Friday, October 1, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Robert J. Penella (ed.), Rhetorical Exercises from Late Antiquity. A Translation of Choricius of Gaza's Preliminary Talks and Declamations. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 323. ISBN 9780521848732. $99.00.
Reviewed by Heather Waddell Gruber, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota

Table of Contents

Robert Penella's edition provides the first English translation of Choricius, who held the chair of rhetoric in Gaza in the sixth century CE. His extant corpus includes eight orations, twelve declamations, and twenty-five preliminary talks (dialexeis), as well as numerous maxims and fragments. This book contains translations of the declamations and preliminary talks. Penella has solicited translations of the declamations from the foremost scholars in the field of Greek rhetoric to add to his own translation of the talks: Donald Russell, Simon Swain, Malcolm Heath, George Kennedy, William Reader, and Terry Papillon; Eugenio Amato contributed the epilogue. This book is a welcome addition to the recent spate of new critical editions and translations of Greek rhetorical theorists.1 It will be useful primarily to scholars of Late Antiquity and Greek rhetorical education, but also to those interested in women's studies and in the intersection between Christians and pagans in the Eastern Roman Empire.

The book begins with an excellent introduction in which Penella discusses the school of Gaza, including the influence of Christianity on it (Choricius and his teacher Procopius were both Christians), and the role of the sophist as a city's mouthpiece. A subsection on declamation provides a concise, well-written discussion of ancient education and declamation's place within it. Penella also defends the genre against ancient criticisms that its themes were overly fantastical and bizarre, and discusses the way in which declamation reinforced traditional values. In the subsection "Choricius' Declamations," Penella summarizes the twelve existing declamations, helpfully including the staseis (issues) for Decls. 4, 7, and 9. In his subsection, "The Preliminary Talks (Dialexeis)," he provides a useful list matching the preliminary talks with the works they precede.

Part I is Penella's translations of Choricius' Preliminary Talks (Dialexeis). He has understandably (but perhaps unfortunately) followed the critical edition's lead by grouping them together apart from the speeches they preceded.2 All but four of the dialexeis translated in this edition accompanied the declamations translated in Part II, and it is worthwhile to read them together. For example, Dialexis 6 opens with praise for Peleus, Achilles' father, who enjoyed his old age in retirement from work. This speech would have been delivered after Decl. 1, an argument in favor of Achilles' marriage to Polyxena, and directly before Decl. 2, Priam's objection to it. Elsewhere, Dialexeis 12 and 13 discuss the declamations they originally accompanied, namely Decls. 5 and 6, the two sides of an argument between a son and his father. Choricius touts his ability to take on the personas of both a young man in love and a miserly old man, and defends the latter's long-windedness. Not all of the preliminary talks refer to their accompanying speeches, but when they do, the effect is charming; even when they do not, reading the speeches together provides important context for both.

Part II is the translation of the declamations, each of which is introduced by Choricius' theme and explanatory comment. These include three historical, three mythological, and six generic (or "imaginary") themes. Helpful footnotes point to literary references and explain the many mythological and historical allusions. Though they have been prepared by multiple authors, the translations are consistent with each other and flow easily from chapter to chapter.

Declamations 1 and 2 are a companion set on the subject of Achilles' love for Polyxena and desire to marry her. Decl. I is the Trojan hero Polydamas' argument in support of the marriage. He claims that Achilles would fight for the Trojans and be a far more effective defender than the Amazons, who as women are necessarily poor warriors. Decl. 2 is Priam's counter-argument. The old Trojan king does not approve of parents who marry their daughters to strangers, much less to enemies. Furthermore, Achilles is already married with a son, Neoptolemus, and his conduct with regards to Briseis has done nothing to ingratiate him to a future father-in-law.

Declamation 3 is a speech delivered by the Lydians who have been enslaved to the Persian king Cyrus. When Cyrus had defeated the Lydian king Croesus, he ordered the Lydian soldiers to be stripped of their weapons, given women's clothing, and devote their time to music. Later, after having so emasculated them, Cyrus needed them to help him fight the Massagetae, and so offered to return to them their arms. The Lydians turn down Cyrus' offer, in a ruse to disguise their great eagerness to return to battle.

Declamation 4 is the Athenian general Miltiades' defense against charges made by a fellow general. After the battle of Marathon, Miltiades laid siege to Paros because the island had sided with the Persians. Miltiades was defeated and the Athenians blamed him personally, claiming that he had attacked Paros for a personal grudge. Miltiades claims the defeat was due to an injury he received in the course of battle.

Declamations 5 and 6 are the arguments of a son and his father in a dispute over the young man's marriage prospects (referred to in Dialexeis 12 and 13 above). A wealthy miser wished his son to marry a rich but ugly girl. The son, however, wished to marry a poor but beautiful girl whom he had seen at a festival. The father refused, and soon afterwards the son went to fight in the war. He returned victorious as a war-hero, was legally granted any reward he wished, and asked to marry his beautiful beloved. Decl. 5 is the young war-hero's argument that he has been a dutiful son in every other way, and that fathers have no legal right to impose their will on a son's legal request. Further, the ugly wife will be more likely to be an extravagant spender (due to her accustomed wealth) and intolerable in temperament (due to the insult of her husband's preference for a prettier woman). In Decl. 6, the miserly father counters that a beautiful wife is likely to be lazy, while an ugly wife is likely to try to please her husband with her housekeeping skills and good character. He had wished to reap some benefit from his son's reward, and is unhappy because the addition of a poor girl to the family would incur further expense for himself.

The fictional law granting a prize to a hero is a common motif, variants of which are found in Decls. 5, 6, 7, 11 and 12. In Decl. 7, the speaker demands the prize awarded to tyrannicides. He had gone to the palace in order to kill the city's tyrant, but only managed to kill the man's son; the tyrant then committed suicide from grief. Therefore, the speaker claims, he is responsible for his death.

In Decl. 8, a disgruntled Spartan citizen argues that it is sacrilegious to compare the beauty of a goddess to a mortal woman, and even worse when that mortal is a courtesan. The Spartans, who were famous for the beauty of their women, had been suffering a plague that afflicted their infant daughters: the girls were all ugly. To appease an angry Aphrodite, they commissioned the famous sculptor Praxiteles to create a statue of the goddess. What he gave them was a statue in the likeness of his mistress, the infamous courtesan Phryne, with Aphrodite's name inscribed on it.

Decl. 9 is the defense made by a father who has killed his daughter in order to save his city from war. A tyrant from the neighboring city fell in love with the girl and threatened to attack the city if she was not given to him. The city chose war, but when defeat seemed imminent, the father killed her in view of the tyrant, who then withdrew. The girl had a secret admirer who then killed himself from grief. Her father is prosecuted for this boy's death.

Decl. 10 is based on a speech at Iliad XIV.21-45, when Patroclus begs Achilles to allow him to return to battle. Penella does a nice of job of comparing Homer's 25 lines to Choricius' expanded version.3 The declamatory Patroclus goes further than the Homeric one, arguing that Achilles himself should return to battle.

A law invoked in Decl. 11 states that war-heroes are to be commemorated with a painting, showing them in the clothes they wore at the victory. The speaker is a triumphant general who had defeated the enemy by disguising himself as a woman while making a night raid. Not wishing to be seen wearing a dress, he argues that laws should not require a man to accept a prize against his will.

In Decl. 12 an orator argues, in the face of an objection, that he should win the prize given to war heroes. He had brought an end to the war not by fighting valiantly, but by walking into the enemy camp unarmed and persuading them to leave. As a reward he would like the citizens to send their sons to be educated in his school.

The book concludes with Eugenio Amato's epilogue about the reception of Choricius. Amato traces our earliest sources to the gnomologies of the tenth and eleventh centuries via the ninth century patriarch Photius. It is from him and his "reading circle," Amato suggests, that our best manuscript (Matritensis 4641) derives. Our oldest textual source is a tenth century gnomology, the Florilegium Marcianum. In addition to the 92 maxims identified as Chorician by its 1986 editor, Amato has found 20 more. Choricius' continued popularity is attested by the afterlife of his maxims, which can be found in gnomologies stretching continuously from the tenth to sixteenth centuries. Despite a few difficulties in identifying authorship (some of his speeches were transmitted under other names, and later writers plagiarized him), the works of Choricius never ceased to circulate. He was particularly valuable to the Byzantine schools, without which his corpus might not have survived.

This edition is well written and well edited; the very few infelicities are minor (e.g. I noted a single misspelling). Penella expresses the wish at the end of his introduction that this translation will make Choricius and the School of Gaza better known. I believe he has admirably accomplished this goal.


1.   Recent English translations include: Craig Gibson, Libanius's Progymnasmata (Atlanta, 2008); Raffaella Cribiore, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch (Princeton, 2007); Robert J. Penella, Man and the Word: The Orations of Himerius (Berkeley, 2007); Malcolm Heath, Menander: A Rhetor in Context (Oxford, 2004); George Kennedy, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (Leiden, 2003); Mervin R. Dilts and George A. Kennedy, Two Greek Rhetorical Treatises from the Roman Empire (Leiden, 1997); Donald Russell, Libanius: Imaginary Speeches (London, 1996); William Reader, The Severed Hand and the Upright Corpse: The Declamations of Marcus Antonius Polemo (Atlanta, 1996); Malcolm Heath, Hermogenes, On Issues: Strategies of Argument in Later Greek Rhetoric (Oxford, 1995). Michel Patillon has published several new critical editions for Les Belles Lettres, complete with French translations, including the texts of Aphthonius, Ps-Hermogenes, Hermogenes, Aelius Theon, Ps-Aelius Aristides, Anonymous Seguerianus, Apsines, Longinus, and Rufus.
2.   R. Foerster and E. Richtsteig, Choricii Gazaei Opera (Leipzig, 1929).
3.   Introduction, pp. 23-4.


  1. "Recent English translations incude...": i volumi di R. Cribriore e di M. Heath sono saggi critico-letterari e non traduzioni!

  2. "i volumi di R. Cribriore e di M. Heath sono saggi critico-letterari e non traduzioni!" True, but Cribiore includes a translation of 200 letters of Libanius in an Appendix and Heath 2004, ch. 4 contains translations of Menander's testimonia and fragments. So it's worth mentioning them...


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