Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some Thoughts On Catherine Steel's "Roman Oratory".

Like I mentioned below, I studied under Prof. Steel during my masters and I always found her to be immensely knowledgeable and a great convenor of seminars, and during my final year of University I picked up her "Roman Oratory" with some excitement (her course on oratory was one of the most stimulating I took during my entire degree).

I recently reread the text and felt like posting about it here.

First off, I think it's a fascinating book. It's made up of four chapters (The Orator in Roman Society, Channels of Communication, The Practising Orator and finally The Orator's Education) which are bookended by a short introduction and conclusion. It lacks a glossary which may have been helpful, but the bibliography is useful and the index too. All in all it comes in at a very readable 87 pages.

The introduction is fine and really just defines the focus of the work, and it's chapter one where things first get interesting. The Orator in Roman Society is not so much a discussion of the individual but rather how an individual orator would have opportunity to use that particular skill in public life. There is considerable focus on real examples of opportunities where oratory was employed (contional meetings being the focus) and the chapter functions mostly as a summary which raises questions over the opportunities and nature of oratory and also it's relation to written forms of the speech.

Channels of Communication, chapter two, is a bit meatier. Steel discusses the way in oratory was manifest, primarily in the speech itself and also in written form. It's an intensely complicated relationship, and she does well to explain it. The point is made that the written forms which we now have that testify to the actual spoken version are, by definition, somewhat secondary and as such some difficult questions are posed about our entire understanding of oratory. Oratory, for Steel, is a phenomenon dominated by actual speeches, when perhaps oratory on the page, so to speak, is as important. Either way, the complex relationship and modes of communication an orator can employ are highlighted with skill and understanding.

Chapter three, The Practising Orator, discusses the behaviour of a Roman orator, the career trajectory of orators (young men would prosecute to attain some status, but it was seen a vulgar pursuit for experienced men, for example), and also how the practising orator could use his skill within public life, both as a tool to support friends but also attack enemies. Overall it's an interesting chapter, but lacks the spark of chapter two (I would suppose that chapter two constitutes the area of Steel's strongest personal interest, but I can't be sure).

The final chapter, The Orator's Education, is perhaps the weakest in the book. It's not poorly constructed, but there is just nothing new here. I do however applaud her decision to put this chapter last rather than earlier, which she explains by saying:

"...in the wider context of an attempt to understand the nature of oratorical training in the Roman world it makes sense to move from the the practising orator back to the the embryonic form, since the expectations and norms imposed on the full fledged orator are the foundations which support the system of oratorical education",

It may seem like a rather obvious idea once thought about, but it took great consideration to begin with, I'm sure, and it makes much sense to me.

The conclusion sums up a little, explaining the cover illustration (which I always like books to do, if needed) and makes the statement that oratory is a mode by which we can understand the Romans and their relation to their state in a public and private way, and that at it's greatest it allows us to understand, to put it simply, Romans, Rome and the occasions in which men spoke there.

Overall, it's a text I like very much. It's perhaps lacking innovation in some chapters, but it's solid and chapter two is superb. Questions are raised and answered (or at worst discussed in some depth) and it function as a superb post-introductory but perhaps pre-expert text on the topic.

Several things interested me that I should also like to mention. Firstly, the discussion of how Cicero inverts the commonly held belief that looks are related to moral worth in his speech against Piso by saying that he's all the more deplorable because he does look healthy and Roman is immensely interesting. It demonstrates not only Cicero's oratorical skill, but it's a very neat trick.

Secondly, the related discussion of an orator's style being related to his character is fascinating, i.e. that a feeble orator had a feeble character. I suppose it's something which carries on until today, but like the looks/moral worth belief it was much more potent in Rome than today.

Finally, when reading about panegyric, it struck me whether there is any mileage in considering"On The Command of Pompey" by Cicero as a sort of proto-panegyric. It seems to me that several elements are comparable to later panegyric - firstly Cicero is working out a way in which to communicate with his social betters, in a manner which makes them look good but also, by extension, helps his own career. Secondly, "On The Command" chronicles the central importance of Pompey to the state and it's continued prosperity, as does panegyric for the Emperor.

To be the idea seems worth considering at the very least, and it certainly casts an interesting light on the development of oratory from the Republic into the Empire. Some research into the notion leads me to find (unsurprisingly!) that I'm not the first to consider it and this link to Mary Whitby's "The Propaganda of Power" has some interesting points on the idea: here.

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