Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory

The History of Quintilian's Text

by Lee Honeycutt

As James Murphy has noted, the popularity of Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory has waned during periods of history when the humanistic tradition itself suffered decline, but the text itself has never faded entirely from historical view. During the nineteen centuries after its composition, the Institutes has experienced three peak periods of influence—the ancient, the twelfth-century French, and the Italian Humanist—each of which reflected the unique spirit of its age.

In the first five centuries after its composition, the Institutes had enormous influence on Roman scholars and educators, including a host of early Christian church fathers, such as Origen, Jerome, and Augustine, who were trained in Roman schools of rhetoric. This ancient period of influence, according to Murphy, reached its zenith in the fifth century with Julius Victor's absorption of Quintilian's ideas into his Ars Rhetorica. After this, citations of Quintilian were generally rare during much of the Middle Ages, though not unheard of, and some time in the eighth or ninth century, primary manuscripts of the Institutes were mutilated and truncated, leaving most readers with only portions of the original text.

Despite its fragmented form, the Institutes enjoyed a brief revival of popularity in twelfth-century France, where a general renaissance of classical culture occured in the schools of Chartres and Bec. Writing in his Metalogicon (1159), John of Salisbury describes in some detail his own education at Chartres under the tutelage of Bernard, Thierry, and William of Conches, who patterned their instruction after the program laid out by Quintilian. But as Murphy notes, this resurgence of interest in Quintilian was short-lived, and by 1225, his work had again slipped into obscurity. Yet this resurgence is notable, given that these French scholars did not have access to a full manuscript of the Institutes.

The Abbey of St. Gall, with Hartmuot's Tower shown in tinted relief. Poggio is believed to have found the Quintilian manuscript in the basement of this tower (Clark 282).

Quintilian's work was not the only classical Latin text that had suffered the vagaries of time. By the fourteenth century, primary Latin writers, such as Lucretius, Vitruvius, Petronius, and Cicero, were known largely by name only in European scholastic circles, as many of the texts were incomplete or missing altogether. Only eight of the comedies of Plautus were known to classical students of this period (Shepherd 99). A scholar as renowned as Petrarch had incomplete works of many authors, including Quintilian, and was largely ignorant of many writers, such as Tacitus, who are well known to us centuries later ( Sandys, V2, 8).

It was Poggio Bracciolini, while working as a papal secretary at the Council of Constance, who happened to unearth a complete manuscript of Quintilian at the Abbey of St. Gall. Founded in the eighth century, this Benedictine monastery was known as an important regional center of learning and manuscript production, specializing in the works of classical writers (King and Vogler, 15). Poggio, who had studied Latin under John of Ravenna, had established an early reputation among Italian humanists as a master copyist, and in a letter dated December 15, 1416, he wrote to Guarinus Veronensis about the works he and his companions discovered at St. Gall:

There amid a tremendous quantity of books which it would take too long to describe, we found Quintilian still safe and sound, though filthy with mold and dust. For these books were not in the Library, as befitted their worth, but in a sort of foul and gloomy dungeon at the bottom of one of the towers, where not even men convicted of a capital offense would have been stuck away.... Beside Quintilian we found the first three books and half of the fourth of C. Valerius Flaccus' Argonauticon, and commentaries or analyses on eight of Cicero's orations by Q. Asconius Pedianus, a very clever man whom Quintilian himself mentions. These I copied with my own hand and very quickly, so that I might send them to Leonardus Aretinus and to Nicolaus of Florence; and when they had heard from me of my discovery of this treasure they urged me at great length in their letters to send them Quintilian as soon as possible (Gordan 195).

Poggio is often valorized for these and other discoveries (Gordan; Shepherd), but James Midgley Clark portrays Poggio and his companions as unscrupulous raiders of the St. Gall library at an unfortunate time in the abbey's history. At its apex in the middle of the ninth century, St. Gall had been a vibrant scholastic, economic, and political center, but by the fifteenth century, it had suffered a series of gradual reversals culimating in the defeat of Abbot Kuno of Stoffeln by the neighboring Appenzellers at the battle of Voegelinsegg in 1403 (King and Vogler, 19). At the time of Poggio's visit, St. Gall was led by "the illiterate and incapable" Henrich of Guildelfingen (Clark 275). According to Clark, Poggio used his papal position at the Council of Constance to exploit these weakenesses and make off with two cart loads of books from the monastery, including the complete manuscript of Quintilian, which he copied in 54 days. Though this manuscript was returned to St. Gall, Clark claims others were spirited away across the Alps to Italy. As a result of "the ease with which the Italian humanists had been able to despoil the conventual libraries of Germany and Switzerland," the Benedictine order in Mainz, to which St. Gall belonged, ordered increased library staff at all abbeys, and in 1461, the abbey conducted a complete inventory of the library to determine what works might be missing (Clark 275). However, Bernice M. Kaczynski says this inventory showed the ninth-century collection of books nearly intact, and argues that any books taken by council members were either peripheral to the Carolingian holdings or acquired after the ninth-century catalogue was compiled (15). Though some plundering was likely, Kaczynski believes regional patriotism was responsible for exaggerated reports about cart-loads of books being removed from St. Gall and other nearby institutions during the Councils of Constance and Basel (13).

Part of Quintilian Manuscript
A portion of Quintilian (10. 1. 87) from the 10th century Codex Laurentianus 46, 7. (Sandys 215).

Today, the manuscript that Poggio found is housed in Zürich's Zentralbibliothek and catalogued as MS C74a (M. Stähli, personal communication, July 29, 2000). In his analysis of the textual transmission of Quintilian manuscripts, Michael Winterbottom demonstrates how this version of Quintilian (labeled "T") was descended from the earlier Bambergensis manuscript (Bg), which had been created in the tenth century from a mutilated French version that was supplemented from a complete ninth-century Ambrosian manuscript (A) (339). Prior to Poggio's discovery, however, none of these earlier complete manuscripts was available to most European scholars, and Petrarch and his colleagues had to make do with mutilated versions of French origin. Though Watson and others erroneously believed the Codex Laurentianus in Florence to be Poggio's transcription of the St. Gall manuscript, Winterbottom believes that transcript is now lost, but before disappearing was merged with several types of mutilated forms of the text, eventually forming the basis of the normal Italian vulgate (365-66).

Immediately following Poggio's discovery, there was a tremendous resurgence of interest in Quintilian's work. The first modern introduction to the study of Quintilian was produced by Paduan humanist Pietro Paolo Vergerio (Sandys, V2, 48), and an epitome of the complete Institutes was drawn up by Francesco Patrizi of Siena (53 n). Laurentius Valla—famous for his denunciation of the forged "Donation of Constantine," as well as his public disputes with Poggio—had early in life been attracted to Quintilian, preferring him to Cicero, and his notes on the first two books were often included in later versions printed in Venice (67). Naturally, Quintilian's ideas began to influence Renaissance calls for curricular innovations. In his dialogue on education, De Libris Recte Instituendis, Sadoleto praises many of the poets favored by Quintilian—Homer, Virgil, Plautus, and Terence—and advocates a greater focus on the study of Greek (116).

Modern Influences

During the century after Poggio's find, numerous printed versions of Quintilian were produced throughout Europe, and as a result, his reputation among the ancients was equal to that of Virgil and Cicero. Though his following dimmed somewhat after the Renaissance, he continued to influence a variety of select intellectual figures in subsequent Western history—Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, John Stuart Mill, and Hugh Blair (Stewart 108).

More than any other person, Blair is largely responsible for keeping Quintilian's legacy alive in the modern era through his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belle Lettres, first published in 1783. In his analysis of Blair's appropriation of Quintilian's ideas, Michael Halloran provides us with detailed evidence for how "Blair may have been partly responsible for extending Quintilian's influence well into the 19th century, in that his Lectures endorsed and transmitted Quintilian's ideas on rhetoric, albeit in a truncated form" (185). Stewart goes even further, calling the Lectures "the principal conduit through which the ideas of Quintilian flowed into nineteenth and twentieth century rhetorical theory" (109).

As Halloran notes, Blair cited the Institutes more than any other single work, ancient or modern, and called Quintilian "the most instructive and most useful" author on rhetoric in antiquity. In particular, Blair appropriates many of Quintilian's ideas on style, specifically the need to let appropriateness to speaker and occasion guide the use of figures (187), and on the analysis and composition of orations (188). However, Blair departs from Quintilian on other matters, such as his Platonic ideal of the vir bonus, or good man skilled in speaking, though he continued to maintain the classical link between ethics and rhetoric (192).

Beyond its influence on 19th- and 20th-century rhetorical theory, however, Blair's appropriation of Quintilian's ideas continues to have a subterranean influence on traditional forms of teaching composition, from elementary schools to the university. According to Stewart, many of Quintilian's ideas have found their way into the often prescriptive rules of traditional English grammar and composition, though most adopters of these rules fail to understand their kairotic origin.

Quintilian's legacy...is not altogether beneficial. Useful in its time, worthy of praise for what it accomplished in its era and many succeeding ones—yes. Useful now [1979]? Not so much. Partly because portions of it are impediments to progress in the discipline; partly because the qualifications and practical flexibility of Quintilian have not filtered down to many modern teachers of composition who are his unconscious debtors. (115)

Much has changed in the discipline of rhetoric and composition since Stewart wrote these words in 1979, but the prescriptive rules and formulas that he warns about are still quite popular in other disciplines and with the general public, who apply them with no real understanding of their intended situational use. But any reader of Quintilian will quickly note the numerous qualifications he provides when dispensing advice on the teaching and practice of oratory. For Quintilian, pragmatic expendiency almost always trumps theoretical doctrine, though not at the expense of ethics. Nowhere is this more plain than in Book 2, where Quintilian uses a traveling metaphor to point out the contingencies of any rhetorical situation:

The art of speaking depends on great labor, constant study, varied exercise, repeated trials, the deepest sagacity, and the readiest judgment. But it is assisted by rules, provided that they point out a fair road and not one single wheel-rut, from which he who thinks it unlawful to decline must be contented with the slow progress of those who walk on ropes. Accordingly, we often quit the main road (which has been formed perhaps by the labor of an army), being attracted by a shorter path, or if bridges, broken down by torrents, have intersected the direct way, we are compelled to go round about. And if the gate is stopped up by flames, we shall have to force a way through the wall. (2.13.15)

Quintilian in Print

According to Stewart, between 1470 and 1600, there were 118 editions of Quintilian's treatise produced in Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, some of which are listed in the table below (107).

1470 Rome - edited by Cardinal Campano, a shepherd boy who had become a pupil of Valla in Naples, and published by J. P. de Lignamine. Folio.
1470 Published by Sweynheim and Pannartz. Folio.
1471 Venice - Jenson. Folio.
1482 Institutiones oratoriae. [colophon: Treviso: Dionysius Bononiensis & Peregrinus (de Pasqualibus) Bononiensis, 22 Oct. 1482]. Folio. a–q8r12; [140] ff
1493 Venice - Raphael Regius, who, according to Watson, was the first to attempt corrections of the numerous errors in Quintilian's text. "He was a very acute editor and considering the state of learning in his age, very successful in his emendations." Published by Bonetus Locatellus for Octavianus Scotus.
1514 Venice - edited by the Venetian patrician Andreas Navagero for the presses of Aldus Manutius, whose 8vo pocket editions helped popularize the Classics in Italy.
1516 Paris - Badius Ascensius, who followed the text of Regius, but improved it by introducing some emendations from a manuscript of Laurentius Valla.
1517 Aldus
1527 Mosellanus, 4to
1531 Colinaeus, 8vo
1534 Paris - Sebastian. Watson states: "The Gryphii, Sebastian, Francis, and Antonius produced several editions, the first of which was that of Sebastian, Paris, 1534, but all those that had the charge of them, whoever they were, left the text nearly the same as they found it."
1543 Camerarius aud Sichardus,with the Castigationes of Philander, which, according to Gesner, had been published eight years before, in a separate volume, at Basil. These three contributed something to the emendation and illustration of the text.
1553 Paris - Thomas Richardus. According to Watson, this version was republished in 1556, with notes said to have been written by the 16th-century French classical scholar Adrianus Turnebus. However, their authorship was never proven, and Watson says they were "generally regarded as inferior to what have been expected from him." Subsequent editors referred to them as "pseudo-Turnebus," but Watson cited them frequently as "Turnebus."
1665 Leyden - variorum edition, begun by Schrevelius and finished after his death by Frederic Gronovius. Watson says the edition "is useful, but of no great estimation. Burmann charges the editor or editors with supine negligence."
1693 Oxford - Edmund Gibson, 4to. According to Watson, "Gibson seems to have been but a young man when he brought out this edition. He professed to have collated three manuscripts, two at Oxford and one at Cambridge, but both Burmann and Spalding accuse him of not having made his collations with sufficient care."
1698 Strasburg - Ulric Obrecht, 4to, with various emendations in the text, many of them very judicious, but without notes. According to Watson, Obrecht "had intended to publish a separate volume of annotations, with the reasons for his corrections, but was prevented by death from executing his design."
1715 Rollin published what "we may call a selection from the Institutions of Quintilian, for he omitted all such parts as he thought not necessary to be read by youth in modern times. His text is tolerably correct, but he is too sparing of illustration."
1720 Leyden - Pieter Burman, a long-time professor of Eloquence at the University of Leyden who specialized in the Latin Classics. While his "introductions are apt to be monotonous...," as Sandys notes, "his great powers of endurance and his laborious patience have led to his being described as the 'beast of burden' of classical learning" (v2, 445). According to Watson, the Burman edition contained "the principal annotations of all preceding commentators, and some of Burmann's own. What Burmann himself did, however, was less than might have been expected from him; he neglected many passages that required both correction and illustration. When he attempted emendation, he was extremely timid and not always happy."
1725 Paris - Claude Capperonnier, from the famed family of 18th-century French Latinists. According to Watson, "What Burmann had omitted, Capperonier... attempted in some degree to supply. But he wanted judgment to direct his good intentions. Burmann had neglected to explain any of the legal or rhetorical terms used by Quintilian; Capperonier resolved to explain them all with the utmost minuteness. He accordingly extracted, from various sources, but especially from the Greek rhetoricians, all that he could possibly bring to bear on the technicalities of his author; but from not having divided his texts into sections, to which he might refer, he has been under the necessity of repeating scores of times illustrations which it would have been sufficient to have given once. His pages are accordingly encumbered with superfluous matter, and he himself, from the way in which he speaks of his doings, seems proud of the petty erudition which he has so industriously accumulated."
1738 Göttingen - Johann Matthias Gesner, one of the greatest classical scholars of the 18th century, who "by his published works and by his influence as a teacher, did much towards raising the standard of classical studies in Northern and Central Germany" (Sandys, V3, 5). According to Watson, Gesner's "text is on the whole rather more correct than Burmann's, but who quietly passed over many passages that demanded correction and explanation."
1798 Lepzig - Georg Ludwig Spalding, first three volumes of what Sandys calls a "memorable" edition of the Institutes. Volume 4 was finished by the grammarian Philipp Karl Buttmann, and new materials for the criticisms of the text were supplied in Volume 5 by Karl Gottlob Zumpt (1829). According to Watson, "all preceding editors were far surpassed by Spalding.... He commenced his work with an ample store of critical materials and the aid of all that had been done by his predecessors; but what was of far more consequence, he devoted himself to his undertaking with a resolution to leave no apparent corruptions in the text unamended and no obscurity unelucidated. As he was well qualified, by learning and perspicacity for his task, he has produced a work of the highest excellence, both for correctness and for illustration. If he deserves censure on any account, it is for having paid occasionally too much attention to worthless readings and for having been rather too fastidious about the Latin of his notes, which, had they been more concise and spirited, would, even if less elegant, have pleased the reader better."
1834 Bonnell
1868 Leipzig - Karl Felix Halm
1876 Gertz
1907 Leipzig - L. Radermacher
1920 H. E. Butler, with English translation. Loeb Classical Library.
1970 Oxford - Michael Winterbottom
1972 Darmstadt - H. Rahn, with German translation
1975 Paris, J. Cousin, With French translation
1997 Milan - S. Corsi and C.M. Calcante, with Italian translation
2001 Donald A. Russell, with English translation. Loeb Classical Library.

English Translations

1756 W. Guthrie. Watson has little good to say of Guthrie's skills as a translator: "The quality most remarkable in Guthrie" Watson says "is his audacity; he was resolved to give some English for Quintilian's sentences, and when he could not see the sense, either by the light of his own scanty learning or of Gedoyn's French, he boldly excogitated something and thrust on his reader the offspring of his own mind for that of Quintilian's."
1774 J. Patsall. Though Watson preferred Patsall to Guthrie, he noted mistakes in his translation as well. Of both, Watson notes, "It is to be observed that neither Guthrie's version, nor Patsall's, is complete; for whole chapters, and large portions of chapters, are omitted in each of them."
1856 Rev. John Selby Watson. Published by Bell & Daldy as part of the Bohn Classical Library.
1920 H. E. Butler, with Latin text. Loeb Classical Library.
2001 Donald A. Russell, with Latin text. Loeb Classical Library.


Clark, James Midgley. The Abbey of St. Gall as a Centre of Literature and Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.

Colson, F. H. Introduction to M. Fabii Quintiliani Institutionis Oratoriae, Liber I. (pp. ix- xcviii).Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924.

Gordan, Phyllis Walter Goodhart. Two Renaissance Book Hunters: The Letters of Poggius Bracciolini to Nicolaus De Niccolis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

Halloran, S. Michael. "Hugh Blair's Use of Quintilian and the Transformation of Rhetoric in the 18th Century." Rhetoric and Pedagogy: Its History and Practice. Ed. Winifred Bryan Horner. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995. 183-95.

Kaczynski, Bernice M. Greek in the Carolingian Age: The St. Gall Manuscripts. Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1988.

King, James C., and Werner Vogler, eds. The Culture of the Abbey of St. Gall. Stuttgart: Belser Verlag, 1991.

Murphy, James J. Introduction to On the Early Education of the Citizen-Orator. (pp. vii-xxx) Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

Sandys, John Edwin. A History of Classical Scholarship: Vol. 1, from the Sixth Century BC to the End of the Middle Ages. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1921.

---. A History of Classical Scholarship: Vol. 2, from the Revival of Learning to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1908.

Shepherd, William. The Life of Poggio Bracciolini. Liverpool: Harris Brothers, 1837.

Stewart, Donald C. "The Legacy of Quintilian." English Education 11.2 (1979): 103-17.

Winterbottom, Michael. "Fifteenth-Century Manuscripts of Quintilian." Classical Quarterly 17 (1967): 339-69.

Lee Honeycutt (honeycuttlee@gmail.com) Last modified:1/15/07