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7-10-2015, 21:42

Rhetoric and Greek Identity

The Magnesian ambassadors who travelled to Epidamnus highlighted their city’s role in defending Delphi against marauding barbarians intent on plundering the sanctuary of Apollo (quoted above). The opposition between Greek and barbarian was a staple of Greek political rhetoric. By invoking it the Magnesians were placing themselves within a longstanding tradition as defenders of the Greeks against outsiders, in this case the Celts. This was a strategy that both excluded and included, affirming the shared Greekness of those who were not barbarians. The Magnesians’ proposed panhellenic festival was for all Greeks and their conduct in the past justified their claim to hold such a festival. Nonetheless the term ‘barbarian’ was rather more flexible than such rhetorical conventions might suggest, its exclusiveness depending as much upon the insider as the outsider.

The recurring theme of the menace of the barbarian can be traced back to the fifth century and the Greek victory over the invading Persians. Then it not only underpins the anti-Persian stance of the Delian League but also finds expression in some of the key literary works of the period, Aeschylus’ Persians and Herodotus’ Histories for instance. The identity of the barbarian may change but the threat persists. For Isocrates the struggle between Greek and barbarian had been under way since the Trojan War and now it was necessary to launch a panhellenic campaign against the Persians.31 Demosthenes, on the other hand, advocated Greek unity in the face of the barbarian Macedonians under Philip.32 By the late fourth century the Persian empire had ceased to exist and the Macedonians were the rulers of a Greek East. Conveniently around 280 Celtic incursions into mainland Greece and Asia Minor created a new barbarian menace and one that was quickly absorbed into the repertoire of anti-barbarian rhetoric. Comparisons between victory over the Celts and victory over the Persians were explicit and widespread.33

A more formidable non-Greek people was soon to appear, the Romans. Again, those opposed to the growing influence of this new power sought to build unity by stressing the barbarian character of the Romans.34 Polybius presents a fascinating debate at Sparta in 210 not long after the Aetolian League had made an alliance with Rome. Chlaeneas, an Aetolian ambassador, addresses the Spartans, seeking to persuade them to align themselves with Aetolia and Rome against Macedon while his Acarnarnian counterpart, Lyciscus, warns against such a course (9.28-39). Chlaeneas reminds his audience how the Aetolians alone had resisted the Celtic invasion, ‘the attack of Brennus and his barbarians’.35 In response Lyciscus acknowledges this but turns it around. Whatever their past achievements the Aetolians are now allied to a barbarian people who are a threat to Greece, and the Spartans who had themselves defeated the barbarians in the Persian Wars should remember their ancestors and reject the Aetolian offer; it was not Aetolia who was the saviour of Greece against the barbarians, he argued, but Macedon itself. The reliability of these Polybian speeches might be questioned but they give a sense of the way that the Greek-barbarian opposition continued to play a major role in Greek political debate.

Greek rhetoric may have posited a sharp divide between Greek and barbarian but in practice matters were rather hazier than this. Rhetoric itself promoted Greekness. It was conducted in Greek and practised by the Greek-speaking elite of the Eastern Mediterranean, but, although it joined Greeks together, it was not exclusive. It was a skill that could, with effort and expenditure, be acquired, and thus it offered a means of becoming Greek to those who wished to participate more fully in what was now the dominant culture of the East. Only the Romans were to adopt rhetoric and remove it from this Greek context, creating instead a Latin rhetoric but still bringing with it the notion of the ‘barbarian’.36 Something of the flexibility of the concept of Greekness can be seen in the example of the Lycians who were discussed above. They were a non-Greek people from southern Asia Minor with their own language, funeral practices, and religious customs, but one that increasingly borrowed from their Greek neighbours with the result that in the Hellenistic period Lycian public inscriptions were in Greek.37 When the Lycians of Xanthus gave praise to Themistocles, the visiting speaker from Ilium, for his rhetorical skills, they were not only honouring him but also saying something about themselves: that they could appreciate rhetoric and share in things Greek. It is this same concern that led them to inscribe the complex genealogical arguments of the Cytinian ambassadors that wove the Lycians into the community of Greeks and gave them a Greek heritage. All this highlights the ambiguous character of Greekness; it is both an ethnic designation and something that can be acquired, and rhetoric, in spite of its emphasis on the opposition between Greek and barbarian, is one of the entry points.

Rhetoric in both Classical and Hellenistic times was bound up with the polis. Far from marking its end the Hellenistic period might even, paradoxically, be considered the age of the polis as Alexander and his successors extended the polis beyond its traditional confines. New cities were eager to embrace the central elements of Greek civic culture, both its physical manifestations, such as the gymnasium requested by Toriaians above, and the more abstract, the practice of rhetoric in particular. Both allowed cities, old and new, to share in the community of Greeks, a community that, however imagined it may have been, was especially active at this time. Rhetoric played its part in not only the internal affairs of the cities but also the extensive interaction between cities, as the elite of one city visited and addressed their counterparts elsewhere.

Rhetoric and oratory flourished in this Hellenistic world. Indeed they may even have been more necessary than before as the rise of the kingdoms limited the means of persuasion available to a city-state. In a powerful polis such as fifth-century Athens the form of persuasion varied with context; rhetoric would be used in the Assembly or the courts, and also when Athens sent embassies abroad, but Athens had no qualms about threatening force against those weaker than it as Thucydides’ Melian dialogue starkly demonstrates (5.84-116). This latter role, however, came to be largely taken over by the Hellenistic king, leaving rhetoric for the polis. Only with the arrival of Rome does a single city-state effectively combine the practice of rhetoric with the persuasive power of force, but Rome is something very different. For the rest rhetoric became an essential part of civic life and self-representation.38