Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.66

Erik Gunderson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rhetoric.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. x, 355.  ISBN 9780521677868.  $34.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrea Balbo, Università di Torino (

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[The reviewer apologizes for the late review. Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

What does ancient rhetoric mean? What are its partitions? What are the main steps in its history? What is its meaning within the Greek and Roman cultures? This companion tries to answer these and other questions, providing a rich and well-informed aid to students and cultivated people. It belongs to an important literary genre in classical studies: it aims to inform readers in a deep way based on the latest modern scholarship, without being too technical. The catalogues of CUP, Wiley Blackwell and Brill are full of similar books, which reveal the modern taste for the all-in-one texts or, in other words, for an essential knowledge. The main challenge is to maintain high quality in a context oriented to the wider public, but this book seems to have reached its target.

In the introduction, E. Gunderson raises the main question that will be the core of the discussion: is it possible to distinguish rhetoric from philosophy, oratory and literature? The link among these human activities is so tight that it is difficult to identify clearly the borderlines of rhetoric. Of course, it is a matter of language, but also of history, and in particular, of the development of the relationships among disciplines.

The first part of the book offers an archaeology of rhetoric; its aim is to discover how a rhetorical system was built and organised from Homer through Plato and Aristotle and on as far as Quintilian and the Greek school tradition. The first three chapters are very suggestive: what does the art of speaking mean for Odysseus in Homer and in the context of his audience? What are the terms of opposition and distinction between rhetoric and philosophy? Which are the main concepts of rhetoric shared? Among these papers, M. Heath's occupies an outstanding position, owing to its clearness and precision. He achieves the target of giving a very useful presentation of the different stages in the process of 'systematization of explicitly articulated principles for skilled speech' (p. 59) from Plato to the progumnasmata.

The second section aims at explaining the features of the rhetorical language, the concepts of divisions of speech, the power of a well-trained voice, and the characteristics of Quintilian's style. C. Steel sketches a good history of the division of parts of speech and their characteristics, with particular attention to Cicero and Quintilian. J. Porter's "Rhetoric, aesthetics, and the voice", which pays attention to the aesthetic dimensions of rhetoric with a historical treatment of the subject from Pythagoras to ancient Classicism, and E. Gunderson's "The rhetoric of rhetorical theory", are both very interesting pieces. The latter shows how rhetorical treatises are not neutral or meaningless from a rhetorical and stylistic point of view and how Quintilian pursues the goal of creating a treatise which is itself perfectly constructed in rhetorical terms. The connections between education and rhetoric and the role of politics are the subject of J. Connolly's paper. Connolly tries to apply to this subject Bourdieu's and Althusser's sociological ideas, as well as devoting herself to the very complex problem of the declamation, concerning which she rightly argues that 'language was one area of expertise that offered a relatively safe means of exercising libertas' (p. 139).

The third section concerns the practice of oratory and starts with a survey of the three main types of oratory by J. Hesk. Hesk rightly underlines that its splitting up in three parts was not accepted by the many writers who contested Aristotle's authority. Perhaps it would have been better if the author had also taken into consideration the fragmentary orations from the imperial age, because it is implausible to assert, as he does, that 'Cicero'sPhilippics are perhaps the best, and certainly the last, examples of deliberative oratory used to influence policy before the emperors came along to curtail public deliberation' (p. 148). The age of Tiberius gives us many examples of deliberative speeches, even if their political importance is clearly not the same as it was in Republican times. Four further contributions follow this paper, alternating between Athens and Rome: V. Wohl and D. Rosenbloom deal with the rhetoric of the Athenian citizen and his staging in the political context of the Greek city, while J. Dugan and W. Batstone examine Rome and the features of the Roman rhetorical system and performance. Wohl's work is particularly effective in explaining the symbiotic relationships between citizen and rhetoric. In Athens the expression of rhetoric involved a definition of the status of citizen, which the author describes the 'rhetorical substructure of Athenian citizenship' (p. 166). Wohl studies the interesting political application of the ideas of metonymy and metaphor in a political environment, and especially the methods used by orators to manage the Athenian political world. J. Dugan studies the function of the orator in the late Roman Republic , underlining the importance of Cicero and showing how the power of rhetoric was not able to save the Republic. The inner dramatic character of rhetoric is explored by Rosenbloom and Batstone; the former discusses a prominent example of rhetorical comedy, Aristophanes' Birds, comparing it with another rhetorical model, Odysseus; Batstone deals with the idea that 'rhetoric and a drama of self-representation is endemic to Roman identity, and that sincerity itself is just another actor in the drama of rhetoric at Rome' (p. 213). These two papers are very original in their construction and succeed in their goal of drawing deep connections between different literary genres. The last paper in this section is Simon Goldhill’s on the Second Sophistic. This not only provides an interesting framework for late imperial rhetoric and oratory, but also pays great attention to the rhetorical features in Greek novel, moving very carefully in the domain of the 'liquid consistency' of this literary phenomenon.

The brief fourth section on Epilogues is a mixed bag . T. Penner and C. Vanderstichele's article about Christian rhetoric is the best of the section, because it traces the Jewish roots of Christian rhetoric in a very convincing way. This paper represents an important starting point for new research, since it demonstrates that rhetorical ideology played an important role in the shaping of Christian identity in ancient times. In the following paper P. Mack explores some examples of the adaptation of the structures of classical rhetoric in authors from the 16th and 17th centuries, showing the survival of ideas, words and features throughout the times. Finally, J. Henderson gives an ironic and nice runaround to the volume, explaining the reason for its structure and the results of this companion.

The papers are generally short, but offer at the end some advice for further reading, thus both stimulating interest and achieving a certain level of didactic effectiveness. Of course, the parts do not fit together very precisely, since each paper is defined by its author's distinct goals: there are both list-structured articles (like Dugan's, which is accurate and useful in its brevity) and extended investigations of particular texts (like Roosenbloom's). A general and rich bibliography includes the references from every chapter and builds up a very important resource for readers.

Students will no doubt take advantage of the two appendixes on "Rhetorical terms" and "Authors and the prominent individuals. According to the style of the companions, almost everything is translated, allowing complete access to the content, but depriving the reader of a possible check on the interpretations by appeal to the original ancient text.

Another merit of this book is its the typographical accuracy; it is easy to read, with well-designed pages and only few misprints.1

As a whole, the book is a good thematic introduction to the fascinating world of ancient rhetoric, which could become a little "classic" alongside the excellent La Rhétorique dans l'Antiquité by L. Pernot, which has recently been translated in English by W.E. Higgins under the title Rhetoric in Antiquity(Washington D.C. 2005).

Table of Contents

Introduction Erik Gunderson
Part I. An Archaeology of Rhetoric:
1. Fighting words: status, stature, and verbal contest in Archaic poetry, by Nancy Worman
2. The philosophy of rhetoric and the rhetoric of philosophy, by Robert Wardy
3. Codifications of rhetoric, by Malcolm Heath
Part II. The Field of Language:
4. Divisions of speech, by Catherine Steel
5. Rhetoric, aesthetics, and the voice, by James Porter
6. The rhetoric of rhetorical theory, by Erik Gunderson
7. The politics of rhetorical education, by Joy Connolly
Part III. The Practice of Rhetoric:
8. Types of oratory, by Jon Hesk
9. Rhetoric of the Athenian citizen, by Victoria Wohl
10. Rhetoric and the Roman Republic, by John Dugan
11. Staging rhetoric in Athens, by David Rosenbloom
12. The drama of rhetoric at Rome, by William Batstone
13. Rhetoric and the Second Sophistic, by Simon Goldhill
Part IV. Epilogues:
14. Rhetorical practice and performance in early Christianity, by Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele
15. Rediscoveries of Classical rhetoric, by Peter Mack
16. The runaround: a volume retrospect on ancient rhetorics, by John Henderson
Part V. Appendices:
17. Appendix 1: rhetorical terms
18. Appendix 2: authors and prominent individuals


1.   Read 3 and not 4 in note 1 of p. 77; 'Chrysostom' and not 'Chysostom' at p. 237 for instance.

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