Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Bé Breij, Quintilian: The Son Suspected of Incest with his Mother (Major Declamations, 18-19). Collana di Studi Umanistici, 7. Cassino: Edizioni Università di Cassino, 2015. Pp. 609. ISBN 9788883170577. €50.00 (pb).

Reviewed by George L. Greaney, Hofstra University (george.greaney@hofstra.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

First, a disclaimer. This reviewer is not an expert in Roman oratory, much less in the special genre of declamation. But I have read the work under review from the perspective of a classicist who has produced both a commentary on and a translation of one of the speeches of Aeschines 1 and has taught college-level composition for decades. I approached this volume with a desire to learn more about Roman declamation and that hope was amply rewarded by reading it.

A revision of Breij's 2007 dissertation at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, this book is a fine example of what I think of as a kind of philological "trifecta": translation, analytical commentary, and textual criticism. Each of these aspects of an ancient text is by itself the basis for valuable scholarship; the successful interweaving of all three is a great challenge and the hallmark of the best kind of work that classical philology alone can provide. It is through such work that our desire to make closer contact with ancient authors is fulfilled.

The controversiae, didactic models of forensic argumentation, form a distinct sub-genre of ancient literature. Unlike their real-world counterparts, such as the speeches of Cicero, these mock declamations document not historical situations, but rather, the pedagogy of ancient rhetorical schools.

They also fit squarely into the history of education as models and exercises used to teach what is now sometimes called "rhetoric and composition." Their function is, above all else, to train those who are learning to be professional advocates before judges or jurors, and they can still serve this purpose in contemporary education. The fact, moreover, that they address fictitious situations does not diminish their value as documents to be used in understanding Roman imperial society, just as the speeches of Lysias are indispensable in the reconstruction of the detailed circumstances of Athenian social history. Thus, a comprehensive study of any of these controversiae can serve more than one purpose: to analyze the educational technique they exemplify, and to infer the historical truth they reveal, as well as to provide and interpret an accurate text.

Breij's substantial introduction begins with notes on patria potestas and Roman fathers and sons (pp. 14-40) concluding that "Decl. mai. 18 and 19 take up a special position within the genre, both due to their choices of subject and to the way it is treated" (p. 59). It is followed by a note on the legal procedure of the actio malae tractationis and the two declamations as sources of information on this type of legal action (pp. 60-70); a short section on oratio figurata, "an accusation or a defense which serves as a cover for achieving a different or additional aim which is implied between the lines" (p. 71); a section focusing on the use of oratio figurata in these two speeches, outlining both figures of thought and sentence-level figures of speech (pp. 77-84); and an analysis of the silence of the defendant in his defense speech as a rhetorical device (pp. 84-88).This is followed by detailed structural outlines of the two speeches in terms of the traditional division into exordium, narration, argumentation, and peroration (pp. 88- 94)

There follow brief comments on previous studies of language and style in the Declamationes maiores and Breij's intention to "roughly adhere" to the categories employed by 19th and 20th century scholars who took a linguistic approach to the language of the speeches and made lists of deviations in lexis, syntax, and style "from what they considered classical Latin" (p. 94). Then various features of grammar and syntax found in these two texts, lexical features, and figures and tropes are briefly illustrated and explained (pp. 95-107). A note on intertextuality in the two declamations regarding major Latin authors, both prose writers and poets, is followed by a comment on what Breij calls "meta-declamation," defined by her as "explicit or oblique references to the genre of declamation and its conventions" (p. 109). There follow a few paragraphs on the date of composition and tradition of the text, identifying Håkanson's Teubner edition of 1982 as the basis for her edition, with alterations or adaptations listed in a long footnote (pp. 110-112). Breij describes her new translation as striving "to present clear and readable texts which yet do justice to the peculiar declamatory style" (p. 112).

A few examples may suffice to convey a sense of the quality of the commentary and translation.

I was struck at the outset of reading declamation 18 by a page-long textual note (p. 153-4) on 18.1.1 emending the MS reading ne minimum sibi vindicat to vel minimum sibi vindicat. Breij's conclusion seems to be decisive, after reviewing a list of conjectures of various editors and references to the OLD² followed by Breij's argument against reading ne on the basis both of style and logic, offering rhetorically similar passages in other declamationes maiores, and concluding with comments in Italian by Antonio Stramaglia, one of her original dissertation readers, as to the impossibility of Håkanson's conjecture of [sa]ne on grounds of Latinity. This kind of note is at the very heart of philology, for better or for worse, a discipline perhaps as obscure to those beyond the boundaries of Classical studies as it is indispensable to the existence of classical texts of genuine value to the "lay reader." This kind of relentlessly meticulous defense of a textual point does, perhaps, betray the origin of this volume as a dissertation, but the material is presented concisely and the note makes a contribution to scholarship by providing grounds for a definitive interpretation.

An even more extensive and detailed discussion of a textual point appears on pp. 253-255 as note 308 (18.9.5) Håkanson's emendation gives the phrase [s]acrae pietatis to address the problematic readings of the codices: agre, egre, agere, and aegre or aegrae. Breij lists and assesses what seem to be all scholarly conjectures to date on this phrase—perhaps all possible conjectures. She then defends her choice to print sacrae by listing Håkanson's numerous parallels from the major declamations, adding two more of her own. Once again it seems no stone has been left unturned or unexamined from all sides.

A rare instance of a false note in this accurate and readable translation is the rendering of suspicax by the English "paranoid" (18.2.2, p. 117), with its anachronistic connotation of contemporary pop-psychology. This is immediately followed by the rendering of patiens as "stoical." These translation choices make for lively reading by giving color to the often plain Latin diction of the original, so such choices can be defended on grounds other than those I would prefer. As academic translations go, readability is a precious quality always in tension with the philologist's desire to present the text as accurately as possible. Breij's translation is often ingenious in finding felicitous English equivalences without doing harm to the sense of the Latin. Yet, although no one can anticipate all possible connotations in the reader's mind, still one must try to avoid having the language call attention to itself. The same issue is raised again by a sentence at 18.12.5 on p. 137. The Latin is Coram omnibus torqueri debet, de quo locuntur omnes. The advocate is sarcastically daring the defendant to conduct his investigations by public torture, rather than in secret, as he has done. The Latin above is rendered as follows: "If someone is the talk of the town, he must be tortured in the presence of the town." The idiom "the talk of the town" is a brilliant stroke which gives colloquial color to omnes, but again, the English phrase stands out. Perhaps my Latin is deficient, but I can see no equivalent idiom in the Latin. Nevertheless, the rendering is deliciously apt.

One final example can stand for numerous instances of Breij's sensitive reading and skillful translation. At 19.2.4 (p. 377) the father recalls with nostalgia the situation in his house when his son was still a child:" …the good fortune of our house continued intact as long as we both delighted in our son, both cherished him in the same way, as long as people could only say about us that we had a good-looking son." The Latin text for the last clause is quamdiu civitas de nobis hoc solum poterat loqui, filium nos habere formosum. Breij points out the appearance of civitas, translated as "people," where we might expect civesand comments (p. 424, n. 66): "The consistent use of civitas instead of cives is both striking and effective. It presents the members of the community as a solid body of citizens, which has been and will be unanimous in its judgement of mother, father, and son. This use of the abstract is also found in the other Maiores: in fact, the word cives is used only 8 times (twice in vocative case), while civitas occurs in 92 instances."

This volume bears many of the hallmarks of the best kind of philological scholarship: a thorough review of previous scholarship on the texts at hand; a detailed, often subtle, but never excessive discussion of important textual points supported by ample citations and parallels from the texts themselves and other ancient texts; helpful comments on structural features and rhetorical devices found in the texts for the aid of the non-specialist reader; and a fluent translation into idiomatic, contemporary English. The translation is readable enough—despite the peculiar style of the Latin—to be included in a selection of model speeches from the imperial period. The numerous footnotes, of course, would have to be reduced drastically.

Breij's work is a credit to the series of which it is a part, and also exemplifies high quality in book production. The font is attractive and very readable, exhibiting the standards which prevailed in the past but are not always applied to scholarly publications of more recent years. The physical construction is of good quality although the book is bound in paper covers. Finally, the price is very reasonable.


1.   See BMCR 2006.06.41.

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