Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.29

Erik Gunderson, Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. xii, 285.  ISBN 0-521-82005-7.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Victoria Pagán, University of Wisconsin (
Word count: 1684 words

"What would it mean to take declamation seriously?" (p. 90). It would mean, for starters, reading this book cover to cover, embracing Gunderson's subtle, sensitive, and startling observations on Latin declamation, owning his unsettling conclusions, passing this knowledge on to others, and ultimately, disagreeing with it. G. adroitly disarms the usual attacks against the genre as frivolous, irrelevant, dull, unreal, unfamiliar, and tedious, and redeploys them, not for the purpose of a straightforward celebration of declamation, but to peer into the darker sides of authority, power, and self-knowledge.

The Introduction defines declamation as a rhetorical piece on an invented theme, distinguishing controversiae (imagined speeches on judicial proceedings) from suasoriae (exhortations to fictive interlocutors). As the genre that Latinists love to hate, it is important for the likes of Cicero and Vergil (and their proponents) that declamation occupy second-rate status. While other scholars have touted the importance of declamation as fundamental to understanding rhetoric, education, and law, G. aims to interrogate declamation as a genre in its own right. Abandoning, thankfully, facile readings of declamation that strive for an elusive "social reality," G. attempts a literary reading that presses beyond simple questions of themes, images, and tropes and seeks instead the "imaginary relations and constructs by which the psychic life of actual Romans is lived" (p. 18). Such an ambitious goal necessarily calls for a theoretical apparatus, whose efficacy I discuss below.

The six chapters are divided into two parts. Part one is designed to show the difficult boundary between text and commentary and the tensions between the necessary (text) and the superfluous (commentary). Part two focuses on the forces of silence and speech at work in declamation and the degree to which one can speak the unspeakable in this highly regulated genre.

In chapter one, the recollections of Seneca the Elder remind us of the fragmentary nature of the genre: the fictions of declamation must always be reconstituted. Thus, Seneca's recollections are imitations of an already artificial form. Furthermore, Seneca's prefatory address to his sons neatly sets up the arguments of paternity that G. makes throughout the rest of the book. Seneca's protestations about his failing memory and wicked old age actually highlight a very important point: memory is used willfully "to refind (sic) and reapportion language and authority" (p. 57). Chapter two focuses on Cicero and the tensions created in the declamations that praise his oratory in terms he himself would never have used (p. 84). Chapter three contributes to a perennial question in classical thought, the relationship between art and reality. If declamation is so pointless and void, then how can it give offense? Yet, inequality is the fiber of Roman social intercourse, and any speaker must negotiate the disparity (with p. 103, see also p. 233). Chapter four argues that insanity is the last refuge of a son with no other recourse against paternal authority.

The final two chapters engage with speech and silence in declamation. Chapter five focuses on one of the most memorable of the declamations in the corpus: "During the Cimbrian war a military tribune attempted to sexually assault one of Marius' soldiers. The soldier killed the tribune, a kinsman of Marius. He is accused of murder before the general." ([Quintilian], DM 3). G. uses this third Major Declamation to explore gender, power and obedience, violence and authority. He argues, not surprisingly, that "homosexual panic [was] a necessary component of Roman life" (p. 157), but he presses on to show that the case of the Miles Marianus actively "forges" a consensus that represses the unspeakable. In his reading of DM 3, G. systematically teases out the irony in the speaker's careful negotiation of the line between fas and nefas and his pregnant protestations against the inadequacy of words (p. 174-175). This is G. at his best. The sixth chapter explores the last two Major Declamations and the silence of incest before the power of speech, bringing the oedipal complex to the fore in this final attempt to unearth the psychic life of actual Romans.

There is plenty of evidence to support the commonsense notion that declamation provides a safe place for Romans to talk about disturbing social and moral transgressions, a comfortable place to speak the unspeakable, with rules and regulations that keep both speaker and audience from the perils of an unsettling reality. But G. presses the function of declamation beyond the carnival, beyond sanctioned subversion; for the practice of declamation -- that dull, monotonous, tedious practice -- creates and sustains authority. Irrelevance, unreality, and tedium serve a very real purpose. "The genre functions so as to habituate people to submission to the law... that frequently produces impossible and contradictory situations. Declamation asks that one come to the aid of a failing law, that one assume the name of its authority in order to shore up a possible gap in the field covered by the law's sovereignty" (p. 228). G. rightly forces the conclusion that the elaborate artifice, the playfulness, and the artistry that define declamation are not harmless or insignificant. They are implicated in the creation and maintenance of the psycho-social system of inequality at the base of Roman socio-economic institutions. At last, the study of declamation ventures in a fruitful direction.

After the conclusion, two appendices illustrate the reason for the seemingly systematic disregard for declamation. With an undertone of reproach, G. attributes the obscurity of declamation to its inaccessibility. Appendix I, "Further Reading" lists Latin texts, commentaries, and translations. The catalogue is only two pages long, with only seventeen entries by only ten different authors. (G. was unable to include Studium declamatorium, a collection of essays published in 2003.1) Appendix II offers sample declamations from the Major Declamations, the Minor Declamations, Calpurnius Flaccus, and Seneca the Elder. While it is G.'s intention to present the cases discussed throughout the book in their entirety and in their original order, still one is struck by the highly fragmentary nature of the material, especially Seneca's corpus. Between the sorry state of the texts and the lack of fundamental research tools, it is a wonder declamation has survived.

Freudian psychoanalysis serves as the theoretical framework for the book. I suppose that, if protracted forays into psychoanalytic theory led G. to his conclusions, then I ought not complain of their ubiquity. Yet too often I found the theoretical discussions overly complicated, riddled with jargon, and frankly unnecessary. In chapter three, for example, G. is clear, forceful, and edifying: "One should not readily heed the complaint that declamation is a marker of political impotence or that the genre is somehow fundamentally tied to incapacity. Declamation embraces its powerlessness. It even uses this incapacity as one of its own strengths" (p. 110). G. detracts from this clarity with a two page discussion of the paintings of Magritte and Foucault's commentaries on them. The argument that "the discourse of madness is first and foremost a discourse of fathers and sons" (p. 141) is followed by three pages on Lacan's function and field of speech in psychoanalysis. I agree that we need to be warned against the irresistible tendency to reinscribe ancient biases into our critical readings; however, phrases like "the tropology of subjectivation" (p.145) are a bit over the top. G.'s reading of the third Major Declamation (chapter five) is interrupted by Freud on homosexual refusal (p. 164-165). Lacan's mirror stage is not neglected (p. 187) and the two final Major Declamations make room for one more blast of psychoanalysis (negation, p. 207-211).

One may dismiss such reactionary protest as a token of ignorance or obtuseness, but I do insist that strict adherence to a single theoretical approach can be deleterious. G.'s obedience to one theoretical approach (psychoanalysis) in effect fragments an already fragmentary genre. Reading declamation in terms of the father-son relationship occludes -- to take just one example -- attention to women (their relationships with each other and their relationships to men, their relevance, memory, insanity, inanity, etc.). Although women, slaves, and non-Romans are present in G.'s analysis, they are sidelined by the center-stage role of father and son, Freud and Lacan. Theory here runs counter to the aims of the book. If the goal is to open up the study of declamation to as broad an audience as possible, then the presentation of the subject should be as clear and unobstructed as possible; jargon only obfuscates an already circumscribed and impoverished subject. If the goal is to take declamation on its own terms, then the preponderance of theory leads the reader to believe that declamation cannot stand on its own, that declamation needs propping up.

In conclusion, this book makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the genre of Roman declamation and its place in Roman thought. It is thorough, well conceived, and well executed, and I recommend it to any who want to know how the Romans thought about themselves. But it is not a comfortable book to read, and maybe that is why it has taken so long to "take declamation seriously." The questions that guide the study are innocent enough: "Declamation is very much 'about' authority: who is an author? who gets to be an author? how is authority justified? how is it reproduced?" (p. 21). But G. boldly concludes by reflecting these questions back at his contemporary academic audience. G. draws an analogy between declamation and scholarly writing: "Much like declamation, the academic study is itself a very predictable genre with a number of rules that, though arbitrary, are held as indispensable by the practitioners of the art" (p. 227). We are forced to confront the regulation of speech at all levels, declamatory and scholarly, and our part in that regulation. For every opportunity for sanctioned criticism (both text and commentary, book and review), there are those who create and maintain the possibility for such criticism. Every author has a Master, and those who hope to say anything worthwhile must tacitly acknowledge the paternity, unless of course they are willing to submit to the disconcerting alternative that, like declamation, ours is also "a form in which men are forever going on about nothing" (p. 112).


1.   Schröder, Bianca-Jeanette, and Schröder, Peter, eds. 2003. Studium declamatorium : Untersuchungen zu Schulübungen und Prunkreden von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit. Munich and Leipzig.

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