BMCR 1998.08.07

Das klassizistische Manifest des Dionys von Halikarnass: die Praefatio zu De Oratoribus Veteribus


The past weighs heavily upon the present. Writing within a tradition is an invariably agonistic procedure. To write is inevitably to engage with the normative magnetism of the canon. ‘Strong’ writing seeks to transcend the weight of its influences. Dionysius of Halicarnassus knew and articulated all this, if not in precisely the same terms, well before Harold Bloom did. The preface to his series of biographical-critical Lives of the Ancient Orators, as Thomas Hidber (henceforth H.) shows, is a crucial text for our understanding of the ways in which post-classical Greek culture related to the prose master-works of the fourth century. Given the loss of most of his treatise on imitation, this passage constitutes one of our main extant sources for Dionysius’ ideas on mimesis, that is to say, on the process of deliberate and self-conscious appropriation and reconfiguration into new, active, vital forms of the language and themes of the classical past. Those interested in ancient aesthetics, ethics, rhetoric, cultural identity, Greco-Roman relations, rhetoric, and even gender relations will find it a fascinating and indispensable source of ideas. In bringing it to our attention with a useful introduction, text, German translation and commentary, H. performs a valuable service to students of later Greek literature. On the other hand, there are some important respects in which this book fails to meet the challenge of Dionysius’ essay: the approach and format employed here, and the failure to question the parameters established by previous scholars, have conspired to hinder the exploration of some of the more substantive issues raised therein.

The book employs the familiar tripartite division of introduction, text and translation, and commentary; there is, in addition, a useful bibliography and index locorum. The majority of the pages are devoted to the introduction and notes, and it is upon these that I shall concentrate: the text is conservative and reliable, and the translation is accurate and, so far as I can judge, crisp. The commentary is eclectic, covering primarily points of textual history and interpretation, as well as literary parallels: rather than discussing this separately I shall allude to it in the course of my discussion of the main arguments of the introduction. The latter is divided into four sections (‘Dionys und sein persönliches Umfeld,’ ‘Das Werk,’ ‘Das klassizistische Programm der Praefatio zu De oratoribus veteribus,’ ‘Form und Gattungszugehörigkeit zu De oratoribus veteribus‘), which are further subdivided. The first two sections are devoted primarily to technical matters of prosopography and dating. They are thoroughly competent and clear, but there are few surprises: the evidence concerning Dionysius’ life and production is so sparse that few strong conclusions can be drawn, and those that can be are well-known; here, as elsewhere, H. reproves elaborate and tendentious reconstructions (the phrase ‘muss offenbleiben’ recurs repeatedly). Despite the somewhat jejune nature of the results, this section (demanded by protocol) is characteristically well-researched and intelligent.

The third section promises the most interesting material and occupies the largest space in the introduction: its centrality to H.’s thought is indicated by its mirroring of the title of his book. Here, H. advances his central innovation, the notion that Dionysius is an original writer and not a derivative reprocessor of Hellenistic theories. H. begins by discussing the notion of ‘der klassizistische Dreischritt,’ a pattern of oratorical peak (during the period of Athenian democracy), decline (from Alexander’s conquest) and renewal (in the present). Previous scholars have been concerned primarily with tracing the origins of this distinction in earlier writers; H. is concerned primarily with showing that his theory is eclectic, interesting and new. This is convincing as far as it goes, but should perhaps have constituted the starting-point, not the conclusion, of the argument.

H. proceeds to discuss Dionysius’ famous opposition between Atticism and Asianism, or rather (since he does not use the terms as such) ‘the Attic, ancient, autochthonous Muse’ and ‘the one which arose just yesterday from one of the holes of Asia.’ This is the most famous portion of the whole essay, where (in strikingly passionate but elegant tones) Dionysius opposes the one to the other as ‘a free, self-controlled ( σώφρων) wife’ to a ‘foolish ( ἄφρων) courtesan.’ A scholar interested in cultural studies would have had a field day here: Dionysius collocates the notions of slavery, irrationality, active women and debased Hellenism, and elsewhere nearby he also brings in criticisms of theatricality, luxury and vulgarity. H.’s interests are rather more narrow. In the commentary, he cites these words only to allude to parallels in Isocrates and so forth. In the introduction (pp. 25-30), he establishes that ‘Asianism’ does not denote any specific style or school, but merely represents a rhetorical pole opposed to Atticism, on the analogy of Isocrates’ opposition of Greek παιδεία to barbarian. Dionysius is interested exclusively in the category of Atticism, and Asianism is simply a foil for that. This observation is too peremptorily dismissive: what, we might ask, is at stake for Dionysius in this opposition? What are the underlying factors which motivate his language and imagery here? And is there something special at stake when a man from Halicarnassus (an Asiatic hole?) excoriates Asianism in such strong terms?

H. now turns to the opposition of Atticism and Asianism in our extant Latin sources, principally Cicero’s Brutus and Orator (pp. 30-7). We then learn (pp.37-44) that this Roman conception of Atticism has nothing to do with Dionysius’ conception of Atticism. This is a very problematic section. The first objection is a structural one: why does H. pursue so carefully and tenaciously a theme which he will reject as irrelevant to Dionysius? A partial answer would be: because previous scholars have expended so much energy upon the connection between Roman and Dionysian Atticism. Yet such deference to the intellectual parameters of earlier writers itself constitutes one of the more frustrating features of this book. The second objection to this section lies in its implicit assumption that ‘Roman Atticism’ formed a coherent, independent self-sufficient theoretical unity which just happened to predate that of Dionysius. It would be better, I submit, to consider Atticism to have been an ever-negotiable concept, malleable according to the predilections and ambitions of the writer in question. H. is no doubt right that Cicero’s vision of Atticism is very different from Dionysius’, but the interesting questions here concern not simply the Quellen for the latter’s ideas but also the intellectual background against which he performed, the intellectual self-positioning he effected and the (cultural, political, aesthetic and so forth) reasons for this process.

We now move on to Dionysius’ ‘Bildungskonzeption.’ Dionysius’ φιλόσοφος ῥητορική, as H. rightly observes (pp. 44-56), draws upon the notion of the utility of language in a social-political context: it is close to what Dionysius calls πολιτικὸς λόγος, and harks back to Isocratean ideals. H. cites numerous examples to consolidate the point that rhetoric is centrally an ethical issue for Dionysius, drawing comparisons with Cicero, primarily to deny the former’s dependence upon the latter as a source. Once again, the most interesting questions are avoided in favour of (dismissal of) Quellenforschung : what sort of outlets were there for Greek political oratory under the Roman principate? What does Dionysius have in mind here? How, in practice, are his readers supposed to imitate Demosthenes?

H. now turns to the question of mimesis (pp. 56-75), one of the fascinating and most studied topics of Roman Greek literary criticism. H. follows earlier critics who distinguish ‘philosophical’ from ‘rhetorical’ mimesis, the former referring to representation and the latter to literary imitation. H. also, intriguingly, identifies a third category of mimesis, the personal imitation of ethical paradigms encountered in literature (pp. 61-2). Dionysius, we read, employs mimesis in all three senses (p. 63, exemplified pp. 63-75). The distinction between these senses is, for H., absolute: all Dionysian uses can be slotted into one (and one only) of the three categories. Yet it would have been instructive to ponder whether the same word can be used in different ways without semantic slippage. Can we be sure that literary imitators are unaware that, in Platonic terms, they are moving further away from ‘the real’ into ‘the fictive’? And (a question inspired by the current fascination in Anglo-American classical scholarship with self-fashioning) how artificial, self-conscious and ‘constructed’ do we expect Dionysius’ students to have felt when they imitated Demosthenes in contemporary Rome? What sort of a model for engaging in politics is this? These questions are unaddressed by H.

In the final section on ‘Bildungskonzeption’ (pp. 75-81), H. attempts to link his previous conclusions to Dionysius’ views of Rome. As is now well-known (and as H. provides further evidence to confirm), the Antiquitates Romanae focus heavily upon the idea that Rome is a Greek city. H. reads Dionysius (in all his works) as a pro-Augustan Romanophile, a cultural integrationist, and a visionary precursor of late antique syncretism: the text in question, he argues, shows Rome as the new seat of παιδεία, representing for Dionysius what Athens was for Isocrates. H. is quite right to stress this vision of Rome as paideutic capital (compare Diodorus Siculus 1.4.2-3; and, later, Athenaeus Deipnosophists 2b-3d). Yet Dionysius’ words are not so unambiguous as this: the reason he gives for the revival of oratory’s fortunes is ‘Rome’s conquest of [ κρατοῦσα ] everything, her coercion [ ἀναγκοῦσα ] of all cities to look at her, and the fact that her despots [ δυναστεύοντες ] manage public affairs virtuously and most excellently [ ἀπὸ τοῦ κρατίστου, which picks up the earlier use of the κράτος root].’ The language of violent imperialism here is strong stuff, and I find it difficult to read this as an unequivocal example of a putative ‘Legitimation der römischen Vorherrschaft über die Griechen’ (p.77) which H. sees (again simplifying, I would suggest) elsewhere in Dionysius’ work. The interpretation of ἀναγκοῦσα as a ‘terminus technicus’ (p.119) is a weak attempt to argue away the problem (for pro-Augustan interpretations of Dionysius) of the forceful language here. This prescriptive, simplified interpretation is unnecessary. The Aeneid is now routinely interpreted as deeply ambivalent about the foundation of Rome and Julio-Claudian ideology: why should we deny such complex responses to one who belongs, in his origins at any rate, to the losing side?

The final section (pp. 81-7) explores the formal and generic components of the text. Here (and in the commentary) H. provides useful information about the stylistic markers used by Dionysius, bringing to bear an impressive knowledge of parallels. Particularly enlightening is the comparison with historiographical prefaces, which allows H. to draw further connections between this text and the Antiquitates Romanae (p.87). Once again, though, the question of why such elements occur within the text is neglected.

This volume will be useful to specialists in the field wishing to cite an up-to-date, level-headed approach to Dionysius which takes him seriously as an author with something to say. It will also be useful for non-specialists wishing access to further bibliography and ancient sources on aspects of Dionysius’ aesthetics. In comparison with certain more theoretically sophisticated works on Roman Greek writing, though, say those of Simon Swain and Maud Gleason, it looks somewhat naive and simplistic. The tendency here to seek a unified ‘theory’ underlying the text, and indeed an ‘attitude’ “Einstellung” permeating all of the author’s work, underplays the complexity of the process of literary self-positioning. The belief that Dionysius’ words are ‘simply’ pedagogic and protreptic encourages a superficial reading of the text as a ‘manifesto.’ There are, moreover, so many interesting questions about this passage which are unasked by H. that one cannot help feeling that this book represents an opportunity missed. To an extent, such problems are inherent in a certain tradition of commentary-writing, where literary ‘interpretation’ is dismissed as extrapolation; but it may be countered that all writing is a form of interpretation, and to present Dionysius’ text in such schematic, dry terms is in effect a ‘misreading’ of a complex literary work which provokes, and indeed demands, a more nuanced approach.

If a second edition is envisaged, it may be useful to observe the following typographical errors, which have occurred primarily in infrequent crops. On p.10, there is a full-stop missing in the main text, and n.71 refers variously to both ‘Haikarnass’ and ‘Dionyius’. Note also ‘Ushervorschlagt’ (p.11); ‘ Δμηοσθένη‘ (p.12); ‘Dichtungstherorie’ (p.14 n.88); ‘Zurich1935’ (p.86 n.343); ‘oraoribus’ and ‘Thougths’ (p.143). There is also a certain inconsistency in citation of edited volumes, starkly visible on p.14 nn.89-90.

See especially H. Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry, Oxford 1973; A Map of Misreading, Oxford 1975, pp. 63-80. Hidber does not cite Bloom — he does not cite any theoretical or comparative material, but there are striking analogies between Bloom’s conception of ‘the anxiety of influence’ and his reading of Dionysius’ competitive, eclectic mimesis (pp. 68-71: see below in my discussion). To the works cited by H. add D.A. Russell, ‘De Imitatione’ in D. West & T. Woodman (eds.), Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, Cambridge 1979. See F.I. Zeitlin, ‘The Poetics of Eros‘ in D. Halperin, J.J. Winkler & F.I. Zeitlin (eds.), Before Sexuality: The Construction of the Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, Princeton 1990, esp. pp. 436-44. S.C.R. Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World, A.D. 50-250, Oxford 1996; M.W. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome, Princeton, 1994.