Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.04.09

Diana Spencer, Elena Theodorakopoulos, Advice and Its Rhetoric in Greece and Rome. Nottingham Classical Literature Studies, 9.   Bari:  Levante, 2006.  Pp. xv, 215.  ISBN 978-88-7949-439-7.  €45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Helen Van Noorden, Clare College, Cambridge (
Word count: 1882 words

Table of Contents

Six of the nine essays in this volume, the ninth of the Nottingham Classical Literature Studies (NCLS), originated as papers in the 2000 meeting of the Midlands Classics Colloquium. Introducing the collection, Spencer and Theodorakopoulos highlight its focus on the persona and status of the adviser in relation to the advisee (IX) and declare themselves 'eager to highlight some less than typical connections which the theme of advice can draw out between different eras and between different modes and genres' (XV). Their own essay, which treats material from Homer to the Second Sophistic, draws such connections explicitly, but leaves plenty for readers to compare and contrast in the other contributors' sketches of the 'dynamics of advisory situations' in Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny, Dio Chrysostom, skoptic epigram and Greek letters. While the book will inevitably be consulted piecemeal by specialists, a wider audience is implied by the editors' project of chronological coverage. Several chapters display a concern for originality, but most of the arguments are easy to follow, and one or two pieces cater for absolute beginners.

For readers dissatisfied with the traditional parameters of debate about 'didactic' literature in antiquity,1 the sheer range of material considered here in terms of the 'rhetoric of advice' is particularly refreshing. They should be warned, however, that most of the terms and texts of that debate are absent from this prose-dominated volume; although Homeric βουλή is included, παραίνεσις (e.g.) is not. The range of Latin terms cited is greater, but to characterize advice as coming from a friend 'not a professional' (Spencer and Theodorakopoulos, 8), as ethical rather than technical (Costa, 181) or as 'typically' involving 'didacticism' plus sycophancy (Spencer, 80) is possible only without reference to scholarship (including a previous NCLS volume) on 'didactic' aspects of Lucretius or Virgil,2 let alone Hesiod or Aratus. Still, the provocative spread of observations in this collection brings out the valuable point, that giving and seeking advice, as rhetorical actions, bear different emphases in different situations.

In pole position, Spencer and Theodorakopoulos's wide-ranging essay (1-29) first distinguishes 'performing advice in Rome' from 'Greek' attitudes to advice: 'Greek selves aim to be finished when they grow up', so that they 'do not appear to need perpetual scrutiny', whereas 'Romans are constantly ... engaged in the cultivation of the self as exemplum (10). The complexity of Cicero's self-presentation as his own adviser is used to identify a concern with self-restraint as a distinctively Roman tendency, looking back through Socrates, an exception among Greeks, to Nestor and Polydamas in the Iliad. Advising rulers remains a problem in both Greece and Rome, but Roman intellectuals playing 'Greek' counsellors recuperate the role of Nestor more positively as politically-engaged philosophy in the Graeco-Roman fusion of the Second Sophistic. In its conclusion, this many-sided article develops another argumentative thread: a comparison between Cicero's cultivation of horizontal/friendship networks of advice-exchange as he sidesteps advising Caesar, and Seneca's more withdrawn advisory persona as he obliquely offers Nero moral exempla. The latter's isolation is read as a response to Cicero, but also well exemplifies the idea that post-Virgilian Romans, as self-conscious exiles, reincarnate 'Greek' models of the outsider's authority to give advice (20).3 While more evidence is required to clinch some of the generalizations in this piece, a multitude of thought-provoking formulations compensates for the difficulty of following its more dense sections. The difficulty of officially advising Greek and Roman rulers would undoubtedly have been elucidated had Thomas Wiedemann's conference contribution, on the consilium principis, been recovered for this volume. The next two articles focus on instances of similarity between advice-seeker and adviser. Andrew Barker (31-46) argues, in decided and accessible fashion, that Plato's Laches reveals the need for advice-seekers Lysimachus and Melesias to be just as rhetorically successful and ethically motivated as their advisers, and that Socrates himself, originally an 'accessory adviser' with Nicias and Laches, switches sides, becoming the ideal receiver of advice (42). This view of Socrates has great potential, but Barker's views about the proactive character of 'the' advice-seeker are drawn entirely from the character of Lysimachus, only briefly acknowledging Melesias' almost total silence (34). What are we to make of Melesias' presence? The question seems worth discussing, in the light of Plato's use of paired characters here and elsewhere. Tim Rood (47-61) well demonstrates in the Anabasis the interplay between Xenophon and Socrates as adviser-figures, in relation to Herodotean counsellors and to Thucydides' Pericles. In this piece, however, the term 'didactic' is used rather loosely, and the assertion that the authority of Xenophon as a character within his text increases the force of 'whatever didactic function can be assigned' to the Anabasis (56) requires sharpening. It might be worth comparing the (debated) authority of Hesiod's self-presentations as receiver and deliverer of wisdom; Hesiod might also provide a relevant parallel for Rood's interest in audience knowledge of Xenophon's personal history in the context of his wide range of writings.4 These stimulating contributions confirm that constructions of Socrates and Pericles, as 'culturally generative models' of advisers (as the editors put it, 29) deserve whole volumes in themselves.

So does Cicero. Catherine Steel's chapter (63-78) on Cicero's self-conscious adoption of an advisory pose in the first Catilinarian is another clear read. Succinctly justifying her focus on a particular moment in Cicero's career (63-4), Steel exposes Cicero's manoeuvring within the act of giving advice as he conveys to Catiline and the Senate a careful balance of messages about his own authority. As Steel notes, Cicero demarcates his advice from other forms of speech such as orders. Then, through analysis of how Cicero withdraws from giving advice in the three remaining Catilinarians, his stance is clarified as a temporary strategy. This exposition of Cicero's delicate position in regard to Catiline, specific though it is, will surely stimulate reconsiderations of other circumstances in which advice is offered.

While Steel points out the temporary usefulness of the advisory role, Spencer (79-104) begins by emphasizing its dangers. She first suggests that flattery is inbuilt in the dynamics of advising emperors, and notes the advantages of indirect address via semi-private advisory epistles. In the body of the article, Spencer moves from Cicero's concerns about advising Caesar into analysis of Seneca's Epistle 83, a discourse on drunkenness, drawing into her discussion the Roman reception of Alexander as 'a trope for advice-giving' and imperial lack of control (82, 86). This sometimes allusive and densely footnoted essay is noticeably harder to follow than the other pieces in the volume, unless you are already in the know. Spencer's turn to Seneca is evidently motivated by her expertise on his interest in Alexander and by her (well-documented) goal of illuminating the difficulties of autarky under Nero. In these respects, her conclusions are thought-provoking, but she has to use Cicero to read a concern with 'advice' into this particular Senecan letter; section 83.17 (not cited directly) presents a drunken man pouring out secrets, not 'advice', as Spencer suggests (98, 102), and even so, Spencer has to argue elaborately to connect this figure to Seneca's own advisory and epistolary position.

Spencer's wider concerns work better, however, in the light of the two essays that follow (indicated by their reversed order in the editors' summary of the contributions). Andy Fear (105-16) lucidly discusses what might, or ought, to be deduced from the fact that Pliny in Epistles 10 continually asks Trajan for advice and addresses him as dominus. In their tone and vocabulary, the exchanges between Pliny and Trajan, ostensibly adviser and advisee, reveal 'the great dilemma at the heart of ... the principate' (109) about the actual power of the emperor. The decision to publish Book 10, Fear suggests, might indicate that Pliny's own circle thought that there was something for others to learn from his obedience to Trajan.

Wrapping up this thread of the volume is Harry Sidebottom, with a longer article (117-57) charting On Kingship literature in antiquity. Marshalling arguments to show that there was no genre comparable to Peri Basileias in Latin in the 1st cent. AD, Sidebottom makes a case for Dio Chrysostom as the author who transformed the Hellenistic treatise sent to a ruler into an oration delivered directly. As Sidebottom observes, the exercise of reconstructing this genre, the sources for which he displays as a diagram (157), provokes larger questions about continuity in literary traditions. For his concern with evidence, in his orderly approach, and given his readiness to contextualize texts and to define terms such as the Second Sophistic (151), Sidebottom's essay deserves to reach undergraduate reading lists. Characterizing Peri Basileias as a careful mixture of praise and admonition, Sidebottom well reiterates mixed motives for working in this and 'related genres' (143), but never quite defines what makes literature 'count' as On Kingship; Seneca De Clementia is here rejected on the basis that it never addresses Nero as rex (136), but direct address was not a ancient criterion for inclusion, given that Plato Statesman soon acquired the subtitle On Kingship, as Sidebottom notes (145). I prefer his emphasis that 'the nexus of ideas about kings and tyrants, centred on virtue and vice, proved highly adaptable' (126).

Gideon Nisbet (159-77) contributes an engaging and typically self-aware argument that the advisory agenda of Greek 'skoptic' epigrams complicates modern readings (including his own) of Roman satire. After introducing the form in its various cultural and scholarly contexts, and temporarily rejecting the common strategy of reading retrospectively through Martial, Nisbet analyzes the Loukillian epigrams numbered 389-91 in Book 11 of the Palatine Anthology. Aspects of intellectual culture found to 'flicker... in and out' of all these epigrams (172) include games with masculine norms and the position of addressees of advice at a symposium. In conclusion, Nisbet resists the desire to prioritize among the interpretative frames of advice and satire. The effect of his enjoyable close readings is slightly marred by errors in the Greek text of all three epigrams.5

Finally, Desmond Costa (179-91) offers samples of advice in Greek letters ranging from 4th cent. BC to 4th cent. AD. He introduces from scratch letters from Epicurus, St Basil, St Paul and Alciphron, and the fictional letters attributed to Anacharsis, Themistocles, Socrates, Philostratus and Chion. Each text is quoted in translation for up to two pages, but Costa's remarks are perfunctory and rarely relate to the 'advisory' aspects of his selected examples. Although some points are worth expanding (e.g. Epicurus' letter to Menoeceus as a 'softened' philosophical treatise, 181), others just undercut the interest of the volume. For example, introducing a 'lightweight' letter of Philostratus advising a woman that her anger will make her ugly, Costa comments only that 'literature reflects life, and we may conclude that many genuine letters were written to give this warning' (189). In place of this, some explicit comparison of strategies in Greek and Latin letters of advice, whether fictional or real, would have been a welcome complement to Spencer's contributions.

On the whole, then, this is a volume to be recommended with care. The argument found most frequently across the papers is the similarity of advisee to adviser. No contributor sets out to demarcate 'advice' from exhortation or from didactics, but several do so in passing. There is a cumulative bibliography, and an index (primarily of ancient authors cited). A few typographical and formatting errors are evident.6


1.   See, for example, Ruth Scodel's call for a more flexible approach to 'didactic poetry', in BMCR 2007.01.05.
2.   On the addressees of didactic poetry, see Schiesaro, A., et al. (eds.) (1993) Mega Nepios [Materiali e Discussioni 31], and for thoughtful discussion of different 'didactic' tones, see Atherton, C. (ed.) (1998) Form and Content in Didactic Poetry [NCLS 5]. This was the first volume in the series to provide an introduction to and overview of the issues raised by the contributions (none of which are cited in Advice and its Rhetoric).
3.   A reference to Martin, R. P. (1992) 'Hesiod's metanastic poetics', Ramus 21: 11-33 would have been apt.
4.   On this aspect of Hesiod, see e.g. the testimonia in the recent Loeb edition, along with Most, G. W. (1993) 'Hesiod and the textualization of personal temporality' in Arrighetti, G. and Montanari, F. (eds.) La componente autobiografica nella poesia greca e latina fra realtà e artificio letterario. Pisa. 73-92.
5.   ταναόν should be ταναὸν, ὴὲ (167); ἐλὼ should read ἐγὼ (170); οἴκω and φησιν unaccented, παρ' with misplaced apostrophe, line 3 omits φησί, and φηβηθῇς should read φοβηθῇς (172).
6.   'princeps he should' (18); 1.21 should read 1.20 (72 n.22); uemens for uehemens (92, in a citation of Lucretius); principium should be principum (101); 'scis ut ... is from Panegyricus 45, not 42 (111); 'Antononies' for 'Antonines' (142 n.122); Rood's Anabasis essay as an incorrect page header (85, 165, 185); Gera 1993 cited as 1994; 'Wiedeman' (inside front cover).

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