Sunday, October 19, 2014


Jon Hall, Cicero's Use of Judicial Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 190. ISBN 9780472052202. $30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jill Harries, University of St Andrews (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

A famous advocate stands up to address the judges, who face him. On either side are the benches of the contending parties. He will deploy the numerous forms of argumentation laid out conveniently for him in the rhetorical handbooks. And then, in general but not always, before or during the peroration, he can introduce an element of performance – for which the handbooks provide no guidance. He is on his own.

Jon Hall's attempt to isolate and analyse the performative elements of judicial theater is not without its dangers. As he concedes (p. 155), "if we judge matters purely in quantitative terms, the part played by judicial theater was unquestionably rather small". Many advocates steered clear of Cicero-type histrionics altogether; others were let down by the failure of the props or other human actors to perform as expected. Cicero himself believed that a defense "should be supported by reasoned argument" (p. 156).

Nonetheless, Hall makes a persuasive case for the relevance of his topic for the understanding, not only of forensic rhetoric but also for the wider culture in which displays of emotion were set. Other orators too used similar devices, both before and after Cicero's time; the importance of the 'theatrical' element was acknowledged by Quintilian and, in their reimagining of the high points of Republican history, by Plutarch and Appian.

Hall begins with the second century BCE background, introducing themes that will recur in subsequent chapters. One is the use of "props" in forensic oratory, and Hall uses his few examples to telling effect. M. Servilius uses his body as a prop, when he uncovers his honorable wounds (pp. 5-6), a device later imitated by M. Antonius in his defense of M' Aquillius (pp. 18-20): Cato the Elder shakes a fresh fig out of his toga, to dramatize that Carthage is a mere three days away (p. 6); Servius Sulpicius Galba wins his (dubious) acquittal in 149 BCE by an emotional appeal "based on several children, whom he displayed in front of the audience" (pp. 8-10). As Hall concedes, these examples are perhaps statistically insignificant but they set the tone.

A second aspect was the close relationship of judicial to political theater, as illustrated by the fraught passage of Tiberius Gracchus' land law (pp.14-18), although the extent to which Plutarch, or his source, may have embellished his account is unclear. Both the use of props and other kinds of performance carried risks. They must conform to prevailing aristocratic etiquette (which is why many advocates steered clear of such devices in the first place) and the performances must pass off without a hitch, a theme picked up later with the tale of the unfortunate advocate Caepasius, who repeatedly urged the jurors to "look back" at the defendant, only to find, when he did so himself, that his client had sneaked out unnoticed (Pro Cluentio 59, pp. 131-2). Hall consistently emphasizes that the gestures employed in judicial theatrical performance cannot be analyzed separately from the words, which must both explain and accentuate the drama of the actions.

The main part of the book is devoted to analysis of three aspects of the topic: the wearing of mourning or dirty clothes (sordes) to evoke pity (pp. 40-63); the use of supplication (pp. 64-98); and weeping in court (on the part of the advocate, the defendant and even the jurors, pp. 99-128). Each is set in its wider context. The wearing of dark, torn or dirty clothes signified bereavement or distress from other causes but also came to be a form of protest (pp. 41-4); supplication was, like sordes, an "ambiguous" practice because of the indignities involved and thus the damage to aristocratic prestige (pp. 67-73), although Hall doubts that suppliants were in the habit of prostrating themselves and kissing feet, an operation which in, say, the Senate would have been excessively time-consuming. As for crying in public, the culture of weeping, as in many societies, was related to cultures of masculinity. Cicero himself was widely criticized for his excessive, and therefor unmanly, displays of emotion, especially concerning his exile and, later, the death of his daughter Tullia. But Hall also develops the hypothesis that tears were acceptable "when they conveyed a sense of social solidarity with family and friends" (pp. 105-6), and that this trumped the requirement on good Romans that they show masculine (and rational) restraint.

Hall's discussions of judicial theatrical techniques in detail highlight the ambiguities of the devices used. To be dressed in dark or dirty clothes was intended to inspire pity; to indicate real poverty; to serve as a protest against a forthcoming trial; or to be an indicator of character designed to evoke, not pity, but admiration. Such attire could also be ridiculed by a hostile advocate as a sign of the (deserved) humiliation of the wearer. In all these cases, the context and the verbal interpretations of the gesture supplied by the advocate will dictate the public reaction. Supplication was, for the aristocratic client, more awkward and Hall identifies a number of clients who clearly baulked at performing any kind of supplicatory act – so Cicero was obliged to do it for them. But when it came to tears in court, Cicero, so notably – or notoriously – prone to tears himself, found himself on the receiving end of imputations of excess and insincerity by opposing counsel. Laterensis, the prosecutor of Cn. Plancius in 54, was especially effective, pointing out that Cicero had tried tearful pleas in a previous case, that of one Cispius, to no avail, and he had no special relationship with Plancius either. Clearly the prosecuting counsel was trying to head off an anticipated attempt on Cicero's part to win by crying in public; Cicero countered by raising the emotional temperature still further, evoking in his peroration, the spectacle of floods of tears from Plancius, his father and Cicero himself (pp. 109-116).

In the book as a whole, Hall provides an elegant and well-documented account of a significant, if restricted, aspect of the practice of Roman forensic oratory in Cicero's day, combining analysis of language with some comparative sociology, sensible speculation and touches of humor. Crucially, he avoids overstating the importance of his topic; the evidence is limited and, for the second century BCE especially hard to handle, but Hall, in general, and subject to the general caveats about anecdotal evidence, uses his material to judicious effect. He also avoids falling into the trap, set by Cicero's dominance of the evidence, of seeing the world of late Roman forensic oratory entirely in Cicero's terms. Indeed, there is some suggestion that Cicero, in resorting as often as he did to emotive appeals, may have been out of line with the more restrained mores of contemporary forensic practice. Alternatively, given the real possibility that theatrical devices might misfire, Cicero's competitors may have preferred to leave the risks, and occasional rewards, to him.

Could Hall have pushed his study further? Audience reaction and interaction is part of the dramatic experience: should there have been some mention of altercatio and heckling? Cicero's use of gesture in general has been studied elsewhere, but a little more space (pp. 152-3) might have been allocated to the failure in the 60s of Cicero's opponent Q. Calidius to win a watertight case, despite the overwhelming strength of the evidence, because his austere, gesture-less manner of delivery conceded the benefit of the histrionic special effects to his opponent (Brut. 277),

And could the "props" be made to work harder, especially in the two cases when gender becomes significant? Hall devotes some attention to Cicero's defense of Cluentius in 66 BCE and the role of the pleas to the jury perhaps made by the defendant's mother, Sassia, as a "prop" for the prosecution (p. 99). Whether or not Sassia had appealed in person to the jurors, Cicero was clearly worried by a situation where his client, the unpromising Cluentius, was under attack by his own mother. The speech is exceptionally long and unusually inventive, even by his standards, in its slurs cast on the dead. If Sassia remained a looming presence on the benches behind the prosecuting advocate, the jurors would have needed (and got) constant reminders from Cicero as to why her otherwise damning testimony should be disregarded. The speech is an extended exercise in defamation, mostly of Sassia's now deceased husband, the elder Oppianicus, but also of Sassia herself, depicted as murderous, duplicitous and sex-mad. As with Clodia, at the prosecution of Caelius ten years later, the presence of a woman as a kind of anti-prop for the other side, was itself dramatic – and Cicero made the most of it.

Table of Contents

Notes on Texts and Translations
Chapter 1: Judicial Theater in Ancient Rome: Some basic Considerations.
Chapter 2: A Sordid Business: the Use of "Mourning Clothes" in the Courts.
Chapter 3: Too Proud to Beg: Appeals and Supplications in the Courts.
Chapter 4: Shedding Tears in Court: When Crying is Good.
Chapter 5: Judicial Theatrics beyond Cicero.
Index Locorum
Index Nominum
General Index.

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