1902 Encyclopedia > Quintus Hortensius

Quintus Hortensius
Roman orator and advocate
(114 BC – 50 BC)




QUINTUS HORTENSIUS, was one of the first and most famous orators at the Roman bar in the latter days of the republic, when the orator's art was particularly flourishing and was diligently cultivated. His father had been governor of Sicily, and had left behind him a good name for justice and uprightness. He was himself born in 114 B.C., and he lived to the year 50 B.C., so that his life and career ran parallel to that of Cicero, whose senior he was by only eight years. He had the best possible introductions into public life, and at the age of nineteen he made his first speech at the bar, and shortly afterwards successfully conducted the defence of a petty king of Bithynia, one of Rome's many dependants in the East. From that time his reputation as an eloquent advocate was decisively established. As the son-in-law of Catulus he was attached to the aristocratical party of which Sulla was the head, and among his clients he numbered several of its most eminent members. During
Sulla's ascendency the courts of law were Under the control of the senate, the judges being themselves senators. To this circumstance perhaps as well as to his own merits Hortensius may have been indebted for much of his success. Many of his clients were the governors of provinces which they were accused of having plundered, and such men were generally sure to find themselves brought before a somewhat lenient or even friendly tribunal, one, too, which was shamefully accessible to corruption. Hortensius himself, according to Cicero, was not ashamed to avail himself of this disgraceful weakness, and a good deal of the plunder which his clients had got from the provincials went into the pockets of the judges. Cicero made this statement in open court, and we are thus driven to assume that it must have had some foundation.

Hortensius, like other eminent Roman citizens, passed through the regular succession of public offices, rising from the quaestorship in 81 to the consulship in 69 B.C. In the year before his consulship he came into collision with the now rapidly rising eloquence of Cicero in the memorable case of Verres, and from that time his supremacy at the bar was shaken. In fact his younger rival stepped into his position. Cicero's success against a man who was backed up by all the influence of Sulla's party was a splendid triumph, and it must have been a heavy blow to Hortensius. Shortly afterwards he was again pitted against Cicero, and again failed. In 67 a proposal was made to supersede Lucullus in his command in the East against Mithradates in favour of Pompeius. This was supported by Cicero, and was successfully carried in face of the opposition of Hortensius, From the year 63 B.C., the famous year of Cicero's con-sulship and of the Catiline conspiracy, we find the two great rivals often associated together as counsel in the same case. The fact was that Cicero was now himself drawn towards the aristocratical party,—the party of Hortensius. Consequently, in the many cases which had more or less of a political complexion as arising out of the disorder and turbulence incident to party quarrels, it was natural that the two men should have the same sympathies and be engaged on the same side. So it happened, for example, in the case of Licinius Murena, whom Cicero defended along with Hortensius against a charge of bribery4n canvassing for the consulship. And so strongly declared was his sympathy with Milo against Cicero's bitter enemy Clodius that he was nearly murdered by some of Clodius's gang. After Pompeius's return from the East in 61 B.C., and the political revolution which for a time united him with Caesar, Hortensius withdrew from public life and devoted himself exclusively to his profession. For nine more years he was in continual employment as an advocate, and won a number of verdicts. In 50 B.C., the last year of his life, he defended successfully one Appius Claudius against Dolabella, Cicero's son-in-law, who prosecuted the man on a serious charge of bribery.





None of Hortensius's speeches have come down to us; and it was, it seems, only on special occasions that he wrote them. Almost all our knowledge of him is derived from Cicero. He was undoubtedly a highly-gifted and accom-plished man, and though of course he owed his very early success to his great connexions, yet he was perfectly well able to stand on his own conspicuous merits. His eloquence perhaps was not quite of the highest order;—it was not for the most part what Cicero called "gravis," weighty, dignified, impressive; there was, it may be presumed, an absence of those appeals to great moral principles which give such grandeur to the best speeches of Cicero and Demosthenes, and of ourownBurke. His oratory,according to his great rival, was of the Asiatic style, by which appears to be meant a florid rhetoric, better to hear than to read. He had the gift of a marvellously tenacious memory, and could retain every single point in'his opponent's argument. His action was highly artificial, and even his manner of folding his toga was noted by eminent tragic actors of the day, and is left on record by Macrobius. He had, too, a fine musical voice, which he could skilfully command.

Cicero sometimes speaks of Hortensius very favourably, and even almost affectionately, though it would appear from some passages in his letters that he never quite trusted him. He could not have thought him a high-principled man, as he openly charged him with bribery, and as he actually mentions a case in which he claimed property under a will which he knew to be a forgery (De Officiis, iii. 18). Hortensius, in fact, seems to have been a lax, easygoing, clever man, with very little noble ambition and very little real moral worth. " An amiable Epicurean " is a phrase which describes him not unfairly. The anecdotes we have about him all point to a man of luxurious tastes and a great capacity for enjoyment. The vast wealth he had accumu-lated during forty-four years of successful practice he spent after the fashion of rich Roman nobles, in splendid villas, in parks, in fish ponds, and costly entertainments. He left his heir an unusually well-stocked cellar of wine, and his park at Laurentum abounded in every variety of game. He was also a great buyer of pictures and works of art. With true consistency he opposed Pompeius and Crassus when they proposed their sumptuary law. He is said to have spoken wittily on the occasion; he was at any rate successful.

There is a good account of Hortensius in Dunlop's Roman Litera- ture (ii. 222), and in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Bio- graphy his life and career are traced as thoroughly as the materials at our disposal allow. (W. J. B.)







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