EMOTION AND PERSUASION IN CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY

Edited by Ed Sanders and Matthew Johncock

Steiner Verlag (2017) p/b 321pp £68.80 (ISBN 9783515113618)

This book arose out of a conference on the title subject held at Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2013; the sixteen chapters, by different authors, are based on selected presentations at that conference. A pleasant advantage of this is that each ‘paper’ is short (presentation-length) and therefore pithy and to the point, though fully supplied with scholarly notes and bibliographies. Each paper makes its case by detailed examination of one or two chosen examples to illustrate its broader argument.

The editorial introduction and some of the contributors say that emotion and ‘persuasive strategies’ are a subject of increasing interest these days to scholars generally, including (if belatedly) classicists. The problem of course, as always with classics, is that the material is limited, and almost entirely confined to material written with a view to publicity. That said, the book’s format provides us with a kaleidoscope of different contexts in which persuasive techniques are displayed.

The chapters are divided equally into four sections with four papers in each. The first is devoted to the great Greek orators (the conference was organised by the Centre for Oratory and Rhetoric at Royal Holloway), and looks at them both in forensic contexts and in deliberative speeches and political arguments to the Assembly; there is also a chapter on Demosthenes’ letters from exile, which can be compared with the later chapter on Ovid. The second section looks at emotional appeals which attempt to confirm or cement community identity: the Plataean and Melian speeches in Thucydides, the choruses in Greek drama and Plato’s Laws, the propaganda against Sulla following his demise (especially Cicero against Verres, who was a Sulla partisan), and Greek inscriptions (curses, epitaphs etc.) which incite emotions in the viewer. Next, we have the use of emotions for social control: Xenophon on leadership, fear of the emperor’s anger as a way of keeping people in line, Ovid’s crawling to the same emperor (which failed), and the deliberate use of tears (Cicero and Roman historians). Finally, there is a closer look at the language used to stimulate emotions, with chapters on Greek erotic curses, Plautus and Catullus and the formulae found in Greek papyrus letters. These last are especially interesting because they are the only sources which may have been private, not for publication. We learn of a significant shift from democratic Greece, where nobody said ‘please’, to despotic Egypt, where any request had to be softened by a small number of standard formulae (a complete listing of these is given in the appendix to this chapter).

With such variety, different aspects will appeal to different readers, and everyone will find something of interest. What most struck this reviewer is how little seems to have changed from then to now. Some of the authors profess to find differences, e.g. between how Greeks and Romans handled anger, and it is true that habits have changed in detail: we do not put up curses on tablets any more (unless Twitter is a sort of substitute for the same compulsion). But human emotions are universal, and so are the techniques for manipulating them. Project Fear was alive and well when Demosthenes was warning the Athenians against Philip. National pride was also powerful (‘Make Athens great again!’). And building up of envy and suspicion of the ‘establishment’, the mysterious ‘elite’, the ‘bankers’ etc. was as powerful then as now. Here for example, quoted in the first chapter, is Isocrates:

‘Nevertheless…we are so happy with the depravity of our politicians that, though we see that many of the other citizens have lost their ancestral property because of the war and the disorders which these people have caused, while they have risen from poverty to riches, yet we are not offended nor do we resent their prosperity’.

Sounds familiar?

Colin McDonald

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room