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Rhetorical Exercises from Late Antiquity


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 (ISBN-13: 9780521848732)

Cambridge University Press
9780521848732 - RHETORICAL EXERCISES FROM LATE ANTIQUITY - A Translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary Talks and Declamations - Edited by Robert J. Penella, Eugenio Amato, Malcolm Heath, George A. Kennedy, Terry L. Papillon, William W. Reader, D. A. Russell and Simon Swain


Robert J. Penella

The twelve declamations presented in this volume are examples of a standard kind of ancient rhetorical exercise. If we were to refrain from taking account of anything beyond their contents,1 we might plausibly imagine them to have been composed in any century of the Roman Empire from the time of Augustus on. The same could be said, for the most part, about the preliminary talks. But we know that these pieces are the work of the sophist Choricius, composed in sixth-century AD Gaza, and it is with Choricius that we begin.


Choricius was a member of the School of Gaza, which had its roots in the reign of the emperor Zeno (474–91) and extended into the reign of Justinian (527–65). The height of Choricius' career fell roughly in the second quarter of the sixth century. The traditional terms “School” and “members” should not be taken to imply any formal cohesion, though there were features of the School that its members had in common; Nigel Wilson's “circle”

or “group” would probably be better expressions to use.2 The School was a marked flowering of rhetorical, literary, and intellectual Greek culture, “[l’] ultimo bagliore dell’ ellenismo nella regione siro-palestinese prima della conquista musulmana” – “the last gleam of Hellenism” in the region, in Federica Ciccolella's words, before the Muslim conquest.3 Already in the fourth century, the Expositio totius mundi speaks of Gaza as having “bonos auditores” (32) – therefore, we may probably assume, good speakers and teachers as well – and, according to Libanius, Gaza aspired to be a “workshop of eloquence” (Orat. 55.34, λόγων εἶναι βουλομένην ἐργαστήριον). We are naturally disposed to read these fourth-century remarks as pointing to the subsequent emergence of what we call the School of Gaza: a scholion to a verse written by one of the School's members, John of Gaza, describes the city in John's day as actually having reached the height of logoi.4 Another member of the School, Aeneas of Gaza, gives voice to local pride when he writes to a former pupil that “people no longer sail into the Piraeus in love with the Academy, nor do they frequent the Lyceum, for they think that the Academy and the Lyceum are to be found among us” (Epp. 18).5

Although Gaza became culturally important in its own right in the fifth and sixth centuries, the influence of Alexandria, the great Egyptian center of learning, upon the Palestinian city was significant. The sophist Procopius of Gaza6 refers to the Egyptian city as “the common mother of logoi” and comments on its attractions for men of learning (Epp. 57, 104, 119 Garzya–Loenertz). Aeneas remembers “sporting with the Muses” on the banks of the Nile, presumably in Alexandria (Epp. 15). He probably studied there under the philosopher Hierocles: in his Theophrastus the character Euxitheus, who studied under Hierocles, is modeled on Aeneas himself.7 Zacharias Scholasticus studied in Alexandria; so did Timotheus of Gaza, under the philosopher Horapollon. (Although Zacharias, a native of Gaza's port Maiuma, spent most of his life away from the Gaza region, he may be considered here in connection with the School of Gaza as illustrative of the pull Alexandria exerted on young men of greater Gaza in the late fifth

century.8) Procopius, Choricius' teacher, recalled his days on the banks of the Nile (Alexandria?) in his letters (48 [ἔτι παρὰ τὸν Νεῖλον οἰκῶν]; 96 [ὡς συνῆμεν ἀλλήλοις παρὰ τὸν Νεῖλον]; 127). And Choricius himself, in his funeral oration for Procopius (7 [VIII].15), narrates an incident in Procopius’ life that took place in a city neighboring on “the Egyptian river,” most likely Alexandria: when Procopius was still young, he defeated a veteran in an oratorical contest there.9 Unfortunately, these passages fail to make clear whether Procopius actually studied in Alexandria, although we can assume with some degree of confidence from Choricius, Oration 7.15, that he did.10 As for Choricius himself, he mentions in Oration 2 [II].64 that he attended a festival along the Nile – was this in Alexandria and during a period of study? One specialized influence that came from Alexandria was its Neoplatonism, readily apparent in Aeneas of Gaza's Theophrastus and in Zacharias’ Ammonius, though that intellectual current has no immediate bearing on the texts presented in this volume.11

The rhetorical formation of the members of the School of Gaza was very pronounced.12 Choricius is emblematic of this feature of the School in a special way, in that he held the apparently publicly supported chair of rhetoric in Gaza, succeeding his former teacher Procopius.13 In his funeral oration for Procopius, with its expected hyperbole, Choricius asserts that all sophists regarded the precocious Procopius as the best (7 [VIII].5, 16, 31). This new Demosthenes excelled both in his own eloquence and as a teacher (7.7, 10). He brought great glory to Gaza, we are told, causing Antioch, Tyre, and Palestinian Caesarea to envy her (7.12–13). He spent some of his old age in retirement – Choricius flatteringly says that he often tried to slow down his energetic predecessor in the latter's old age (7.17).

But we also know that the elderly Procopius was once chided for inactivity, specifically for no longer giving public displays of his eloquence; on that occasion, Choricius defended “the freedom from activity that comes with age” (Prelim. Talk 6 [XI].1).

By the beginning of the sixth century the Christianization of Gaza was well along, and this is reflected in the religious make-up of the School of Gaza. Aeneas, Procopius, and Choricius were all Christians.14 In his Theophrastus Aeneas philosophizes in a manner he deems compatible with Christianity, attacking error and, through the interlocutor Euxitheus, professing his faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation (Theophr. pp. 44, 67 Colonna). Procopius wrote biblical commentaries. Choricius praises Procopius’ biblical learning, in the display of which “except for his clothing alone he was altogether a hiereus.” He also lauds him for his command of Christian dogma (τὰ δόγματα τῆς εὐσεβείας) and apologetics.15 In his critique of the Neoplatonist Proclus, Procopius invokes the authority of “our theologian Gregory.”16 Choricius feels veneration (σέβας) for the protomartyr Stephen, admiring how he entrusted his well-being to God and had the courage to die for his εὐσέβεια (Orat. 2 [II].27).

Yet in other of their works the Gazans keep their Christianity out of sight. They normally compartmentalize their Hellenic paideia and their Christianity, glorying, in works that do not involve philosophico-theological or biblical themes, in a full display of their command of classical mythology, history, and literature. Their mimesis of the classical texts on which they were reared can go as far as to invoke and swear by the gods.17 Perhaps the most striking case in point is Procopius’ panegyric to the Christian emperor

Anastasius, from the very early sixth century: with no explicitly Christian allusions in it, Procopius here swears by Zeus and hails the emperor as a descendant of Heracles and Zeus.18 Similarly, in his epithalamium for three of his students, the Christian Choricius says that he will pray to the gods of marriage on their behalf (Orat. 5 [VI].51); and, on the occasion of Justinian's Brumalia, the sophist compares the emperor to Zeus, but makes no reference to his Christianity (Dialex. 7 [XIII]). In Oration 8 [XXXII], in which Choricius defends the mimes and, in passing, a number of canonical authors as well from the assaults of puritanical critics – who by his day will have been predominantly Christians19 – he swears “by the gods” (152) and asks Dionysus to favor his speech (158).

This is all a kind of cultural posing, though.20 The same Choricius who regularly deploys mythology without comment makes clear, when addressing Gaza's Bishop Marcianus, that he does not believe a mythological tale to be literally true and that an amusing smile is an appropriate response to the stories told by ancient poets (Orats. 1 [I].6; 2 [II].42). For “flexible members of the educated [Christian] classes,” the use of mythology was “religiously neutral and aesthetically attractive.”21 Not all Christians, of course, were so flexible about such mimicking of classical texts: the Byzantine Photius complains that, though Choricius “loves the right religion,…he irrationally introduces into his writings pagan fables and tales – I don't know by what sort of negligence – when he should not do so, even when he is treating sacred subjects” (Bibl. cod. 160). The only thing approaching a “sacred subject” in the texts presented in this volume are the references to Bishop Marcianus and to the church of St. Stephen Protomartyr in

Preliminary Talk 2 [II], which introduced Choricius' second encomium of the bishop and his church. These references, though, are typically made in good Atticizing vocabulary (τεμένη, τὸν ἱερέα, τὸν νεών),22 and in them Choricius compares his upcoming description of the church of St. Stephen to Herodotus’ description of the temple of Babylon and draws a parallel between a festival celebrating the church's inauguration and an ancient Delian festival, just as in Preliminary Talk 1 [I] he invokes ancient Spartan and Athenian usages in commenting on a festival celebrating the construction or repair of the Gazan church of St. Sergius.

Bishop Marcianus was a man of action; there are no indications in Choricius that he was an ascetic. He was a builder and repairer of edifices and of city walls and defenses and a deliverer of the city from troublesome soldiers. In the pages of Choricius, he looks to us like a latter-day curialis in episcopal garb.23 Choricius praises the prelate as much for his rhetorical as for his religious education – adding, of course, that the former allowed the bishop to present holy scripture more learnedly to others. Like Choricius, Marcianus had studied under Procopius.24 It has even been asserted that Bishop Marcianus directed Procopius’ school for a while after the latter's death; those who have made that assertion, however, have attempted to extract more than is warranted from a passage in Choricius' funeral oration for Procopius. The passage in question probably means only that the bishop's good general leadership provided an ideal environment for the transfer of the school from Procopius to Choricius.25 In any case, Bishop Marcianus, like the lay elite of Gaza, clearly valued the traditional education.

Another important component of the Christianity of late ancient Gaza, in addition to its secular urban clergy, was the large population of monks in the region.26 What, if any, relationship did learned lay Gazans, such as sophists, have with them? The correspondence of the monks Barsanuphius and John, at Tawatha, near Gaza, in the first half of the sixth century,

shows someone called a teacher of ἡ τοῦ κόσμου σοϕία – apparently a philosopher – consulting them on personal matters (Epp. 664, 778 Neyt et al.). More remarkable, though, is Aeneas of Gaza's consultation of the monk Isaiah on learned matters, as reported by Zacharias in his biography of Isaiah on the basis of a conversation he had had with a close associate of the monk. When Aeneas, “a most Christian and learned man,” had trouble understanding Plato, Aristotle, or Plotinus and could get no help from experts, he would go to Isaiah, who would clarify the troublesome passages and give a critique of the pagan authorities with reference to the Christian faith, even though he was quite unversed in profane learning.27 This is tantalizing, and one wants more evidence. But it does warn us not to assume that Christian lay conversation on matters of paideia was exclusively with sophisticated urban clergy. On the other hand, we must not forget that monks and urbanites (both lay and clerical) inhabited different worlds: a monk was unlikely to give the same priority that a bishop would to “worldly” qualifications, such as administrative and rhetorical skills, in candidates for ordination.28

Sophists had traditionally played a variety of extra-scholastic, civic roles. At Gaza, holders of what appears to be the major, publicly supported chair of rhetoric acted at times as the city's mouthpiece. In Orations 1 [I] and 2 [II] Choricius lauded Bishop Marcianus and the churches of St. Sergius and of St. Stephen Protomartyr, the first constructed or repaired and the second inaugurated during Marcianus’ episcopacy. These two orations have attracted art-historical interest because of their detailed descriptions of the churches.29 He also gave a funeral oration upon the death of the bishop's mother Maria (6 [VII]). Further, he was the panegyrist of the dux Palaestinae Aratius and the consularis Palaestinae primae Stephanus in Oration 3 [III] in 535/6 and of the dux Palaestinae Summus in Oration 4 [IV] in the late 530s.30 Praise was also bestowed on Summus in Choricius' talk on the occasion of Justinian's Brumalia (Dialex. 7 [XIII].14) – which, of course, mainly lauds the emperor – and Summus’ brother Julianus,31 an agent of

the emperor, is complimented in Oration 4.33–4 and in Dialexis 7.15. Finally, it was Choricius who gave the funeral oration for his predecessor Procopius (Orat. 7 [VIII]). As for Procopius himself, fate has not been kind to his panegyrical orations, though we do have his panegyric to the emperor Anastasius, at the very beginning of which he makes clear that he is speaking on behalf of the whole city of Gaza. We know, too, that he, like Choricius, had been a panegyrist of Bishop Marcianus (Choric. Orat. 7.51), and his lost oration Εἰς τὸν σωϕρόνως ἄρχοντα32 was probably an encomium of an imperial official. As prominent sophists and urban spokesmen, Procopius and Choricius will have traveled in elite circles and have had many sons of the regional upper classes in their school.33 But the twelve major pieces presented in this volume have no connection in theme with the real world that their author inhabited.


Choricius' declamations have imaginary themes, either deliberative (urging a course of action) or judicial (bringing or defending against an accusation). The speaker impersonates a specific mythical, legendary, or historical figure, with more or less adherence to the traditional story line,34 or a generic character (for example, a rich man or a tyrannicide); in the case of these non-specific themes, all details in the oration will normally be anonymous, and the action will occur in the generic land that D. A. Russell calls “Sophistopolis.”35 The Greek equivalent for the Latin-derived “declamation” is meletē (“[rhetorical] exercise”)36 or plasma (“fiction,” “invention”). When a heading survives for a Chorician declamation, it is (ἡ) μελέτη (Decls. 9 [XXXV]; 10 [XXXVIII]; 12 [XLII]). The term is also found in Preliminary Talks 12 [XXI].4; 14 [XXIV], title; 22 [XXXVI], title; 23 [XXXVII].7; 25 [XLI], title; and in Declamations 5 [XX], “Explanatory Comment” 6; 6 [XXIII], “Explanatory Comment” 1; and 9, “Explanatory Comment” 5. We routinely find μελετῶμεν (“let us take the part of”) in the statement of a Chorician declamation's theme (cf. Prelim. Talks 12, title, τῶν μελετωμένων; 21 [XXXIV], title, τοῦ μελετωμένου; Decl. 12, “Explanatory Comment” 5, μελετήσειε), and Choricius uses the term πλάσμα in Declamations 5, “Explanatory Comment” 1; 9, “Explanatory

Comment” 3; 12, “Explanatory Comment” 2; and in Preliminary Talk 14, title.37

The most fundamental context in which declamation must be situated is the literary-rhetorical educational system of the Roman Empire.38 Despite what we know about the great variety that existed in the organization of schooling in antiquity, it is still valid and useful to think of literary-rhetorical education as consisting of three levels – at least for those who were sufficiently socially and economically privileged to go through the whole course.39 The goal of the primary level was basic literacy and numeracy. At the secondary level students focused on reading the classical writers, primarily the poets. The texts were read closely, explicated, and interpreted. Reading of the classics continued at the third or advanced level, though the emphasis now was on prose texts, especially the orators and historians, and the central activity was rhetorical composition, modeled on those prose texts and nurtured by the study of rhetorical theory. It was this third level of education that was the proper domain of the sophist, and he hoped to turn out young men of eloquence. The Greek that students had been learning and exercising themselves in was not the spoken tongue, but classical Attic, which they would employ more or less strictly as adults in appropriate socio-linguistic situations. This “high-register” Greek, in a diglossic milieu, was a mark of elite status. Initiation in the ancient classics and in the personal and civic virtues transmitted by those classics also helped to give social identity and solidarity to the sons of the upper classes.40

The culminating compositional exercise in the sophist's school, “the crown of the curriculum,” was the declamation.41 The student produced full-scale deliberative and judicial declamations in which everything he had learned and was still perfecting was symphonically brought together: Attic Greek, all aspects of expression, invention of argument, arrangement of material, and skills of delivery. One did not jump immediately into

declamation. Simpler compositional exercises, called progymnasmata, preceded it; they were graduated and normally begun at the second level of education.42 Progymnasmatic modes might reappear as small units embedded in a declamation, for example, a chreia or anecdote, an enkōmion or laudation, a synkrisis or comparison, an ekphrasis or description. The progymnasmatic diēgēma or narrative looks forward to the standard narrative part of a full-blown oration. Other progymnasmatic modes point, in a reduced and miniature way, to the central argumentative task of a declamation – for example, anaskeuē or kataskeuē (the refutation or confirmation of something), thesis (arguing a generic thesis), or nomou eisphora (arguing for or against a proposed law). In another progymnasma, the ēthopoiia, the student impersonated someone, seeking to represent character through the ascribed words. We do find short ēthopoiiai embedded in declamations – for example, in Choricius' Declamation 2 [XII].87–9, the “speaker” Priam verbally personifies his daughter Polyxena – but, of course, more fundamentally every declamation is a sustained ēthopoiia of some historical or generic character. Choricius devotes two of his preliminary talks, 12 [XXI] and 21 [XXXIV], to underscoring the importance of persuasive and sustained representation of the impersonated character in declamation: “when it comes to a man whose business is his tongue, it is fitting for him to represent [well] whatever he has decided to contrive with it, so that comedy does not speak in vain when it calls the tongue a kind of sphere, easily managed and ready to turn in any direction it desires” (Prelim. Talk 21.5).

If representation of character was of fundamental importance in declamation, so was the invention of arguments. When in Declamation 12 [XLII].69 Choricius has the impersonated orator say, “Come now and let us hunt out another argument from this discipline of ours,” he is really speaking in his own person, expressing his own drive to heap argument upon argument. Ancient declamation can seem argumentatively overwrought and sometimes strained to us – to follow Choricius requires effort on occasion – but in its own day the end product must have been viewed as a desirable tour de force. The student's first efforts at declamatory argumentation were aided by the study of stasis or issue theory, which trained him in identifying the key issue of a theme and suggested argumentative heads for the various issues.43

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