This study investigates how literary battles fought over rhetorical style in ancient Rome and in the Renaissance concerned far more than style. Rather, the invective deployed in such disputes emerged in direct response to important sociopolitical changes and presented speakers and writers with a means to define and control the ethical and political boundaries of their societies. The six chapters within explore this idea in Roman rhetorical theory and in the works of Cicero, Seneca the Elder, and Poggio Bracciolini.
While the “Republic of Letters” familiar from the study of Early Modernity did not exist in ancient Rome, the term describes what happened when the traditional civic functions of oratory declined in the transition from Republic to Principate: writers attributed greater meaning to rhetorical style in itself. As eloquentia retreated from the Forum and the political assemblies to the study and the schoolroom, writers constructed their own identities through their style, and engaged in stylistic polemics in order to attack personal enemies and ethical and political systems. Ultimately, this practice has its origins in the belief that speech reveals character.
Chapters 1 and 2 lay the foundation for the later chapters, as Chapter 1 reviews discussions of invective in ancient Latin rhetorical treatises, and Chapter 2 considers the understanding that speech corresponds to character: talis oratio, qualis vita.
Chapters 3 and 4 cover works Cicero composed after the outbreak of the Civil War: Chapter 3 investigates Cicero’s polemical defense of his own style and attack on the Neo-Atticists in the Orator (46 BC); Chapter 4 takes up the Second Philippic (44 BC), which, besides smearing Antony’s morals and lambasting his oratorical blunders, serves as a meditation on the metaphorical violence of invective.
Chapter 5 examines the elder Seneca’s attitude towards the effect of style on morals and the effect of politics on oratory in his anthology of school practice speeches. Chapter 6, a prolegomenon to further study, considers Poggio’s complex relationship to foul language: while Poggio utters strictures against obscenity in his letters, he embraces it in his own invectives, attacking Francesco Filelfo obscenely for his obscene poetry.