BMCR 2015.10.26

Formes et genres du dialogue antique. Scripta antiqua, 71

, , Formes et genres du dialogue antique. Scripta antiqua, 71. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions​, 2015. 224. ISBN 9782356131263. €25.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Since its birth in the circles around Socrates, the philosophical dialogue was continually written – through the Imperial Period, well into Byzantium, the Medieval West, and beyond. As a result, the genre provides a rich opportunity to scholars to track changes over time, both philosophical and literary. Of late, scholars have noticed this opportunity and produced a surge of diachronic scholarship on the ancient dialogue, especially those of the imperial period, spurred on by the controversial 2008 volume of essays edited by Simon Goldhill, The End of Dialogue in Antiquity. Formes et Genres du Dialogue Antique, edited by Sandrine Dubel and Sophie Gotteland, is part of this surge, further exemplified by such works as Averil Cameron’s Dialoging in Antiquity and the 2013 collection of essays Der Dialog in der Antike, edited by Föllinger and Müller.1 The volume under review shares some of the exciting research that has been carried out under the auspices of a larger research group on the ancient dialogue, “Dialogus”, sponsored by the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme de Clermont-Ferrand.

Dubel and Gotteland’s collection is innovative, but also risks a lack of cohesion, because of its explicit interest in two distinct but related strands of research that frequently complicate scholarship on ancient dialogues. One is the study of the literary dialogue as a genre; the second is a broader (and sometimes more nebulous) interest in the “dialogic”, not as a genre but as a mode that can be used in many different genres. The volume includes not only articles about ancient works written as literary dialogues, but also about when and how “dialogue” is embedded elsewhere. The editors reflect this twofold interest in the title they chose for the volume, which emphasizes the plurality of the forms and genres of the dialogue.

Sabine Dubel’s introduction grounds the decision for diversity in a very helpful overview of the ancient literary sources that address the dialogue: Aristotle’s Poetics, Theon’s Progymnasmata, and especially Demetrius’ On Style. She views On Style as evidence that there was a “discours théorique constitué sur le dialogue comme genre et comme forme” (19) at least by the second century AD, of which this volume forms a continuation. But together with her salutary insistence on diversity among uses of the ancient dialogue (12), she does not provide a clear map of the variety of meanings of the terms used throughout the volume, which would have helped to curate a more unified collection.

The book divides in two different ways. The primary division is chronological. The first four articles are concerned with ancient Greek sources (Herodotus, Plato and Demosthenes). The next three look to Roman uses of the dialogue (Cicero and Tacitus). The final four are interested in imperial dialogues (Athenaeus and Lucian). The secondary division can be traced in the two uses of dialogue as genre and as form. Some of the articles are interested only in particular literary dialogues and not in how they might be distinctly “dialogic”. Others are interested in how non-dialogue genres can be “dialogic”, and the rest are interested in dialogue as both genre and mode.

An example of the first type is the clearly-presented article by Olivier Devillers on Tacitus’ Dialogus. Devillers is primarily interested in the ways in which Tacitus’ Dialogus “dialogues” with his other works, especially on the question of his changing perspective on various ruling emperors. Only at the end does Devillers turn to consider why the Dialogus might be written as a dialogue rather than as a biography or history, concluding that the dramatic setting of the dialogue in the intermediate period of Vespasian suited a more ambiguous genre. Similarly, Elizabeth Irwin puts the understudied “Platonic” dialogue Axiochus into an entirely new light as a reflection on the political ramifications of differing theories of death, without commenting on its dialogic nature at all.

Members of the second type are three articles that deal with texts firmly outside of the genre of the philosophical dialogue: Christine Hunzinger’s article on Herodotus, Sophie Gotteland’s article on Demosthenes and Christophe Bréchet’s article on small interchanges in the second person with ancient sources cited by Plato, Plutarch and Clement of Alexandria. Each of these articles pushes the discussion of “the dialogue” beyond what is typically studied, looking at dialogic elements in non-dialogic texts.

Bréchet’s article looks at the infrequent moments, sometimes in dialogues and sometimes not, when an ancient author addresses an important source in the second person. Plato does this with Homer, Plutarch does this with Homer and Euripides, and Clement of Alexandria does this with Homer and Plato. Bréchet concludes that authors do this at times when they are particularly questioning the statements of the earlier author. He further concludes that the ways in which the author can make the ancient author respond to his address is through the recollection of quotations from elsewhere in their corpus, a characteristic that he sees as bound up in the growth in a commentary tradition. Bréchet’s article moves from a small observation of a rare type of citation to an interesting conclusion, but it would have strengthened his argument to have set it within a larger context. If Bréchet’s insights were combined, for example, with the work of Lawrence Kim on the urge found especially in Imperial Greek literature to bring Homer and the Trojan heroes back to life in one way or another in order to converse with them, then the article’s argumentative reach could have been extended.2

The other two examples of this subset share an interest in the framing of dialogic elements in non-dialogic works. Gotteland’s article looks carefully at those moments in the speeches of Demosthenes when he ventriloquizes others, for example the jury and the accused, in a dialogic manner. Doing so allows him to expand his temporal and spatial frame, giving him more power as an orator. Hunzinger shows how Herodotus’ dialogic moments are notable for being embedded in a frame that includes a strong authorial interpretation. They are a far cry from the philosophical dialogue popularized by the Socratics in the next generation, and she argues that they should not be seen as precedents to the genre. Both articles are interested in the ways that prose authors are able to move from a narrative mode to a dialogic mode and back again, helping our understanding of how dialogue can be embedded and used in places other than philosophical works.

The question of narrative framing brings us to an interesting second set of themes found throughout the collection, which Dubel had flagged in her introduction: the relationship of dialogue to rhetoric and drama.

Many philosophical dialogues are written, purportedly, as narratives that are only recounting a dialogue, and at times they contain further dialogues and speeches embedded in a nesting-doll structure (for instance, Plato’s Symposium is written as Apollodorus’ narrative of the event that in turn contains Socrates’ recollection of his dialogue with Diotima). The fact that many philosophical dialogues are written as speeches raises the question of the relationship between rhetoric and dialogue. Flipping this relationship around, Gotteland’s article on dialogue in Demosthenes focuses on the way in which Demosthenes used dialogue within his rhetoric, while Auvray-Assayas’ article on Cicero and Devillers’s on Tacitus treat literary dialogues whose topics are explicitly rhetorical.

Furthermore, since the time of Plato, ancient literary theorists have admitted the close relationship between the literary dialogue and drama. Both remove direct authorial voice and instead display verbal interchange between characters.3 An ancient reflection on this relationship is Lucian’s Bis Accusatus, treated in the article by Suzanne Saïd. Saïd untangles the relationship between Lucian and his Platonic model through an analysis of this dialogue, where Rhetoric and Dialogue accuse the Syrian Orator in front of Justice on charges of maltreatment. Rhetoric claims that although she married the Syrian Orator and made him great, he later abandoned her to pursue the old man, Dialogue. Dialogue, for his part, complains that the Syrian Orator has yoked him to Comedy, demeaning his high style and dignity. Saïd takes Lucian’s dialogue as evidence of Lucian’s break with the Platonic tradition, moving the dialogue away from being a means of philosophy to being a means of satire. In the collection’s second article about Lucian, Anne-Marie Favreau- Linder reveals the dramatic framing and focus on spectacle that permeates the Lucianic dialogue Charon. She claims that Lucian takes advantage not only of the satiric possibilities of the comic genre, but also of comedy’s scenographic settings. Lucian is caught in the Charon combining drama and dialogue in much the same way that Dialogue complained of in the Bis Accusatus.

Of course, in a volume concerned with such a broad topic, there is always opportunity to bemoan certain gaps. In particular, I would have liked to have seen at least one article on the many Christian dialogues, especially since the collection has four chapters that deal with the Imperial period. Likewise, an article on one of the Socratics besides Plato would have been refreshing, and put some of the later work in a broader context. One also wonders why there are two articles on Lucian, but none on Plutarch, the author who wrote the most surviving dialogues in antiquity after Plato. However, a collection of eleven articles can hardly hope to cover comprehensively such a long-lived genre/mode, and the editors should be congratulated for the variety they were able to gather, especially in its interaction with different genres.

Formes and Genres du Dialogue Antique provides another useful tool to those who are interested in the growing field of ancient dialogue studies. The editors succeed in their purpose of showing the variety within the study of the “ancient dialogue”, innovatively including articles on texts that are not part of the genre of the philosophical dialogue and expanding the terms of the discussion in helpful ways. There is something to learn from every chapter, and one hopes that the “Dialogus” research group will continue to publish more of its research in future years.

Table of Contents

Avant-propos : théories et pratiques du dialogue dans l’Antiquité (Sandrine Dubel)
1. Formes et cadre narratif du dialogue dans les Histoires d’Hérodote (Christine Hunzinger)
2. D’un dialogue d’auteurs à un dialogue de thèses. Pacte dialectique et procédés dialogiques dans le Théétète de Platon (Anne Balansard)
3. The Platonic Axiochus: the politics of not fearing death in 406 BC (Elizabeth Irwin)
4. Du discours au dialogue : Démosthène et ses interlocuteurs fictifs (Sophie Gotteland)
5. Auditeurs et personnages muets dans le dialogue : quelques remarques sur la définition d’un genre réinvesti à Rome (Jean-Pierre De Giorgio)
6. Le dialogue cicéronien ou le livre eloquent (Clara Auvray-Assayas)
7. La place du Dialogue des Orateurs dans l’œuvre de Tacite (Olivier Devillers)
8. “Parle avec eux” : le dialogue avec les auteurs classiques (Christophe Bréchet)
9. Les jeux du dialogue dans les Deipnosophistes, ou la littérature recomposée (Yannick Scolan)
10. La Double Accusation. Une introduction au dialogue lucianesque (Suzanne Saïd)
11. Le Charon de Lucien : un dialogue des morts ? (Anne-Marie Favreau-Linder)


1. A. Cameron, Dialoguing in Late Antiquity (Harvard 2014). S. Föllinger and G. M. Müller, eds., Der Dialog in der Antike. Formen und Funktionen einer literarischen Gattung zwischen Philosophie, Wissensvermittlung und dramatischer Inszenierung (Berlin 2013).

2. L. Kim, Homer Between History and Fiction in Imperial Greek Literature (Cambridge 2010). See, for example, Lucian’s True Histories, where the narrator speaks with him in the Islands of the Blessed, and Philostratus’ Heroicus, where the truth about the Trojan War is learned from the ghost of a hero.

3. Cf. N. Charalabopoulos, Platonic Drama and its Ancient Reception (Cambridge 2012). ​