BMCR 2023.08.03

Politeness in ancient Greek and Latin

, , Politeness in ancient Greek and Latin. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 380. ISBN 9781009123037


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


How can we know what constituted being polite or impolite in ancient sources and ancient societies? The editors Luis Unceta Gómez and Łukasz Berger have compiled a volume consisting of 14 chapters in which the latest research is summarized and new directions for (im)politeness research are suggested.

The volume is headed by a hefty chapter from the two editors in which they discuss the theoretical and analytical ways in which (im)politeness phenomena can be studied. In addition to tracing what they identify as the three ‘waves’ of (im)politeness research, they point out the methodological challenges and opportunities in the data from ancient languages (see p. 25-37). Though noting the indebtedness of the field to the work of Brown and Levinson (e.g. on positive/negative face and so-called face-threatening acts), they are quick to address notable advances in the study of politeness: for example, the turn in the second wave towards (im)politeness as a discursively negotiated concept has shown that (im)politeness is strongly context-dependent (cf. the useful distinction between expectable ‘politic’ behavior and marked ‘polite’ behavior). At the same time, they admit that the politeness approaches of the third wave inevitably use multiple methodologies to integrate speakers’ conceptualizations of (im)politeness (‘first-order (im)politeness’) with theoretical conceptualizations of (im)politeness from outsider analysts (‘second-order (im)politeness’). Despite several interpretational caveats (e.g. the literary and the socially biased nature of the sources), they argue that the large quantity of sources that we do have for Ancient Greek and Latin allow us to enrich our understanding of (im)politeness in general.

The following four chapters assess (im)politeness in linguistic expressions.

Peter Barrios-Lech works towards a comparison of Greek and Roman politeness systems by offering a contrastive case study of directives and their softeners in Greek and Latin. A study of this range bears many interesting results (e.g. the higher frequency of softeners and entreaty words in Latin), but may nonetheless spark criticism when he explains such differences as reflecting real habits rather than literary tradition or allegedly as the direct result of an egalitarian Greek versus a non-egalitarian Roman society.

In the next chapter, Camille Denizot provides a thought-provoking analysis of the underrated role of particles in marking directives as polite. Her main point is that the particle δή has a significant role in marking directives as routine, polite (or mock polite) requests, as δή marks that the speech act is taken for granted by the interlocutors. At the same time, in assessing the distributions of other particles as potential politeness candidates (e.g. νυν and imperative particles such as ἄγε, φέρε and ἴθι) with different speech acts (e.g. directives, declaratives and questions) she concludes that these do not have such a politeness role.[1]

Next, Francesca Mencacci assesses the parenthetical clause ut mihi videtur ‘as it seems to me’, which occurs predominantly in Cicero, as a hedging device. Though powerful in its interpretation of the effects of this parenthetical in different contexts, I found the chapter somewhat lacking in its linguistic underpinning: a correlation with different sentence positions is mentioned but not fleshed out, and many examples actually occur with strongly evaluative vocabulary or contrastives (e.g. tamen, quidem and negations), an observation which could have nuanced the assessment of the parenthetical as a face-saving strategy.

Rolando Ferri is the first to step outside the domain of literary sources, in a study of (im)politeness phenomena in court proceedings in Latin (and Greek). After contextualizing the transmission of such proceedings, he discusses several (im)politeness strategies from the so-called Gesta Collationis Carthaginiensis (411 CE): abstract address forms, directives with dignari, ordering verbs as permission markers, disapproval markers, and the management of speakers’ turns. This innovative, explorative study concludes with a call for further research into this neglected area, since, as rightly argued by the author, such documents may open up welcome novel perspectives on different layers of ancient society.

In the next part of the volume, 6 chapters contextualize (im)politeness in specific literary texts.

Michael Lloyd tackles the tricky topic of friendship terms in Plato. They are a prominent feature of Socrates’ speech but are not limited to the dominant conversational partner. Lloyd argues that these complimentary vocatives redress face-threatening acts, not only in the Phaedrus,A which is his focus, but also in the impressive lists of parallels he provides. This overall interpretation may be seen as a somewhat bold claim given the high frequency and diversity of these items in Plato, but he offers many new intriguing interpretations (e.g. their uses in banter, warnings or refusals). Nonetheless, some interpretations of greetings, positive evaluations (p.153-154) and compliments (p. 165) as face-threatening acts appear less convincing, especially since they are not deemed face-threatening in other chapters.

Next, Giada Sorrentino develops an approach to study the (im)politeness of conversational openings in Menander. She argues convincingly that in Menander’s works the type of conversational opening (e.g. address form without or with positive/negative politeness strategies) and its evaluation by the hearer (e.g. positive response versus negative evaluation or no response) reflect the social relationship between speaker and hearer. Similarly, the way that characters greet or not, she contends, is used for characterization by Menander.

Łukasz Berger turns our attention to interruptions in Roman comedy. He discusses not only what kind of interruptions we encounter and which syntactic and metrical criteria we can use to collect them but also how such interruptions are received conversationally. A particularly interesting result is that, though others have defined interruptions restrictively as those that interlocutors complain about, Berger clearly shows that we find cooperative interruptions as well as disruptive interruptions and they may be evaluated as (im)polite but also remain without claim of violation.

In the next chapter, we are offered a discursive study of (im)politeness in the interaction of Theseus and the Herald in Euripides’ Supplices by Evert van Emde Boas. He shows how we can use Conversation Analysis to trace both politic and polite behavior, assessing both types in terms of their conversational origins as well as the conversational consequences that interlocutors give them (e.g. in their metapragmatic evaluations and conversational sequencing). He argues that the structure of the scene between the Herald and Theseus highlights the tension between the expected politic language of diplomacy and the (im)polite behavior in this scene. Finally, he concludes with the plea for more such contextualized readings of specific context types and suggests avoiding the ascription of politeness values to expressions detached from their contexts.

In the subsequent chapter, Lidewij van Gils and Rodie Risselada address a new problem for politeness theory and research: how to assess third-party (im)politeness. Most politeness research operates under the assumption of a basic speaker-addressee dyad and the incorporation of a third dimension poses problems on both the conceptual and descriptive level. They illustrate the relevance of third-party politeness by discussing examples from Cicero’s letters in which he strategically uses third parties to display affiliative politeness. They conclude, this third-party dimension has the potential to enrich our understanding of ancient Roman (im)politeness in its public and private contexts. Yet, one may expect the functions of third-party (im)politeness to go beyond the ‘politics’ of affiliation.

Next, Jon Hall opens up a new source of evidence for ancient (im)politeness research as he analyses banter and teasing in Varro’s De Re Rustica. According to Hall, banter and teasing as a form of mock-impoliteness can strengthen social bonds. Therefore, the way that addressees respond to banter and teasing in the conversations under discussion here reflects their social relationship. The evidence gets even more complex when there is no response, since, he admits, one-sided teases require interpretative decisions from the analyst, and so more comparative research is needed to interpret such difficult contexts.

In the last three chapters, we are offered new perspectives on ancient perceptions of (im)politeness.

Unceta Gómez convincingly argues that it is crucial in discussing Roman comedies to unpack the different hierarchical levels of the ancient perception of (im)politeness: (i) societal norms (which he illustrates with the perception and treatment of slaves), (ii) communities of practice (e.g. evidenced in the politic behavior of banqueting or the overly polite behavior of courtesans), and (iii) localized norms (illustrated by rules of politic behavior in greetings).

In the last two chapters, on ancient scholarship as a metalinguistic source[2] of ancient impoliteness, we learn from Federica Iurescia about the perceived connection of certain impolite structures with lower class in the Colloquium Harleianum and from Anna Zago about the way in which polite indirectness was conceptualized as the rhetorical strategies of charientismos and astismos. Yet, as evidenced by the Iurescia’s study of the structures in the Colloquium Harleianum in contrast to a large diachronic set of conversational texts, the need to contextualize these perceptions is high: some metalinguistic comments concern infrequent uses and some comments come from problematic sources such as scholia which cannot be easily dated and contextualized through contrastive study.

To conclude, this impressive volume provides a wealth of information on the workings of ancient (im)politeness in the Greek and Latin language as well as on the methodologies to research it. It covers both literary and non-literary sources, goes beyond the usual textual suspects and provides ample contextualization. What is missing is a discussion of the main theoretical and descriptive obstacles for future research. The most obvious is the diversity of theoretical approaches and assumptions in this volume. For example, there is a clear tension between chapters (e.g. by Barrios-Lech or Lloyd) which still rely heavily on the assumptions of Brown and Levinson about the (im)politeness of speech acts and face, and those promoting a discursively constructed (im)politeness in contrast to politic behavior (e.g. Berger or Unceta Gómez). Similarly, whilst some papers seek to assign (im)politeness value(s) to certain structures or acts, others, rightly in my view, argue against such a theoretical enterprise. Therefore, we need not only some degree of theoretical consensus for ancient (im)politeness research, but also more contrastive studies of different texts to build our own understanding of what counted as ancient politic behavior and what was perceived as (im)polite.


Authors and Titles

Luis Unceta Gómez and Łukasz Berger, Im/Politeness Research in Ancient Greek and Latin: Concepts, Methods, Data

Peter Barrios-Lech, Towards a Comparison of Greek and Roman Politeness Systems

Camille Denizot, How to Be Polite without Saying ‘Please’ in Classical Greek? The Role of δή in Polite Requests

Francesca Mencacci, Text as Interaction: Vt Mihi (Quidem) Videtur as a Hedging Device in Latin Literary Texts

Rolando Ferri, Politeness Formulae in Roman Non-Literary Sources: The Case of Juridical Texts

Michael Lloyd, Friendship Terms in Plato

Giada Sorrentino, Conversational Openings and Politeness in Menander: An Integrated Pragmatic Approach to Menandrean Dialogue

Łukasz Berger, Im/Politeness of Interruptions in Roman Comedy

Evert van Emde Boas, Im/Politeness and Conversation Analysis in Greek Tragedy: The Case of Theseus and the Herald in Euripides’ Supplices

Lidewij van Gils and Rodie Risselada, Qui Honoris Causa Nominatur: Form and Function of Third-Party Politeness in Cicero

Jon Hall, Banter, Teasing and Politeness in Varro’s De Re Rustica

Luis Unceta Gómez, Being Polite the Roman Way: Comments about Im/Politeness in the Comedies of Plautus and Terence

Federica Iurescia, Impoliteness outside Literature: The Colloquium Harleianum

Anna Zago, Politeness in Ancient Scholarship



la Roi, E. 2022. The Atticist lexica as Metalinguistic Resource for Morphosyntactic change in Post-Classical Greek. Journal of Greek Linguistics 22(2),  199–231.

Zakowski, S. 2018. The evolution of the Ancient Greek deverbal pragmatic markers áge, íthi and phére. Journal of Historical Pragmatics 19 (1), 55–91.



[1] A surprising absence from the citations is Zakowski 2018, who also analyzed the distributions of imperative particles in speech acts in Aristophanes and Plato and argued for a connection to impoliteness.

[2] See la Roi 2022 for metalinguistic sources such as grammarians and lexica in researching historical sociolinguistic questions of language variation and change.