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Shared Rhetorical Background

Whereas the main differences between the three modes of deconstruction were highlighted in the concluding chapter, this Appendix draws attention to their most crucial common ground. All the literary strategies that are applied to deconstruct imperial representation are based on rhetorical strategies. We have seen this implicitly throughout the study; this Appendix will make the rhetorical strategies explicit. It complements the conclusion offered in the last chapter by looking at the results of this study from a strictly rhetorical perspective and by asking which general rhetorical strategies underlie the techniques of deconstruction analysed in this book (in particular in chapters 4, 7, and 10).

Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, who all received rhetorical training and were familiar with the theory and practice of rhetoric, adapt rhetorical measures in various ways, but the underlying principles—the rhetorical operations—are the same. My analysis of historiographical strategies deployed against Nero and Domitian as rhetorical strategies builds on the branch of scholarship that has shown that Roman historiography cannot be separated from rhetoric.1 The study of connections between historiography and rhetoric most often takes the form of analysing speeches in historiographical works. My approach is broader: I read historiography and biography as persuasive genres that aim to make their accounts plausible. Their presentation is also directed against other versions of the same topics and personalities, especially in the form we find them in panegyrical discourse. To achieve plausibility for its own version of Nero and Domitian, historiography draws on genuinely rhetorical devices. The most important of these are strategies of character depiction, strategies of biased narratio, and strategies of invective.2

Character Depiction: Topoi a Persona, Semantic Non-Ambiguity, Probabile e Vita

For persuasive character depiction, which is a crucial strategy of historiographical deconstruction, rhetoric provides lists of character qualities. They may be used by orators and historians to find both positive and negative attributes of a person. These so-called topoi a persona are highly important for character depiction in the status coniecturalis, i.e. when a speaker has to argue whether a certain person committed a crime or not, and in the genus demonstrativum, i.e. when a speaker has to praise or to vituperate against a person. A general division of such personal traits is that between animus, corpus, and extra posita/extraneae res/externa.3 In the De inventione, for example, Cicero gives the following list of personal attributes, which he elaborates later (Cic. Inv. rhet. 1.34–36): ac personis has res attributas putamus: nomen, naturam, victum, fortunam, habitum, affectionem, studia, consilia, facta, casus, orationes (Cic. Inv. rhet. 1.34).4 Attributes of persons according to Cicero are thus someone’s name, nature, manner of life, fortune, habit, feeling, interests, purposes, achievements, accidents, and utterances. Additionally, Quintilian mentions elements of praise that are based on the time before the person was born such as patria, parentes, maiores, as well as omina, prophecies, and oracles (Quint. Inst. 3.7.10–11). We have seen that historiography makes use of such topoi to discredit an emperor and to assign negative features to him. To mention only a few examples, Nero’s artistic interests, his studia, are deconstructed throughout. Cassius Dio uses the nomen of Caracalla against this emperor: by calling him by his nicknames “Tarautas” or “Caracallus” instead of his dynastic name “Antoninus”, he deprives him of his genealogy. In Suetonius, some topoi appear as headwords for rubrics such as the emperor’s remarkable sayings, his orationes, omina, or—in particular in Nero’s case—the maiores, who foreshadow Nero’s bad behaviour at the very beginning of the biography.

Once the orator or writer has found a certain character trait to talk about there is usually a variety of words which could refer to this character trait. Rhetoric clearly advises that the character trait be expressed in biased, advantageous terms. Quintilian suggests that if the orator has to reply to a narratio that was negative and harmful to his case, he should repeat this narratio, but use different terms. The orator will give different motives, a different attitude of mind, and a different interest; he will be able to extenuate some points only by a new wording: alias causas, aliam mentem, aliam rationem dabo. Verbis elevare quaedam licebit: luxuria liberalitatis, avaritia parsimoniae, neglegentia simplicitatis nomine lenietur (Quint. Inst. 4.2.76–77).5 In this case, ‘luxury’ and ‘liberality’ (luxuria and liberalitas), ‘avarice’ and ‘thrift’ (avaritia and parsimonia), as well as ‘carelessness’ and ‘simplicity’ (neglegentia and simplicitas) denote the same ‘facts’. But the choice of one of the two alternatives is a semantic operation that tries to make an ambivalent character trait, action, or event unambiguous.6 The process that Quintilian describes, namely the reaction of one narration to another narration that is to be refuted, is comparable to the process of historiography deconstructing panegyrical narratives. We have seen the rhetorical process of biased wording and the production of semantic non-ambiguity, by way of example, in Suetonius’ different terms for two comparable utterances by Vespasian on the one hand and Domitian on the other.7 While Vespasian’s dictum (Suet. Vesp. 23.4) about his divinity is termed dicacitas (in the corresponding rubric on banter), Domitian’s utterance (Suet. Dom. 13.1) about his divinity is semanticized as arrogantia (in the corresponding rubric on arrogance). The emperor’s statements about his divinity are highly ambivalent. But Suetonius’ strategy of integrating them into a certain rubric under a specific headword makes them appear unambiguous.

Rhetoric closely links character depiction, which is constructed on the basis of topoi a persona and formulated accordingly in a convenient, biased way, with the actions described in the narratio. The presentation of a meaningful relationship of character to action is a central rhetorical strategy for creating plausibility, which is called probabile e vita. It is based on the assumption that we can explain what a person does by referring to his or her way of life and character. Cicero deals with the relationship of action, motive, and character in De inventione 2.32–34.8 The motive of someone’s deed (causa facti) has to be explained by this person’s character (animus); this involves references to the person’s way of life (vita) and earlier deeds (ante facta) (Cic. Inv. rhet. 2.32). We have seen that, likewise, the relationship of imperial representation to the emperor’s character, way of life, and motives is crucial to negative images of emperors. The construction of motives based on character depiction, which directly or indirectly challenges the official reasons presented by the emperor, is one of the most important strategies of deconstruction.9 To mention just one outstanding example, Cassius Dio depicts Domitian at the beginning of his reign as driven by hatred for his father and brother. This emotion provides the motive for Domitian’s decree against castration: Dio’s Domitian thereby wants to insult the memory of his brother Titus, who was fond of eunuchs (Cass. Dio 67.2.3).

Narratio: Bias, Plausibility, Chronology

The connection of causality to action is important for every rhetorical and every historiographical narrative. Rhetorical narratio does not aim to represent ‘facts’ but to construct an advantageous, biased version of these ‘facts’. Quintilian points out that the narratio is useful for persuasion and that it sets forth an event that really happened—or that might have happened: narratio est rei factae aut ut factae utilis ad persuadendum expositio (Quint. Inst. 4.2.31).10 The purpose of the rhetorical narratio is accordingly not that the judge learn the facts but to make the judge agree with the version of the facts presented: neque enim narratio in hoc reperta est, ut tantum congnoscat iudex, sed aliquanto magis ut consentiat (Quint. Inst. 4.2.21). Such a persuasive narratio is based on a partial selection of facts (as part of the inventio), a suggestive order of these facts (as part of the dispositio), and the correct wording and style (as part of the elocutio). The narrative structure of historiography draws on such rhetorical devices of narratio.11 We have analysed in detail how Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius select, order, and style their material so as to design a persuasive narrative and thereby deconstruct imperial behaviour. Comparisons between the three authors, with other media of imperial representation, and with panegyrical texts have revealed these narratives to be rhetorical narratives: they present constructions of events that either happened or might have happened.

Rhetorical narratio with its focus on bias is hence not about truth but about plausibility. Quintilian proposes four conditions that make a narration plausible (credibilis): first, if we consult our own hearts so that we do not say anything contrary to what is natural (si prius consuluerimus nostrum animum ne quid naturae dicamus adversum); second, if we mention motives and reasons before deeds (and not all deeds, but those on which the inquiry turns) (deinde si causas ac rationes factis praeposuerimus, non omnibus, sed de quibus quaeritur); third, if we set up characters appropriate to the actions that we wish to be believed (si personas convenientes iis quae facta credi volemus constituerimus); fourth, if we specify places, times, and the like (praeterea loca, tempora, et similia) (Quint. Inst. 4.2.52). The first point is very general: things that the speaker contends have to be possible. Points two and three pick up the above-mentioned relationship of action to reason, and of action to character. Point four is about details of circumstances, which add to the plausibility of an account. Historiography too, although it strongly claims to tell the truth, can achieve only plausibility in its narrative accounts. The historian strives to satisfy these four qualities too. First, he should not contend things that cannot possibly be true. Whatever the figures of Nero and Domitian do, it has to be accepted as possible by the reader. Second, depictions of reasons and, third, the fashioning of characters, as we saw, add plausibility and coherence to the narratives. The same holds true, fourth, for the inclusion of details about places and times. They do not have to be true—that is, factually accurate—but they help the reader to accept a certain story. So, when the texts make Nero’s performance as a singer during the Great Fire of Rome plausible, they all do so by styling a setting for this performance. But the sites are all different: Tacitus’ Nero sings on his private stage (inisse eum domesticam scaenam et cecinnise Troianum excidium, Tac. Ann. 15.39.3). Cassius Dio’s Nero ascends to the roof of his palace to sing there (ὁ Νέρων ἔς τε τὸ ἄκρον τοῦ παλατίου, …, ἀνῆλθε, Cass. Dio. 62.18.4). Suetonius’ Nero watches the fire and sings standing on the tower of Maecenas (hoc incendium e turre Maecenatiana prospectans, Suet. Ner. 38.2). To create a credible account, the inclusion of details about the location is more important than the factual truth about the site.

Another crucial element of every narratio is the order in which events are described. Quintilian underlines that the narratio does not always have to follow the chronological order of events; from a rhetorical viewpoint events should be narrated in the order that is most advantageous for the purpose of the speech and the achievement of persuasion: namque ne iis quidem accedo qui semper eo putant ordine quo quid actum sit esse narrandum, sed eo malo narrare quo expedit (Quint. Inst. 4.2.83). In the context of laus and vituperatio Quintilian proposes a structure that presents virtues to which single actions can be assigned (Quint. Inst. 3.7.15). Historiography too breaks with chronology to produce a stronger persuasive effect. The extreme form of breaking with the chronology, in which topics rather than time structure the text, is found in the rubrics of Suetonius’ biographies. On the other hand, chronological order can be used to suggest logical connections, as we saw in Tacitus’ narrative of Nero’s repudiation of Octavia. Nero drives her away on grounds of infertility, an event which is followed—and so explained—by his marriage to Poppaea: exturbat Octaviam, sterilem dictitans; exim Poppaeae coniungitur (Tac. Ann. 14.60.1).

Invective: The Commemorative Function of Vituperation

When we think of the historiographical discourse as reacting to the panegyrical discourse from the point of view of rhetorical genres, a discourse of vituperation (vituperatio) is reacting to a discourse of praise (laus). We have seen that the same element of imperial representation, for example Nero’s artistic endeavours and Domitian’s military projects, can appear either as laus or as vituperatio.12 Rhetoric does not give clear guidelines for vituperation or invective. It simply defines it as the opposite of praise. Those who want to vituperate should just say the opposite of those who want to praise: quoniam haec causa [that is, the demonstrativum genus] dividitur in laudem et vituperationem, ex contrariis rebus erit vituperatio comparata (Rhet. Her. 3.6.10).13 While invective is not an important topic in the theory of rhetoric, it plays a crucial part in the rhetorical progymnasmata and in oratorical practice, as Cicero’s invective speeches In Pisonem and Philippica 2 illustrate.14 But we find invective elements in other literary genres too, such as comedy, satire, epodes, and Roman historiography.

Invective elements are relevant to critical historiography because they fulfil three purposes that are useful for creating negative images of emperors:

(1) Invective has a crucial non-rational feature: it stimulates emotions and entertains.15 Epideictic speech in general aims to influence emotions gently rather than to achieve conviction and proof (ad animi motus leniter tractandos magis quam ad fidem faciendam aut confirmandam accommodate, Cic. Part. or. 71). And, as Quintilian notes discussing methods of arousing laughter, invective can be serious and brutal, or more light-hearted and funny: intra haec enim est omnis vituperatio: quae si gravius posita sit, severa est, si levius, ridicula (Quint. Inst. 6.3.37). This ties in with the historiographical feature of creating a particular atmosphere for particular reigns in the text, not least by depicting and inciting emotions.16

(2) Invective has a pedagogical intention. Cicero claims that the principles of praise and vituperation have a value not only for good oratory but also for an honourable life (ac laudandi vituperandique rationes, quae non ad bene dicendum solum sed etiam ad honeste vivendum valent, Cic. Part. or. 70). Quintilian more specifically claims, when talking about progymnasmata, that the contemplation of right and wrong moulds someone’s character (animus contemplatione recti pravique formatur, Quint. Inst. 2.4.20). This pedagogical aspect fits well within the framework of the moral historiography of ancient Rome.

(3) Roman thought assigns a commemorative function to invective and praise. The Auctor ad Herennium defines as praiseworthy that which produces honourable remembrance in the present and the future: laudabile est quod conficit honestam et praesentem et consequentem commemorationem (Rhet. Her. 3.4.7). In contrast to praise, vituperation is about negative memory. This is apparent in the genre of invective: when Cicero dispraises Marc Antony he aims to discredit his enemy in public forever on the basis of the currently valid norms.17 Invective is part of the negotiation over whether a person is worthy of historical record or not; invective seeks to uncover the truth about the person: it destroys the role this person has asserted and unfolds the alternative, allegedly true knowledge about him or her.18 With regard to this purpose, namely the negotiation of the memory of a person under criticism, invective and Roman historiography are very similar. They both enact a literary form of damnatio memoriae.19 We should not think of damnatio memoriae as a condemnation of all memory but as a condemnation of a good or positive memory. Cassius Dio’s deconstruction of bad emperors illustrates this most clearly.20 The bad emperors should not be forgotten; their memory should be preserved in a negative form, which helps to commemorate the good emperors in a positive way.21 Both the orator and the historiographer who make use of invective in their works are taking part in the negotiations over the memory of people such as Piso and Marc Antony, Nero and Domitian. To make their images of these personalities successful they deconstruct other, positive images through the strategies analysed in this study.

1See, in particular, Dunkle 1971; Plass 1988; Woodman 1988; Marincola 1997; Baltussen 2002; Laird 2009.
2I have used the translations of Rackham 1942; Hubbell 1949; Radice 1969; Russell 2001 for the rhetorical works dealt with in this chapter.
3See Rhet. Her. 3.6.10; Cic. Inv. rhet. 2.177; Quint. Inst. 3.7.12.
4For other lists see Rhet. Her. 3.6.10; Quint. Inst. 3.7.10–18.
5See also Rhet. Her. 3.3.6; Quint. Inst. 3.7.25.
6Suetonius does so when he reframes Vespasian’s greed (pecuniae cupiditas) as economy: sunt contra qui opinentur ad manubias et rapinas necessitate compulsum summa aerarii fiscique inopia (“on the other hand, some argue that the drained resources of the treasury and the imperial fund absolutely compelled him to pursue spoil and plunder”, Suet. Vesp. 16.3).
7See p.303–308 on Suetonius’ coding through rubrics.
8See also Rhet. Her. 2.2.3–2.3.5; Quint. Inst. 7.2.27–35.
9See p.115–123; 198–215; 298–302.
10Cf. Rhet. Her. 1.3.4 (narratio est rerum gestarum aut proinde ut gestarum expositio); Cic. Inv. rhet. 1.27 (narratio est rerum gestarum aut ut gestarum expositio). See also Woodman 1988, 199–200.
11See Lounsbury 1987, 67 for the importance of narratio theory for Suetonius.
12For such re-interpretations see in particular chapter 3.
13On invective as a rhetorical genre see Quint. Inst. 3.7.19–22 and Koster 1980, 7–21.
14For progymnasmata cf. Koster 1980, 15–17 on Aphthonios.
15Cf. Barton 1994, 58: “well-constructed invective was there to be enjoyed”. See Dunkle 1967, 170 for the image of the tyrant applied in Roman invective in order to arouse emotions.
16See p.88–93; 245–248.
17Cf. Koster 1980, 354 defining invective as a literary form, “deren Ziel es ist, mit allen geeigneten Mitteln eine namentlich genannte oder benennbare Person für sich allein oder auch stellvertretend für andere öffentlich vor dem Hintergrund der jeweils geltenden Werte im Bewußtsein der Menschen für immer vernichtend herabzusetzen”.
18See Neumann 1998, 549–550: “Die I[nvektive] verhandelt die Geschichtswürdigkeit von Personen; sie will bloßlegen und entlarven, was sich hinter einer Person verbirgt: sie destruiert die angemaßte Rolle und legt das vermeintliche wirkliche Wissen offen.”
19Cf. Neumann 1998, 550.
20See chapter 8.
21Cf. Flaig 1999, 66–67 discussing the topic of damnatio memoriae in the context of exemplification in general.

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