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  • A Companion to Roman Rhetoric
  • Aislinn Melchior
William Dominik and Jon Hall (eds.). A Companion to Roman Rhetoric. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007. Pp. xix, 523. $149.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-2091-3.

This Blackwell Companion successfully communicates the efflorescence of Roman rhetorical practices and the centrality of rhetoric in Roman thought. There are recurring points: the influence of Greek on Latin rhetoric and Rome's attendant struggle to create her own identity, as well as the contestation of both an evolutionary model (derived primarily from Cicero's writings) and [End Page 356] a model of decline (drawn principally from Tacitus' Dialogus). Because the approach of the editors is inclusive, dissenting voices do appear, imbuing the volume with an intellectual vibrancy that is rare in this genre.

Following a survey of modern critical approaches, Part One attempts to excavate native Roman rhetoric, even seeking traces in Roman comedy. Despite the attempt here to reach back in time, the temporal range of the collection remains mostly within the first centuries, framed by Cicero on one side, Quintilian, Seneca, and Tacitus on the other. Likewise, although there is a chapter on the Second Sophistic and another on the afterlife of Roman rhetoric, forays into later periods are rare. Part One is rounded out by Sciarrino's discussion of Cato Maior and Gaius Gracchus in which she quotes a fascinating fragment from De Sumpto Suo that appears to show Cato in the act of composition. Stroup treats the way that Latin both influenced and appropriated its Greek models. The overarching themes that emerge are the tensions inherent in imperial expansion and the richness of the cultural ferment in second-century Rome.

Part Two discusses the cultural role and contexts of oratorical performance and opens with a chapter on declamation. Such education was the purview of the elite and Corbeill argues that the Controversiae were ultimately conservative, reinforcing traditional values. Republican practice, centered upon political and historical themes, contrasts with that of the empire where the focus was instead upon the social hierarchy. Ramsey demonstrates the fungible nature of the written artifact by listing the letters where Cicero contemplated making changes to his speeches. In an elegant chapter, Rees contextualizes panegyric as a mistrusted Greek form during the republic and traces its rise to become a stamp of Romanitas in the late antique period. Other offerings explore the anxieties underlying rhetoric's obsessive discourse on gender or tackle political realities (e.g., contiones, patron-client relationships, and senatorial procedure).

The third section maps how rhetoric was approached as "a systematic body of knowledge" (6) and contains chapters on humor, elocutio, and delivery. Gaines, covering the handbook tradition, provides a tidy summary of the differences between De Inventione and Rhetorica ad Herennium. Small points out, in her chapter on mnemotechnics, that rather than disappearing with the advent of writing, the ability to keep records led to a proliferation of memory technologies. Once words could be fixed, the desire for exact reproduction increased, much as modern concertgoers expect a pop star to perform a hit song note for note.

Part Four moves away from the exploration of technical systems to look at language practitioners such as grammarians. Here the idealized orator appears as imagined by men who were orators themselves. Cicero's desire to crown himself the ideal contrasts with the wistful backward glances of imperial authors. These writings display a certain optimistic insistence upon the marriage of goodness and persuasion.

The closing section demonstrates some of the insights offered by viewing literature through the lens of rhetoric. While not all of the readings were entirely successful, these chapters serve as a thematic bookend to the collection. They revisit again the polarized view of persuasion, well attested in many of the Latin sources, as a medium of Roman power and yet still somehow unsettling, still a bit Greek. Damon, in her chapter on historiography, tests the limits of inventio in history and offers a useful corrective to pessimistic views of the genre's evidential value. The danger is minimization; that recognizing rhetoric becomes a charge of merely rhetoric, and so undermines the foundation of truth upon which historical...


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