BMCR 1998.01.03

Der Stil ist der Mensch

, Der Stil ist der Mensch : Redner und Reden im römischen Epos. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 73. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1996. 349 pages. ISBN 9783519076223

Martin Helzle’s Der Stil ist der Mensch is one of a number of studies that have appeared on the role of speech in epic. The integration of speech into the epics of imperial poets demonstrates the traditional importance of the speech form in the epic genre. Even a cursory analysis of imperial epic reveals a deep indebtedness to the literary and rhetorical traditions that precede it. The prominence that speech plays in an epic narrative of the imperial period is not only a reflection not only of the significant debt of the Roman epicists to Homer and other poets but also partly a reflection of the importance of oratory in Roman public life. Helzle’s main purpose is to show that a speaker in Roman epic often has her or his own voice consisting of various rhetorical, metrical or other devices that characterise that individual and distinguish her or him from other characters. Combining the American flare for theory with the methodical approach of German scholarship, Helzle proceeds to explore the ways in which a character’s manner of speaking, or ‘idiolect’, relates to other aspects of his or her characterisation.

In an introductory chapter outlining his methodology (pp. 11-48), Helzle reminds us that one of the most important aspects of Roman poetry important for modern readers to remember is that it was read aloud in public or semi-public venues in the form of a recitatio. Inasmuch as it was possible to do so, the poet would attempt to differentiate between the narrative and the voices of the different characters, but since it was possible to assume only a limited number of voices by changing pitch, it was necessary to individualise the voices of the different speakers by linguistic means in order to make them distinctive and credible. This individualisation of speakers helps to give poetry a dramatic quality that lends itself to stage performance. Helzle proceeds to consider the role of ethopoiia in ancient literature by citing from the abundant literature on the subject, including such diverse texts as Plato’s Ion, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Polybius’ Histories, the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, then cites various examples of ethopoiia from Greek epic, tragedy, oratory, new comedy as well as Roman comedy and elegy. As an instance of how a Roman epicist might use ethopoiia, Helzle adduces Vergil’s Aeneid 5.709 ff., in which the elderly Nautes launches into a suasoria that characterises him as a Stoic sage not only through the advice he offers Aeneas but also by the linguistic style that the poet gives him. In the final section of his introduction Helzle considers the place of modern stylistic theory in pinpointing individual voices within literature and the relationship between a stylistic voice and character of a particular individual. He cites the work of the Swedish classicist Bertil Axelson as being particularly helpful to him, since Axelson attempts to distinguish between the different levels of style within various works and genres. Helzle’s aim is more specific: to distinguish between the various lexical registers used by different speakers in Roman epic.

Throughout Helzle’s chapters on Vergil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Bellum Civile, Statius’ Thebaid and Silius Italicus’ Punica, there are many original and penetrating observations; furthermore, the relevance of his remarks on the various speeches and characters to their epic contexts is always explained. Unfortunately Helzle does not include Valerius’ Argonautica in his study because he feels that its narrative does not have the same potential for an analysis of the styles of the main characters as the epics of Vergil, Lucan, Statius and Silius Italicus. But Valerius too individualises and characterises through the idiolects he gives to various figures. This is evident especially with the important figure of Jason, whose character is established in the first episode when the poet emphasises his reverence toward the gods and his desire for fame. Each of Jason’s subsequent speeches is carefully integrated into its immediate context, but Valerius maintains this basic characterisation of the hero throughout the epic. The conclusions reached from a treatment of Jason alone of the various characters in the Argonautica would have provided support for Helzle’s argument that there has to be a direct connection between the idiolect of an individual and the direct characterisation of this figure in the narrative.

In his examination of the speeches in the Aeneid (pp. 49-82), Helzle focuses on Dido, Aeneas and Turnus. His discussion of how Dido distinguishes herself from her male protagonists through the use of the lexical registers of love and marriage, especially in the fourth book, is especially illuminating, as is his discussion of her frequent use elsewhere of the register of power in her role as the ruler of a great city. Helzle also points out how Vergil individualises Dido by having her speak so frequently in contrast to Aeneas in book 4, a mode of communication that he arguably relates to the speech patterns of men and women in modern America as recorded by modern sociolinguists and in the testimony of some ancient literature. In his discussion of Aeneas, Helzle suggests that Aeneas’ style in his long narrative in books 2 and 3 may make him more of a second epic narrator than a character speaking in propria persona, but the stylistic characteristics of a narrative speech are typically quite different from those of other types of epic speeches. More problematic is Helzle’s view that Aeneas is motivated by pietas throughout the Aeneid. Pietas in the epic means not only devotion to one’s people, family and friends but also compassion for the defeated. While pointing out that both Aeneas and Turnus act in furor, Helzle argues that Aeneas distinguishes himself from Turnus because of his pietas. But it is in fact Turnus, portrayed earlier as impius, not Aeneas, who emerges as a figure of pietas (12.563 ff., 934). The contrast between the two figures is stressed by references to the importance of compassion (653, 777, 934), which Turnus shows (665 ff.), but Aeneas does not. Helzle tries to use the speeches to show that Aeneas is pius, which is consistent with his idea that an individual’s idiolect must be consistent with any direct characterisation, but Aeneas’ words are often undercut by his actions. Aeneas’ slaying of Lausus is just one such instance: the Roman does express pity in 10.821 ff. after slaying the youth, a passage that Helzle cites as indicative of the hero’s pietas, but this feeling is not actualised. Thus Aeneas forgets one part of his father’s message regarding Rome’s mission (parcere subiectis, 6.853 ff.).

The chapter on the Bellum Civile (pp. 83-143) begins with an astute comparison between the Amyclas episode in book 5 and similar passages in Callimachus’ Hecale and Ovid’s Metamorphoses; he also illustrates Lucan’s allusive use of Vergil’s Georgics, Aratus’ Phaenomena and Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones. In the process of explaining how Lucan adapts such diverse texts to create new meaning and character traits, Helzle provides a convincing demonstration of his essential thesis by showing how the distinctive identities and voices of Amyclas and Caesar are revealed through their use of language. Amyclas uses a number of Hellenisms, thereby suggesting his Greek origins, employs marine and meteorological terms, and shows a fondness of nature, while Caesar employs military terms, violent vocabulary and streams of imperatives, thereby emphasising his role as an arrogant dux; hence Helzle’s attribution to Caesar of ‘despotische Züge’ is reasonable, but his anachronistic reference to these traits as ‘satanische’ seems extreme (p. 105). Pompey and Cato, the other two figures treated in this chapter, use words from the register of the military and violence much less often than Caesar. Helzle observes that Pompey’s less frequent use of military language not only suggests his ineffectiveness as a commander but also helps to define his distinctive idiolect, which in contrast to Caesar’s significantly consists of terms from the register of the family and amicitia; furthermore, Cato’s idiolect is closer to Caesar’s than it is to Pompey’s insofar as their use of military terminology is concerned, but Cato also uses many terms that belong to the register of philosophy, particularly Stoicism.

Helzle focuses on the prominent figures in his long chapter on the Thebaid (pp. 145-229). According to Helzle, the speeches of Creon and Theseus reveal them to be archetypes of the ‘der Tyrann’ and ‘der gute König’ respectively (p. 148). If the fight between this pair in book 12 is modelled on the fight between Aeneas and Turnus at the end of the Aeneid, as Helzle rightly argues, then this has serious implications for a favourable interpretation of Theseus. Aeneas’ reaction to Turnus as humilis supplex (Aen. 12.930) is to plunge his sword full into his breast in a sudden rage. When Theseus confronts Creon, he too slays him without showing any mercy, but Aeneas at least hesitates and gives a brief thought to sparing Turnus. In fact, Theseus’ actions and associations with a host of unfavourable figures and images serve to undermine his words in much the same way that Aeneas’ words are undermined. Helzle perceptively observes that another pair, Antigone and Argia, who are united in their defiance of Creon, use words from contrasting registers. Argia employs the language of love and marriage, whereas Antigone, despite her helplessness, uses many military and warlike terms; in addition, Antigone uses terms from the register of Roman values, which shows that she is no less virtuous than her sister-in-law. Helzle also astutely points out how Argia’s circumstances invite a comparison with those of Aeneas and Dido and represent an inversion of Aeneas’ situation; but Argia’s circumstances also bring to mind the situation of Cornelia in the Bellum Civile. Helzle’s lengthy discussion of Polynices and Eteocles features many insightful comments on how their use of language reveals their inner characters. Each brother inherits a part of Oedipus’ character: the former his father’s figurative blindness, the latter his father’s distortion of reality. Helzle rightly remarks that Statius avoids portraying Polynices as a positive foil for Eteocles; in fact, there is little moral difference between the brothers, since both are shown to be equally capable of abusing monarchal power.

Whereas the major characters are the subject of Helzle’s investigation of the speeches in the Aeneid, Bellum Civile and the Thebaid, the minor characters also receive attention in his examination of the Punica (pp. 231-300). Although Helzle points out that not every character is given a distinct voice, he attempts to show that Silius Italicus individualises and characterises some of the minor characters by their idiolects over a short series of speeches, as in the cases of Crixus and Corvinus, or over a number of longer speeches, as in the cases of Flaminius and Varro. While Crixus speaks in the manner of the barbarian he is and the eloquent Corvinus entreats Flaminius, who scorns the gods in his pursuit of glory, to follow them, Varro is a turbidus orator who employs hyperbolic terms and images. Scipio Africanus, like his father Publius Scipio, employs terms from the register of religion and examples from Roman history; he does so more often than either Fabius Maximus, a model of Stoic and Roman constantia, or Hannibal, both of whom use military terminology in roughly equal amounts. While Helzle argues that the Roman generals constitute a single hero-personality that is fused by means of its unique and consistent voice, he observes that Silius avoids depicting these and other Roman commanders as incarnations of pietas and Hannibal as their exact opposite. In the cases of Fabius and Hannibal, for instance, this is reinforced by the fact that the Roman uses far fewer words from the religious register and does so less frequently than Scipio, while his Carthaginian counterpart mentions fatum numerous times, which leads Helzle to assert tantalisingly that Hannibal believes in ‘das stoische fatum‘ (p. 260). Although he does not attempt to explain why fatum necessarily has to be a Stoic concept, Helzle’s suggestion that Hannibal may share a philosophical belief with his Roman opponents is intriguing. And his contention that Scipio Africanus views Hannibal’s death as being just as essential to Rome’s survival as the death of Turnus at the end of the Aeneid invites some potentially disturbing questions about Scipio, just as the circumstances of Turnus’ death give the reader considerable cause to reflect upon Aeneas’ act.

Helzle did not set himself an easy task when he undertook to write Der Stil ist der Mensch, because it is extremely difficult for one scholar to deal uniformly with the range of Roman texts that he covers. Nevertheless, given the enormous challenge, Helzle displays considerable enthusiasm for his task and in the process makes numerous observations that add to our understanding of the epics he treats through his emphasis upon modern stylistic analysis. There are limitations, however, to the application of modern linguistics to ancient literature. Helzle’s emphasis upon word usage sometimes gives the appearance of being a statistical exercise distinct from literary analysis. The relationship between a speaker’s idiolect and the epic circumstances is extremely problematic. Sometimes an epic situation will actually limit the range of lexical, stylistic and metrical responses available to the poet, who in another context would feel compelled to weave terms from a different register into a new syntactical pattern, which would almost certainly result in a changed metrical pattern, as well. Therefore it is questionable just how much value there is in recording numerically the use of certain words by a particular speaker in different epic contexts that may require different speeches in terms of their purpose, tone, content and length.

Helzle includes a brief index of the most important figures and concepts (many more names and terms could have been included); a short appendix on the speeches of Aeneas (why just this one?); and a summary of just over two pages (this is extremely brief considering the concepts discussed and the breadth of material covered). The forty-page bibliography is seemingly exhaustive but surprisingly does not list the important book by Gilbert Highet on The Speeches in Vergil’s Aeneid (Princeton 1972). Although there are a number of misprints and spelling errors, including a few in the Greek and Latin text cited, these are not so many as to interfere with the reader’s understanding.

The inevitable critical disagreements and scholarly quibbles aside, how does Helzle’s book compare with other books dealing with speech and rhetoric in Roman epic? It forms a companion volume to Highet’s study cited just above and my own Speech and Rhetoric in Statius’ Thebaid (Hildesheim 1994). Helzle’s is a more sophisticated study than either of these books in a theoretical sense and treats a wider range of material; furthermore, it demonstrates that a careful examination of the function of the speeches in the epics of Vergil, Lucan, Statius and Silius Italicus contributes to our general understanding and appreciation of Roman epic. Der Stil ist der Mensch represents an important contribution to the study of speech, rhetoric and Roman epic. Scholars of these poets will find much useful material for their own investigations in this book.