BMCR 2008.09.33

A Companion to Roman Rhetoric. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World

, , A companion to Roman rhetoric. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. 1 online resource (xix, 523 pages).. ISBN 9780470996485. $149.95.

Table of Contents

[NB: The on-line TOC is inaccurate as of September 2008. Chapter 11 as listed there does not appear in the printed volume. Beginning with Rees’s chapter, 11th in the printed edition, the on-line TOC is one number too high, i.e. Rees is incorrectly listed as chapter 12.]

The Companion is the modern scholar’s myth. An overarching narrative, channeled through the voices of numerous authorities, offers one possible take on a major field of scholarship. Certain details could always have been excised, included, or emphasized differently, a point anticipated in the (guarded?) titles of Blackwell’s series “A Companion to [Topic X].” In this genre of scholarship the ideals of totality and completeness embody, perhaps by definition, more a theoretical fantasy than a realizable goal. The myth’s success in any given incarnation is best judged on its larger narrative and on its distinctness from similar renditions. Dominik and Hall’s “A Companion to Roman Rhetoric” (hereafter C.) will be welcomed by those seeking capable introductions to the areas it treats.

Rather than identify and assess the salient points of every chapter, the present review concentrates on the overall image of Roman rhetoric that emerges from the volume’s 32 contributions, individually cited hereafter as “author(chapter number)”. At the broadest level, C. portrays skilled speech as the common currency in a sophisticated, evolving, and often self-contradictory economy of power. The volume’s protagonists are the eager tradesmen of that power, from traditional Romans to provincial upstarts or Greek pedagogues and literati. In documenting the diverse agents and social forces that drove rhetorical practice, the contributors look beyond both the prescriptive system of the ancient handbooks and the strict institutional framework through which orators became political actors.

First a point on method and material. Dominik and Hall(1) succinctly lay out the aims and parameters of the volume and stress the centrality of cultural analysis for Roman rhetoric in recent years. Good sense has avoided rehearsal of exculpatory remarks that preface some Companions/Introductions to/University Readings in [Topic X]. Dugan(2) continues with a précis of recent scholarship and distinguishes the approach in C. from two other ways of doing business: the encyclopedic and the narrative-historical, represented by Lausberg 1973/1998 and Kennedy 1972 or Clarke/Berry 1996. The volume promises (and delivers) a range of scholarship alert to the social stakes of Roman cultural movements (e.g. Stroup(3), Corbeill(6), Connolly(7), McNelis(21), or Bloomer(22)). The results are designedly modern, but compete in modernity with material from other publications.1

Four chief issues have defined, at times to pernicious effect, nearly all accounts of Roman rhetoric and oratory: 1) “Cicero”; 2) chronological categorization (usually Republic versus Principate); 3) development and decline; and 4) generic definition and interpenetration. These motley categories are so tightly interwoven and woven into narratives of ancient eloquentia that we can rarely broach one topic without addressing them all. C., if sometimes only implicitly, addresses these issues while demonstrating the scholarship’s evolution towards subtler and more flexible methodologies.

Cicero dominates the ars dicendi to such an extent that one is hard pressed to keep him from overshadowing the remaining material. Barsby(4), Sciarrino(5), and Steel(18) offer sobering reminders that Cicero’s overweening textual presence and presentation of himself as the endpoint of oratorical refinement have clouded judgments about what came before (and after). Rutledge(9), Bloomer(22), and Dominik(24) note the continued public venues available to imperial speakers; Dominik(24) draws attention to the promotion of contemporary rhetorical values in Tacitus and Pliny.

While the authors resist the temptation to elevate Cicero to the status of cultural icon, they never entirely escape his ineluctable pull: in addition to dedicated essays by May(19) and Craig(20), many contributions rely largely or almost exclusively on Cicero.2 That said, the traditionally neglected sides of the rhetorical system, such as memory, humor, or gesture and emotion, find a place (Small(15), Rabbie(16), Hall(17)). Are readers meant to see here an implicit correction of Lausberg’s 1973/1998 virtual omission of memory and performance from his systematic treatment?

Beyond up-to-date material on the departments of rhetoric, C. also gives prominence to two genres that have increasingly captured scholarly attention: deliberative and epideictic. For the former, Alexander(9) reviews the contio and Ramsey(10) senatorial speech; for the latter, Arena(12) treats invective and Rees(11) panegyric (Dominik(24) also touches on the character of imperial eulogy). Declamation, a Mischwesen of deliberative ( suasoriae) and mock-forensic ( controversiae), also receives considerable discussion. In the treatment of declamation and panegyric C. best reflects the current state (and limitations) of the scholarship on Roman rhetoric.

Declamatory speeches have benefited from surging interest first sparked by Beard 1993 and Gleason 1995 and now accompanied by new texts, translations, the occasional monograph, and the on-going Cassino commentaries on Pseudo-Quintilian’s Declamationes Maiores. Amid the witches, tyrants, pirates, paupers, patres familias, and puellae vitiatae, all once targets for detractors of these quondam oratorical bagatelles, general consensus has emerged about the genre’s acculturative workings: to teach Roman boys to be Roman men. Corbeill(6) and Bloomer(22) ably demonstrate the cultural relevance of practice and performance pieces (Anderson(25) on the Second Sophistic rounds out the picture).

Strictly speaking, it might be better to call this line of interpretation sociological. Declamation’s literary side only occasionally comes to the fore, a trend consistent with much current work on rhetoric. In contrast the scholarship on Roman poets and historical writers has pursued intertextuality and historiography qua literature, forging new paths for textual analysis even as Classics (like the Humanities) has acquired a general distaste for aesthetic appreciation. Excluding perhaps Cicero’s dialogues and Tacitus’s Dialogus, the imaginative character of oratory rarely takes center stage.3

Panegyric has also seen renewed interest of late, though a book-length work on its essence and evolution remains a chief desideratum.4 A major stumbling-block, as Rees(11) well observes, is modern unease concerning the ancient habit of public praise. The scholarship has advanced enough to contravene the assumption that the eulogist is merely a beau parleur. But that is where both scholarly consensus and most efforts to probe panegyric’s mental hinterland come to an abrupt halt.

One can ascribe some acculturative force to panegyric, which requires the careful negotiation of status and treats virtutes in a public context. Braund 1998 best details the parenetic elements of encomium: to direct and constrain powerful figures (especially the emperor), a consideration mentioned by Rees(11) and Dominik(24). However, these two contributors differ (helpfully documented by cross-reference) on the issue of sincerity. Dominik(24) underscores the ironic potential of imperial writings. This take was iconoclastic when first outlined by Ahl 1984. It has since found new direction in Bartsch 1994 and established itself as a palatable orthodoxy in many quarters.

But a larger, unexpressed, issue lurks beneath the two dominant views of panegyric, calculated protreptic and dissimulated resistance. These directions—each of which possesses undeniable merits—evince the tendency to search out loopholes or failures in the art of praise, to define eulogy at those moments when its laudatory function is most called into question. The wealth and diversity of the material, not to mention its considerable Republican roots, leave room for other directions. To analyze and to describe epideictic comprehensively would involve numerous difficulties, not only those of sincerity or doublespeak, but also of genre and language (cf. Levene 1997). This partly explains why, in contrast to the relatively easier case of declamation, scholars have struggled to usher panegyric into modern respectability. Perhaps it will obtain a legitimate place in the oratorical pantheon only through broader studies of Roman praise culture. Furthermore, considering the overlap of imperial eulogy with central elements of emperor worship, the answer to a crucial problem in both fields may go hand-in-hand: how can we believe the celebrants’ fervor for those they honor?

A related issue involves the distinctions frequently drawn in the scholarship between public speech of the Republic and that of the Principate. It was once common to cite the rise of declamation and panegyric as part of the aesthetic decline of imperial oratory. The idea of aesthetic decline has been abandoned—or rather superseded—by still frequently made claims about the political decline of oratory after the fall of the Republic. Here interpreters run the risk of projecting Cicero’s complaints of his diminished political standing in the 40’s onto oratory as a whole in the period after his death (a tendency often reinforced by a partisan, pro-Maternus, reading of the Dialogus). Heldmann 1982, for example, is the staunchest proponent of the view that Tacitus “figured out” the historical equation of libertas with eloquentia. In contrast C. valuably documents the continuity of diverse rhetorical practices across Republic and early Empire. Rutledge(9) challenges modern biases against imperial delatores and reductive assertions of the disappearance of free expression under the Principate (cf. now Osgood’s judicious 2006 article on the triumviral period). McNelis(21) outlines the cultural transformations that created a place for grammarians and rhetoricians and culminated in the position Quintilian took up under Vespasian.

C. contains a final Section on rhetoric and literature. Great weight is placed on the oratorical panache of imperial poetry (Narducci(28), Hooley(29), and Auhagen(30)). Damon(32) illustrates inventio in historiography, an essay that will prove useful in the classroom. By championing rhetoric’s literary applications C. implicitly counters negative judgments about the exuberant theatricality of imperial literature. Rhetoric became an integral part of Latin’s imaginative labors. Yet the influence, as documented by C., seems to be essentially unidirectional: performance speech pervaded other genres. The reverse phenomenon receives little attention, although Wilson(31)’s magisterial treatment of Seneca across genres does suggest interconnections among prose and poetry.

This section might have provided an opportunity to address the cultural and aesthetic evolution of rhetoric in relation to other genres. For example, the emphasis on declamation’s acculturative workings could bear examination in connection with Roman Comedy. Both mediums artistically displayed the resolution of a “social mess” (cf. Kaster 2001 for the phrase). Although the mime succeeded Comedy as the premier stage form at Rome, declamation inherited much of Comedy’s socio-cultural potency. Many were the genres to make men. There is also a significant aesthetic and literary-historical dimension of poetry’s influence on oratory. Imperial speakers avidly absorbed poetic culture into the mainstream, as when Tacitus’s Aper remarks “exigitur iam ab oratore etiam poeticus decor” ( Dialogus, 20). He pointedly demonstrates how the precepts of “modern” style consciously fostered generic fluidity.

I harbor one significant reservation. The editors commendably find room for a variety of approaches to the topic. Roman Rhetoric formed a complex and immense world, and only through Atlas-like effort does a Companion hold up that world for its readers. It cannot, however, be overlooked that in this endeavor Atlas seems to have tacitly dropped a continent. Christian authors are virtually absent and C. only briefly examines Latin writers after Tacitus and Pliny. Fronto and Apuleius, for example, are lost among Anderson’s(25) excellent handling of the Second Sophistic. It is hard to imagine such a Companion without Minucius Felix, Lactantius, or Augustine (to name a few). Admittedly, not all will clamor for sustained treatment of, say, Ennodius’s dictiones, but Augustine surely deserves more than to appear as a perfunctory preamble to Ward(26)’s illuminating essay on medieval and Renaissance rhetoric. Even so, this should not overshadow the volume’s wealth of contributions. Many will make their way onto course syllabi (e.g. Gaines(13) on the handbooks or López(23) on Quintilian).

Ultimately, the Companion’s task is to survey a discipline with the kind of outlook we might expect from Janus: glancing backwards to assess the scholarship up to the present, and looking forwards to suggest new avenues of inquiry. Of course, like Ovid in Fasti Book One, we never entirely know which face Janus presents at a given moment. Here the bibliographical essay appended to each chapter brings readers up to speed. Through an array of open-minded contributions C. usefully introduces the main scholarly issues in Roman rhetoric and oratory, outlining how far the field has come and the opportunities and complications that lie ahead.


Ahl, F. (1984) ‘The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome,’ AJP 105: 174-208.

Bartsch, S. (1994) Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. Cambridge.

Beard, M. (1993) ‘Looking (Harder) for Roman Myth: Dumézil, Declamation and the Problems of Definition,’ In F. Graf. ed. Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft: Das Paradigma Roms. Stuttgart. 44-64.

Braund, S. (1998) ‘Praise and Protreptic in Early Imperial Panegyric,’ In Whitby (1998) 53-76.

Carey, C. (2007) ‘Epideictic Oratory,’ In Worthington (2007) 236-252.

Clarke, M.L. (1996) Rhetoric at Rome: A Historical Survey. London. (3rd ed. rev. and with a new introduction by D.H. Berry).

Dominik, W. (1997) ed. Roman Eloquence: Rhetoric in Society and Literature. London.

Gallagher, C. and S. Greenblatt (2000) eds. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago.

Gleason, M. (1995) Making Men: Sophists and Self-presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton.

Gradel, I. (2002) Emperor Worship and Roman Religion. Oxford.

Habinek, T. (2005) Ancient Rhetoric and Oratory. Oxford.

Heldmann (1982) Antike Theorien über Entwicklung und Verfall der Redekunst. Munich.

Kaster, R. (1998) ‘Becoming: ‘ξιξερο’,’ In Knox, P. and C. Foss eds. Style and Tradition: Studies in Honor of Wendell Clausen. Stuttgart. 248-263.

—-. (2001) ‘Controlling Reason: Declamation in Rhetorical Education at Rome,’ In Too (2001) 317-37.

Kennedy, G. (1972) The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World: 300 BC-AD 300. Princeton.

Laird, A. (2006) ‘The Value of Ancient Literary Criticism,’ In Laird, A. ed. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Ancient Literary Criticism. Oxford.

Lausberg, H. (1998) Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study. (tr. of 1973 German). Leiden.

Levene, D.S. (1997). ‘God and Man in the Classical Latin Panegyric,’ PCPS 43: 66-103.

—-. (2005). ‘The Late Republican/Triumviral Period: 90-40 BC, In Harrison, S. ed. A Companion to Latin Literature. Malden. 31-43.

MacCormack, S. (1975) ‘Latin Prose Panegyrics,’ In Dorey, T.A. ed. Empire and Aftermath: Silver Latin II. London. 143-205.

—-. (1981) Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity. Berkeley.

Martindale, C. (2005) Latin Poetry and the Judgment of Taste. An Essay in Aesthetics. Oxford.

Mause, M. (1994) Die Darstellung des Kaisers in der lateinischen Panegyrik. Stuttgart.

May, J. (2002) ed. Brill’s Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric. Leiden.

Osgood, J. (2006) ‘Eloquence Under the Triumvirs,’ AJP 127: 525-551.

Pernot, L. (1993) La Rhétorique de l’éloge dans le Monde Gréco-romain 1-2. Paris.

Porter, S. (1997) ed. Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period 330 BC to AD 400. Leiden.

Powell, J.G.F. and J. Paterson. (2004) eds. Cicero the Advocate. Oxford.

Rees, R. (2002) Layers of Loyalty in Latin Panegyric AD 289-307. Oxford.

Schröder, B.-J. and J.-P. Schröder. (2003) eds. Studium declamatorium. Untersuchungen zu Schulübungen und Prunkreden von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit. Munich and Leipzig.

Too, Y.L. (2001) ed. Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Leiden.

Van Mal-Maeder, D. (2007) La Fiction des déclamations. Leiden.

Whitby, M. (1998) ed. The Propaganda of Power: The Role of Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Leiden.

Worthington, I. (2007) ed. A Companion to Greek Rhetoric. Malden.


1. Boyle and Dominik 1997, Porter 1997, Too 2001, May 2002, Schröder and Schröder 2003, Powell and Patterson 2004, and Habinek 2005.

2. On the problem that Cicero presents for any description of Republican literature, see Levene’s 2005 insightful comments. Kaster’s 1998 reading of Cicero as a kitsch-icon in Seneca the Elder outlines the early stages in the distorting weight that Cicero’s legacy acquired in the Empire.

3. Martindale 2005 and Laird 2006 respond to the lack of aesthetic criticism in Classics. In the Humanities the most significant acknowledgment and discussion of this problem comes from two of the individuals at the center of its development: Gallagher and Greenblatt 2000 (cf. especially the Introduction). Van Mal-Maeder’s 2007 monograph may give new impulse to the study of declamation by highlighting its fictional patterns and intertextual strategies. Cf. Kaster 2001: 323 n. 15: “The similarity of declamatory themes and comic plots has often been remarked but never fully probed: investigation should prove worthwhile, as should consideration of the links between declamation and the novel.” Van Mal-Maeder 2007 treats declamation and the novel; Comedy and declamation is still waiting to be claimed.

4. E.g. MacCormack 1975, and 1981, Pernot 1993, Mause 1994, Levene 1997, Braund 1998, and Rees 2002; note the comparable observation by Carey 2007: 250 in Blackwell’s survey of Greek epideictic.