BMCR 2004.06.18

Nature Embodied. Gesture in Ancient Rome

, Nature embodied : gesture in ancient Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. xiv, 202 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 0691074941. $37.50.

My Uncle Bob, never himself an aggressive lane-changer, used to call it ‘playing Nosey,’ and although the game is often played here in Los Angeles, the best match I ever saw took place one night in Rome as two drivers swept around the Porta S. Pancrazio. The eventual winner had not just the better nerve but the better gesture, left arm out the window, curved gracefully to the fingertips and rocked back and forth to suggest equal measures of aggression and contempt. How much the victory owed to the gesture remains unknown, but it was probably considerable. Nosey is a game of self-assertion. That means attitude as well as action, and attitude demands the language of the body that (ancient) Romans called gestus, i.e., not simply ‘gesture’ but ‘carriage’ and ‘bearing.’ This, along with related phenomena, is what Anthony C(orbeill), in this stimulating new book, means by ‘nature embodied,’ movements and expressions that facilitate and may even help determine our progress through the world. What he provides, however, is not a taxonomy of gesture narrowly defined and empirically recorded but a set of studies showing how and what gestus communicated in various situations among Romans and between the human realm and the more-than-human.

The investigation builds upon three assumptions that are presented and defended in an introduction. These are: 1) that even common gestures arise not arbitrarily but through some mimetic connection between the body and the external world, 2) that a continuity of gestures is observable across the time and space of the ancient Roman world, and 3) that a principle of economy governs the elements of gesture, so that they retain their meaning in a culture even as the immediate contexts change. Five chapters then put these principles to work under the following headings:

Chapter 1. Participatory Gestures in Roman Religious Ritual and Medicine.

This chapter hunts and gathers a rather disparate assortment of evidence concerning prayer and healing, but some of its conclusions are important not just in themselves but as demonstrations of the book’s greater thesis, viz. the importance of the hand as an instrument of power (20-4) and prayer as a physical as well as verbal activity (26-33), what C. calls ‘bodily participation in the world’ (37).

Chapter 2. The Power of Thumbs.

This chapter, the most tightly argued of the set and largely an encore of the article in MAAR 1997, combines philological, material, and anthropological evidence both to show what special gesture connected with the arena was described by the notorious phrase ‘verso pollice’ and why the thumb could claim such prominence.

Chapter 3. Blood, Milk, and Tears: The Gestures of Mourning Women.

This is again a very wide-ranging chapter, covering a variety of curiosities in Roman death rituals, noting apparent similarities between rituals of death and those of birth, and observing the specific role — and power — of women in these rituals.

Chapter 4. Political Movement: Walking and Ideology in Republican Rome.

This chapter, which returns to more familiar constructions of gestus as observed in oratory and political life more generally, actually encompasses not just motions of the hands and styles of dress and movement but the social stereotypes they may suggest.

Chapter 5. Face Facts: Facial Expression and the New Political Order in Tacitus.

This chapter develops ideas of facial expression as a window on the soul—or a screen to cover it—by considering both matters of practice and the psychological and philosophical basis for its interpretation.

A subject so broadly conceived makes extraordinary demands on the investigator, and these essays represent a methodological tour-de-force. The primary evidence, which is in varying proportions material, philological, historical, and philosophical, requires a conceptual framework drawing upon theories of gender and social relations and the insights of comparative anthropology and comparative linguistics. The resulting blend is extremely impressive, confirming C.’s decision to cast his net so broadly. The illustrations and the arguments based upon them in chapters two and three are especially effective, and C. is careful to mark his transitions from one kind of evidence to another. Precisely because the scope is so broad, however, each reader is likely to stumble here or there over a fact or an inference that seems odd or inadequate or possibly contradicted by some scrap of personal knowledge. Here are two such quibbles of my own. First, although C. establishes clearly enough the linguistic fact that ‘the Romans were unique among Indo-European peoples in identifying at an early stage of the language’s development the thumb’s singularity as a digit’ (45), marshalling this fact to support the assertion that the thumb’s importance as represented in Latin texts ‘is unique to the Romans’ (42) seems less than adequate. Are similar signs of the thumb’s special power in non-Roman contexts therefore ultimately Roman in origin? There are many of these. Taliesin, Finn Maccumail, and Sigurd all acquired magic powers after burning their thumbs on magic food. The Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens s.v. ‘Daumen’ (‘der kräftigste der Finger’) documents the importance of the thumb in folk medicine and notes various private gestures for good luck and for protection from witches. Opie and Tatem’s Dictionary of Superstitions traces English traditions of thumb-holding back to the fourteenth century. It is hard to believe that so extensive an array of folk beliefs is entirely modern or entirely of Roman derivation, or that later manifestation of thumb-pressing were all trying ‘to make sense of the Latin expression pollices premere‘ (46).

Second, I am a little perplexed by a theoretical matrix that draws heavily on Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’ and a refreshing array of anthropological insights but largely ignores the work of other Classicists pursuing related interests, such as Donald Lateiner’s study of non-verbal behavior in Homer, The Sardonic Style (Ann Arbor 1995). Modern Classicists work in a very big tent, which makes it all the more important to know what colleagues are doing in adjacent rings. C. has clearly read a great deal, including some excellent folklore sources and some distinctly relevant communication theory. The problem, which confronts us all at one point or another, lies in deciding where to draw the line, in knowing when to stop reading even as we know that what we read determines what we know and that what we know determines what we say. Pioneering work, where a scholarly consensus has not yet formed around the scope and method of inquiry, will always be especially prone to this kind of problem, and I mention it not to fault C. but to acknowledge the magnitude of his endeavor.

A different kind of problem arises from another of his undoubtedly correct decisions, which was to open this study to a wide audience. Doing so has meant not just translating the Greek and Latin and reminding us that the Aeneid is an epic poem, but occasionally compressing evidence and truncating argument so readers do not bog down in technical complexities. This comes at a cost, and the issue is worth pursuing not because I think C.’s basic strategy is wrong but precisely because it is right. Here are three examples, all drawn from the chapter on ‘political movement.’

First, in contrasting the ‘elite politician’ of the Republic and his ‘popular opponent’ or ‘popular’ and ‘senatorial’ speakers, C. leaves the impression that these people themselves came from different social classes. A reader inexperienced in the complexities of Republican politics might easily assume that there was some significant social divide between, say, Clodius and Cicero…with Cicero at the higher end of the scale. Such a reader might then be surprised to learn that one of Cicero’s ‘popular’ politicians, Servilius Rullus, the tribune of the plebs who sponsored the agrarian bill of 63 and thus became an object of Cicero’s scorn, had a father who was famously rich and that either he himself or perhaps his son was Octavian’s commander at Brundisium in 40. Rullus may have been a man of the street, but only when seen from a very lofty perch. Second, the general reader should somehow be told that the ‘striking correspondence between the movement of the sexually submissive male [i.e. the cinaedus] and the popular politician of the Republic’ (122) derives from descriptions found in senatorial oratory and that, given the standards of invective in the late Republic, a correspondence in description is not necessarily the same thing as a correspondence in fact. The nature of the source has some bearing on the quality of the evidence. All this is hardly news to C. The author of Controlling Laughter. Political Humor in the Late Roman Republic (Princeton 1996) knows this as well as anyone. The issue is not of knowledge per se but of what knowledge to include in the argument, and the decisions here occasionally sacrifice accuracy in the interest of clarity.

Third, and rather more problematic, are C.’s statements about the semiotics of dress, which owe conceptual debts to Bourdieu and especially to Catherine Edwards’ The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge 1993). The use of evidence here merits revisiting before the procedures and the conclusions they encourage harden into orthodoxy. Consider the case of the ever-problematic Caesar. C. starts from the fact that when captured by pirates, the young Caesar never removed his toga, ‘perhaps as a sign to his captors of his claim to sexual inviolability’ (134). There is no quarreling with that ‘perhaps,’ which can cover no end of fudge, but Velleius Paterculus 2.41.3, our one source for the story, suggests somewhat different motives, namely a disdain for flight and a tacit reminder that a Roman citizen and a patrician (Caesar kept his shoes on, too) was a valuable hostage. C. then tells us that Sulla ‘warned his political allies to beware of the young man Caesar, whose style of wrapping the toga denoted an effeminate character.’ Sulla’s warning did not include the relative clause. What he said was apparently a version of ‘puerum male praecinctum cave’ (Suet. Iul. 45.3, Macr. Sat. 2.3.9, Dio 43.43.2). The comment refers not to the toga but to the tunic, and rather than alluding to effeminacy, Sulla was punning on ‘badly tied’ and ‘badly prepared.’1 Macrobius, who alone mentions the toga and the resulting walk (‘velut mollis incederet’), gets it wrong, perhaps because the voluminous garment of his own day created a different mental picture. When the principle of economy governing gesture comes up against the vagaries of fashion, the validity of inferences across time is all too easily compromised.2 Suetonius does say that Caesar’s tunic sported sleeves and fringe to the wrists and Gellius 6.12.2, citing a Republican source, reports that a long-sleeved tunic was considered effeminate, but Caesar’s sleeves were not the target of Sulla’s remark. C.’s central point is certainly right—Caesar exploited affectations of dress to create a unique identity—but the evidence cited does not support without hesitation the conclusion that Caesar’s clothes ‘literally unmake the man’ (134). The more guarded discussion of Controlling Laughter 194-5 is more easily justified.

Picky, I know, and yet behind every exciting generality in Classical studies stand the tiresome details that make it tenable, and at some point even a non-professional reader needs to be told what substance lies beneath the glitz. Unlike Shaw’s doctors, we are a profession and not a conspiracy. Addressing a broad audience often means explaining, not hiding the inevitable complexities of a scholarly analysis.

C.’s book is thus in every way a challenge and a pleasure, often convincing, always stimulating, and deserving a wide readership. I would award it two thumbs up…if I had not read Chapter 2.


1. There may be another kind of smear in ‘puer’ (Caesar was by then hardly a child), but C. does not consider this possibility.

2. To suggest a modern analogue: American males have been wearing trousers for two centuries. Yet in 1964, when cool guys wore them tight, the assistant principal of our high school determined the limit of acceptability by whether a marble dropped in at the waist emerged at the ankle. In 2004, a comparable test on a comparable social group could probably, if the lawyers gave permission, be performed with a football. The adolescent strut endures, but its description would need to change considerably.