Colors

Colors as Important Adjuncts to Formal Argumentation

Colors are subtle, unusual, and clever twists of circumstances and argumentation by which the declaimers tried to alter the interpretation of the facts in a case.

Often concerned with judicial debatesOpens in new window of guilt or innocence, colors were restricted to controversiaOpens in new window and were not used in suasoriaOpens in new window. Declaiming based on the side he represented, the declaimer would use colors which tended either to intensify or mitigate the blame of the accused.

Colors were important adjuncts to formal argumentation. An effective color occurs in the first controversia of Book 1 (1.1.16ff), where the son defends himself for breaking his adoptive father’s order not to support his poverty-stricken natural father. The son heavily emphasizes the strong bonds of emotion and filial devotion which compelled him to aid his natural father.

More specifically, in this declamation AlbuciusOpens in new window has the natural father confront his son, read out the statute requiring sons to support their fathers, and then demand obedience to the law. Next he adds a damaging blow to the other side: says the son in his own defence,

  • “I offered him not as much as I ought to offer a father, but as much as I could take secretly from one who forbade it” (1.1.17).

Another declaimer in the same case vividly describes an unknown, disheveled old man falling at the feet of the youth, who was at the time known for his generosity,

  • “I lifted him up when I did not know who he was. Do you want me to reject him because he is my father?” (1.1.19).

Some colors could also be far-fetched and ridiculous, as one in the declamationOpens in new window (1.7) concerning a father who hated his son since he had killed his two own brothers, although legally. When captured by pirates, the son wrote to his father begging for ransom. The father replied directly to the pirates that he would pay double the ransom price if they cut his son’s hands off.

In court the father pleaded in excuse that his secretary had made a mistake in copying. According to him, the sentence in question should have read,

  • “I will give you double ransom if you do not cut off both his hands” (1.7.18).

Success in contriving successful colors depended on vivid imagination and skillful juggling of facts. Here, too, the schools were a useful preparation for the legal system of the day:

  • Cases, especially in the literary age of the empire, were not won on legal knowledge exclusively, but on the advocate’s ability to color his facts, to appeal to the emotions of the judge, and to set forth persuasive arguments, couched frequently in the rhetorical conceits of the day.

In a controversia the declaimer had to marshal all his resourcefulness and imagination to fill out the explanation of the character and motives of the defendant, and, with the fairly limited number of declamatory themes, he tended to reject the simple and obvious for the fantastic and unusual.

Originally the term color signified the general tone of styleOpens in new window, and this usage appears in CiceroOpens in new window and even SenecaOpens in new window on occasion. In a manner yet to be explained fully it was also applied to describe the device of argumentation under discussion.

Further Readings:
Lewis A. Sussman, The Elder Seneca (Volumes 51-54); Quintilian 4.2.88; Bornecque 34,52; Parks 79-80; Bonner 55-56; Clarke 93-94; Kennedy ARRW 326.