BMCR 2022.05.02

The rhetoric of unity and division in ancient literature

, , , , The rhetoric of unity and division in ancient literature. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 108. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xi, 450. ISBN 9783110609790 $149.99.

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

The volume under review meets the aim its editors identify in their introduction: ‘to contribute to a developing appreciation of the capacity of rhetoric to reinforce affiliation or disaffiliation to groups in a wide range of texts and contexts’ (1). Matching the millennium-long span of the volume, from the fifth century BCE to the fifth century CE, is a multifarious array of genres across poetry and prose. What separates this volume from other studies on the history of rhetoric, write the editors, is its ‘holistic approach to the techniques of unity and division’ and authorial recourse to ‘theories beyond the confines of Classics—e.g. “imagined community”, group identity and several modern linguistic theories—to explore how unity and division were articulated in the Greek and Roman worlds’ (6, emphasis in original). The book is comprised of twenty entries across six parts, plus an introduction, a general index and a useful index locorum (the summary on the back cover erroneously claims that the volume contains ‘24 essays’). The twenty contributions are unevenly distributed across six sections labeled as follows: I. Authors, Speakers and Audience; II. Emotions; III. Drama and Poetry; IV. Historical and Technical Prose; V. Gender and the Construction of Identity; and VI. Religious Discourse (there is neither continuous nor discontinuous numbering of the chapters across the volume, notwithstanding the editors’ continuous chapter numbering in the introduction, 7-17). The volume is well-balanced in terms of authorial experience, from early career scholars to professors emeritus and everything in between, even as there is a wide variation in the length of each contribution (the shortest being that of Paschalis, at 7 pages, and the longest being that of Liotsakis, at 29 pages) and an under-representation of late antique literature.

Given the make-up of the book, I limit myself to two distinct tasks. First, I attempt to give the reader a sense of the breadth of material it covers by spotlighting the contributions of three authors: Fisher on a well-known mid-fourth-century public suit from democratic Athens (from Part I, the longest of the book, 21-125), Breij on Roman rhetorical education (also from Part I), and Liotsakis on the historians of the Imperial Era (from Part IV). Underlying my discussion is a concern with what they have to say to twenty-first century democratic citizens—a concern which, if I read them correctly, the editors implicitly share (1-5) and evidence of which is found peppered in the contributions to the volume (for example, Edwards, 22, 31-2, 34-5; Konstantakos, 191, 206-7). My second task is inspired by a promissory note of the editors. ‘Examination of the rhetorics of (dis)unity,’ they write, ‘sheds light on changeable cross-cultural and interstate identities, communities and prejudices, enabling people to understand complex socio-political phenomena’ (3). I touch upon these facets in a critical discussion of the conceptual binary at the core of the book: unity and division.

Nick Fisher carefully analyzes Aeschines’ rhetoric of unity ‘as an invocation of a shared cultural identity [an “imagined community”] between prosecutor and judges in relation to the values associated with sōphrosynē, eros, and the upbringing of citizens’ (47). Fisher shows how Aeschines focuses upon the moral danger of Timarchus’ participation in public life, both political and educational; moreover, the orator alienates the judges from his counterpart Demosthenes, presenting him ‘as a solitary, friendless, pretentious sophist, [and] of uncertain sexuality’ (59), while simultaneously aligning himself with ‘the culture of ordinary citizens’ (66). In anticipation of Demosthenes’ argument that rumor is no basis to convict Timarchus (after all, his name is absent from the prostitution tax records), Aeschines appeals to phêmê, both as rumor and as a goddess (Phêmê). It is phêmê who serves as a witness to Timarchus’ moral dissoluteness; while the defendant may not have violated the letter of the law, he has violated its spirit, the cultural norms and values Athenians hold dear.

The contemporary resonance of Aeschines’ emphasis is the continued persuasive efficacy of rumor (even without the goddess, a point which is in the Greeks’ favor). What Fisher conveys is that it is immaterial whether Aeschines relies on rumor because of a lack of factual evidence—rumor can and does persuade (Timarchus was disenfranchised), suggesting its permanence as a feature of political life. Writing in a democratic context, Aeschines shows that rumor has a basis in the many. First, because ‘all men who have public ambitions believe that they will win their reputations from good report (agathês phêmês)’ (1.129, Carey trans. modified); second, because rumor is inseparable from the founding myths of Athenian democracy (i.e. the tyrant-killers Harmodius and Aristogeiton, 1.132, 1.140, discussed by Fisher at 50-52); and, third, the divine character of Phêmê is attested in those educators of the many, the poets Homer and Hesiod (1.128-129, discussed by Fisher at 52-53).[1] Any juxtaposition between fact and rumor or, indeed, a tout court denigration of rumor, cannot take us very far, for rumor can carry epistemic or truth-value. In the words of Aeschines: ‘where men’s lives and actions are concerned, of its own accord a true report (apseudêsphêmê) spreads through the city announcing an individual’s conduct to the public at large, and often predicting future events, too’ (1.127, Carey trans.).[2]

Just as Fisher’s work would have us take rumor seriously, Bé Breij would bid us to attend to how maxims can reinforce or undermine affiliation, in an eye-opening treatment of sententiae in ‘Roman declamations, the fictitious exercises for political and forensic oratory that formed the crowning piece of ancient education’ (127). Quintilian notes the universal and moral character of maxims, adducing three rules for their successful employment, which Breij summarizes as follows: ‘they must not be too frequent; they must be generally valid on the basis of their content…and they must suit the situation and the speaker’ (133). Looking more closely at Decl. mai. 7 (‘The Poor Man’s Torture’), Breij judges it to be a successful deployment of affiliation-creating maxims, whereas Decl. mai. 19 (‘The Son Suspected of Incest with His Mother’) fails, not least because it is paired with an antilogia, Decl. mai. 18, which ‘shows aficionados of rhetoric how to expose and defuse it’ (143). Far from banal or staid, then, maxims provide insight into a people’s values not by drawing attention to themselves but, on the contrary, by hiding in plain sight. If this is true in a difficult, i.e. elite, setting of Roman declamations, then so much more so for the contemporary use of maxims in political speeches, advertising, and debates, to say nothing of the maxim-favoring medium of social media, especially Twitter.

Whereas the importance of rumor and maxims needs to be argued for, the significance of grand historical narratives readily strikes readers. Vasileios Liotsakis gently but firmly reminds us that political life frames the writing of history and, therefore, of the inseparability of the nature of the regime from what its intellectual classes reckon as worth their while. In a compelling contribution titled, ‘Disunity and the Macedonians in the Literature of Alexander: Plutarch, Arrian and Curtius Rufus’, Liotsakis compares and contrasts the narrative style and explanatory purchase of three ancient historians from the Imperial Era who ‘included in their accounts most of the pre-existing topoi of disunity, [even as] each emphasized different aspects of this theme through distinctive narrative schemes’ (246). Each historian attempts to persuade his readers of the locus of the disunity among the Macedonians: Plutarch pinpoints the cause of discord in Alexander’s troops, whose greed was increased by the wealth they seized on their Asian expedition; Arrian judges that the principal source of discord was Alexander’s lack of moderation; and Curtius shows ‘an intense interest in the army’s psychology as a factor of turbulence and crisis’ (270). It is not difficult to see why these historians were taken with the imperialist Macedonian monarchy at a time when the preservation of Rome turned upon the relationship between emperor and army. That Liotsakis values the ‘remarkable plurality of viewpoints and opinions about the major reasons of crisis in Alexander’s relationship with his men’ (270) which emerges from this study and also favors Curtius’ focus upon the Macedonian army is evidence of a democratic-minded scholar for whom pluralism and mass psychology are and ought to be, valuable and worthy of study, respectively.

Turning to the conceptual binary at the heart of the book—unity and division—and by way of scrutinizing further the general aim that the editors set out (1, quoted above), I was not persuaded that the volume offers ‘a coherent, updated and detailed approach to the rhetoric of unity and division’ (1, my emphasis). To be sure, the terms ‘unity’ and ‘division’ lend themselves to capacious, if not loose characterizations—any work aiming at coherence with these concepts at its center would have its work cut out, not least one containing a score of entries from a score of scholars. But there is no attempt to present either a coherent take on what counts as unity and division or, in the absence of such a proposal, a succinct overview of the uses to which these terms are put by the authors (say in the editors’ introductory essay or in a concluding essay at the end). The outcome can be anticlimactic. For example, evidence for unity and/or disunity comes too easily, leaving little persuasive work for an author to do and sometimes resulting in an anodyne conclusion. What else would Lycurgus or Demosthenes be doing in their speeches Against Leocrates and Against Aristogeiton other than create hostility towards their targets and, correspondingly, fellow feeling with the speaker, as Volonaki and Spatharas respectively claim? At other times, the evidence for unity and disunity is taken for granted, escaping the critical eye of the author: Michalopoulos’ essay on the speeches of Pentheus and Niobe to the Thebans in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is largely an exploratory exercise whose connection to unity and division merited further elaboration, while Paschalis’ treatment of Ciceronian versus Socratic dialogue, relies upon an opposition between rhetoric and philosophy which scholars have shown to be polemical and thus problematic.[3]

The volume’s attempt to speak to what we might call the perennial phenomena of political life (see the quotation from 3 above) would have benefitted from a harder look at the relationship between unity and division. Its contributors tend to treat this relationship as one of opposition, foregoing the opportunity to examine how unity and division can subsist interdependently. This much is illustrated in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, a rhetorically conscious political writer if there ever was one.[4] The unity that characterizes the totalitarian state of Oceania is dependent upon, and inseparable from, a condition of endless war with Eurasia and Eastasia, the world’s two other superpowers. Apart from being mutually exclusive, the book also treats the opposition between unity and division as mutually exhaustive, leaving out rhetorics suited for populations which are neither unified, nor divided. However, liberal democracies—to say nothing of regimes which discourage mass political participation—accommodate such rhetorics of indifference toward political life. In fact, apathy was once recommended by US political scientists.[5] A non-exhaustive understanding of the relationship between unity and division could speak to such phenomena, too. Finally, the general assumption that unity is good (desirable) and division is bad (undesirable) is hardly challenged in the book. Consider, for example, an ethnically undifferentiated population which, on account of its very unity, is highly intolerant toward outsiders—on the premise that racism and xenophobia have no part in democratic life, it seems that division is precisely what is needed in this case.

Authors and titles

Andreas N. Michalopoulos, Andreas Serafim, Alessandro Vatri and Flaminia Beneventano della Corte, Unity and Division in Ancient Literature: Current Perspectives and Further Research, pp.1-18

Part I: Authors, Speaker and Audience
Michael J. Edwards, The Rhetoric of (Dis)Unity in the Attic Orators, pp.21-43
Nick Fisher, Creating a Cultural Community: Aeschines and Demosthenes, pp.45-69
Andreas Serafim, “I, He, We, You, They”: Addresses to the Audience as a Means of Unity/Division in Attic Forensic Oratory, pp.71-98
Eleni Volonaki, Rhetoric of Disunity Through Arousal of Hostile Emotions in Eisangelia Cases, pp.99-125
Bé Breij, “It Takes More Love to Kill a Son than to Vindicate Him”: How Maxims May Contribute to Affiliation, pp.127-145

Part II: Emotions
Dimos Spatharas, Projective Uses of Emotions, Out-groups and Personal Characterization: The Case of Against Aristogeiton I (Dem.25), pp.149-166
Ed Sanders, Xenophon on Strategies to Maintain Unity in Armies under Stress, pp.167-187

Part III: Drama and Poetry
Ioannis Konstantakos, Divided Audiences and How to Win Them Over: The Case of Aristophanes’ Acharnians, pp.191-211
Andreas N. Michalopoulos, Fighting Against an Intruder: A Comparative Reading of the Speeches of Pentheus (3.531-563) and Niobe (6.170-202) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, pp.213-227
George Paraskeviotis, Humorous Unity and Disunity between the Characters in Vergil’s Eclogues 1 and 2, pp.229-242

Part IV:  Historical and Technical Prose
Vasileios Liotsakis, Disunity and the Macedonians in the Literature of Alexander: Plutarch, Arrian and Curtius Rufus, pp.245-274
Alessandro Vatri, Divisive Scholarship: Affiliation Dynamics in Ancient Greek Literary Criticism, pp.275-291
Christos Kremmydas, The Rhetoric of Homonoia in Dio Chrysostom’s Civic Orations, pp.293-316
Marco Romani Mistretta, Finding Unity through Knowledge: Narrative and Identity-Building in Greek Technical Prose, pp.317-332

Part V: Gender and the Construction of Identity
Stefano Ferrucci, Vanishing Mothers. The (De)construction of Personal Identity in Attic Forensic Speeches, pp.335-349
T. Davina McClain, Cato vs Valerius/Men vs Women: Rhetorical Strategies in The Oppian Law Debate in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, pp.351-371
Simone Mollea, Humanitas: A Double-Edged Sword in Apuleius the Orator? pp.373-386

Part VI: Religious Discourse
Flaminia Beneventano della Corte, Rhetoric of the Mortals, Rhetoric of the Gods, Deigmata, Phasmata and the Construction of Evidence, pp.389-403
Michael Paschalis, Ciceronian vs Socratic Dialogue in the De divinatione, pp.405-412
Phillip Hardie, Unity and Disunity in Paulinus of Nola Poem 24, pp.413-424


[1] Aeschines, ‘Against Timarchus’ in Aeschines, trans. Chris Carey, University of Texas Press, Austin TX, 2000, 18-87.

[2] For the predictive or prophetic dimension of phêmê, see Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1891, s.v. phêmê I, 755.

[3] See Andrea W. Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1995; David M. Timmerman, ‘Isocrates’ Competing Conceptualization of Philosophy’, Philosophy & Rhetoric, 31(2), 1998, 145–159; and Christopher Moore, Calling Philosophers Names: On the Origins of a Discipline, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2019.

[4] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Classics, New York, 2021.

[5] Robert A. Dahl, Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City, Second Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005. This argument is not without bite today: an apathetic population is unlikely to riot, be it for just or unjust causes: see the anti-racism riots across US and Europe in mid-2020 and the attempt to prevent the ratification of the results of the US Presidential elections on January 6, 2021, respectively.