; and, secondly, harmonious. Each of these must be the gift of Nature, and is not attainable any other way; but where they are naturally, practice and exercise will increase the one, and imitation of those who speak sweetly and agreeably, better the other. This was the principal thing in the two Catuli, which made them be counted men of judgement and learning; though they had some skill in the matter it is true, and so had some others as well as they; but this one thing recommended them so much, that they were esteemed the most perfect masters of the Roman language. The sound of their voices was pleasing and harmonious; they neither slurred over things negligently in their pronunciation, nor yet were too exact in expressing every letter, the former of which would have made their speech obscure, and the latter affected. They never spoke so as to strain their voices, but equally avoided the double extreme, that of faintness and sickliness, as it were, on the one hand, and of too much loudness and elevation on the other. Crassus’ discourse was full as witty, and not near so barren, as that of the Catuli; yet these had as great a reputation as he on the score of good speaking. Caesar, who was brother to the elder Catulus, was far more facetious and witty than any of them; so that in court, when before the judges, he would do more by his easy familiar way of talking than others could do by all the powers of their eloquence. Each of these things should be diligently taken care of, if we desire to act decently on all occasions. Our common discourse then I would have to be such as that wherein the followers of Socrates excel; easy and good-natured, without any stubbornness or stiffness in opinion: let it be seasoned with mirth and pleasantness, and not be too tedious, pert, and assuming, as though it had a right to the attention of the hearers, and nobody else had anything to do with it; but think it reasonable, as in all other cases, so in this of discourse, to let every man fairly take his own turn. But especially, in the first place, it ought to be considered, what is the nature of the subject we are discoursing on; if it be serious, we should handle it with seriousness; but if it be merry, with gaiety and briskness. But the most important thing to be taken care of is, that our talk do not discover any viciousness in our manners; which is apt to appear by nothing so much as by falling too foul on those that are absent, either by turning them into ridicule, or misrepresenting them by malicious reproachful language. Now the subject of discourse in common conversation is usually one of these three things; either our own private domestic concerns; those that relate to the commonwealth in general; or, lastly, some matter of study and learning: therefore when our talk begins to ramble from these, we should always be careful to fetch it back to them again. But whatever subjects present themselves (for we are not all pleased with the same things, nor with anything equally at all times, but whatever subject, I say, we are on), we should consider how far our discourse may be entertaining; and as we could find a time when to begin, so we should learn when to make an end.


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Chicago: Marcus Tullius Cicero, "XXXVII. - Decorum Shows Itself in Speaking- Rules About the Manner, Subjects, and Measures of Public Oratory and Our Common Talk.," The Offices, trans. Thomas Cockman Original Sources, accessed July 12, 2024,

MLA: Cicero, Marcus Tullius. "XXXVII. - Decorum Shows Itself in Speaking- Rules About the Manner, Subjects, and Measures of Public Oratory and Our Common Talk." The Offices, translted by Thomas Cockman, Original Sources. 12 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Cicero, MT, 'XXXVII. - Decorum Shows Itself in Speaking- Rules About the Manner, Subjects, and Measures of Public Oratory and Our Common Talk.' in The Offices, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 12 July 2024, from