BMCR 2019.12.02

The Dynamics of Rhetorical Performances in Late Antiquity

Alberto J. Quiroga Puertas, The Dynamics of Rhetorical Performances in Late Antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. xii, 172. ISBN 9781472474599 $120.00.


Speech reflects power, and, in the competition for power, oratory is an essential component of an arsenal. In recent decades, scholars working in the field of rhetoric, informed by new understandings of performance, ritual studies, and theater in antiquity and more generally, have focused renewed attention on the mechanics and constructive potential of public speech. The reliance on written records, or recollections, of public speeches remains one of the primary challenges confronting those who work on declamation in antiquity. The elements that distinguished great performances from mediocre presentations, those which determined who emerged as a victor in a contest, and the features that marked one as an inferior, defy recording on the page. In The Dynamics of Rhetorical Performance in Late Antiquity, Quiroga Puertas examines orators’ accounts of oratorical performance with an eye toward drawing out those elements of delivery and performative techniques that persuaded audiences, or failed to do so. He seeks not only to discern those physical and visual aspects of performance that meant triumph or defeat in rhetorical competitions but also to use an analysis of rhetorical performances “to improve our understanding of the issues relating to cultural and religious debates in that time period” (2). He does so primarily through an examination of methods, contexts, and stated intentions of speeches, many of which are embedded within other reported discourses.

This slender volume is comprised of three main chapters, which are bracketed by a brief introduction and conclusion. Despite the expansive title of this study, Quiroga Puertas devotes his most sustained analysis to sources from the eastern Mediterranean in the fourth and fifth centuries. He draws on both Christian and pagan writers (understanding these labels as “intracultural differentiation” rather than “intercultural differentiation” [9]) and, while his topic is the role of rhetoric in the defense, maintenance, and advancement of social influence and prestige and in the advancement of cultural and religious agendas, Quiroga Puertas understands all his authors as participating in the same broad culture. A mutual respect for a common Classical paideia by these late antique authors created a shared field and set of rules for their oratorical combat.

Following a brief introduction that sketches out the broad parameters of the study and defines key terms, Chapter One tackles two related but separate tasks: (1) it delineates rhetorical theory as defined in ancient sources ranging from Aristotle to Philostratus while focusing primarily on Cicero and Quintilian; and (2) it examines synopses of orators’ critiques of others’ speeches, both actual (as in Cicero’s remarks on his rivals) and literary (such as when Demosthenes adduces the negative example of Thersites from the Iliad in his account of his opponent, Aeschines). Quiroga Puertas highlights three concerns that occupied the attention of Quintilian and other Greco-Roman theorizers of rhetoric: the relevance of theory for skillful practice, as in the example of Demosthenes’ career; the overlap between oratory and theater, and efforts—successful and otherwise—to maintain the boundary between orator and actor; and the challenge of harmonizing voice and body language in the effort to elicit emotional responses from listeners, as well as the consequences of failing to do so well.

In Chapter Two, Quiroga Puertas transitions from his broad survey of antiquity to the fourth century, and he focuses on two types of speakers: philosophers (Themistius and Synesius of Cyrene) and bishops (Gregory of Nazianzus). These figures, representative of late antique cultural elites, used skillful displays of mastery of classical paideia—including the avoidance of dependency on theatrical techniques and props—to distinguish themselves from mediocre sophists (the “charlatans” of the chapter title). Sober philosophical declamations and solemn religious homilies alike were juxtaposed with the showy, commercial artifice of other forms of speech. The differences in genre and orientation—notably the distinctions between pagan and Christian speakers and audiences—matter less than the desire to differ from a common cultural touchstone. Philosophers and bishops used common tactics, rooted in a shared ethic and education, to serve their distinctive but not entirely unaligned agendas.

In Chapter Three (longer than Chapters One and Two together), Quiroga Puertas narrows his focus further by offering a kind of case study using the singular figure of Libanius of Antioch. This chapter offers a biography of Libanius (314-394 CE), based primarily on his autobiographical Oration 1, as a means for articulating the larger cultural milieu in which he lived, “the cultural and social scene of his time” (89). The duration of Libanius’ career, his professional geographic range (including not only Antioch but also Nicomedia and Constantinople), and the volume of his extant written legacy (more than 1500 letters, 64 orations, 51 declamations, and other works), justifies Quiroga Puertas’ decision to focus at such great length on this one figure. Quiroga Puertas uses a linear, biographical framing to embed discussions of Libanius’ narration of his oratorical contests with his opponents as they occurred through his career, and he shows how Libanius participates in the same trend noted in the previous chapter: he critiques his opponents’ performances in order to stress his own success as defender and promoter of traditional paideia. The brief conclusion revisits the broad themes of the volume and rearticulates the author’s case that “it is possible to think of narrations of rhetorical performances as an identity marker of cultural and religious figures in Late Antiquity” (162).

For all its brevity, this volume offers much of value. To begin with, it addresses an important topic of interest to contemporary scholars through an innovative and engaging lens: it is, in essence, a study of performance culture through the writings of a specific set of performers as they reflect on their art (and distinguish it from its rivals). Quiroga Puertas often lets his subjects speak for themselves; his analysis relies heavily, and appropriately, on the writings of the ancient orators. The author is aware of the complexity of relying on first person accounts, particularly those recounting the triumph of one orator over another, where many agendas and biases, explicit and implicit, are at play. Quiroga Puertas is an astute and careful reader, with a keen eye for a good text. Complementing his deft mastery of the primary sources, Quiroga Puertas’ book excels as a reference work of secondary literature. Each chapter begins with a review of literature that includes superb and up-to-date bibliographies on the material and makes ample use of the expected secondary works. (Each chapter concludes with a bibliography; a single bibliography for the volume would have been useful.) This volume usefully extends the body of work on performance and oratory in its rich cultural context, amplifying the essential works by scholars including A. Corbeill, G. Kennedy, A. Cameron, B. Leyerle, E. Watts, M.W. Gleason, and others.

Quiroga Puertas’ consistent attention to what we might call the common rhetorical culture of late antiquity should also be singled out as valuable. This volume models a way in which differences valued greatly by the subjects themselves—one’s identity as a Christian or philosopher (but not an actor or a sophist!)—can be recognized, articulated, and framed as expressions not only of difference but of commonality. For all that their venues, genres, and audiences differed, pagans and Christians shared deep cultural values and ways of displaying and conveying those priorities.

The structure of the volume, which moves from general to specific, reflects a logical authorial decision, but, given the terseness of the volume and the amount of attention to Libanius, the result feels somewhat poorly proportioned. The first two chapters, as well as the introduction and conclusion, offer solid and persuasive argumentation, but they are nonetheless ultimately somewhat cursory. One constantly wishes the author had added more voices (e.g., Chrysostom) or broadened his lens somewhat to include other venues and genres, not to treat them exhaustively but simply to create a more robust picture of the stage upon which the primary action takes place. Alternatively, a “foil” for Libanius—perhaps Symmachus of Rome, whose body of work rivals Libanius’ in volume and with whom Libanius corresponded—might have helped sharpen Quiroga Puertas’ argument. Finally, the author’s terse prose style can at times obscure his point. He relies on readers to deduce certain key points and can at other times simply be unclear. The somewhat lengthy summary above reflects this reviewer’s sincere desire to discern the key points and arguments of the book more clearly, as the topic, argument, and material are all of significant current interest within the field of late antiquity. It may be that Quiroga Puertas will, with time, be able to revisit this material and offer an amplified and more developed version of this project. Certainly he addresses a subject in great need of further elucidating, and his decision to let orators speak for themselves strikes this reviewer as not only clever but highly productive. But this volume stands as an early foray into the material he has so usefully assembled and not as a final word.