BMCR 2023.01.10

That tyrant, persuasion: how rhetoric shaped the Roman world

, That tyrant, persuasion: how rhetoric shaped the Roman world. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022. Pp. 328. ISBN 9780691221007



From what children take away from the big, bad wolf to the influence of certain language on voters, theories about how rhetoric shapes the way we look at the world have become integral parts of communication and media studies.[1] In classics and ancient history, scholars have analysed how ancient authors used well-known scenes and stereotypes in their own writings and how ancient audiences perceived them in their contemporary ‘media’.[2] In this book, Jon Lendon goes one step further by studying the impact of one of the most common forms of communication in the ancient world—rhetorical education—not only on literature, but also on the public actions of the members of the Greco-Roman elite.

In the first part, on rhetorical education, Lendon offers a concise history of the education in grammar and rhetoric in the Roman Empire and examines the views on such teaching in previous scholarship. Scholars have long seen rhetorical education simply as a form of education, meant to produce eloquence and moral elevation. In the wake of the publications by Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler, scholars started asking how this form of education shaped students’ worldviews. This has led them, for instance, to conclude that the themes of the declamations would have reaffirmed existing social hierarchies.[3] Lendon himself has argued that Homeric epic influenced decisions students of rhetoric made in their contemporary world, such as why and in which ways they fought wars.[4] In his current book, he again studies the impact of literary words on public deeds.

The second part, on the murder of Julius Caesar, begins with a chapter describing the assassination of Caesar and its immediate aftermath. This description allows Lendon to introduce various questions about the way the conspirators planned the murder, such as why they had all wanted to stab Caesar, why they had left his allies alive and why they were so surprised by the panic their deed caused in both senators and the public. Rather than finding explanations in legal motives, the Roman tradition of hostility towards monarchism or even the family background or philosophical interests of the main conspirator—Marcus Brutus—Lendon argues that the conspirators had applied the model of rhetorical tyrannicide to the real world. The influence of rhetorical education on reality was, according to Lendon, also the primary reason why emperors such as Domitian and Caesar, being well-aware of the danger of being characterized as a tyrant, took precautions against such accusations.

The third part focusses on public buildings, especially in second- and early third-century cities in the Roman East. Lendon argues that the construction of monumental but very impractical nymphaea was encouraged by the rhetorical use of water in panegyrics. Likewise, he points out that encomia on cities inspired the building of colonnaded streets, more useful structures in whose shade pedestrians could meet. In contrast, Lendon argues, city walls did not become a standard topic in panegyrical literature and their construction was not or not always inspired by rhetoric.

Lendon opens the fourth part, on Roman law, by introducing the stellionatus, the crime of committing wrongs not written down as illegal. He argues that laws against this crime developed from rhetorical theme to formal Roman law. However, as he continues to show, the influence of laws used in declamation on Roman law is commonly thought to have been of a more general nature. Thus the laws on abduction, adultery, gratitude and the talio (the eye-for-an-eye principle) as found in rhetorical declamations were different from formal laws, although Lendon observes that the former seem to have fitted social expectations better. At the same time, he points out that judges may have been more familiar with declamatory law than with Roman law—reasoning that rhetorical education was more widely available than legal training—and were correspondingly influenced.

In the conclusion, Lendon returns to the theme of the tyrant by describing the trial against Herodes Atticus, who had been accused of conducting himself as a tyrant. Although such accusations were common in rhetorical declamations, Lendon points out that they were rarely made in real life. Rhetorical education gave students an ideal image of the world—often called Sophistopolis, a term coined by D. Russell, Greek Declamation (Cambridge, 1983)—whereas reality was often strikingly different. Nevertheless, Lendon argues that this imaginary world shaped the thoughts, words and ultimately the actions of the Roman elite.

Critical readers of this book might not like Lendon’s personal style—he jokes about ‘the general perversity of the book’ in the introduction (p. xviii)—or may feel that he could have treated his case-studies in a more systematic manner. For example, in the first chapter I would have liked a discussion about current studies in cognitive science, explaining how narratives influence thoughts. Cognitive linguists have recognized three key components as important for the creation of a literary framework: a discursive analysis (e.g. the epitaphs used to characterise a tyrant), an examination of the social situation in which the texts were read (e.g. Rome in the first century BCE) and a cognitive analysis (e.g. the social knowledge, attitudes and ideologies underlying the concept of a tyrant).[5]

Lendon’s exclusive focus on the discursive element often leads him to push the evidence too far, for instance when overemphasizing the model of rhetorical tyrannicide. Although the conspirators may certainly have had literary examples in mind when planning the murder of Caesar, and emperors were aware of the ways in which they could be stereotyped, the precautions taken by Caesar had less to do with literature and more with the real political situation. As for the public buildings, Lendon himself points out that reality was often ahead of rhetorical imagination: nymphaea, for instance, were built mostly in arid regions and not in western provinces were flooding made praising the abundance of water unnecessary. Finally, Lendon does not offer evidence for his claim that their rhetorical education had a greater influence on judges than their legal training. Although he duly acknowledges that the outcome of a court-case also depended on the personal background of the judge, the socio-political history of the city where the trial took place and the particular circumstances under which it was held, a fuller use of cognitive theories may have led to a better explanation of the interplay between literature and the various aspects of public life.

Despite this, Lendon writes in an engaging, sometimes even amusing style, and makes his own reasoning transparent to the reader, pointing out even the weaknesses in his own arguments. As he himself concludes, his different case studies represent different degrees of rhetorical influence upon action. Thus the conspirators against Julius Caesar indeed seem to have followed a script taken from rhetorical education, panegyrical literature may have had an influence on the building of civic structures, but rhetoric hardly seems to have influenced Roman law. He also draws attention to the chicken-or-the-egg causality dilemma, discussing whether the deeds of the conspirators were inspired by the words of declamations or if later accounts of the assassination were influenced by rhetorical exercises.

Altogether, this is an admirably well-written book, which no doubt can lead to many fruitful discussions in class as well as among colleagues.



[1] See e.g. G. Lakoff, The All-New Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (Vermont, 2014) for especially American politics and the rhetorical style Democrats and Republicans employ to win votes and T.A. van Dijk, ‘Critical Discourse Studies: A Sociocognitive Approach’, in R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds.), Methods for Critical Discourse Analysis (London, 2009) 62-86 about the use of certain language in European and American politics to stimulate xenophobia or racism.

[2] J.M. Foley, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington, 1991) and more recently, P. Meineck, W.M. Short and J. Devereaux (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory (London, 2018) and E. Mocciaro and W.M. Short (eds.), Toward a Cognitive Classical Linguistics. The Embodied Basis of Constructions in Greek and Latin (Berlin, 2019).

[3] See e.g. M. Imber, ‘Practised Speech. Oral and Written Conventions in Roman Declamation’, in J. Watson (ed.), Role Models in the Roman World: Identity and Assimilation (Ann Arbor, 2008) 161-9.

[4] J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts. A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (New Haven, 2005).

[5] For a good introduction and a case-study according to this method, see Van Dijk, ‘Critical Discourse Studies’.