Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.03

Ruth Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice.   Farnham, England/Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 238.  ISBN 9780754661252.  £55.00.  

Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge (
Word count: 1974 words

For some time now, there has been a profound disagreement rising to the surface in Classical Studies, and this admirable book should bring it to a head. The swelling row, sometimes conducted in rather hissy tones, has a specific casus belli, but the implications are extremely broad indeed; and, since they concern the very status of rhetoric as a training in the ancient world, they touch all classicists, especially in the literary, artistic and cultural historical spheres. Let me try first to say what I think the disagreement is and why it matters before I turn to explain why this book may consequently be important for the development of our field.

It is best to start with the casus belli. Some of the most interesting work in recent years on classical literature, both in relation to the arts and in relation to narrative, has focused on ekphrasis. It is invidious to single out particular works, but Don Fowler's work on description and narrative has been particularly influential, as has Jas Elsner's on Roman viewing, or Froma Zeitlin's on the theatre, or a string of fine studies of Hellenistic epigram from Britain, America, France, Germany and Italy. "Art and Text", and "Description and Narrative" have become major fields where sophistication of approach has gone hand in hand with fine, detailed literary analysis. Throughout this work, the term ekphrasis is generally used, with varying degrees of self-conscious historicization, to mean the verbal description of a work of art, from a painting to a city--and there is a specific genealogy of such descriptions starting from Homer's Shield of Achilles, moving through Hesiod's Shield of Heracles to fifth-century theatre and on through Hellenistic epigrams, epic and pastoral to Latin examples--the Aeneid and Catullus 64 in prime place--right up to Christian and Byzantine material, especially descriptions of church buildings. One such ekphrasis caused Libanius (1.41) to have a critical fit against the unfortunate Bemarchios for rambling on about pillars, trellised courts and the like. A cultural history of a discourse of viewing has been articulated for which ekphrasis in this sense has been integral and essential.

The trouble is that the ancient sense of the word ekphrasis does not refer solely or primarily to the rhetorical description of a work of art. Its use in a technical sense in the rhetorical treatises of the Roman Empire refers to an emotional style of writing, which brings a scene to life before the eyes of a listener. It is closely related to enargeia. The examples that the rhetorical handbooks give, suggest battles, seasons, storms, plagues, as paradigmatic subjects for student exercises. The test-cases are usually prose and from the historians or rhetoricians rather than the poets (with the obvious exception of Homer). So some critics have responded to the contemporary work on ekphrasis as part of a discourse of viewing by declaring that such usage ignores or is ignorant of ancient usage; that it invents a genre where none is recognized in the ancient world; and consequently distorts the ancient understanding of description as a mode, which has a psychological and rhetorical framing that must be determinative. Rhetorical training is the grounding of Greco-Roman intellectual comprehension of things, and thus is would be rash indeed to ignore such a frame. The phrase--and by implication the category of--ekphrastic epigram, declares one critic in nominalist fervour, is a modern invention.

Now there can be no informed classicist who would not agree that the study of rhetoric was basic to elite education in the ancient world (and probably from the end of the fifth century BCE); that rhetoric informs the prose and verse of our elite texts; that rhetoric was integral to social advancement; that rhetoric was an integral element of the furniture of the ancient elite mind. But how this undoubted influence is to be comprehended, and what the role of the rhetoric manuals is in relation to the practice of texts, is far less clear. Here the battle lines have been drawn up often in deeply aggressive opposition. Against the suggestion of Francis Cairns that genre is a time-free zone and that the third-century Menander Rhetor gives the rules by which we should understand Augustan and even Hellenistic poetry, critics have been quick to retort that it is simply crass to suggest that genres don't develop and change over time. Why should a third-century hack be anything but a crass guide to the profound poetry of Virgil and Ovid? The untenable rigidity of Cairns results in a brusque dismissal of the handbook of rhetoric, for all that critics might agree that rhetoric really, really matters.

So one particularly telling test-case for the relation between ancient rhetorical theory and cultural production is ekphrasis. It can be shown that the modern use of ekphrasis is indeed modern in as much as its restricted sense of "a description of a work of art" is a nineteenth-century coinage, broadly popular in Classics only in the last quarter of the twentieth century (as Webb neatly does). It can be shown too that ekphrasis in the rhetorical treatises is used largely to indicate a description full of enargeia, and conceived to be part of the battery of rhetorical weapons of an orator. So--misuse of ancient term and end of story? I don't think so. But before we move on to why this isn't the end of the story, let me say why this book will bring such arguments to a head.

Ruth Webb's is the fullest, most accurate and most informative study of ekphrasis as an ancient rhetorical term. It looks at all the relevant treatises from the first century CE (if the dating of Theon is correct) through to the sixth century. It carefully articulates how these texts make sense in a context and explores the rhetorical schooling and formal training in which the exercise of ekphrasis took place. It explores the intellectual framing through discussions of enargeia and phantasia and it looks at brief examples of late Greek literature to see how this training flows into texts of high culture in the Greek-speaking Roman Empire. It includes in an appendix texts and translations of the rarer and more difficult to find passages from the rhetorical manuals. This study has been a long time coming. Her articles are already classics in the field, and this book is a much-pondered, much-changed version of her thesis of 1992. It was a shock to realize I had been profitably learning from her and arguing with her for seventeen years.

There is much that makes this book an essential for every serious library. First, the judgment, knowledge, and long reflection, which make this so poised, clear, and authoritative a work. I have only one criticism of any weight: her version of rhetoric wholly ignores the tradition of allegorical reading recently emphasized for us by Peter Struck. It would be fascinating to think how the allegorical descriptions of Porphyry or Plotinus or Philo would fit into the argument. Second, Webb, unlike so many who write on her slice of the action, is critically sophisticated, aware of counter-arguments, and engages with a broad linguistic and historical critical frame. She distances herself politely but firmly both from the conceptual blinkers of a Cairns and from the peevish rigidity of the recent work of Zanker. This book brings the argument to a head because it engages firmly, intelligently and knowledgably with the counter-case. Third--and this is what motivated me to write this review--she raises in the starkest possible terms the tension between the authority of the handbooks and the direction taken by recent work, including my own, on visual culture.

So let me hazard some of the questions that Webb's work raises--but to my mind cannot fully answer. First, what is the status of these handbooks for literary interpretation? As Webb herself admits repeatedly, their advice, prescription or description is often lapidary and misleading; they are designed for early education; their guidance is often ignored in the work we have. There remains a tension between prescription and practice which cannot be easily resolved. Menander Rhetor may just turn out to be as poor a guide to reading the Aeneid as a freshman composition handbook is for reading Henry James. So how determinative should these manuals be? How much do text-book definitions matter for high literature? What is more, the fullest handbooks are late--third to sixth century C.E. The texts that are discussed under the rubric of ekphrasis in contemporary visual studies stretch from Homer to Paulinus (and beyond). Is there no history to rhetorical theory? Can we really use third century C.E. theory as a conceptual model for writing of four hundred years earlier? Does not the introduction of Christianity change the game? Do the changing audiences for rhetoric not matter?

Ekphrasis, as it is described in Webb's excellent study, is a technique and not a genre. It is not an indicator of content. In the progumnasmata, the preliminary training for budding orators, ekphrasis is an "exercise which taught students how to use vivid evocation and imagery in their speeches" (53). The subjects it specifies are "neither exhaustive nor exclusive" (62)--just what teachers usually dealt with. It is a "type of speech that worked an immediate impact on the mind of the listener, sparking mental images of the subjects it 'placed before the eyes'". (193) It is a style of writing that can appear in any genre or form of text and be applied to any topic. ekphrasis, as it is used by those who work on visual culture today, however, is used to link a set of texts which describe primarily works of art, and which are self-consciously linked within and across formal genres. Epigrams know they sound against epic, and against each other; the texts of Theocritus and Herodas play off against art criticism and grander modes of writing with their representation of women in the temple art galleries; Philostratus, Callistratus, Lucian are highly self-conscious of literary tradition and of the status of words against images and competition between different descriptions in their discussions of eikones. Virgil's shields and doors are written through Apollonius and Catullus and Homer. But it does make sense to talk of these texts as a set or a tradition (if not a fully fledged genre) because of these self-aware cross-references. What is more, there are many descriptions of works of art which circulate as discrete texts (epigrams, eikones), as well as many embedded in other larger texts; but there are almost no battle-scenes, descriptions of seasons, storms, which are not embedded in larger texts. This difference should not be effaced. There is no ancient word for these descriptions of works of art as a set, any more than there is a word for what we call "novels" in the ancient world. So, ekphrasis, like "novel", has been used to mark a perceived set. But since ekphrasis in this modern sense does not indicate a technique but a set of texts linked by content, attitude, self-awareness, and approach, it should not be mistaken for the ancient term in its technical rhetorical definition. As with the term "novel", ekphrasis is dangerous if used unreflectively, but remains a helpful term for marking the recognized connections between some texts, and for understanding how a tradition develops. There is an equally dangerous nominalism in insisting on blind adherence to ancient terminology, especially when the terms are taken from late texts and applied to the whole of ancient writing.

Webb's book will be the standard reference for imperial rhetoric's definition of the ekphrasis, and for the embedding of such a definition within rhetorical theory. But it should also provoke the field of Classics to think hard about what it means by the "role of rhetoric" in elite texts, not just for the case of ekphrasis, but for wherever rhetorical prescription and literary practice interact.

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