BMCR 2012.01.16

Persona: l’élaboration d’une notion rhétorique au Ier siècle av. J.- C. Volume I: antécédents grecs et première rhétorique latine. Textes et traditions, 18

, Persona: l'élaboration d'une notion rhétorique au Ier siècle av. J.- C. Volume I: antécédents grecs et première rhétorique latine. Textes et traditions, 18. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2009. 431. ISBN9782711622344 €44.00 (pb).

Personae proliferate in ancient rhetorical theory and practice.1 Playwrights and jurists employ this “hyperonyme” in quite different senses. In Panaetius’ influential account, there are no fewer than four personae (cf. Cic. Off. 1.107-121). Guérin examines three: the orator’s individual qualities and his function in his community, roughly corresponding to Panaetius’ 2 nd and 3 rd personae respectively; and, most importantly, the image that the orator generates of himself through his public performance. While this latter persona was entirely a creation of the orator’s discourse, a number of social variables affected its development and its horizons of reception. Conditions of public speaking in democratic Athens, where every citizen could theoretically address the dêmos and deliver his own legal defense, differed greatly from late-Republican Rome, where forensic convention required defendants to be represented by advocates and restricted deliberative oratory to the elite. For Guérin, inattention to such contextualization weakens earlier study of persona -theory in ancient rhetoric. Historicizing the rhetorical persona from Isocratean Athens to Ciceronian Rome is thus the major goal of this two-volume study.

Volume I, Part I first reviews the conditions of public speaking in democratic Athens and then examines the account of oratorical êthos in Aristotle, Isocrates, and the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum. For Isocrates, the audience’s judgement of the speaker’s prediscursive identity becomes the major warrant of his credibility. Aristotle offers a broader scope for technical argument, in which πίστις διὰ τοῦ ἤθους need not be as tightly associated with prediscursive identity and is but one of many means of effecting persuasion. Part II opens with a review of the (notably fewer) venues for public speaking in Republican Rome. The requirement of representation by an advocate effects a shift in rhetorical priorities with respect to democratic Athens. The most important criteria are now the speaker’s bond with his client and his competence, associated with auctoritas in early Roman oratory but with technical ability by Cicero’s time.

Chapter 2 examines the account of persona in the earliest extant Latin rhetorical manuals, the Rhetorica ad Herennium and the youthful Cicero’s De Inventione. The manuals’ adaptation of Greek theory to a Roman context is noticeably imperfect. On occasion they confuse defensor and reus, identical in the Athenian courts but separate at Rome, and they do not explore the potentially complex relationships between patronus, cliens, judge, jurors, audience, and performance context with the sophistication of the mature Ciceronian rhetorica. The persona of the manuals is generally a prediscursive given which the orator may choose to valorize. Appeals to the probable further reveal that persona is generally viewed as a fixed point of reference. There are some gestures to the notion that the discursive persona might be a potentially deceptive construct, especially in injunctions to the orator to preserve his dignitas. In part due to their schematic approach, however, the manuals leave undertheorized the connection between prediscursive identity and the image generated in performance.

Volume 2, which appeared in 2011, focuses exclusively on the works of the mature Cicero, where for the first time in extant Latin rhetorical theory inuentio, elocutio, and actio all subserve the construction of the discursive persona. A lengthy reading of De Oratore (Chapter 1) argues that the orator employs his technical competence in order to construct a persona through discourse, rather than simply valorizing a prediscursive identity as in the rhetorical manuals. Cicero does not conceive of the persona, however, as a construction fully separable from the orator’s prediscursive identity. The attempt to efface the gap between the orator’s discursive and prediscursive identities, according to Guérin, is a renewal of the Isocratean tradition. A reclassification of the applications of the Ciceronian triad docere, conciliare, and mouere is a valuable contribution to the argument,2 exemplified in an extended reading of Antonius’ account of his defense of Norbanus ( De Orat. 2.197-203).

Chapter 2 examines the Ciceronian theory of risum movere, a “danger zone” of Roman oratory. Straightforward rules do not easily guide effective practice, and the elite orator cannot afford the risk to his dignitas that the Roman satirists, for example, openly court. As an urbanus, however, the successful orator already has an intuitive understanding of the unspoken rules of his elite social group, and can therefore avoid the excesses that would threaten to associate him with the scurra. Through his moderatio, he preserves his own authority while employing the “controlling laughter” that excludes his opponent from the group.3 By examining lexemes such as politus, eruditus, urbanus, etc., that guarantee the orator’s cultural legitimacy, Guérin adds to the series studied by Krostenko as examples of the Ciceronian “language of social performance.”4

Chapter 3 discusses persona as an effect of style. In the De Oratore, the orator is free to develop a distinctive style, so long as he does not violate the ethical norm of lenitas. Thus there can be many paths to rhetorical excellence. In the rhetorical works composed after the advent of Caesar’s dictatorship, however, Cicero’s account of persona shifts, first to justification of his characteristic style, and next to his apparent elimination of a distinctive style. In the Brutus, he assembles literary history to exculpate himself from the charges of so-called “Asianism”. He presents the elegantia and simple style favored by his “Atticist” opponents as ineffective contributions to the central goal of permouere. In the Orator, emphasis falls on the orator’s consummate technical skill and his ability to employ every style. There is no point to developing a distinctive persona if there is no longer an appropriate venue for public persuasion. The orator is therefore limited to demonstrating his competence in epideictic contexts, and so persona becomes subordinated to decorum.

These volumes could have used further editing during their process of evolution from a thesis. Many discussions are needlessly prolix, and disagreement with earlier studies is occasionally overstated.5 Though the bibliography is generally up to date, it is particularly surprising that Guérin offers no discussion of John Dugan’s Making a New Man. 6 This well-received study of Ciceronian self-fashioning in the rhetorical works appeared four years before the first volume of Guérin’s persona. Dugan anticipates many of Guérin’s observations on the Ciceronian deployment of rhetorical personae; presents the historically contextualized reading of the Ciceronian rhetorica that Guérin claims has hitherto been lacking; and offers a more fully theorized account of Ciceronian theatricality and performance of masculinity.

The term persona embraces a number of aspects of rhetorical self-presentation, and its usage may vary considerably within a single text. Any effort, therefore, to unify its application in different historical contexts results in an inaccurately reductive view. Even a gap as short as a single decade may produce a shift in priorities, as the evolution in the Ciceronian account of persona from De Oratore to Orator indicates. The exhaustively contextualized account of persona offered in this study is thus a valuable contribution to rhetorical studies.


1. For some aspects of the subject’s longue durée see now Guillaume Navaud, Persona: Le théâtre comme métaphore théorique de Socrate à Shakespeare (Droz, 2011).

2. As Fortenbaugh showed, the triad does not map to the Aristotelian division of logos, êthos, and pathos. Cf. William W. Fortenbaugh, “ Benevolentiam conciliare and animos permovere: Some remarks on Cicero’s De oratore 2.178-216,” Rhetorica 6 (1988): 259-273.

3. Anthony Corbeill, Controlling Laughter: Political Humor in the Late Roman Republic (Princeton, 1996).

4. Brian A. Krostenko, Cicero, Catullus, and the language of social performance (Chicago 2001).

5. Guérin overstates his point of disagreement, for example, with Fantham’s conception of the relationship between patronus and cliens. Cf. Elaine Fantham, “Ciceronian Conciliare and Aristotelian Ethos,” Phoenix 27 (1973): 262-275; eadem, The Roman World of Cicero’s De Oratore (Oxford 2004), 173.

6. John Dugan, Making a new man: Ciceronian self-fashioning in the rhetorical works (Oxford 2005). Reviewed in these pages at BMCR 2006.09.03.