BMCR 2005.06.24

The Manipulative Mode. Political Propaganda in Antiquity: A Collection of Case Studies. Mnemosyne, Suppl. 261

, , The manipulative mode : political propaganda in antiquity : a collection of case studies. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 261. Leiden: Brill, 2005. vi, 318 pages : illustrations, plans ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004142916 €95.00.

The study of the ancient record from the perspective of ideology and propaganda is an approach that has, in the past few decades, significantly furthered our understanding. There are two main reasons for this. First, such endeavors not only meaningfully relate the ideas and symbols embedded in many different types of evidence to historical processes and events but also firmly ground them in the social, cultural, political and psychological mechanisms that make them effective. Second, current conceptions of propaganda and ideology have only recently evolved from skeptical misunderstandings of such phenomena based on experiences from the early twentieth century. Such skewed perspectives led to skewed (and anachronistic) applications to the ancient world. Furthermore, conceptions continue to evolve and benefit from a variety of approaches involving many different disciplines. Their sound application can pilot the field safely between its Scylla and Charybdis: on the one hand, a pedestrian and mute over-concern with data, and, on the other, an abyss of theoretical doxa.

This volume attempts to advance our understanding of ancient propaganda through “a number of case studies investigating into ( sic) the strategies, contexts, and various parameters of specific examples …” The brief — perhaps too brief — introduction offers an insightful review of recent and necessary distinctions made between modern propaganda and similar ancient phenomena: the latter did not include top-down, centralized and forceful implementations broadcast on mass media. It rightly criticizes the view that equates propaganda solely with products of twentieth century totalitarian regimes as too limited for application to both the modern and the ancient world. Rather, the editors endorse an awareness of “interaction, integration, horizontal orientation and upward movement.” They further remind the reader that propaganda succeeds by concealing itself, and contend that, in the ancient world, it was primarily directed to the literary elite — hence an unjustified decision to privilege literary evidence in this volume. The complexity of the concept suggests to them a case-by-case approach, and they have decided that, since the Roman Empire has hitherto monopolized the subject, the first half of the book will deal with the Classical and Hellenistic Greek period. The articles, by nine authors, are arranged according to the dates of the material they study: a broad assortment covering everything from Pindar’s first Pythian to the Panegyricus Latinus V. The program itself is justified and interesting. The reader expects the new and insightful.

Unfortunately the reader feels disappointed, for several reasons. First the authors seem somewhat unconversant with general notions of propaganda (though some insights emerge here and there). As a consequence, the contributions are inconsistent in their application and either tend to state the obvious or relate to the subject only tangentially. Second, many of the contributions concentrate on matters of message and interpretation — the focus of standard scholarly contention — and little on the real issue of “interaction, integration, horizontal orientation, and upward movement” (which can, in fact, help settle matters of interpretation). Finally, and perhaps least importantly, the volume itself is poorly and inconsistently edited, contains swarms of typographical and stylistic errors (often by the editors themselves), and at times superfluous material.

Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer leads off with a contribution titled “Propaganda in Pindar’s First Pythian Ode,” and seeks to discover the function of the proem with respect to the composition as a whole. He provides a series of close readings of the different sections of the poem, draws, where possible, parallels to Hiero’s exploits, demonstrating how Pindar”s treatment bolsters and legitimizes his position. This piecemeal approach suggests some interesting observations, yet the author only relates the proem to a small part of the ode (ll.69-75) at the very end of the paper. The parallels drawn between Hiero and Zeus are doubtless present (though perhaps exaggerated), but it is debatable whether or not the destruction of Typhus refers to the fate in store for all who defy Hiero, for Pindar refers mainly to victories over Punic and Etruscan foes in his Ode.

Simon Slings, who unfortunately passed away prior to publication, follows with a formidable piece: “Choral Agons in Democratic Athens, 510-400 BC.” He marshals the literary and inscriptional evidence to reexamine the chronology of the dithyrambic agon in Athens. Challenging the notion that such contests were mere sideshows to tragic and comic performances, he seeks to determine whether the practice of assigning one choregos to each tribe in the Dionysia can be traced back to the Cleisthenic reforms of 508/7 BC, and thus function as integration propaganda for the new democracy. Several keen observations throughout will interest many readers — for example, he refutes the likelihood that IG 13 .833bis was written by Simonides. He concludes that the agon probably originated prior to the Cleisthenic reforms and that the connection to the tribes emerged several decades later. This piece provides much insight, though it has little to do with propaganda per se.

The first third of C. Carey’s essay, “Propaganda and Competition in Athenian Oratory,” provides a sensible re-evaluation of the notion of propaganda in terms of Athenian public life. When the author turns to concrete strategies of persuasion, however, the observations become somewhat commonplace. It is not at all surprising, for example, that contenders in the political arena consistently portray themselves and their opponents in the same way (Syme noticed such applications of the ‘ideological box’ in his famous chapter ‘Political Catchwords’). Moving to the manipulation of “the shared mythology of the past in order to draw on the strong emotional appeal of tradition,” the author provides little more than obvious close readings of long (and fully quoted) passages of Pericles’ funeral oration and Demosthenes’ Second Philippic. The author, moreover, contends that in each the speaker alludes to certain epic models to make his point — though possible, there is nothing in the text to necessitate this view or even make it probable. The essay then fizzles out in an investigation of the possible impact of individual speeches and the purpose of subsequent publication.

Rolf Strootman provides one of the more successful pieces, titled “Kings Against Celts: Deliverance from Barbarians as a Theme in Hellenistic Royal Propaganda,” dealing with the manipulation of the motif of the Celtic invasion of 280-79 BC as the foremost element of legitimizing propaganda. The article traces an important and effective element of royal self-legitimizing, its various manifestations throughout the period, and, most importantly, its connection to general belief, and why regimes felt so compelled to present themselves in such a way. It demonstrates how such powerful emotions became attached to the memory of the first invasion, and the various means (e.g. coins, sculptural dedications, and the royal philos in the various cities) whereby later regimes tailored their own victories to evoke these memories.

Stephan Busch presents the next study: “Who Are ‘We’? Towards Propagandistic Mechanism and Purpose of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum,” a narratological analysis of Caesar’s use of the first and third person. He uses his results (without providing any statistics or tables) to challenge the notion that Caesar used the third person to convey objectivity, and contends that the use of the first person plural primarily signifies the Roman army participating in the campaigns (clearly, however, Caesar also uses it to denote the Gallic cavalry alone at 1.15) as opposed to “us Romans” in general. Through these means, the writer attempts to create a “side by side” where the “narrator and narratee see things from the same viewpoint.” Busch then connects this to the text’s focus on military matters (to the exclusion of political affairs), and the background knowledge supposedly necessary to understand it, to conclude that Caesar intended to strengthen ties with those who served with him; the “we” of the first person in the narrative (though outsiders are invited to join this perspective). He supports this claim with the idiosyncratic praise Caesar lavishes on certain centurions and concludes that the text’s most immediate purpose was to bolster the suffragatio militaris; the good report of his soldiers that would translate into increased political support. The upshot is that this theory broadens the intended audience of Caesar’s narrative.

Karl Enenkel’s first piece, “Epic Prophecy as Imperial Propaganda? Jupiter’s First Speech in Virgil’s Aeneid,” reopens the old question of whether the poet praised or criticized Augustan imperialism, to argue in favor of the former. He concentrates on the interpretation of Jupiter’s prophecy in book I: was it supposed provide a guide to Augustan propaganda, or was it a patently false and thus meant to subvert it? In arguing for the former, he systematically attacks James O’ Hara’s treatment of the passage that pointed towards various inconsistencies between the prophecy and other information internal and external to the text.1 His contentions, however, merely provide alternative interpretations that do not, as a whole, dismantle O’Hara’s. In one case, the author has his facts patently wrong, when he asserts that “it is exactly in order to associate himself with Romulus that he [Octavian] took the archaic spolia opima.”

The lynchpin of his argument is the use of an interesting passage from Macrobius asserting that Virgil lifted Jupiter’s speech verbatim from a similar prophecy in Naevius’ Bellum Punicum. Since this prophecy was truthful, “Virgil’s audience expects that Jupiter’s prophecy in the Aeneid will be as truthful and factual as the one of Naevius’ Jupiter.” Yet Naevius’ passage does not exist for comparison, and clearly those aspects of Virgil’s prophecy relating directly to the Augustan program (ll. 283 ff.) cannot follow the prototype. Next, Enenkel’s long argument that the “Caesar” named in l. 286 refers to Octavian and not his father overstates the evidence for treating the former as a god after Actium. The author earlier contends (p. 187) that the prophecy properly fits the program of 29 BC, when “Octavian solemnly consecrated the temple of his father Divus Iulius…” Moreover, though Dio’s account does offer some support for his theory, the author clearly mistranslates the Greek (pp.197f.), especially when he uses 51.21.1 to claim that “when Octavian arrived in Rome in 29 BC, the people of Rome offered sacrifices to him” (my emphasis). Reference to Dio’s earlier statement at 51.20.3 clearly shows that the sacrifices were not made to Octavian by Valerius Potitus “in behalves ( sic) of the senate and of the people,” but merely in celebration of his arrival. Moreover, the author dangerously contends that the furor impius depicted in the closed temple of Janus at ll.294-6 is actually the poet’s personal interpretation of a painting by Apelles (dedicated by Octavian in 29) of a “conquered enemy” next to the triumphing Alexander. Finally, it must be stated that Enenkel supplements this article with 6 pages of gratuitous images that contribute nothing to the argument.

Paul Meyboom’s essay, “the Creation of an Imperial Tradition: Ideological Aspects of the House of Augustus,” mechanically explores the mythical and religious associations involved in the site the princeps chose for his residence. The author demonstrates that Augustus chose to be near the casa Romuli on the Palatine, as opposed to a possible spot on the Capitoline, because the former, though less practical, was more laden with significant associations. He then traces Augustus’ utilization of the location to appear as the successor of many legendary figures (such as Evander, Romulus and Numa), and his exploitation of this space with respect to things like the temple of Apollo and his role as Pontifex Maximus.

Enenkel’s second contribution is titled “The Propagation of Fortitudo : Gladiatorial Combats from ca. 85 BC to the Times of Trajan and their Reflection in Roman Literature.” It starts from the not implausible perspective that the games were mechanisms for the propagation of Roman values.2 Popular with all social groups. they allowed loaded social interactions, in particular with regard to the quality of the fortitudo on display there. From here, the author asserts (without citing any evidence) that the games gained prominence primarily after the growth of the empire, when Augustus and others desired to strengthen the citizenry enervated by an overdose of civilization. This is clearly mistaken, since Augustus and Trajan, the two examples chosen to demonstrate a centralized policy of promoting the games, oversaw the two greatest expansions of territory in Roman history. The author then turns to discuss the ways in which the gladiator figured in elite discussions of fortitudo, but this has more to do with the function of the gladiator as a figure and metaphor in argument than his function in propaganda. Enenkel seems particularly eager to refute the notion that Seneca the Younger viewed gladiators in a wholly negative light but fails to take into account two important factors. First, that the figure of the gladiator is adaptable and can appear in different lights according to the needs of the argument.3 Second, he is unaware that Seneca’s 7th letter does not speak of the emergence of an imperial trend towards using unskilled fighters but rather makes a crucial distinction between combats by real gladiators and those damnati ad ludos.

Susannaa de Beer provides the final essay, titled “The Panegyrical Inventio: A Rhetorical Analysis of Panegyricus Latinus V.” In it she builds on an earlier work by Enenkel on the Panegyricus Latinus VI4 to argue that the speech was not centrally commissioned and therefore not propaganda (contradicting the guidelines offered in the introduction of the volume) and that the freedom of embellishment available to the author completely vitiates any use one may make of it as evidence for late imperial taxation. De Beer also demonstrates the orator’s strategy in manipulating official imperial virtues, and in exploiting Autun’s historical associations with Rome and Claudius Gothicus to justify the tax remission obtained from Constantine. This lengthy section, however, consists of little more than summary and close reading. The end of the article consists of an examination of the meaning of caput and the length of the lustrum for which Constantine offered tax relief. De Beer baldly asserts without much proof that the orator exaggerates and that his work is therefore completely unusable to the historian.5 This approach, however, belies scholarly methods wholly acceptable for dealing with this category of evidence.

As stated earlier, this volume is rife with typographical and stylistic errors (especially with regard to English grammar, idiom and punctuation). The editing, moreover, is inconsistent. The format for citing primary evidence varies from paper to paper, some authors quote the primary text with translation and others do only occasionally or not at all. Finally, the editors provide no clue as to the origin and occasion of the collection. The contributors are not identified beyond their name. On the whole, however, the volume may prove useful to specialists in the areas covered.


1. O’Hara, J. Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil’s Aeneid, Princeton, 1990.

2. Though the author is incorrect in viewing this perspective as “untouched.” See Flaig, E. “Entscheidung und Konsens. Zu den Feldern der Politischen Kommunikation zwischen Aristokratie und Plebs,” in Demokratie in Rom?: die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republic, Historia Einzelschriften 96, 1995, 108-115.

3. Cicero, for example, insults Antony by calling him a “gladiator” at Phil. 2.7, 63 and 74, yet favorably compares Milo to one at Mil. 92, and exhorts the senate at Phil. 3.35 to imitate gladiatorial courage in resisting Antony.

4. Enenkel, K.A.E. “Panegyrische Geschichtsmythologisierung und Propaganda. Zur Interpretation des Panegyricus Latinus VI,” Hermes 128, 2000, 91-126.

5. To quote the author (p. 310): “In my opinion however the question should not be how to use P.L. V as a historical source, but if one can use it sensibly as a historical source. Why should the panegyricist keep to the historical truth …?”