The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

The 1949 Loeb edition of Cicero’s De inventione (and other works)

The “golden age” of Latin comprises works produced between the first century BCE and the first century CE. The canon of Latin literature includes the works of such authors as Caesar, Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid, which frequently make up the core curriculum of any Classics department today.[1] Linguistically speaking, the Latin language became a predominantly literary and administrative language, learned by elite members of society who had an educational or professional need for it.[2] This does not mean that Latin was not spoken anymore, it just means that it ceased being anyone’s first language, and that, eventually, educated inhabitants of the broader Roman empire were bilingual, fluent in both Latin and in their own dialects (which became the Romance languages). The adoption of Latin as the unifying administrative language of the Roman empire — and later as the unifying administrative and liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church — ensured Latin’s place as a global language through the 18th century. 

The most influential ancient Roman author was Marcus Tullius Cicero. When students read Cicero today, they are likely to be assigned his famous speeches, such as the Catiline Orations or the Pro Caelio; one of his philosophical treatises, such as De re publica; or even his letters. What students may not know is that it was one of Cicero’s so-called juvenile works, written before he was 21 years old, that had the most outsized impact on the history of education in the West. Cicero wrote De inventione when he was studying rhetoric as a young man. The title topic “invention” (meaning “discovery”) refers to the first, and most important, task of the orator, which is to develop effective arguments that will persuade a judge. Because De inventione was written as a series of notes, it was easily adaptable to the classroom as a handbook for teaching rhetoric. De Inventione became such a foundational text in the medieval and Renaissance classroom that 322 complete manuscripts survive today.[3] As a result, Ciceronian rhetoric thoroughly permeated medieval and Renaissance intellectual culture and greatly influenced the literature, historiography and political theory of those periods, the fruits of which students continue to learn in humanities courses today.[4] 

That Renaissance artists and architects looked to ancient sculptures, paintings, and architecture to inform their designs is well known. Renaissance Latin authors similarly looked to Classical authors as models for writing the “best Latin.” These humanists, as they are called, were reacting against what they saw as idiosyncratic Latin that evolved from the 11th to the 13th centuries to accommodate the highly technical and abstract concepts of theology and philosophy, and they desired a return to what they deemed the best models from antiquity: Cicero for prose and Vergil for poetry.[5] The Italian humanists Pietro Bembo and Jacopo Sadoleto of Italy, and the Belgian humanist Christophe de Longueil, went so far as to declare Cicero the only model for good Latin. The eclectic thinker and scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) found this idea so ridiculous — because slavish imitation of a single model does not account for individual ability or changing times — that he penned a satirical dialogue titled Ciceronianus that mocked this idea of a single model. In his satire, the character Nosoponus is paralyzed by writer’s block, afraid to write a single word that is not found in Cicero; while Bulephorus endeavors to convince Nosoponus to seek out a greater array of authors as models and to internalize what he learns in order to develop his own style.[6] These arguments for some stylistic flexibility aside, the Renaissance marked the period during which the Latin language became well and truly fixed; by this time, the national vernacular languages had come into their own and Latin had become the domain of an elite educational curriculum.[7] The advantage to us of this fixing is that Latinists today are able to read, with relative ease, a wealth of texts that span more than a millennium.

The study of Latin has many applications and is an important tool for research and study in a variety of fields. Besides Classics, Berkeley students use Latin in courses within the department of Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology,[8] as well as PhD programs in Medieval Studies,[9] Romance Languages and Literatures,[10] and Renaissance and Early Modern Studies.[11]

Contribution by Jennifer Nelson
Reference Librarian, The Robbins Collection, UC Berkeley School of Law


  1. Department of Classics, UC Berkeley
  2. Leonhardt 2013: 56-74.
  3. Two examples of manuscripts of De inventione are in the British Library (Arundel MS 348) and in the Kongelige Bibliotek in Denmark (GKS 1998 4°)
  4. Ward 2013: 167. (accessed 6/24/19)
  5. The notion that medieval Latin was fundamentally different from Classical Latin was a humanist construct. While, in some cases, there did exist identifiable regional flavors, evidence of certain non-“standard” constructions, or writing conventions developed for specific genres (frequently in the technocratic, bureaucratic, or legal realms), in general Latin did not change in any fundamental way in the period known as the Middle Ages.
  6. Nosoponus means “suffering from illness”; Bulephorus means “one who gives counsel.”
  7. Leonhardt 2013: 184-219.
  8. Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology (AHMA), UC Berkeley
  9. Program in Medieval Studies Program, UC Berkeley
  10. Romance Languages and Literatures, UC Berkeley
  11. Designated Emphasis in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies (REMS), UC Berkeley

Sources consulted:

  • Erasmus, Desiderius. Dialogus cui titulus Ciceronianus, sive De optimo genere dicendi (Ciceronianus, or, A Dialogue on the Best Style of Speaking). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
  • Hubbell, H. M. Introduction to Cicero’s De inventione (On Invention), with an English translation by H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968, xi-xviii.
  • Leonhardt, Jürgen (trans. Kenneth Kronenberg). Latin: Story of a World Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Ward, John O. “Ciceronian Rhetoric and Oratory from St. Augustine to Guarino da Verona.” In van Deusen, Nancy, Cicero Refused to Die: Ciceronian Influence Through the Centuries. Leiden: Brill, 2013, 163-196.


Title: De inventione ; De optimo genere oratorum ; Topica, with an English translation by H. M. Hubbell
Title in English: On Invention (and other works)
Author: Marcus Tullius Cicero
Imprint: Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949.
Edition: 1st edition
Language:  Latin
Language Family: Indo-European, Italic
Source: HathiTrust Digital Library (University of Michigan)

Other online editions:

  • Erasmus, Desiderius. Dialogus cui titulus Ciceronianus, sive De optimo genere dicendi (Ciceronianus, or, A Dialogue on the Best Style of Speaking). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949.
    Loeb Classical Library (UCB only), DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.marcus_tullius_cicero-de_inventione.1949

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The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

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