An Overview of Testimony

Testimony is a rhetorical device that has gain prominence in judicial discourses. It is defined as everything that is brought in and secured from certain external circumstance for the purpose of gaining a conviction.

CiceroOpens in new window, in Topica, offered a similar definition, “everything that is brought in from some external circumstance in order to win conviction.”

Furthermore, he adds that there are two groups of topics from which arguments are based. In the first group, the topics are intrinsic or inherent to the subject matter at hand. The second group relies on testimony and entails topics that are extrinsic, which are brought from external circumstances.

Testimony takes efficacy based on some sort of authority. An authority can be drawn from two origins: from a person’s nature (natura) or from circumstances (tempus). An authority from nature is dependent on one’s virtue. Authority from circumstances is relied on a host of external inputs such as “talent, wealth, age, good luck, skill, experience, necessity, and even at times a concurrence of fortuitous events.” Public opinion holds that the talented, wealthy, and aged are credible witnesses. Those with skill and experience are also deemed to be reliable witnesses because of their knowledge.

Testimony may be derived from a variety of physical or mental means, which could be through torture or some emotional distress such as anxiety, lust, grief, or melancholy. In some cases the truth may be exposed through fortuitous circumstances—this can come from children, or from a person intoxicated or insane, or from someone asleep; it can also come from some sort of inadvertence. Public opinion is also a sort of “multitude’s testimony.”

Divisions of Testimony

Cicero further elucidates that the “testimony which produces conviction through virtue is of two sorts; one sort gets its efficacy by nature; the other acquires it by hard work.”

A.  The first part has to do with gods and gods are supremely virtuous by means of nature. The testimony of the gods has the following forms:

  1. Utterances or oracles
  2. Works, which has the following divisions:
  • The order and beauty of the heavens.
  • Flights of birds and their songs
  • Sounds and fire from heaven
  • Portents on earth
  • Entrails
  • Visions or dreams.

B.  The second sort, which earns virtue by means of hard work (industria), deals with human beings. Human earn a virtuous reputation through genius, industry, learning, consistency in life, or approved goodness. The honored include public officials, orators, philosophers, poets, and historians, and their sayings and writings are often used as authority to win cases.

In the rhetorical manual “De partitione oratoria,” the senior Cicero distinguishes between divine and human testimonies; divine testimony is said to includes oracles, auspices, prophecies, and the answers of priests and augurs and diviners. Human testimony, on the other hand, is based on authority and is given either freely or under compulsion. The testimony of other people and the gods are important for the characterization of people, for it is not only the attributes of person that help reveal character, but also the opinions of other people and the gods.

Further Readings:
Cicero, Topica 20.75–8 (Hubbell, LCL).
Cicero, De partitione oratoria 2.6.
Brian Small, The Characterization of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews.