Sometime after Afer's death, Quintilian returned to Spain, possibly to practice law in the courts of his own province. However, in 68, he returned to Rome as part of the retinue of Emperor Galba, Nero's short-lived successor. Quintilian does not appear to have been a close advisor of the Emperor, which probably ensured his survival after the assassination of Galba in 69.
After Galba's death, and during the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors which followed, Quintilian opened a public school of rhetoric. Among his students were Pliny the Younger, and perhaps Tacitus. The Emperor Vespasian made him a consul. The emperor "in general was not especially interested in the arts, but…was interested in education as a means of creating an intelligent and responsible ruling class" (19). This subsidy enabled Quintilian to devote more time to the school, since it freed him of pressing monetary concerns. In addition, he appeared in the courts of law, arguing on behalf of clients.
Of his personal life, little is known. In the Institutio Oratoria, he mentions a wife who died young, as well as two sons who predeceased him.
Quintilian retired from teaching and pleading in 88, during the reign of Domitian. His retirement may have been prompted by his achievement of financial security and his desire to become a gentleman of leisure. Quintilian had also survived under several emperors; the reigns of Vespasian and Titus were relatively peaceful, but Domitian was reputed to be difficult even at the best of times. Domitian’s increasing cruelty and paranoia may have prompted the rhetorician to quietly distance himself. The emperor does not appear to have taken offence; in the year 90, Quintilian was made tutor of Domitian's two grand-nephews and heirs. Even this may not have been a vote of confidence; "by the time [Quintilian] finished the Institutio Oratoria, the two young men—potential rivals to a shaky throne—had vanished into exile" (Murphy, xx). Otherwise, Quintilian spent his retirement writing his Institutio Oratoria. The exact date of his death is not known, but is believed to be sometime around 100. He does not appear to have long survived Domitian, who was assassinated in 96.
In addition, there are two sets of declamations, Declamationes Majores and Declamationes Minores, which have been attributed to Quintilian. However, there is some dispute over the real writer of these texts; "Some modern scholars believe that the declamations circulated in his name represent the lecture notes of a scholar either using Quintilian's system or actually trained by him" (Murphy, xvii-xviii).
Against this backdrop, it was very difficult to find orators in the tradition of Cicero, part of whose "fame as an orator stems from his public denunciations of enemies of the state" (xix). Such positions were simply too dangerous to take during the reign of the emperors since Augustus. Therefore, the role of the orator had changed since Cicero's day. Now, they were more concerned with pleading cases than anything else. Into this time, Quintilian attempted to interject some of the idealism of an earlier time. “Political oratory was dead, and everyone in Rome knew it was dead; but Quintilian deliberately chooses the oratory of a past generation as his educational ideal” (Gwynn, 188).
From the middle of the first century BC to Quintilian's time, there had been a flowering of Roman rhetoric. But by Quintilian's time, the current of popular taste in oratory was rife with what has been called "silver Latin," a style that favored ornate embellishment over clarity and precision. Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria can in many ways be read as a reaction against this trend; it advocates a return to simpler and clearer language. It may also reflect the influence of the late Emperor Vespasian, who was “[a] man of plebeian stock,…a down-to-earth realist with the common touch” (Murray, 431); Vespasian disliked excess and extravagance, and his patronage of Quintilian may have influenced the latter’s views of language. Cicero is the model Quintilian adopts as the standard-bearer for this form; during the previous century, Cicero’s far more concise style was the standard. This relates to his discussion of nature and art. Quintilian evidently preferred the natural, especially in language, and disliked the excessive ornamentation popular in the style of his contemporaries. Deviating from natural language and the natural order of thought in pursuit of an over-elaborate style created confusion in both the orator and his audience. “Even difficult questions can be dealt with by an orator of moderate ability if he is content to follow nature as his leader and does not give all his attention to a showy style” (Gwynn, 78).
Institutio Oratoria is effectively a comprehensive textbook of the technical aspects of rhetoric. From the eleventh chapter of Book II to the end of Book XI, Quintilian covers such topics as natural order, the relation of nature and art, invention, proof, emotion, and language. Perhaps most influential among the ideas discussed is his examination of tropes and figures, found in Books 8 and 9. “[A] trope involves the substitution of one word for another, a figure does not necessarily entail any change either to the order or the meaning of words” (Leitch, 156). An example of a trope would be metaphor, the altering of a word’s meaning. A figure, on the other hand, gives the words a new aspect or greater emotional value. Figures are divided into figures of thought, which may make proof seem more forceful, intensify emotions, or add elegance or ornamentation; and figures of diction, which is further subdivided into “the grammatical, in which the form of the word creates the figure, and the rhetorical, in which the position of the word is the primary factor” (Gwynn, 88).
A good part of this work, of course, deals with the technical aspects of rhetoric and the Institutio Oratoria stands — along with Aristotle's 'Rhetoric' and Cicero's works — as one of the ancient world's greatest works on rhetoric. He organizes the practice of oratory into five canons: inventio (discovery of arguments), dispositio (arrangement of arguments), elocutio (expression or style), memoria (memorization), and pronuntiatio (delivery). For each canon, particularly the first three, he provides a thorough exposition of all the elements that must be mastered and considered in developing and presenting arguments. The thorough and sensible presentation reflect his long experience as orator and teacher, and in many ways the work can be seen as the culmination of Greek and Roman rhetorical theory.
Throughout these and other discussions, Quintilian remains concerned with the practical, applicable aspect, rather than the theoretical. Unlike many modern theorists, he “does not see figurative language as a threat to the stability of linguistic reference” (Leitch, 156). The referential use of a word was always the primary meaning, and the use of figurative language was merely an addition to it, not a replacement for it.
“Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria is a landmark in the history of Roman education: it is the culmination of a long development, and it had no successor… [No] teacher was found who could speak with Quintilian’s authority, no orator sufficiently interested in the theory of his art to produce a second de Oratore” (Gwynn, 242).
His theory of education is one area in which Quintilian differs from Cicero. Cicero called for a broad, general education; Quintilian was more focused. He lays out the educational process step by step, from “hav[ing] a father conceive the highest hopes of his son from the moment of his birth” (Quintilianus, 1.1.1). Other concerns are that the child’s nurse should speak well (“The ideal according to Chrysippus, would be that she should be a philosopher” (1.1.4)), and that both the parents and the teachers of the child should be well-educated. With respect to the parents, Quintilian “do[es] not restrict this remark to fathers alone” (1.1.6); a well-educated mother is regarded as an asset to the growing orator. Quintilian also presents a wide review of suitable literary examples, and this work is also an important work of literary criticism. While he clearly favors certain writers, his fairness is notable, as even writers, such as Sallust, an influential practitioner of the sort of style that Quintilian opposed, are afforded some consideration. Above all, Quintilian holds up Cicero as an example of a great writer and orator.
Quintilian discusses many issues of education that are still relevant today. He believed that education should be begun early, as mentioned above, but also that it should be pleasurable for the child. “Above all things we must take care that the child, who is not yet old enough to love his studies, does not come to hate them and dread the bitterness which he had once tasted, even when the years of infancy are left behind. His studies must be made an amusement” (1.1.20). The proliferation of educational toys available for pre-school aged children shows that this view still has power. He also examines the various pros and cons of public schooling versus homeschooling, eventually coming out in favour of public school, so long as it is a good school. His view is that public schools teach social skills along with their studies, and a student would benefit more from this than from studying in seclusion. One must note, however, that Quintilian makes a point of declaring that “a good teacher will not burden himself with a larger number of pupils than he can manage, and it is further of the very first importance that he should be on only friendly and intimate terms with us and make his teaching not a duty but a labor of love” (1.2.15).
Quintilian’s most arresting point about the growing orator, however, is that he should be educated in morality above all else. To Quintilian, only a good man could be an orator. This is another aspect where he differs from Cicero, or rather pushes further Cicero’s injunction that an orator should be a good man. Quintilian quite literally believed that an evil man could not be an orator, “[f]or the orator’s aim is to carry conviction, and we trust those only whom we know to be worthy of our trust” (Gwynn, 231). This was quite possibly a reaction to the corrupt and dissolute times in which Quintilian lived; he may have attributed the decline in the role of the orator to the decline in public morality. Only a man free from vice could concentrate on the exacting study of oratory. But “the good man does not always speak the truth or even defend the better cause…what matters is not so much the act as the motive” (Clarke, 117). Therefore, Quintilian’s good orator is personally good, but not necessarily publicly good.
Another limitation of Quintilian is that he is inevitably a victim of his own educational tradition. As mentioned above, he lived in a time of flowery, ornate language. Therefore, although he obviously prefers natural language and attempts to interject some simplicity into the way language is taught, to a certain degree he is forced to accept the unnatural language of his time, simply because of the force of current fashion.
Finally, some have called into question the idea of the ideal orator. The education so dictated in Institutio Oratoria was designed to create a person who had never existed, and probably never would. Quintilian seemed willfully unconscious of the changes since the days of great Ciceronian oratory. To what end would this perfect orator be created, if there was no place for him?
Quintilian also made an impression on Martial, the Latin poet. A short poem, published in 86, was addressed to him, and opened, "Quintilian, greatest director of straying youth, / you are an honour, Quintilian, to the Roman toga". However, one should not take Martial's praise at face value, since he was known for his sly and witty insults. The opening lines are all that are usually quoted, but the rest of the poem contains lines such as "A man who longs to surpass his father’s census rating" (6). This speaks of Quintilian's ambitious side and his drive for wealth and position.
After his death, Quintilian's influence fluctuated. He was mentioned by his pupil, Pliny, and by Juvenal, who may have been another student, “as an example of sobriety and of worldly success unusual in the teaching profession” (Gwynn, 139). During the 3rd to 5th centuries, his influence was felt among such authors as St. Augustine of Hippo, whose discussion of signs and figurative language certainly owed something to Quintilian, to St. Jerome, editor of the Vulgate Bible, whose theories on education are clearly influenced by Quintilian’s. The Middle Ages saw a decline in knowledge of his work, since existing manuscripts of Institutio Oratoria were fragmented, but the Italian humanists revived interest in the work after the discovery of a forgotten, complete manuscript in central Europe. The Italian poet Petrarch addressed one of his letters to the dead to Quintilian, and for many he “provided the inspiration for a new humanistic philosophy of education” (140). This enthusiasm for Quintilian spread with humanism itself, reaching northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Martin Luther, the German theologian and ecclesiastical reformer, “claimed that he preferred Quintilian to almost all authors, “in that he educates and at the same time demonstrates eloquence, that is, he teaches in word and in deed most happily”” (140).
In grave Quintilian’s copious works we find
The justest rules and clearest method join’d (lines 669-70).
In addition, “he is often mentioned by writers like Montaigne and Lessing …but he made no major contribution to intellectual history, and by the nineteenth century he seemed to be…rather little read and rarely edited” (Gwynn, 140-1). However, in his celebrated Autobiography, John Stuart Mill (arguably the nineteenth-century's most influential English intellectual) spoke highly of Quintilian as a force in his early education. He wrote that Quintilian, while little-read in Mill's day due to "his obscure style and to the scholastic details of which many parts of his treatise are made up," was "seldom sufficiently appreciated." "His book," Mill continued, "is a kind of encyclopaedia of the thoughts of the ancients on the whole field of education and culture; and I have retained through life many valuable ideas which I can distinctly trace to my reading of him..." (Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, p. 25, Collected Works, Vol. I).
In more recent times, Quintilian appears to have made another upward turn. He is frequently included in anthologies of literary criticism, and is an integral part of the history of education. He is believed to be the “earliest spokesman for a child-centered education” (141), which is discussed above under his early childhood education theories. As well, he has something to offer students of speech, professional writing, and rhetoric, because of the great detail with which he covers the rhetorical system. His discussions of tropes and figures also formed the foundation of contemporary works on the nature of figurative language, including the post-structuralist and formalist theories. For example, the works of Jacques Derrida on the failure of language to impart the truth of the objects it is meant to represent would not be possible without Quintilian’s assumptions about the function of figurative language and tropes.