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6-10-2015, 15:41

Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Dionysius of Halicarnassus (late first century) is a particularly useful case-study, since as well as a lengthy surviving history of early Rome (Roman Antiquities), we are also able to read his rhetorical treatises.28 Dionysius made his living as a teacher of rhetoric at Rome, and is a central figure in the creation of an idea of classical Greek language and culture. He sought to establish new norms in the production of a literary form of the Greek language which looked back to models of the language of Athens as recorded in the writings of Isocrates, Lysias, Demosthenes, and others, at a time when spoken Greek had already moved on quite significantly; the language of the New Testament, for instance, is a lot less elaborate than the conservative literary Greek which Dionysius himself wrote and which he also analysed and taught in his rhetorical writings. It was largely thanks to figures like Dionysius that the notion of a fixed Greek literary language became established, and, in the process, a set of ideals about Greek culture and identity which endured more or less until the twentieth century. Dionysius’ rhetorical interests are inseparable from his cultural and political ones: the imitation of classical models of rhetoric was a means of perpetuating the political ideals elaborated most clearly by Isocrates, of a Greek world imbued with a sense of its own destiny, one founded upon philosophical ideals. It was in looking back to Isocrates, and by adapting his ideas about rhetoric to a different linguistic and cultural context, that Dionysius paved the way for the so-called Second Sophistic, a period when rhetorical performance once again flourished in the semi-autonomous poleis of the Greek world under Roman rule, where the language of classical rhetoric was used to explore the political and philosophical ramifications of Roman power in relation to Greek traditions.

Dionysius castigates historians like Polybius who limited history to the autopsy of the historian. He reappropriates mythological and geographical enquiry as central to a general knowledge of the world, and thus an essential part of the historian’s task. In his own historical writings, Dionysius sets out to prove the thesis that Roman and Greek culture are essentially the same since the Romans themselves were, in ethnic origin, Greek. Latin itself was in fact a particularly distant dialect of Greek. Dionysius accordingly characterises the early Romans by making them speak an idealised Greek, and deliver speeches that recall the models of rhetorical practice that he analyses in his rhetorical works. The whole thrust of Dionysius’ history is thus rhetorical: it has an explicit agenda, viz., to persuade Greek readers of the logic of Roman rule and to encourage them to look favourably on it (an argument also put forward by Polybius, though in less extreme terms). It also uses overtly rhetorical means to do this: the lengthy speeches, heavily derived from the classics of Attic oratory, are demonstrations of the Hellenic quality of early Roman culture. Modern readers find it difficult to reconcile such an overtly rhetorical approach with any ideas about history: Dionysius’ historical material seems not to be treated in accordance with any respect for the evidence, but instead to be the vehicle for a political programme. Dionysius’ presentation seems quite free from any desire to actually research the character of the period he is interpreting. In this light, his high-minded assertions about the centrality of truth to historical writing appear disingenuous if not downright cynical. Such an interpretation, however, expresses perfectly the problems of disciplinary identity discussed above: modern expectations of historical research are not really relevant to Dionysius’ practice. Even if they were, Dionysius can still be said to carry out research into his sources, both textual and archaeological. Of course, the desire to use mythical material as a resource for pre-history produces what looks to us like absurd rationalisations, but it was a central part of almost all Greek historiography, Thucydides included. We ought also to remember that Italian archaeologists recently claimed to have found the walls built in Rome by Romulus.29 It is more useful to understand how Dionysius’ own definition of rhetoric contributes to his historical method since it is in the historical dimensions of rhetoric that we can observe best how the two discourses intersect.

We can learn much from Dionysius’ detailed criticisms of Thucydides (in his On Thucydides, but also his Second Letter to Ammaeus and the Letter to Pompeius), whom he treats as a model both for the aspiring historian and the would-be orator. Indeed, for Dionysius, these two figures can be identical, since in his articulation, rhetoric is simply the discourse of politics, in which a knowledge of history is just one aspect of an education based on the reading and imitation of the classic Greek orators. Writing history itself is another means for exercising that same sense of political purpose. Dionysius appreciates Thucydides’ ability to write a vivid battle narrative (On Thucydides 27), and praises some of his speeches as worthy of imitation by future historians ( On Thucydides 42). On the other hand, he generally finds the style for which Thucydides’ speeches are best known awkward and unnatural, and therefore unsuitable as a model for the politically inspiring rhetoric which any fledgling orator of his own day would find useful. Specifically, he repeatedly accuses Thucydides of contravening his own criteria for the composition of the speeches (see above, pp. 548-549), and complains that the strange style of the speeches tells us more about Thucydides’ own views than about what the historical figures are likely to have said. A good example is the Melian dialogue (Thuc. 5.85-113), which to modern readers is a powerful expression of Thucydides’ desperation at the depths to which imperial politics have brought Athens. Dionysius cites the dialogue at length, and his detailed analysis culminates thus ( On Thucydides 41):

In this [dialogue], the most intelligent of the Greeks bring out the most shameful arguments, and they express them in the most unpleasant language. It is possible that the historian, in his grudge against the city for condemning him, is showering such reproaches upon it that all men are bound to hate it.

The picture of Athens that emerges from the Melian dialogue is, for Dionysius, historically implausible: it makes Athens look like a tyranny, as well as crediting the Melians with an unjustifiable degree of moral fibre. He makes similar criticisms of the speech in which Pericles defends himself from the accusations of the Athenians (Thuc. 2.60-64), portions of which he also praises (On Thucydides 46):

As I said at the start, the historian is expressing his own opinion about the virtue of Pericles, and has said these words that are not appropriate. He should rather have made clear what he wanted to say concerning the man, but when putting words in his mouth at a time when he was in danger, he should have used words that were humble and likely to soothe anger.

Thucydides has, again, contravened his own criteria of appropriateness to the occasion, and in this instance, he made Pericles appear to antagonise the Assembly in a situation where he would surely have been more likely to want to conciliate it. In both of these passages, we can see that Dionysius has no sympathy with the idea that Thucydides might be using an ugly style to characterise the ugly rhetoric of Athenian imperialism, nor that awkward situations sometimes give rise to awkward thoughts or words. By extension, Dionysius is vigorous in his criticisms of those fans of Thucydides who see in his awkward style an elitist form of rhetoric ( On Thucydides 49-51), one that only the educated can understand and make use of. Style cannot do its job properly if only an elite minority can appreciate it. It is the work of the historian to educate his readers about the past, and for this purpose, the rhetoric of speeches needs to be lucid and accessible; as such, it will also be realistic, in that it will reflect the function of rhetoric within the political arena as expressed in the historical events being narrated. Dionysius has no objection to Thucydides voicing his criticisms of Pericles in his own person, but he finds it unjustifiable that he uses examples of Pericles’ own rhetoric to convey those views implicitly. By so doing, he spoils the potential of his history to do what it should do: provide an instructive, accurate, and essentially inspiring account of Athens, which will make subsequent readers aware of how to write good history themselves, as well as how the politicians of the past expressed themselves.

Such is Dionysius’ way of bringing history and rhetoric together, and it is characteristic of most ancient historiography: rhetoric is the training-ground for the politician, and the political issues of the past and their discussion form the basis of the education of today’s political elite. To be able to speak coherently in public involves mastery of a discourse that is essentially historical in character. Historiography is an activity that emerges out of this same arena; it is an extension of an involvement in public affairs. Dionysius criticises as historical errors on Thucydides’ part those moments where he makes the Athenians look like tyrants or ruthless imperialists: these visions of Athens reflect Thucydides’ own personal bias rather than the established historical character of the city. They are, therefore, historically misleading as well as being unsuitable rhetorical inspiration for future writers. Dionysius rejects Thucydides’ scepticism about the role of rhetoric as much as he rejects his use of an awkward style. He sees rhetoric as a mechanism for better government, and a well-educated population is one that will live up to the ideals of the golden days of Attic oratory. Thucydides’ own personal grudge against Athens has led him to produce a picture of that city that is not only unflattering but also for Dionysius historically inaccurate. Dionysius represents the closest theoretical harmonisation of rhetoric within historiography. As a result, of course, his work as a historian has been almost universally derided.

Lucian’s essay On How to Write History does provide a theoretical basis from which Dionysius’ idealised vision of rhetoric can be attacked.30 Lucian provides a unique, and unrepresentative, picture of rhetoric as an unnecessary intrusion into the work of real history. As such, this short satirical essay has been seized upon by modern readers eager to find ancient forerunners for modern ideas of historical objectivity and for an anti-rhetorical trend in approaching historiography. Lucian is, of course, a writer with his own very individual position with regard to rhetoric. Although recognisably belonging to the Second Sophistic, he can nevertheless be characterised as an antisophist, and a sceptical and satirical approach to rhetoric pervades much of his writing, even though that writing is itself highly rhetorical.31 His approach to history is similarly subversive; his collection of far-fetched tales given the title True Stories is the most obvious example, but more generally, his writings defy easy characterisation by genre, and he deliberately transgresses any boundary between satire, acute social observation, and absurd invention. Nevertheless, his vision of how history should be written is striking. Essentially he reinforces what we already find in Thucydides and Polybius: an emphasis on the usefulness of history and a disdain for pleasure, a contempt for partisan or eulogistic historical writing, and an insistence on the careful collection of first-hand evidence, preferably through autopsy. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the notion that history can be written best with only the most minimal attention to literary technique: literary style brings with it dangers (of bias, unnecessary elaboration, distortion), and it should be avoided as much as possible. Lucian praises a military memoir (hypomnema) written in entirely everyday language (the language of the cross-roads), as an example of how little attention need be paid to style in effective historical writing (16). The historian becomes, in this analysis, merely the transmitter of the events onto the page. There must be some discussion of how to write, but the style that Lucian advocates is almost an anti-style, one characterised by the suppression of any instinct by the historian to intrude his own personality too obviously into his work.

An interesting characteristic of the work is its frequent use of comparisons taken from the world of the painting, sculpture, and even architecture (e. g., 10, paintings of Hercules and Omphale wearing each other’s clothes; 27, the statue of Zeus at Olympia; and 33, where Lucian’s theory of history is to be built on the ground that he has, up to this point, been clearing of thistles and brambles). At one particularly climactic point, Lucian brings together his sense that historical writing is essentially a visual, rather than a linguistic, matter when he distinguishes the work of the historian from that of the orator (51):

[The ideal historian] should make his mind like a limpid mirror, polished and sharp in its focal point. Whatever images of deeds he receives, he must display them just as they are, not distorted or faded or misshapen in any way. For they don’t write like orators; rather, what is to be said exists, and will be spoken, since it has already happened. It is only necessary to put it in order and say it.

Visual imagery allows Lucian to imagine a process where the mechanisms normally necessary to the creation of a written account are entirely minimised: events will bring with them their own means of expression; anything further will count as distortion. And throughout the work, the source of this distortion is seen to be rhetoric: it is this that encourages historians to put the perpetuation of their own skill above their loyalty to the truth. Bad historians are repeatedly characterised as writing in order to achieve a particular aim of their own: popularity with the public or with those in power. By minimising style and focusing on the truth, the historian himself will be subordinating himself to history rather than using history to enhance his own reputation.

With Lucian, we find ourselves dealing more explicitly with the contrast detectable already in Homer between words and things. Lucian explicitly compares the ideal historian to the all seeing, all knowing, Homeric Zeus (49). The point of the image, like most of the images in his essay, is to find a means of extricating the historian from the normal process of human communication: competing logoi or the forms of elaboration which rhetorically-minded audiences demand from their literature. Lucian deliberately wants to make history into a different kind of literature, and his elevation of the status of the historian to someone almost god-like in mental capacity must, presumably, pick up on the ambitions of Thucydides to find a form of communication that is immune from the normal pressures of social communication that concern normal mortals. Historiography continues to regret, from time to time, the moment of its inception, when the historian’s own voice replaced the voice of the omniscient Muse.