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The Rhetoric of Corruption in Late Antiquity

  • Author(s): Watson, Tim William
  • Advisor(s): Salzman, Michele R.
  • et al.

Faced with the ubiquitous presence of immorality and corruption in the written sources of the late Roman empire, modern scholars have often viewed such accounts as direct reflections of conditions during this period. The historian Ramsay MacMullen, for example, attributes to the fourth-century expansion of the imperial bureaucracy the spread of an ethos of venality and the displacement of aristocratic networks of patronage by the indiscriminate exchange of favors for money. Christopher Kelly, on the other hand, sees such descriptions as merely a rhetorical manifestation of elite anxieties over their loss of influence in an increasingly heterogeneous society. I argue that neither of these views is wholly correct. Instead, the rhetoric of corruption served the traditional upper classes of the empire as a tool of fashioning self and group identity. This can be seen in the writings of three contemporary elite authors, the conservative Roman senator, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, Antioch's official teacher of rhetoric, Libanius, and the bishop of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus. In his letters and speeches, Symmachus focuses primarily on two classical vices, corrupt solicitation and luxury, in order to re-establish the boundaries of proper senatorial conduct. In constructing corruption in this manner, he demonstrates the appropriate mixture of business (negotium) and leisure (otium) in a senator's life, and clarifies what constitutes a dignified otium. Libanius uses the language and imagery of corruption as a means of reinforcing the traditional connection between education and virtue. The self-control developed specifically in the labors of rhetorical training curbed the inclination to turn public office into a source of personal profit. Lastly, Gregory of Nazianzus interweaves Christian imagery and biblical references into classical depictions of corruption and vice in order to fashion the ideal bishop as a philosopher and thereby grant special distinction to the hierarchy of the Christian church. Yet, in spite of their differences, central to the rhetorical strategy of all three authors is a conception of nobility that privileged virtue over wealth and birth. Ultimately, then, the rhetoric of corruption served as a means of assimilation in an era of unprecedented social mobility.

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