BMCR 2021.02.23

Frankness, Greek culture, and the Roman Empire

, Frankness, Greek culture, and the Roman Empire. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 236. ISBN 9780367262419 $155.00.

Parrhēsia has become a popular topic in recent years[1] and the reviewer must admit he is working on his own book about parrhēsia. He is also aware of at least two others active in this field. The interest in parrhēsia is largely due to Foucault’s intellectual impact: He described parrhēsia as an effective mode de vrai-dire and defined Socrates as the emblematic parrhēsiastēs.[2] There is no doubt that Foucault, who dug deeply into the ancient sources, provided many intriguing observations, but one important tenet of his has often been missed by classicists: he did not define himself as a historian, but rather set out to write a genealogy of critique. He wanted to know how we got to where we are. For good reasons he thus turned a blind eye to phenomena that did not fit into his concept of parrhēsia. For example, he distinguished Greek parrhēsia from the vrai-dire of prophets, although Christian sources describe the frank speech of prophets precisely with this word.

There can be no doubt that Foucault’s influence on the debates about free speech is paramount. Yet, independent of him, the issue of free speech has gained traction recently in the context of discussions around academic speech at Western universities. While Fields is aware of the modern debates, she is primarily interested in the history of the use of frank speech in the Roman Empire. This can be expressed with the word parrhēsia, but also with other words; as a consequence, not every aspect of parrhēsia is included in this study. In contrast to the influential thesis that a privatization of parrhēsia took place after the end of the classical polis,[3] she convincingly argues that frank speech in a political sense was still important in the “long second century” CE, especially in contexts where the ethical stance of political agents was at stake. It is an element of the post-classical tradition. As a result, Fields rarely touches on Jewish and Christian sources that discussed the role of free speech in their own way. Flavius Josephus, however, who was well versed in both classical and Jewish traditions, might have strengthened Field’s argument further.

After an introduction that clearly defines the approach of the book, the first chapter returns to classical Athens where parrhēsia emerged as a concept closely connected with the status of citizens. It then deals with various forms of free speech as related to social status and gender – frankness was traditionally defined as a crucial quality of the free manly citizens. She argues that parrhēsia developed from ‘a privilege sanctioned by status to an act that determined status (19). The case of the exiles who claimed to keep their parrhēsia is especially illuminating. Likewise, the passages that refer to Aesop open new perspectives (42-44).

The next three chapters explore the addressees of frank speech: Kings, demos, elites. Typically, they offer sub-chapters that focus on certain literary texts, often paraphrasing them and so highlighting the specific attitude towards frank speech.

In reference to orators addressing kings and emperors, Fields distinguishes an advisory style from an oppositional style. These styles allow both the frank speaker and the monarch to display certain virtues: courage and wisdom on the side of the speaker and self-control on the monarch’s part. This chapter contains important observations of the role of monarchical advisors in general, but also useful observations on the depiction of Apollonius of Tyana and of frank speakers in Plutarch’s Vitae.

The interaction between public advisors and the demos is constructed in a way similar to that between advisor and monarch: in both cases the speaker shows his goodwill and courage. In consequence, Dio Chrysostom and Apollonius of Tyana feature in both contexts. But the parrhesiastic speaker stylizes himself much more as an educator of the populace that must be convinced to live an orderly life.

The urban, bouleutic elites communicated in a highly delicate manner among each other, which was especially important since the elites had to put up with internal hierarchies. The semantics of friendship and parrhēsia reduced the visibility of these differences and of patronage among members of the Greek-speaking elite, a phenomenon about which Fields makes acute observations. Her main source is Plutarch’s treatise, How to tell a flatterer from a friend, which expounds how parrhēsia is possible between people who fashion themselves as friends but are in fact positioned in a hierarchical order. Fortunately, she does not only include the well-known texts by Plutarch or the historiographers, but also Artemidorus’s Oneirokritikon and Aelian’s anecdotes on animals. It would have been interesting to also learn what Fields has to say on the few inscriptions and papyri that mention parrhēsia.

The final chapter discusses Lucian, whose satires portray the different forms of frank speech ironically. It demonstrates how easily any basis of the authority to speak frankly could be undermined, in Lucian’s times, but even in reference to classical Athens.

Fields offers intense discussions of many passages, but the line of the argument always remains clear. It is a pity that the conclusion is extremely brief. The Index is useful only to a degree. It refers to literary works, but not to single passages, although Fields’ discussions of special issues in texts are often really helpful.

Field’s small but thoughtful book has achieved important results. It is based on thorough knowledge of the literary sources, but Fields is also well read in the international, multilingual literature in this field. Her study is full of new insights into the perception of frank speech in the Roman Empire and thus highlights and explains the pervasiveness of frank speech in Greek culture during the early Empire. It maps the world of parrhēsia in a new way.


[1] David Konstan “The Two Faces of parrhēsia: Free speech and Self-Expression in Ancient Greece,” Antichthon 46 (2012), 1–13 and elsewhere; Ineke Sluiter Ralph M. Rosen (ed.), Free Speech in Classical Antiquity (Mnemosyne. Suppl. 254), Leiden/Boston 2004; Irene van Renswoude, The Rhetoric of Free Speech in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages(Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 115), Cambridge 2019. Interestingly, even the German novel Schäfchen im Trockenen by Anke Stelling, Berlin 2018 has a protagonist called Resi (reminding of parrhesía) who practises radical (and entertaining) Wahrsprechen (251).

[2] Cf. L’Herméneutique du sujet. Cours au Collège de France, 1981-1982, Paris 2001; Le Gouvernement de soi et des autres. Cours au Collège de Franc, 1982-1983, Paris 2008, 42-56; Le courage de la vérité. Le Gouvernement de soi et des autres II. Cours au Collège de France, 1984, Paris 2009, 23-30; 302-308.

[3] See Arnaldo Momigliano, “La libertà di parola nel mondo antico,” RSI 83 (1971), 499-524, 519.