Sunday, July 24, 2016


Eugenio Amato, Francesco Citti, Bart Huelsenbeck (ed.), Law and Ethics in Greek and Roman Declamation. Law & literature, 10. Berlin; München; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. vi, 355. ISBN 9783110401783. €119.95.

Reviewed by Lauren Caldwell, Wesleyan University (

Version at BMCR home site


How can investigating the use of rhetoric in Greek and Roman declamation help us illuminate the relationship between law and ethics in antiquity? This volume draws on the surviving collections of declamatory speeches from the first century CE through the sixth century CE to answer that question.

The thirteen essays build on previous studies that have established the importance of declamation to literate education in the Greco-Roman world. Studies by Kaster and Gunderson, for example, have shown how the content and performance of declamatory exercises in the classroom instilled in adolescent students a sense of what it meant to be Roman, masculine, and, at least ideally, ethical.1

Once scholarly attention has been deservedly drawn to a long-neglected topic, as it has been to declamation, the question is where the line of inquiry leads next. In Law and Ethics, the editors have aimed to consider the genre of declamation not in its wider social context, but to consider the world of "Sophistopolis"2 on its own terms as literature, with a focus on its formal features and conventions. As they note in the introduction, the essays in the volume are "devoted to the interaction between rhetoric, law, and ethics, from a perspective that aims to restore autonomy to declamation" (p. 2). While the essays concentrate on generic features, they nevertheless do not treat declamations exclusively as texts without contexts. I have selected several essays to review here in order to provide the prospective reader with a sense of what the volume offers.

Emanuele Berti's "Law in Declamation: The status legales in Senecan controversiae" explores how status theory—the tool used by students of rhetoric to clarify and isolate the legal issues in a declamatory scenario —can illuminate the connection between Roman law and declamation. Berti places emphasis in this essay on the ways in which rhetorical training aimed to provide students with a general method of legal reasoning that they could first try on declamatory laws and then apply later in their careers in the law courts. Focusing on Controversiae 1.5 and 7.8, Berti takes the reader through the reasoned analysis of the legal problems furnished by the Roman declaimers Latro and Fuscus in Seneca's account, to demonstrate that the method of argumentation is juridically valid as well as rhetorically skillful. Berti's contribution is valuable for underscoring that the fictional nature of declamatory laws did not always undermine the declaimers' analytical approach.

Bart Huelsenbeck, "Shared Speech in the Collection of the Elder Seneca (Contr. 10.4): Towards a Study of Common Literary Passages as Community Interaction," uses 10.4 as a case study in the internally communicative nature of declamatory language. Huelsenbeck argues that the repetition of the same or slightly varied passages by several different speakers in Controversia 10.4 reveals a conversational dynamic in declamation—one in which "what is said by one participant is largely driven by what has been said, recently, by other participants" (p. 38). Huelsenbeck's approach offers a productive way of considering the importance of speech in declamation as a form of community interaction with participants listening to and responding to each other in a way that approves a communal ideal such as clementia and rejects a political structure such as tyranny that is considered at odds with that ideal. Here Huelsenbeck aims to take the study of declamation's formal features beyond those of genre and aesthetics, and contends that "declamatory performance can be seen, instead, as part of a nexus of interpenetrating mutually supporting community practices" (p. 57). On this view, declamation offers us a deeper understanding of the issues that the Roman speakers cared about—from tyranny to child abuse—if we consider how its pattern of linguistic repetition in the setting of performance was used to express that concern.

Graziana Brescia, "Ambiguous Silence: stuprum and pudicitia in Latin Declamation," offers another case study in situational ethics and declamation. Brescia argues that women in declamation are often prompted to speak to assert their sexual modesty, in a manner that runs counter to the behavioral norms and expectations found in other genres of Latin literature. So while in Latin epic feminine modesty might be demonstrated by a woman's silence—and we might think of Lavinia in the Aeneid as an example—the situation in Latin declamation is different. In declamatory cases involving charges of stuprum or sexual misconduct in which a woman is thought to be complicit, such as Seneca's Controversia 2.7, silence on her part is inadvisable and not even particularly virtuous, as it must be explained or justified and thus calls her innocence into question. The same holds true in Ps.-Quintilian's Minor Declamation 270, as Brescia shows, where a sister speaks up to help repair the reputation of her silent twin; better off is the virgo in Ps.-Quintilian's Minor Declamation 301, who shouted for help, calling for her father when assaulted, thereby showing her resistance. Ultimately, such confirmation of her chastity benefits her father—another running theme of declamation.

Lucia Pasetti, "Cases of Poisoning in Greek and Roman Declamation," collects Greek and Latin examples of scenarios of poisoning in declamation. Pasetti begins by investigating what is meant by "poisoning" or "poison" in Greek and Latin, opting for a definition that encompasses harmful substances, love potions, and normally harmless substances that prove fatal. In the second part of the essay, Pasetti takes a narratological approach to these cases, reading each as a short story or microtext on the theme of poisoning, since the stories of poisoning tend to have recurring folktale elements. The stepmother, the adulterous woman, and the doctor are characters who tend to poison others. Stock characters and stock situations are of course a familiar feature of both Latin and Greek declamation, and both traditions also share similar imagery with, for example, the drinking of poison being a way for the accused to show innocence. Pasetti also notes differences between the Latin and Greek treatments of the theme by showing, for instance, that Latin stories of poisoning are more "realistic" in their presentation (p. 108). Pasetti's appendix offers a list of poisoning cases in declamation.

Bé Breij, "The Law in the Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian," investigates the function of declamatory laws within the collection of nineteen speeches, asking to what extent the laws serve to structure a given declamation and influence its argument. Declamatory law has itself been the subject of much scholarly interest, as Breij outlines, and her essay is useful for its brief introduction to the topic. Breij makes the worthwhile point that, in declamation, law is used to evoke a conflict or controversy, rather than to resolve it. Thus, a declamatory law is announced at the outset of a declamation, e.g. "A girl who has been raped may choose either marriage to her assailant without a dowry or his death." .The law is followed by a fact pattern, to which the student declaimer must apply the law and argue his position. Breij distinguishes two categories of problem that are created by the laws in the declamations: the first is the problem of mitigating circumstances, which means the declaimer must show whether the law should or should not be applied to a given set of facts; the second is the problem of scope, wherein the declaimer must decide how narrowly or broadly a rule should be construed. For the second category, Breij profitably considers Major Declamations 8, 10, 18, and 19, concerning the declamatory law that provided recourse for the mistreatment of married women. Breij concludes that the flexibility of this law, and the opportunity for widening its scope, provided the declaimer with the ability to practice his skills in legal thinking. Breij's essay is of course also interesting in light of the structure of declamations, which do not end with a verdict. Thus, while the law may influence the development of the argument in a particular declamation, it does not provide the 'closure' of a resolution to the conflict that is presumably the legal process's primary aim.

Gianluigi Tomassi, "Tyrants and Tyrannicides: Between Literary Creation and Contemporary Reality in Greek Declamation," discusses the literary and declamatory motif of the tyrant and tyrannicide as it runs through Greek declamations. Of particular interest to Tomassi is the evolution of these figures in works from the early and later Roman Empire, including, for example, the way in which tyrants and tyrannicides are characterized in the work of Lucian in the second century, in the speeches of Libanius in the fourth century, and by Choricius of Gaza in the late fifth century. Tomassi demonstrates how these authors adapt the literary figures of the tyrant in distinct ways appropriate to the political context in which they are writing. So Lucian in The Tyrannicide, for example, innovates by making the tyrannicide a dramatic and colorful figure who stands for the public interest in removing the autocrat from power—although, as Tomassi notes, Lucian is also careful to humanize the tyrant, possibly importing features from the world of theater. Fourth-century authors follow Lucian's lead, but innovate by separating the figure of the emperor from that of the tyrant. The emperor (basileus) is cast in a positive light, while the usurper who threatens his legitimate power is featured as the tyrant (tyrannus).

From listing and classifying particular declamatory themes to considering declamation from sociolinguistic and narratological perspectives, the essays in Law and Ethics in Roman Declamation furnish useful data and offer promising avenues for future research. It should be noted that the volume does not aim to provide much by way of introduction to declamation; for the first-time reader of Roman declamation, most of the essays will not be easy to approach, although Breij's essay stands out for its accessibility. Overall, the reader comes away with the sense that the volume has accomplished its purpose of moving the study of declamation beyond investigations of its connection to the social world of Roman imperial education. Law and Ethics considers the fascinating features, including an engagement with situational ethics, that distinguish declamation from other genres of Greek and Roman literature.


1.   Kaster, Robert A., "Controlling Reason: Declamation in Rhetorical Education at Rome" in Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, ed. Yun Lee Too, Leiden; Boston, Mass.: Brill, 2001, 317-337; Gunderson, Erik, Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity. Authority and the Rhetorical Self, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.
2.   Russell, Donald A. Greek Declamation, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

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