Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 36.

E. Gunderson, Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 285, incl. two appendices and two indices. ISBN 0-521-82005-7. US$70.00, UK£45.00.

Owen Hodkinson
The Queen's College, Oxford

With this book Gunderson aims to make a case for reading Roman declamation and to suggest some ways of reading it. Much space is devoted to the accumulation of reasons for giving this neglected genre greater prominence in the study of the society which produced it, many of which seem obvious when pointed out, but which are unfortunately necessary because of past dismissals of declamation for its lack of serious content or connection to reality. Gunderson both attacks such dismissals head-on, providing evidence that declamation was much more read and respected than ancient and modern critics have suggested (p. 4) and circumvents them, suggesting that a different genre with different aims from serious oratory should be read on its own terms to uncover what it can show us about its creators. Declaimers were after all 'playing with the idea of Ciceronianism, not fumbling to produce their own Pro Milone' (p. 6). Nor does the playfulness of the genre exclude treatments of the serious or real issues. Declamation may be compared to myth, dreams, or jokes, as something that has some kind of meaning and reveals something about the psychic lives of Roman society (p. 22). With his particular readings, Gunderson aims to show how declamation can discuss the extreme and the abnormal in a fantastical setting, where other genres could not venture -- in arguing against the transgressive, declamation enacts rhetorically the normative positions of society (pp. 24f.). Many other defences of declamation are adduced, and anyone inclined to dismiss them would do well to read the introduction to this book first. A convincing case is made to the effect that 'If you would know the Romans, you must read their declamations' (p. 9). Gunderson also sketches the history of the genre, noting that it is not a fad of the imperial era but 'a durable player on the rhetorical scene' (p. 2), and provides some excellent sample translations in an appendix (pp. 240-64). The book thus serves as an introduction to and valuable study of the genre, but it is also a suggestive contribution to the history of Roman culture and society, particularly from the late Republic to the early Empire, that should lead to more attention being paid to declamation by scholars in this field.

As to Gunderson's sample readings of declamation, bringing out the themes of paternity and Roman identity, they are thought-provoking and frequently very persuasively argued with a firm grounding in the analysis of the chosen Latin texts. Many theoretical approaches are drawn upon, particularly Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Derrida, Butler, Bourdieu, and Foucault. Sometimes Gunderson seems to expect his readers to be very familiar with the wide range of theories he employs, or at least to be willing to go and read up on them, since his explanatory references to this material often cite whole books or multiple articles. Inevitably with all these different approaches every reader will find some readings less persuasive than others but the approaches adopted often seem very naturally suited to the material, such as the use of psychoanalysis to read repressed ideas in a genre founded upon unreal or fantastic situations (for example, incest in Chapter 6, 'Paterni nominis religio', pp. 191-226). Psychoanalysis is in fact the most commonly employed theoretical framework, and readers unsympathetic to it may find themselves disagreeing more as the book progresses but Gunderson returns to the text of the declamations frequently throughout, and his eye for detail ensures that his readings are full of observations and suggestions that no serious student of declamation can afford to neglect.

One issue which might have been addressed in more detail, at least where evidence is available, is the unity or otherwise of the genre of declamation from its (Greek) origins to the later Empire, and between its Latin and Greek instantiations. This is not a transgression of the critic's commandment not to attack the book under review for not being about something other than it sets out to be. I recognise that Gunderson's aim is to shed light on Roman society of a particular period through the evidence of declamation, and that this is undoubtedly a worthwhile project. However, since he opens by arguing that 'the association of declamation with Rome is really merely an accident of the preservation of our sources' (p. 2), one might expect at least some consideration of the 'Romanness' of the notions of paternity, masculinity, authority, and transgressiveness in the spheres that he examines, namely the extent to which the themes he identifies as particular to declamation can be associated with Greek as well as Roman declamation, and the possibility that the concepts he treats as peculiarly 'Roman' were in fact peculiarly 'declamatory'. For example, in discussing the importance of bodily mutilation and particularly loss of the hands as a theme of declamation which bears on Roman ideas of paternal authority (Chapter 2, 'Fathers and Sons; Bodies and Pieces', pp. 59-89), I missed comparison with the extant Greek declamations of Polemo dealing with precisely this theme.[[1]]

That said, Gunderson has done Latin declamation and Roman cultural historians a great service with this book, and he is right to insist on the importance of the former for the latter. He concludes: 'We need to understand the logic according to which ideas are articulated within declamation' (p. 236) -- this being the unspoken 'logic' of Roman social relations and of the Roman psyche.[[2]]


[[1]] Text, translation and commentary in W. Reader, The Severed Hand and the Upright Corpse (Atlanta 1996). Cf. M. Gleason, Making Men: sophists and self-presentation in ancient Rome (Princeton 1995) on Polemo and other declaimers and their constructions of masculinity -- a curious omission from Gunderson's bibliography, although it is concerned only with Greek declaimers.

[[2]] To Gunderson's bibliography should now be added D. Van Mal-Maeder, 'Senèque le tragique et les grandes déclamations du pseudo-Quintilien', in M. Zimmerman and R. van der Paardt (edd.) Metamorphic Reflections (Leuven 2004) 189-200.