Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.24

Han Baltussen, Peter J. Davis (ed.), The Art of Veiled Speech: Self-Censorship from Aristophanes to Hobbes.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.  Pp. vi, 329.  ISBN 9780812247350.  $79.95.  

Reviewed by Elena Giusti, St John’s College Cambridge (


[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review]

Censorship and freedom of speech have always been at the heart of the debate on political systems of control in the ancient and modern worlds. Attempts at identifying the codified and uncodified rules of the ideologies of democratic Athens and republican Rome, or the similarities and differences between the regimes of the Julio-Claudian emperors and the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, have by now produced the urge to look for different theoretical approaches that may divert attention from the scattered instances of censorship and repression found in the ancient literature. The present volume, part of a larger project on subversion and censorship in antiquity funded by the Australian Research Council (“Banning Ideas, Burning Books: The Dynamics of Censorship in Antiquity”) purports precisely to widen the scope: it investigates not the ‘top-down’ imposition of censorship in the ancient world, but rather the ‘bottom-up’ dynamics that induce individuals to self-regulate their speech acts and impose limitations on their parrhesia. While in some cases these acts of self-constraint can still be recognised as consequences of oppressive ‘top-down’ dynamics, other examples focus instead on self-censorship as a product of the ideological needs to maintain cohesion and well-being in a given community, according to the explicit or implicit norms that are culturally and socially determined within recognisable ‘in-groups’. In addition to this shift of focus from oppressor to oppressed, the volume also suggtests new paths of research by juxtaposing eight contributions on the classical world (slightly unbalanced in favor of imperial Rome, chapters 6 to 9) with three essays on self-censorship in the Christian world from fourth to thirteenth century, and two on the early modern period.

The thirteen chapters all contribute to the research question in an instructive way, even though one cannot help but feel a sense of randomness in the choice of topics, and sometimes the essays enlighten each other in ways that are not signposted in the volume, or else provide missed opportunities for dialogue. The two opening essays, for example, seem to promise a joint reading of the comic stage and the symposium as privileged places to look for parrhesia (or lack thereof) in the ancient Greek world: Andrew Hartwig provides a survey of self-regulation in political comedy, focusing on two anecdotes that are a case in point for analysing limitations of parrhesia on the comic stage and for proving comedy’s ability to kindle political anxieties, but Lara O’Sullivan does not compare Hartwig’s results with the liberty of the sympotic milieu, nor is there any straighforward comparison between the simultaneous injunctions—in both comedy and the symposium—not to speak ill of the city. O’Sullivan does, however, emphasise the connection between social status and parrhesia (regrettably not analysed by any other essay in the volume) while also putting her finger on the paradox of the symposium as being simultaneously perceived as a microcosm of the city—the privileged locus for isegoria and parrhesia—and as an elitarian aristocratic circle that allowed the breeding of anti-democratic instances and stasiotic anxieties. In a contribution slightly disjointed from the first two essays, Hans Baltussen then shows how the notions of ‘in-groups’ and ‘deviance’ shed light on the dynamics of parrhesia. Diogenes the Cynic, who performed precisely the opposite of ‘veiled speech,’ here features as an appropriate substitute for Socrates, one of the notable absentees from the collection. The question of why this ‘Socrates “on acid”’ (79) did not incur the same fate as his predecessor leads Baltussen to show how this foreign and eccentric ‘performance artist’ (82) was accepted by his contemporaries because of their recognition of his status as outsider to their ‘in-group,’ a status that Diogenes relished to the point that his specific acts could be labelled as a sort of bouncing wall, a negative picture always reactive to conformist Athenian behaviour. While the argument is stimulating and rewarding, it regrettably leaves humour out of the picture, a matter that might have created interesting connections with the preceding chapters.

I see more coherence in the Latin section, although similarities among these contributions are again left to the readers to work out. The only chapter covering the Republican era, Gesine Manuwald’s lucid survey of censorship on the Roman stage (ranging from the mid-Republic to the early Christian writers’ comments thereon), while appropriately emphasising the role of drama as a vehicle and catalyst of veiled and indirect political collective messages already in the mid-republic, also focuses on self- regulation of comedians in the practice of poetic competition and speculates about the existence of an unofficial system of mutual control among the dramatists. This fresh emphasis on the connection between self-censorship and poetic aemulatio also informs the essays of Ioannis Ziogas and John Penwill, which in turn are connected by the theme of authorial revision. Ziogas’s study of self-censorship in Augustan poetry is a sophisticated chapter in the scholarly debate that has followed Duncan Kennedy’s deconstruction of the Augustan and anti-Augustan polarity.1 In a brilliant etymological remark, Ziogas posits that Ovid’s anti-Augustanism lies in his attempt to be equal to (“anti-”) the prince in terms of his auctoritas over the publication, revision and reception of his and Virgil’s work. His analysis is a welcome and independent addition to Francesca Martelli’s monograph,2 and an important contribution to the debate over editorial freedom in the Augustan age. Still focused on the dynamics of the interaction of authorial freedom and imperial power, Penwill’s chapter on compulsory freedom of speech in Trajanic literature is probably the highlight of the volume: while positing literary freedom in the new era of Nerva and Trajan as substantially unchanged since the time that poetic libertas was turned by Augustus into imperial uenia, 3 the piece bursts with clever and extremely detailed observations on Martial’s books 10-12 and also provides an engaging close reading of Juvenal’s first Satire in the light of Quintilian’s emphasis.

The chapters by Marcus Wilson and Peter J. Davis provide further points of contact with Ziogas and Penwill. Just as Ziogas remarks that Augustus’ absence from Ovid’s poetry is as important as his presence (129), Wilson follows Catharine Edwards in emphasising the striking absence of Nero and other major political characters in Seneca’s Epistles. Wilson’s suggestion that we should interpret this silence as a condemnation of Nero’s imperial rule—according to the succinct phrase of Epistle 14.8 (not 4.8) quae quis fugit, damnat—follows in the footsteps of Vasily Rudich in providing an unabashedly political reading of the Epistles. While the chapter provides some interesting suggestions, some of its views may strike Senecan scholars as slightly simplistic, especially the interpretation of Seneca’s endorsement of Epicureanism in the early letters as a tactical political move to retire without offending the emperor, or his rejection of wealth as an attempt to avoid being a useful candidate for prosecution. Seneca’s De Tranquillitate, curiously identified as an early dialogue (146), would have offered important ground for analysing Seneca’s complex double attitude towards involvement in political affairs. Davis, on the other hand, employs a different theoretical approach from Ziogas in interpreting (anti-)imperial instances in Latin epic. His chapter on Valerius’ (anti-?)Flavian politics juxtaposes some more familiar observations on civil war allegory in the Argonautica with fascinating suggestions regarding the incompatibility between tyranny and aristocratic display of uirtus, an observation that takes Davis to a suggestive comparative reading of Pelias (not Aeetes, 168) in Argonautica 1 and Domitian in Tacitus’ Agricola. The chapter is an intriguing exploration of political allegory in Valerius, although not all the readings may appear compelling (for instance, mention of civil war echoes in Aeneid 2, which Davis takes as an important intertext for the episode of the Lemnian women, would have helped in clarifying echoes of civil war in the episode, which remain otherwise unclear).

The four following chapters on censorship in the Christian world show the substantial difference between the authoritarian regimes of imperial Rome, in which ambiguously crafted speech is nevertheless allowed, and climates of terror during which it is almost impossible to entrust any sort of communication to writing. Pauline Allen, by surveying the practice of Christian correspondents from the fourth to the sixth century, stresses the importance of choosing the right letter-bearers, of authenticating letters by signature, of entrusting diplomatic information to oral communication, highlighting the inherent risks of veiled speech itself. Bronwen Neil continues to show the dangers of both parrhesia and veiled speech in the mid-seventh century by analysing the cases of Maximus the Confessor and Pope Martin I, both accused of blasphemy and treason for opposing monothelitism. While Neil’s chapter takes us closer to contemporary debates in treating blasphemy as occupying a liminal space between civic crime and religious sin, it also offers instructive comparisons with the ancient world in its reading of self-censorship in Martin’s exilic letters as self-consciously indebted to Ovid.

I found the chapter by Megan Cassidy-Welch perhaps the most instructive from a theoretical viewpoint, since she attempts a definition of censorship and self-censorship and an elucidation of their relationship (264-5). The conclusions to Cassidy-Welch’s survey of inquisitorial testimonies produced in Toulouse from 1273 to 1282 may be applied to other fields: analyses of instances of forgetfulness, denials of knowledge and claims to irony and humour may produce interesting results for our understanding of censorship and self-censorship in classical texts. Moving on to the early modern period, François Soyer treats the campaign of artistic self-censorship instigated by the Council of Trent and its effects on religious artistic production in early modern Spain from the 16th to the 18th century. Soyer takes us through three cases of works of arts denounced by clergymen to the Inquisition, demonstrating how the Council of Trent created a ‘conspiracy of caution’ (289) that equally aligned artists, patrons, bishops and inquisitors. The chapter shows the difficulties inherent in delimiting censorship, and provides three fascinating examples of how the inquisitional records can reconfigure in our imagination works of art that no longer survive.

Finally, Jonathan Parkin’s chapter on self-censorship in Thomas Hobbes provides a striking ring-composition with Hartwig’s analysis of self-regulation for the sake of peace in the Athenian polis and makes readers regret that the volume does not host more philosophy; the absence of Plato, Philodemus and Cicero are particularly remarkable. Parkin shows that Hobbes both recommends self-censorship in the interests of peace, and practices it in order to avoid charges of heresy. He argues that Hobbes’ view goes beyond state theory, because the implied dichotomy between private internal self and public outer sphere risks allowing an apolitical space where conscience would hold authorial power at the expense of the political. Hobbes, however, is caught in a contradiction: he can reconcile the practice of self-censorship with the project of the Leviathan by abolishing the internal/external dichotomy in favour of a deterministic and materialistic view of the self, but to do so would also imply denial of free will, resulting in legitimation of vice, and in the risk of incurring charges of heresy.

A brief epilogue concludes the volume, connecting the self-standing contributions to show the relatively self-evident facts that all societies impose some sort of restrictions on free speech and all simultaneously witness attempts at evasion. I would have welcomed a deeper analysis of how the contributions enlighten each other in terms of both similarity and difference: for example, while the editors move smoothly from imperial Rome into early Christianity, I felt that the volume makes instead a strong case for discontinuity. However, notwithstanding some missed opportunities for dialogue, the chapters enlighten each other in instructive ways; while, as the editors note (320), the debate over freedom of speech necessarily remains open, they have certainly moved it forward.


1.   D. F. Kennedy (1992) ‘“Augustan” and “Anti-Augustan”: Reflections on Terms of Reference,’ in A. Powell (ed.) Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus, London, 26-58.
2.   F. Martelli (2013) Ovid’s Revisions: the Editor as Author, Cambridge.
3.   A point made by Michèle Lowrie in relation to Horace’s AP 9-13: M. Lowrie (2014) ‘Politics by Other Means in Horace’s Ars Poetica’, MD 72.1, 130.

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