Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.40

Sophie Conte, Sandrine Dubel (ed.), L'écriture des traités de rhétorique des origines grecques à la Renaissance. Scripta antiqua, 87.   Bordeaux:  Ausonius Éditions, 2016.  Pp. 241.  ISBN 9782356131614.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Federica Ciccolella, Texas A&M University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The eleven essays contained in this volume are based on the papers delivered in two seminars organized by the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, in collaboration with Blaise Pascal University, in March 2013 and February 2014. The essays, ordered chronologically, examine Greek and Latin works on rhetoric and literary criticism from the fourth century BCE to the early sixteenth century.

Sophie Conte’s exhaustive introduction clarifies the volume’s outline and goals. Nicolas Boileau, in the preface to his translation of On the Sublime (first published in Paris in 1674), observed that, unlike Aristotle and Hermogenes, (Pseudo-)Longinus did not limit himself to providing information (“préceptes tous secs et dépouillés d’ornements”), but adapted his style to the precepts he described: “en parlant du Sublime, il est lui-même très sublime.” The essays contained in this book attempt to extend Boileau’s statement to other treatises produced from antiquity to the Renaissance, trying to detect if and to what extent the style of such treatises mirrors and practices the expounded theory. This approach is of great importance for further studies of ancient Fachliteratur and, particularly, rhetorical technai: if style cannot be separated from the contents and texts dealing with rhetoric are themselves products of rhetoric, such texts need to be considered and analyzed as both technical and literary works.

In order to guide the reader through the vast and diverse extant material, Conte’s introduction offers a short history of ancient rhetoric, which provides the necessary historical framework for the essays collected in the volume. The final part of the introduction highlights the rationale for the composition of the volume, as well as the threads connecting the essays to each other. In spite of their variety, all rhetorical texts can be analyzed according to the same categories: goals, usages, intended audiences, proposed oratorical practices, organization and treatment of the material, relationship to tradition, etc. Moreover, “intratextual” criticism focusing on the internal coherence of each rhetorical text makes it possible to uncover its deeper meaning and function and, in this way, evaluate its effectiveness, uniqueness, and relationships with other texts. Indeed, in addition to practicing the same approach, all essays appear “complémentaires et convergentes” (23) in their structure: after a short introduction to the topic, goals and purposes are clearly indicated, and a conclusion summarizes the main points.

The volume begins with Marie-Pierre Noël’s essay on the Rhetoric to Alexander, the earliest extant rhetorical treatise after Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Firstly, Noël rejects Michel Patillon’s assumption that the treatise is the result of a late-antique merging of two different works. Secondly, the author identifies a unifying principle in the use of palillogia (recapitulation), which is defined in the second part of the treatise and is put into practice in its third part through “un jeu de divisions et de reconstructions progressives par recomposition des mêmes éléments” (42). This use of palillogia, since it has no correspondence in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, must come from a different rhetorical tradition and thus demonstrates both the originality and the complexity of pre-Aristotelian rhetoric.

Pierre Chiron points out the unity and balance of the treatise Peri hermeneias (On Style), attributed to Demetrius of Phaleron, as well as the “sensibilité littéraire” (53) revealed by its style. For Chiron, the most important aspect of the treatise is its “pédagogie de l’empreinte” (55), which leaves a pupil or a reader no other option but to follow its precepts. The anonymous author tried to reach this goal in various ways, demonstrating his awareness of the possibility that literary style elicits emotional responses.

In his remarkably clear and informative essay, Charles Guérin relies on an analysis of Cicero’s dialogical production, as well as its models and sources, to uncover the demands and goals that inspired Cicero to write his De oratore as a dialogical ars dicendi. Guérin considers Cicero’s De oratore as the earliest example of a new form of “technical” writing, where rigorous information is expressed in a style that provokes delectatio, “pleasure.” In addition to transmitting doctrines and precepts, Cicero’s dialogue expresses different ideas, mirroring the debates and disputes of the Roman cultural élite of the past generation and, consequently, bridging the gap between rhetorical theory and practice. The result is the creation of an authentically Roman ars rhetorica that might rival the dominating Greek tradition.

“Literary pleasure” (“plaisir littéraire”) is the center of Mélina Makinson’s analysis of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s Opuscula rhetorica. According to Makinson, Dionysius’s mainly sensorial and physical notion of pleasure (ἡδονή) also contains a moral and political program: the pleasure inspired by the reading of ancient texts nullifies the chronological distance between past and present and, consequently, contributes to preserving the ideals transmitted by the classical past. The same ideals shape the writing of Dionysius’s Opuscula, where Dionysius’s continuous quoting, rewriting, and correcting those texts establishes a dialogue with them.

Two essays deal with Pseudo-Longinus’s On the Sublime, the text that offered, so to speak, the occasion for the volume. In the first, Jean-Philippe Guez analyzes the use of metaphors and their relationship with the ideal of “grand style” that the treatise pursues. Within the contemporary debate on the use of metaphors, Pseudo-Longinus attributes them an ornamental function and, most of all, emotional effectiveness and cognitive value. In turn, Pseudo-Longinus’s use of metaphors in the text strives to obtain “l’effet participatif du sublime” (97) from his readers. Guez points out that the frequency of terms indicating “high,” “top,” etc., and even the treatise’s title belong to a sort of arch-metaphor to indicate the ideal grand style, which is grounded in the philosophical and ethical tradition. Consequently, metaphors, quotations, and other stylistic devices convey to the reader the idea of “highness,” which is, at the same time, the object of “sublime” speech and an image of the effect it intends to produce. In the second essay, Sandrine Dubel concentrates on the use of verbal persons in On the Sublime. Unlike other authors, Pseudo-Longinus does not abandon the dedicatee of his treatise, Terentianus, after the preface, but engages in a dialogue with him and, by extension, with all his readers. The use of verbs in the first and second persons and other stylistic devices give the treatise a didactic and protreptic tone, which aims to involve the reader in the experience of the “sublime.”

Pedagogical issues are also central in Sophie Conte’s analysis of the treatment of memory in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero’s De oratore, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. Like action (actio), memory (memoria) was more closely related to practice than to theory. Conte’s detailed examination concerns the way memory is inserted within the general project of each treatise, the approach of each author to it, and the effects of such approach on style.

Pseudo-Longinus’s On the Sublime is used as a touchstone in the next two essays. Rémy Poignault focuses on the “sublime” in Fronto’s correspondence: for Fronto, who considers eloquence a fundamental instrument of power, a “high” style must express the “high” views and ideas of the Emperor, which, in turn, must be inspired by moral excellence. Poignault underlines that Fronto shares with Pseudo-Longinus both the concept of “greatness of spirit” (μεγαλοφροσύνη) and the use of images to convey the idea of “sublime,” but differs in a more resolute rejection of anything excessive or inappropriate. Fabrice Robert examines the relationship between theory and style in Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata. Aphthonius’s dry and unadorned “style didactique” (182) is at odds with the “sublime” and responds to a deliberate pedagogical strategy. However, when proposing models for imitation to his readers, Aphthonius uses a more literary and elevated style. Consequently, while associating theory and practice, Aphthonius keeps them separated, using different ways to express them.

The last two essays deal with post-classical rhetoric and, thus, open interesting perspectives on the reception of ancient rhetoric from late antiquity to the Renaissance. Élizabeth Piazza focuses on the treatment of rhetoric as one of the seven liberal arts in Book 5 of Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii: Martianus offers a short ars oratoria with the same content and style of other manuals of rhetoric of late antiquity, inserting it within a general encyclopedic project. According to Piazza, both the ars and its fictional framework are closely connected by the use of military imagery: Martianus’s presentation of rhetoric as a victorious general emphasizes rhetoric’s power of persuasion, while the image of the war trumpet evokes the idea of a rhetoric founded on reason and, as such, in agreement with the educational project inspiring his work. Virginie Leroux’s essay clarifies the influence of ancient rhetorical treatises on the conception, style, and structure of Renaissance treatises on poetry. The rediscovery of Quintilian’s Institutio and Aristotle’s Poetics widened the knowledge of ancient rhetoric and literary criticism in the Renaissance and, at the same time, stimulated the composition of artes. In his De poeta (1569), Antonio Sebastiano Minturno adopted the structure and the language of Cicero’s De oratore to incorporate the contrasting and often opposite views on poetry expressed by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Horace. Minturno provided a comprehensive work that also encouraged reflection on and discussion of crucial issues, such as Plato’s poetic furor and the primacy of epic poetry, which were being challenged by the authority of Aristotle’s Poetics.

The application of Boileau’s statement on On the Sublime to other rhetorical texts of antiquity and beyond can be more or less convincing, depending on the nature, style, purposes, etc. of the texts themselves. Nevertheless, all essays make their points clearly and with the support of a remarkable amount of documentation, demonstrated by the index of authors and passages that concludes the volume. Each essay is followed by its own bibliography; quotations are made easily accessible to modern readers, being presented both in their original Latin and Greek and in French translations.

This carefully edited and well-produced volume adds a new chapter to the history of ancient literatures, by taking into account the literary dimension of texts traditionally regarded as “technical” only. The essays of this volume help modern readers discover how an analysis of the style of such texts can detect, for example, the pedagogical strategies and the moral and philosophical attitudes of their authors. This approach will hopefully be followed for other technical works of antiquity and beyond.

Authors and Titles

Sophie Conte, “Introduction: le traité de rhétorique comme texte”
Marie-Pierre Noël, “Théorie et pratique du discours dans la Rhétorique à Alexandre: les usages de la palillogia
Pierre Chiron, “La transmission des savoirs et des préceptes dans le Peri hermèneias du Ps.-Démétrios de Phalère”
Charles Guérin, “Genius dialogorum meorum: formes et enjeux du dialogue dans le De oratore de Cicéron”
Mélina Makinson, “Le plaisir du texte d’après les Opuscules rhétoriques de Denys d’Halicarnasse”
Jean-Philippe Guez, “‘Lumière de la pensée’: la metaphoricité du sublime”
Sandrine Dubel, “Le lecteur dans le texte: l’écriture en deuxième personne du traité Du sublime
Sophie Conte, “L’écriture de la mémoire: étude comparée de la Rhétorique à Herennius, Cicéron et Quintilien”
Rémy Poignault, “Sur les traces d’une écriture sublime dans la correspondance de Fronton”
Fabrice Robert, “Style didactique et pédagogie par l’exemple dans les Progymnasmata d’Aphthonios”
Élisabeth Piazza, “Rhétorique, un général victorieux: formes et fonctions de l’image militaire dans le livre 5 des Noces de Philologie et de Mercure de Martianus Capella”
Virginie Leroux, “Les traités de rhétorique ont-ils servi de modèles aux traités de poétique néo-latins?”
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