Why “From the Rostra”?

“The head and hand of Cicero were suspended for a long time from the rostra in the forum where formerly he had been accustomed to make public speeches, and more people came together to behold this spectacle than had previously come to listen to him.”

Appian. Civil Wars, Book IV

In Cicero’s death we come upon the ends of rhetoric—in the sense of both rhetoric’s limits and the extremes in which rhetoric can be used.

Rhetoric can grease the gears of difference so that we can get to know about and debate with each other while avoiding violent conflict. But, rhetoric can also facilitate organized violence (as Antony demonstrates with his message of authority and retribution conveyed through displaying the dismembered corpse of an opponent on the rostra*).

Civil insurrection may not be our most pressing concern in the US today, but failure to resolve disagreements exacts human costs (say in problematic health care and immigration policies or in civil rights denied). And, I would suggest, failure to work through disagreements productively harms our civic health in addition to the individual harm inflicted by systemic problems.

On this blog, from time to time, I will explore questions of productive disagreement.

*The rostra itself is a curious mix of rhetoric and violence. It served as a platform from which speakers could address those gathered in the forum. It takes its name from the ramming rods (rostra) of ships captured by Roman forces with which it was decorated.

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About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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