The Network for Oratory and Politics sponsored a panel at this year’s Classical Association
Annual Conference in Edinburgh. The panel focused on ‘Political Oratory: Addressing the Powerful through the Ages’, which took as its starting point the fact that some forms of oratory can be expected to share traits across historical periods, cultural milieus and political circumstances. The reason for these shared traits are similarities in the relationship between orator and addressee and the resulting negotiations of authority and power within such a relationship.
This panel explored oratory aimed at powerful individuals and groups in four different historical and political contexts: the oratory of Demosthenes in the Athenian city-state of the fourth century BC, the oratory of Cicero in the first-century Roman Republic, Latin political oratory in late antiquity, and the communication from members of the public to politicians in modern British politics. Themes going through the papers were the attempts to build up authority and credibility when addressing the powerful, the extent to which orators could criticise the powerful, the flexibility in the power dynamics of this kind of rhetoric, and the varieties in communicative modes between the powerful and the not so powerful.
Dr Guy Westwood (University of Oxford) focused in his paper ‘Power and Danger in Demosthenes’ earlier speeches’ on Demosthenes’ various strategies for dealing with the political elite. He argues that Demosthenes confronts several established senior politicians, developing an often vitriolic rhetoric designed to criticise them for contemporary policy failures and to recommend himself as a compelling, ‘true’ alternative. Guy Westwood showed how this rhetoric – calculating how to treat those in authority and how to sound independently authoritative to mass audiences – functioned as a decisive thematic template for Demosthenes’ proposals regarding how Athens should confront king Philip of Macedon: the rhetoric pivoted on the issue of existential threat to Athens and its democracy, to its values and identity in the case of the apparently self-interested political class, and to its physical being in the case of the expansionist Philip. This demonstrated that the dynamics of addressing the powerful could be made highly flexible and mutually adaptable between the full range of individuals and groups worth challenging in Athenian public contexts, offering orators like Demosthenes significant opportunities for creative framing and linking of apparently disparate issues.
Dr Henriette van der Blom (NOP/University of Glasgow) spoke under the title of ‘Cicero and the rhetoric of asymmetrical relationship’. The paper analysed three case studies of Ciceronian speeches in which he addressed a powerful individual or institution by using various techniques for dealing with the asymmetrical relationship: Cicero’s Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino which took the dictator Sulla into account, De domo sua on his house to the priestly college of pontiffs, and his speech of thanks to the dictator Julius Caesar, the Pro Marcello. Henriette van der Blom showed how Cicero developed an oratorical persona, combining elements of the underdog, the expert, and the good citizen, and thereby managed to negotiate the delicate balance between submission and arrogance. In doing so, Cicero showed his contemporary and future audiences ways in which to address the powerful whilst keeping the dignity of the speaker intact.
Dr Roger Rees (University of St Andrews) focused on a much neglected set of sources, namely panegyrical speeches to the Roman emperors from the second to the fifth centuries AD in his paper ‘The Voices of Political Praise in Late Antiquity’. Roger Rees introduced us to these speeches (often delivered by now anonymous orators) and the dynamics of the exchange. The Panegyrici Latini collection offers a ready opportunity to explore the variety of literary and rhetorical means by which such orators asserted the authority of their rhetorical voice, and Roger Rees explored various categories for such means: effacement of the self and the insistence on fulfilment of civic responsibility, prosopopeia by which an orator could ventriloquise a more authoritative voice, and the use of earlier texts, iconic and otherwise, as cultural authority.
Finally, Dr David S. Moon (University of Bath) brought us from antiquity and up to the modern day with his paper ‘Modern Political Oratory within Heteronomous Politics.’ David Moon charmed the classicists in the audience with his funny, insightful and thought-provoking analysis of so-called public debates between politicians and the general public. His example of an exchange between the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, and a member of the public seemingly planted to voice an anti-immigration view point, showed the artificiality of public political debates, the expectations of such debates, and – on a higher level – the exchange of trust between politicians and the public.
The four papers were each followed by lively discussions. In spite of the large differences between the four historical contexts, the parallels between the strategies for addressing the powerful were obvious: the speaker had a choice between combining flattery with exhortation (Cicero and the Latin panegyrists) and attacking/criticising the powerful (Demosthenes and the questioners in the modern public debates). This choice was bound up with expectations of outcome and careful consideration of the speakers’ authority, but all of them involved an attempt at asserting the speaker’s status and dignity.