Tuesday, July 23, 2019


Michele Kennerly, Editorial Bodies: Perfection and Rejection in Ancient Rhetoric and Poetics. Studies in rhetoric/communication. Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 242. ISBN 9781611179101. $34.99.

Reviewed by Kyle Conrau-Lewis, Yale University (kyle.conrau-lewis@yale.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Recent scholarship has strongly advocated for a material turn in ancient literary criticism, appreciating the writtenness of texts, their contexts of production and their writing surfaces, from wax tablets to papyrus scrolls.1 Kennerly's monograph, tracing the history of authorial revision and editing in Greek and Latin poetry and oratory, is a timely contribution to this burgeoning trend. It also, excitingly, sits at the intersection of a number of other fields: rhetorical theory, ancient literary criticism and the history of the book. Kennerly programmatically positions her book as a work on ancient textual culture rather than ancient literary culture, emphasizing the bookishness and materiality of ancient poetic and oratorical practices.

The scope of this book is ambitious, discussing editing in classical Athenian oratory, drama and philosophy up to Roman Republican oratory and Imperial poetry. Tackling specifically the topic of editing, Kennerly is primarily interested in authorial revision and how authors explicitly thematize their editorial processes in their own works in terms of corpus care, particularly bodily metaphors of filing, cleaning and depilation which result in "smooth" and "slender" style.2 Focusing on authorial editing, Kennerly sidesteps related topics of ancient textual criticism and Alexandrian philology, which have already been well studied.3 Necessarily, a book such as this overlaps significantly with Sean Gurd's Work In Progress: Revision as Social Performance in Ancient Rome,4 but whereas Gurd shows how editorial revision models social protocols, forms communities and inculcates cognitive disciplines, Kennerly traces a broader arc of revision and its discursive relationship with rhetorical style, the human body and its cosmetic care.

Chapter 1 discusses the role of editing in the Athenian polity. On the one hand, there were voices of critique: Plato's Menexenos describes Aspasia piecing together her funeral oration from the scraps of drafts she made for Pericles' own Funeral Oration, cunningly undermining the authorship of his famous oration; Aristophanes in the Knights mocks the Sausage-Seller who annoys his friends by constantly practising his speeches at night and thinking that this alone made him an orator; Alcidamas castigates the sophists who think that their scrupulously prepared speeches match the powers of an extemporaneous speaker responding to the moment (such criticisms were of course also levelled at Demosthenes, the meticulous orator burning the midnight oil). On the other hand, Isocrates in his Letter to Philip describes how he would share speeches in small groups first before publishing, while his Panathenaicus narrates how he workshopped his speech with students and incorporated their critiques; Anaximenes also encouraged this kind of collaborative revision. Such discourses of editing coincide with the nascent metaphor of text as body (a soma consisting of kola and podes) and requiring cosmetic attention.

Chapter 2 shifts to the Hellenistic period. Beginning with Demetrius of Phalerum, Kennerly traces the biographic sketches, primarily from Cicero, Diogenes Laertius and Photius, which emphasise his education, stylistic smoothness and polish. Cicero identifies Demetrius in particular as representative of a middle kind of oratory: subtle, sweet but not abstruse like other students of philosophers. Kennerly then covers familiar ground with Callimachus, his 'slender Muse' and his poetics of leptosyne, ponos and tornos. While early Republican orators such as Ennius and Cato would be distinguished from Hellenistic aesthetics for their rusticity and "shaggy" style, Kennerly notes how even Cato staged the editorial process in his De sumptu suo, ordering his slave to read the draft aloud, imagining a hostile audience uninterested in his defence, and interjecting to order his slave to scratch out sections on the wax tablet. Cato turns the instruments of writing into a rhetorical weapon. This section importantly challenges conventional histories of rhetoric because—while Cicero himself (see Brut. 69) and others following him would think of Cato as unpolished—editing is still part of Cato's textual self-presentation. Kennerly shows in fact that rather than being unpolished, these writers were more concerned about excessive editorial polish, especially in the literary coterie of Lucilius.

Chapter 3 largely surveys the rhetoric of style in Cicero's Brutus and De optimo genere oratorum. Kennerly broadly discusses the Asianist/Atticist divide and the aesthetics of smoothness and thinness, of filing and polishing an oratorical style. Cicero genders rhetoric, describing Caesar's prose as a nude woman5 and Hortensius' eloquence as a young maiden. I would add here as a relevant comparandum Book 2 of Cicero's De inventione which begins with a description of how he compiled his treatise from other rhetorical handbooks, just as Zeuxis used various female portraits to paint his own perfect Venus. Style, authorship and eroticism are imbricated.

Chapter 4 then focuses specifically on Horace and his poetics of the 'file' (lima). In the Sermones, Horace lampooned Lucilius for his over-production of verse, dictating two hundred lines an hour and refusing to file the poetry down. In contrast, Horace implies that his own poetic process is one of labor, curating his poetic corpus like his own physical body: in the Ars poetica (32-35) he compares his compositional practice to a craftsman shaping the hair and fingernails of a statue.6 I would however caution that Horace's editorial aesthetics are not straightforward and there needs to be some sensitivity to different Horatian personae. For example, Horace describes himself at one point 'playing around on his papyri' (inludo chartis, Serm. 1.4.139) – and chartae significantly would refer to fair-copies rather than editorial drafts (which would have been written on wax-tablets).7 Like Lucilius too, Horace is accused of over-production (Serm., 2.1.2-4). And when Horace does behave like a punctilious reviser, Damasippus presents this as un-Stoic madness rather than highly labored poetic composition (Serm. 2.3). There is a strain of "comic self-indictment" in the presentation of his editorial processes.8

Taking a different turn in Chapter 5, Kennerly argues that Ovid's Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, by constantly emphasising their lack of editorial revision, actually perform a rhetorically strategic manoeuvre. Exiled to Tomis and appealing to his friends, Ovid repeatedly insists that his letters are not edited, rhetorically positioning himself as a supplian. Refusing to engage in the topos of editing is the appropriate self-presentation for an exile. By presenting his poetry as coarse, rough and unpolished he textually reenacts his own lamentable exilic state and, yet, through the playful use of word for thinness (exilis and gracilis) ironically suggests a kind of editorial smoothness. In the final section of this chapter, Kennerly discusses how Ovid even undermines the editorial status of the Metamorphoses by claiming that this work did not receive the final touches (Trist. 2.1.549-552). Editing becomes a rhetorical strategy. Here Kennerly differs from Martelli, who considers Ovidian revision more as a means to articulate his shifting authorial identity and career (i.e., a past Ovid and a present Ovid in exile).9

Chapter 6 moves to Quintilian's Institutiones and the paradoxical status of editing in rhetorical training. First, Quintilian stages his own careful editing of his handbook, lamenting the 'bare bones' of the earlier handbooks of others which still require a body (1.pr.24) while stating that his own work is the product of a two-year labor spent mostly reading and editing rather than writing. Within his own handbook he also commends editorial labor, offering Plato as a model, repeatedly experimenting with the rhythms of the first lines of his Republic (8.6.64). Yet for Quintilian, the orator cannot appear too prepared in the forum; he must conceal his speech's editorial history when publicly speaking, appearing extemporaneous rather than labored and verging on insincere artifice.

The final chapter then compares how editing is figured in Tacitus' Dialogus and Pliny the Younger's Epistulae, situating their ethics of editing within a broader literary history of imperial power and a perceived rhetorical decline into epideictic oratory. In the Dialogus, for example, Secundus hopes that Maternus will revise his Cato, removing elements which have received a negative interpretation. From here Kennerly explores how the dialogue contests the role of oratory in public life. Turning from Tacitus, she then examines Pliny's comments on editing speeches, how an orator should cull material from public speeches when publishing them and avoid excessively large publications (Ep. 1.20.6-7), and Pliny himself would recite and edit speeches he had already delivered (Ep. 7.17.7), refining them down.

Overall, Kennerly's monograph provides a broad literary history of ancient rhetorical culture and the role of editorial revision. It also surveys how in various ways our modern vocabularies of style are the inheritance of ancient discourses of authorship, revision and body-care. Although this is not explicitly stated, the book addresses an audience broader than classicists. Quotations are never given in the original language and each chapter generally contains a broad history of the period and its political circumstances. Some discussions, for example of the different styles of oratory and debates about Asianism in Cicero's Brutus, are more useful for a general reader—but this does not detract from the specific intellectual goals of the chapter and its contribution to the history of rhetoric and textual culture. Of particular note is the author's own playful and suggestive rhetorical style ("Socrates notices sticking up beneath Phaedrus' garment the tell-tale sign of textual arousal: a stiff new copy of Lysias' speech," p.37), focalising and imitating the ancient associations of text, body and erotics that she studies.

Kennerly's conclusion is more of a provocative epilogue than a restatement of the contents of the book. Beginning with Pliny's letter about Cicero's putative amatory invective against Tiro (Ep. 7.4.6), Kennerly challenges readers to consider the role of friends, slaves and amanuenses in ancient textual culture. Slaves and freedmen were part of the drafting process.10 The study of classical literature has historically been prone to celebrate the individual geniuses of antiquity and obscure the community of editors behind it. Indeed, the implicit elitism in the word "classics" and its curriculum and canon of authors risks eliding the labor of nonfree people who were present at various stages of literary production, an omission that the discipline must confront. But as Kennerly shows, ancient authors did not conceal their editorial processes or the network of friends and enslaved persons involved.


1.   For example, S. Frampton, Empire of Letters: Writing in Roman Literature and Thought from Lucretius to Ovid. (OUP, 2019); J. Howley, Aulus Gellius and Roman Reading Culture. (CUP, 2018); S. Butler, The Matter of the Page: Essays in Search of Ancient and Medieval Authors (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011); W. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Period. (OUP, 2010).
2.   But a fuller account of bodily metaphors for rhetoric, not cited in the monograph, can be found in G. Assfahl, Vergleich und Metapher bei Quintilian. (W. Kohlhammer, 1932).
3.   J. Zetzel, Critics, Compilers, and Commentators: An Introduction to Roman Philology, 200 BCE-800 CE. (OUP, 2018).
4.   S. Gurd, Work In Progress: Revision as Social Performance in Ancient Rome (OUP, 2012).
5.   Useful bibliographical items here would be C. S. Kraus, 'Hair, Hegemony and Historiography: Caesar's Style and its Earliest Critics' in T. Reinhardt, M. Lapidge, J.N. Adams, (eds.) Aspects of the Language of Latin Prose. (OUP, 2005); and J. Connolly, The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome. (Princeton University Press, 2007), chapter 3.
6.   Though Gurd (cited above) construes Horace's description of his editorial practices pessimistically: editing is ugly, shameful and evokes the stigma of the censor's mark. On the politics of editing in the Ars poetica see also T.A. Geue, 'Editing the Opposition: Horace's Ars Politica' in Materiali e Discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici (2014), pp. 143-172.
7.   See E. Gowers, Horace, Satires, Book 1 (CUP, 2012), ad loc.
8.   See Gurd (cited above), pp. 94-95.
9.   F. Martelli, Ovid's Revisions: the Editor as Author. (CUP, 2013).
10.   See Howley (cited above) on Tiro, pp.174-190 and Gurd (cited above), p.53. Pliny the Younger also similarly relied on the various literary services of his slave Zosimus (Ep. 5.19).

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