BMCR 2012.11.19

Latin Panegyric. Oxford readings in classical studies

, Latin Panegyric. Oxford readings in classical studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xvi, 430. ISBN 9780199576722. $55.00 (pb).


Panegyric has not always been well received by classicists and historians. As Roger Rees states in his introduction to this volume, distaste for the genre was particularly vitriolic in the twentieth century, quoting as an example William Alexander’s forthright assessment that ‘it is safe to wager that the Panegyrici find few readers today, and perhaps reasonable to guess that anyone known to loiter in their neighbourhood is mentally suspect’ (15).1 Attitudes have, however, changed substantially in the decades since Alexander wrote his invective, with panegyric enjoying a revival in interest and more sympathetic treatment from both historians and literary scholars, especially from the late 1960s onwards. These shifting approaches to panegyric are clear in the sixteen essays that make up this volume, the latest addition to the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series. These chapters, all of which explore aspects of the Panegyrici Latini, were published over the course of a century, beginning with René Pichon’s 1906 discussion of the authorship of the collection’s anonymous speeches and extending down to Stanley Hoffer’s 2006 exploration of ‘accession propaganda’ in the works of Pliny the Younger (although, like the Panegyrici Latini themselves, the articles are bunched towards the end of their chronological range). Since these chapters have all been published before (although four appear here in English for the first time), I will mostly restrict my comments to describing the major themes explored by the chapters and assessing the collection as a whole.

The volume does, however, contain one substantial new publication: the forty-six page introduction by Rees, who is one of the most prolific modern scholars on Latin panegyric.2 Although each of the sixteen chapters is discussed by Rees, his piece is much more than simply an introduction to the contents of the volume. Instead, it functions as a rich and wide-ranging guide both to surviving panegyrical literature and to the history of modern scholarship in this field, thereby contextualising the individual essays selected for republication here. The opening sections (3-13), cover panegyrical poetry up to the reign of Domitian and, more generally, prose panegyrics that do not appear in the Panegyrici Latini, including Cicero’s Caesarian speeches, while the introduction concludes (at 45-8) with a survey of imperial praise poetry from late antiquity. These pages help to broaden the scope of the volume, which is otherwise almost entirely concerned with the Panegyrici Latini, as is the remainder of the introduction. After providing this outline, Rees then moves on (at 13-23) to discuss more technical matters, providing a clear and informative account of the manuscripts, editions and translations of Pliny’s Panegyricus and the other speeches in the collection, as well as scholarly judgements on their literary and moral value, before giving a detailed discussion of the debates surrounding their authorship and dating, and the circumstances in which they were written and delivered (23-33).

The remaining twelve pages of the introduction are devoted to two sections on the interpretation of these texts, entitled ‘Panegyrics as historical sources’ (33-41) and ‘Panegyrics as literature’ (41-5). These discussions provide a wealth of bibliographical information concerning the uses made of the panegyrics by scholars with a variety of interests, as well as giving succinct introductions to some of the most heavily debated issues surrounding these texts, including their treatment of religion, the degree to which they imitated earlier models or rhetorical handbooks (such as those attributed to Menander Rhetor) and the vexed question of whether they are to be regarded as imperial ‘propaganda’, vehicles for petitions and advice or a more complicated intermingling of these elements. Rees also gives space (at 11-12) to Frederick Ahl’s argument that panegyrics could be tools for ‘safe criticism’ of autocratic regimes, delivered through the medium of ‘figured speech’.3 Importantly, these debates are presented in a balanced fashion, not only within the introduction but also in the choice of articles included in the volume. The reader will not find methodological unity or interpretive agreement across all the chapters, and that is one of the great strengths of this collection.

The first two republished chapters deal with the text of the Panegyrici Latini itself: R. A. B. Mynors’ concise Latin discussion of the manuscript tradition in the introduction to his Oxford Classical Texts edition has been translated here, as has René Pichon’s important piece, originally published in French. Pichon argued convincingly against Seeck’s view that eight of the twelve Panegyrici Latini were the work of the orator Eumenius, while also suggesting that the collection as we now have it was compiled by Pacatus, the author of the speech addressed to Theodosius I in 389. Both articles are translated well, although a few statements in Mynors’ piece, such as his concluding remark, ‘reader, at this point, let me bid you farewell and entreat your kindness towards my mistakes’ (54), serve as reminders of the original language of composition.

The next six chapters all deal with Pliny’s Panegyricus, the earliest speech in the collection by almost two centuries. Betty Radice’s brief piece examines the style of the oration and speculates on the process by which Pliny revised his original spoken version, as well as considering its historical context and the presentation of Trajan as optimus princeps. Susanna Morton Braund’s chapter also takes up the theme of Pliny’s portrait of Trajan and his concept of the ideal ruler, as well as looking at the combination of what she terms ‘praise’ and ‘programme’, with the latter referring to protreptic elements of the speech where Pliny attempts to promote particular imperial virtues and behaviour. This chapter also moves beyond Pliny to consider similar techniques in a selection of Cicero’s speeches and Seneca’s De clementia. This interpretation of panegyrics as a medium for shaping the emperor’s actions is also present in Elaine Fantham’s incisive and enjoyable piece on orality in Pliny. Fantham not only considers the public performance of both the original and revised versions of the speech, but also examines Pliny’s recording and celebration of the ritual oaths taken by consuls, especially Trajan himself, to underline his message of ‘new hopes and promises’ under a new emperor (125).

Mark Morford also provides a reading of the Panegyricus as political manifesto, seeing it as ‘a serious attempt to define a working relationship between senate and princeps ’ (138). This involved both a new way of conceptualising senatorial libertas and also a model for the expected behaviour of the emperor, replacing the dominus style that was characteristic of the ‘tyrant’ Domitian. Additionally, Morford makes use of the concept of ‘figured speech’ in his analysis, but is measured and nuanced in his conclusions about possible criticism. Shadi Bartsch’s piece, taken from her 1994 book Actors in the Audience, discusses Pliny’s attempts to establish his own sincerity in his speech, partly though his claim that, with the accession of Trajan, the ‘public’ and ‘hidden transcript’ had merged, meaning that the imperial praise in formal panegyrics now concurred with the statements that people made behind closed doors. For Bartsch, however, the problem was that all political language, even the concept of libertas, had been so debased by the fulsome praise heaped on Domitian. Pliny therefore faced ‘linguistic bankruptcy’, as any words he could write were already ‘whittled thin and stripped of the potential to make moral distinctions that have any credibility or resonance’ (186). This is followed by the final chapter on Pliny, in which Stanley Hoffer looks at both the Panegyricus and the Letters as ‘Trajanic propaganda’ (220), although without reducing Pliny to a fawning imperial mouthpiece. In particular, Hoffer explores the theme of divine providence in Pliny’s descriptions of Trajan’s accession, including the concept of the ‘fortunate fall’, whereby Nerva’s death turned out to be beneficial for everyone – even Nerva – because it brought the optimus princeps to the throne.

The second half of the volume deals with the remaining eleven speeches in the Panegyrici Latini, sometimes collectively, sometimes individually. It opens with C. E. V. Nixon’s important 1983 article, which argues persuasively that the panegyrics were not simply vehicles for the promulgation of ‘propaganda’ from the regime, although it concludes that these speeches, along with the Gallic rhetorical schools that spawned them, ‘inculcated the upper- class youth of Gaul with the right attitudes’ and so were ‘manifestations of the political and intellectual control of the educated classes by the central government’ (239). This is followed by a piece by Sabine MacCormack, excerpted from her seminal 1975 article.4 The section reproduced here looks at examples of ekphrasis in panegyrics and compares them to contemporary imperial art, arguing that the unity of the propaganda message across these different media broke down during the fourth century, particularly with the growth of Christianity as the imperial religion.

At this point the book turns towards more ‘literary’ analysis of the speeches, starting with E. Vereeke’s chapter, which has been translated from French. This piece criticises both those who see the later panegyrics as closely following Greek rhetorical theory, especially Menander Rhetor, and also those who view the speeches as imitations of earlier Latin authors, particularly Cicero and Pliny. In place of these approaches, Vereeke regards the panegyrists as individuals who were familiar with many earlier speeches and who must have witnessed many panegyrics which are no longer extant, rather than being close adherents to particular models which can always be identified by modern scholars. This important article, originally published in 1975, will hopefully reach a wider audience through its presence in this volume. It is followed by W. S. Maguinness’ extremely informative, if rather dense, account of literary and rhetorical techniques in the Pangeyrici Latini, and then by Barbara Saylor Rodgers’ lengthy discussion of religion in the third- and fourth-century panegyrics. This piece examines each speech in turn for references to gods, divinity and holiness, thereby demonstrating variations between the choices made by different speakers. The result is an account which reveals a lack either of uniformity across the speeches or of a definitive change when the imperial honorands were Christians, rather than pagans, as the conclusion makes clear: ‘There is no system and there never was. There is circumstance, preference, and ambiguity’ (329).

The final three chapters examine individual speeches within the corpus. Brian Warmington looks at ‘propaganda’ in the Constantinian panegyrics, methodically undermining the view that they formed part of a centralised campaign from the court. This is achieved by comparing the speeches to contemporary coinage and showing that, even when the same message, such as Constantine’s descent from Claudius Gothicus, appeared in both media, the oration and the new coin issues were often years apart. Roger Blockley’s chapter looks at the contrasting characterisations of Constantius II and Julian in Mamertinus’ gratiarum actio of 362, noting the relative absence of both religious and military matters in the speech, as well as comparing it to other accounts of the period, including Ammianus. The volume concludes with Adolf Lippold’s 1968 article on Pacatus, analysing his portrait of Theodosius I as the ideal emperor, in contrast to the ‘tyrant’ Magnus Maximus. This piece, originally published in German, also explores the use of tradition in this speech, particularly through references to figures from Roman history and classical mythology, as well as giving some attention to the difficult question of Pacatus’ own religious beliefs.

As a whole, this volume is impressive in the range of subjects and approaches that are represented. While some readers might wish to have seen greater discussion of the few extant panegyrics that either pre- or post-date the twelve Panegyrici Latini, the selection of articles has clearly been made thoughtfully and with the intention of examining these orations from a variety of angles. The volume has also been edited well, harmonising the numbering systems for the speeches and the differing footnote referencing conventions, translating all Latin phrases and providing the original pagination of the pieces in square brackets.5 This collection will bring a number of the pieces to a much wider audience, translating some into English for the first time and reprinting others that were originally published in relatively inaccessible and/or expensive edited volumes. Taken together, Rees’ own piece and the sixteen chapters form an invaluable introduction to the subject and its historiography.


1. W. H. Alexander, ‘The professoriate in imperial Gaul (297 AD)’, Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd series, 38 (1944), 37-57, quoting 37.

2. See, for example, his Layers of Loyalty in Latin Panegyric, AD 289-307, Oxford, 2002, and his chapter in W. Dominik and J. Hall (eds.), A Companion to Roman Rhetoric, Oxford, 2007, 136-48.

3. F. Ahl, ‘The art of safe criticism in Greece and Rome’, American Journal of Philology 105 (1984), 174-208.

4. S. MacCormack, ‘Latin prose panegyrics’, in T. A. Dorey (ed.), Empire and Aftermath: Silver Latin II, London, 1975, 143-205. The piece here reprints pages 177-86.

5. I noticed few typos, although most of these were in either Latin passages or their translations.