Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.08

Gregory S. Aldrete, Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome.   Baltimore and London:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.  Pp. xxv, 227.  ISBN 0-8018-6132-2.  $38.00.  

Reviewed by Anthony Corbeill, University of Kansas.
Word count: 2135 words

"All emotional appeals necessarily lose their force if they are not kindled by the voice, facial expression, and demeanor of practically the entire body" (Quint. Inst. 11.3.2: adfectus omnes languescant necesse est, nisi voce, vultu, totius prope habitu corporis inardescunt). With these words Quintilian introduces his thirty-odd pages on how the Roman orator can most forcefully manipulate the body in the act of persuading an audience. In this revised Michigan dissertation, Aldrete attempts to situate Quintilian's assertion in a larger context and in so doing provide an analysis of the interaction between crowd and speaker in the late Republic and early Empire. The book falls into the two distinct halves indicated by the title, the first covering gestures in oratory, the second the context and function of acclamations from the crowd. A. sees these two forms of expression as the essential components of how the public speaker at Rome engaged with his hearers: "This work is a study of communication, how Roman speakers communicated with their audiences and how in turn audiences were able to apply and convey their reactions back to the speakers" (xvii).

Chapter One (3-43) surveys the prescriptions regarding gesture in Roman rhetorical treatises and, to the extent they can be reconstructed, their application in extant oratory. A. begins with a review of the importance placed upon delivery in the Greek and Roman rhetorical tradition and then turns to a selective overview of Quintilian's detailed discussion of the topic (Inst. 11.3). Since Roman rhetorical treatises repeatedly stress that the orator should elicit with his body specific emotional responses from his audience, A. is especially interested in how Quintilian's descriptions are thought to complement the verbal appeals of a speaker. The next and longest section looks at places in extant oratory where the orator could have employed one specific gesture -- pointing with the index finger -- to bring home a particular detail to his audience. The discussion is necessarily speculative, but A. offers good observations about how the public setting of most speeches would have provided ample opportunities for the orator to point at various monuments and buildings in the vicinity. The bulk of the examples given, however, have less to do with the significance of the gesture -- it is, after all, not the speaker's index finger per se that evokes an emotional response -- as with the orator's use of place, a subject recently explored in greater detail by Ann Vasaly.1 The chapter concludes by considering other ways the orator could have used his body: in mimicry, in keeping time to his words, and in providing signals to the crowd.

This discussion of gesture assumes throughout that speaker and audience interacted according to "rules and at least a tacit agreement to abide by them" (xvii). A. does a good job of summarizing the rules (relying almost exclusively on the explicit testimony of Cicero and Quintilian), but he does not choose to speculate about the origins of this "tacit agreement." How, for example, does Quintilian "know" the specific way in which Cicero formed and moved his hand when beginning his defense of Archias (which A. cites without comment on 15) or, even more interestingly, what causes him to believe he knows the gesture of Demosthenes at a specific point in a speech delivered over four hundred years earlier (Inst. 11.3.97)? The elite orator and responsive crowd seem indeed to have made an agreement, but for what purpose and at whose expense is not a subject that this book chooses to address. A. does, however, cite evidence that may lead at least part way toward an answer when he notes in the second half of his book evidence to suggest that the acclamations of the urban plebs differed in kind from those used in rural Italy (130). A.'s observation here coincides with the disparaging remarks that Roman rhetorical treatises consistently make about the delivery of provincial orators. The proper rhetoric, it would seem, is urban rhetoric.

The second chapter ("Gesture in Roman Society;" 44-84) covers narrower ground than its title indicates, being restricted primarily to evidence outside of the rhetorical tradition that could indicate the familiarity of the average Roman with the detailed system offered by Quintilian. His consideration of artistic representations of Roman orators, largely dependent on Brilliant,2 includes only one example of a hand gesture (from the reconstructed right hand of the Prima Porta Augustus). Nevertheless, A. confidently concludes that the handbooks "accurately represented the everyday practice of Roman orators" (50), seemingly on the basis of statues that show speakers with right arm upraised and left concealed. A.'s further considerations of the extent to which the handbooks reflect daily practice are not much more satisfying. For the body to have emotional effect on the hearer, Aldrete assumes that the audience would need to have "knowledge" of systems such as Quintilian's. Although this could seem an intuitive assumption, the existence of a system in use by speakers does not necessitate an awareness of this system on the part of an audience. Modern studies of crowd communication show that in fact speakers are more effective when the audience is unaware of the potential rhetoric being used in persuasion; when hearers recognize that certain gestures are aimed at persuasion, they find the speaker less persuasive.3 A.'s one concrete example of a member of the non-elite employing an oratorical gesture (Apul. Met. 2.21) can be shown to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the precise vocabulary of gesture was mysterious to the crowd (50). In this passage, Apuleius adds to the overall characterization of his bungling Thelyphron by having him use a gesture that is in fact not attested by Quintilian.4 Rather than revealing knowledge, Thelyphron's inept oratory coincides with the expectations of Apuleius' elite readers.

In the next section, A. ably treats the much-discussed topic of the illustrated manuscripts of Terence. His conclusion that the illustrations "make many of the convoluted descriptions in Quintilian intelligible" (67) is again unfortunately overstated, since nearly all the gestures he discusses in this section -- pointing, clenched fist, "pudicitia" gesture -- are well-known from more reliable contexts than these illustrations, whose date and relevance to antiquity -- not to mention to ancient oratory -- are much disputed. In this section, as elsewhere, A. assumes on unclear grounds that the gestures employed by comic actors, dancers in pantomime, and orators belong to comparable systems (57; see too 51-52, 77). The chapter concludes with interesting and useful observations on the place of gesture in ancient Rome, where lack of voice amplification, non-acoustical spaces, and milling crowds presented special challenges to the public speaker. I doubt however that gestures can really "be seen at a greater range than words can be heard" (82); can intricate combinations of fingers really be read at such a distance, which A. estimates at 65 meters? The passage from Plutarch (Pomp. 25) cited in support is not strictly relevant, since here the speaker uses gesture not to overcome distance but to be understood over crowd noise, and the gestures required would hardly need to be complex (pace A.). A. certainly demonstrates in these opening chapters the importance of gesture to the Roman orator, but I am not as comfortable with his claims about how these gestures were construed by those members of the crowd not learned in rhetorical theory.

As is clear from my summary so far, Aldrete is committed to showing bodies in action and not to interrogating the texts that describe those bodies. As a result, do not expect from this book any engagement with the many recent works analyzing constructions of the body in antiquity. A. accepts readily Quintilian's notions of the natural body and is not concerned with how the rhetorician's emphasis on the capacity of the hand and gesture to persuade succeeds in creating a realm of the unnatural, into which fall -- to name the most common categories -- non-Romans, actors, and effeminate men.5 In fact, A. seems comfortable himself in ascribing certain gestures to an unexplained "nature." Striking the chest with the clenched fist to denote grief or anger is described as seeming "natural and almost universal" (9). He has not chosen to consider instead whether Quintilian is here constructing the natural and that the construction survives as natural today because of direct transmission from Quintilian via rhetorical treatises, acting manuals, and staged melodrama. I, for one, do not recall ever having used this "natural" gesture myself, but then I found in Bulwer's Chirologia of 1644 (a work which owes much to Quintilian) that the explanation for this lack comes from my upbringing: Roman Catholics do not perform the gesture properly, but "are wont ... mysteriously to mince this natural expression" (75). So the gesture is natural -- for first-century Romans and seventeenth-century Anglicans. Despite these reservations -- and to stop criticizing A. for a book he did not write --, the first half of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome performs a useful service in bringing together much of the evidence needed to assess the use of an orator's body in persuading his audience.

Chapter Three (85-97), on "Oratory and the Roman Emperors," provides a nice bridge between the two halves of the book. Here A. briefly surveys what we know about the rhetorical education of the earliest emperors and then recounts specific historical episodes which indicate the importance the emperors placed on their interaction with the people.

With Chapters Four and Five (101-127 and 128-164; confusingly referred to as Chapters Three and Four in the Introduction xx-xxi), A. shifts his focus to the orator's audience, wishing to show that acclamations on behalf of the crowd could exercise a powerful influence on individual politicians, especially emperors. The discussion starts out unpromising with a citation of the definition that the Oxford Latin Dictionary provides for acclamo and acclamatio. Consultation of Thesaurus Linguae Latinae would have offered not only a more nuanced examination of the words, but also one more in keeping with A.'s subsequent discussion. As Funck notes in the article cited in TLL, the words acclamo and acclamatio have quite a different development from what OLD implies. They are in fact rarely neutral, and the negative connotations that they originally could possess have largely disappeared by the time of the empire.6 This semantic study supports well A.'s interesting analysis of how the site of acclamations and crowd/politician interaction moves from the politically charged spaces of the Forum and Campus Martius during the republic and into venues for entertainment such as the circus, arena, and theater. Crowd response increases in frequency and becomes more positive in tone as its direct political implications lessen. After offering a convenient typology of the acclamation -- they range from simple applause to chanted phrases of surprising complexity --, A. makes fine use of the fragmentary speech of Germanicus delivered at Alexandria (POxy. 25 [1959] 2435r) to demonstrate the extraordinary give and take that must often have occurred whenever a speaker addressed Roman citizens assembled as a mass (115-118).

The different relationships emperors had with the crowd and how crowd reactions determined these relationships is the primary focus of these pages. Although often repetitive (for example, we are reminded on numerous occasions of the frequent opportunities for plebs/emperor interaction, and on pages 150 and 156 similar points are made about the electoral changes made under Tiberius) and although assertion occasionally replaces proof (e.g., the compulsion for emperors to attend games, which "seems ... quite strong" on 120 becomes "obligatory" by 156), A. is at his best here in citing ancient evidence for the impact that public acclamations could have on imperial action, from the relatively trivial choice of which gladiator to display at the games, to more crucial issues such as the price of grain and even the selection of the emperor himself.

In the "Conclusion" (165-171), A. links his overall theme of gesture and acclamation with the well-worn theme of how the transition from republic to empire witnessed a growing theatricalization of politics: the flamboyance of gesture bemoaned by Quintilian and the increased importance of acclamation are symptomatic of how the public speaker has come to be perceived as more performer than orator. A helpful index of terms closes the book. I would like to have seen also an index locorum.

Despite its unevenness, Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome offers many individual insights into the ways in which the crowd and speaker were continually negotiating their interdependence. Especially interesting are the ways in which crowd reactions could play a role not only in individual decisions but in the creation of policy. Here lies, I think, the importance of A.'s work, in its attempt to extend into the empire the kind of revisionist views of the populace that has informed recent discussions of the political power of the crowd during the republic.7


1.   A. Vasaly, Representations: Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory (Berkeley 1993).
2.   R. Brilliant, Gesture and Rank in Roman Art (New Haven 1963) = Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 14.
3.   For this type of approach, see E. Gunderson, "Discovering the Body in Roman Oratory," in M. Wyke ed., Parchments of Gender. Deciphering the Bodies of Antiquity (Oxford 1998) 169-189.
4.   A. Corbeill, "Thumbs in Ancient Rome: Pollex as Index," MAAR 42 (1997) 7.
5.   E.g., M. Atkinson, Our Masters' Voices: the Language and Body Language of Politics (New York 1984) (a work cited in A.'s bibliography).
6.  A. Funck, "Accipiter, acclamatio, acclamo," Archiv für lateinische Lexicographie und Grammatik 9 (1896) 589-591.
7.   See especially F. Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor 1998) for a full discussion of the issue and previous bibliography.

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