Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.31

Danielle van Mal-Maeder, La fiction des déclamations. Mnemosyne Supplementa 290.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2007.  Pp. ix, 193.  ISBN 9789004156722.  $113.00.  

Reviewed by Neil W. Bernstein, Ohio University (
Word count: 1338 words

Roman declamation remains an unjustifiably understudied genre, though recent commentaries on individual declamations (Minor as well as Major) have certainly begun to ameliorate the situation.1 As Mal-Maeder justly observes, disparagement of this "hybrid" genre used to be the typical reaction, and so previous studies did not devote much attention to the literary qualities of Roman declamation. This brief and well-conceived monograph examines the conventions and generic ingredients of declamation's fictional universe (ch. 1), the genre's narratological conventions (ch. 2), use of description (ch. 3), representation of voices different from that of the normative voice of the male speaker (ch. 4), and the relationship between declamation and the ancient novel (ch. 5). In addition to its contributions to the study of declamation as literature, this book also serves well as an introduction for the first-time reader of Roman declamation. Mal-Maeder provides detailed background to the basic conventions of the genre, along with numerous lengthy citations (accompanied by clear French translations) from each of the collections. An appendix provides a text and translation of the themes and laws of the nineteen Major Declamations falsely ascribed in antiquity to Quintilian.

In chapter 1, Mal-Maeder briefly and effectively surveys the different genres that nourish declamation, which include historiography, tragedy, and comedy and mime as well as oratory. Though mythological narratives are rarely treated directly in Roman (as opposed to Greek) declamation, declaimers can make use of mythological comparisons to describe both ordinary family conflicts and extraordinary situations such as predestined murder and cannibalism (in Decl. Mai. 4 and 12 respectively). Folktale elements also appear: for example, fathers thrice disown their sons and heroes thrice perform heroically. Instances such as these support Mal-Maeder's view of declamation as an independent genre which does not attempt to replace either the rhetoric of the real-world courtroom or of historiography. On this view, the failures of declaimers such as Albucius and Latro to speak well outside the schoolroom (Sen. Contr. 7 pr. 6-7 and 9 pr. 3 respectively) points not to the worthlessness of declamation itself but to those individuals' failure to respect its proper performance context. Declamation instead makes a "pacte de lecture" with the reader similar to that found in the ancient novel. The real world may be a constant point of reference, but the declamatory world, like the fictional world created in the novel, has carefully differentiated itself from it.

Chapter 2 offers a narratological reading of the levels of "énonciation" found in declamation. The declaimer and his audience in the extratextual world must be separated from the advocate, client, adversary, jury, and others in the fictive world of the declamation; the advocate in turn may deploy the "discours cités" of other speakers within his speech. Such use of ethopoeia enables the declaimer to distance himself from the words he speaks, and thus grants him the freedom to air unconventional social views without taking responsibility for them. The effect of the declamation differs depending on the ethos of speaker imagined to deliver the words. An advocate representing the women, minors, madmen, or others who cannot speak for themselves will necessarily maintain a more distanced perspective on the case than a "narrateur homodiégétique," such as an aggrieved father or husband who pleads a case in which he is personally involved.

The descriptions in declamatory literature form the subject of chapter 3. Such descriptive passages always have a "functional" purpose: the ecphrasis of the humble agellus in Decl. Mai. 13 (Apes pauperis), for example, is aimed at arousing the audience's pity for the unfortunate farmer. Yet many of these same passages also have sophisticated self-reflexive and intertextual dimensions. The same declamation's account of the bees' virtuous activities offers a learned evocation of Vergil's 4th Georgic, while praise of their architectural skills permits the declaimer to call attention to his own carefully shaped discourse by drawing on the traditional comparison between bee and poet.

Several recent studies (such as, among others, those of Gunderson, Bloomer, and Richlin2) have focused on declamation's construction of a normative and exclusionary conception of Roman masculinity. Mal-Maeder's chapter 4 discusses the genre's representation of the voices of those who do not belong to this privileged category, such as women and effeminate men. In Decl. Mai. 8, for example, a wife accuses her husband of misusing his paternal authority by permitting a doctor to dissect one of their twin sons, while Decl. Mai. 10 presents a mother's "feminine" emotion as superior to her husband's "masculine" but brutish reason (she continued to communicate with the ghost of their dead son, while her husband hired a magician to dispel the ghost). While arguments on behalf of women in speeches such as these might appear "progressive," delivery by male speakers in a fictional genre that typically experiments with unconventional social views diminishes their ability to effect change in the world outside the schoolroom. Mal-Maeder's brief survey of homosexuality in declamation (which draws on Gunderson's fuller treatment) observes the connections between sexual submission, the perceived loss of masculinity, and, as in Sen. Contr. 5.6, loss of the authority to represent oneself in court.

On the traditional view (as presented, e.g., by Rohde and Bornecque3), the ancient novel developed in part from the "miniature novels" found in declamation. The foundlings, adulterers, and wandering merchants of some declamatory narratives certainly find themselves in situations that might be described as novelistic. But as Mal-Maeder, also author of a commentary on Apuleius' Metamorphoses,4 argues in chapter 5, it is rather that both genres draw on a similar cultural tradition, and the differences between them cannot be overlooked. As the jury never delivers its verdict, the situations of declamation remain "open," whilst those in the novel are brought to resolution; there are no young people in love in the declamatory universe, where amor is a wholly negative force; and the novel's greater scope permits more sophisticated development of character.

Declamation is only one of the many genres skilfully manipulated by Petronius and Apuleius in their novels. Like the examples of self-reflexive discourse discussed in chapter 3, Petronius' famous attacks on declamation can also be viewed as self-reflexive, as they are themselves delivered in declamatory form. Apuleius includes declamatory situations only to surpass the familiar declamatory scheme, as when the trial of the wicked stepmother (Met. 10.6-8) quickly develops into a far more intricate narrative than any declamatory theme could possibly sustain. While critics such as Petronius' Encolpius may accuse schoolroom declamation of failing to prepare its students for the real courtroom, the Metamorphoses also shows the deployment of judicial oratory to be a farce--as in the "trial" of Lucius or the trial of the wicked stepmother which ends not with an oratorical victory but a deus ex machina. This valuable chapter ends with a sustained reading of declamatory conceits in the trial of Melite and Leucippe at the conclusion of Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon.

I would mention only a few minor criticisms. The willingness of later Greek declaimers to treat mythological themes5 would appear to tell against Mal-Maeder's view (p. 9) that the Roman declaimers address such themes infrequently because the characters' situations and motivations are too well known and thus leave the speakers only limited freedom of action. Like Quintilian, Mal-Maeder also compares the declaimer who adopts a different persona to the stage actor who employs a mask to separates himself from his role (p. 46). Such "distance" did not always afford declaimers adequate protection from their lapses of tact, however, as Latro discovered when he declaimed on the theme of nepos ex meretrice susceptus before an emperor who was contemplating an adoption at the time (Sen. Contr. 2.4.12-13). The difference in social status between stage actors and practitioners of declamation must also be considered: the actor presumably has much less to lose. These small points of disagreement should not be taken to detract from Mal-Maeder's considerable achievement. This book makes important contributions to the study both of Roman declamation and of the Roman novel, and its examinations of declamation's self-reflexivity, narratological complexity, and generic interplay will prove especially valuable.


1.   Examples of recent commentaries on individual Major Declamations include DM 3, ed. G. Brescia (Bari 2004), DM 12, ed. A. Stramaglia (Cassino 2003), DM 13, ed. G. Krapinger (Cassino 2005), and others. Commentaries on individual Minor Declamations include DMin. 317, ed. G. Brescia (Bari 2006) and DMin. 268, ed. I. Mastrorosa (Torino 1999).
2.   Erik Gunderson, Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity. Authority and the Rhetorical Self (Cambridge 2003); W.M. Bloomer, "Schooling In Persona: Imagination and Subordination in Roman Education," Classical Antiquity 16 (1997) 57-78; Amy Richlin, "Gender and Rhetoric: Producing Manhood in the Schools," in W.J. Dominik, ed., Roman Eloquence. Rhetoric in Society and Literature (London 1997), 90-110.
3.   E. Rohde, Der griechische Roman und seine Vorlaüfer (1876); Henri Bornecque, Les déclamations et les déclamateurs d'après Sénèque le Père (Lille 1902).
4.   Apuleius, Metamorphoses II. Introduction, texte et commentaire, Groningen 2001.
5.   E.g., Libanius Decl. 3-8; see, e.g., D.A. Russell, Greek Declamation (Cambridge 1983), 107.

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