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The personification of eloquence, style, and verbal art as feminine, a key trope in Graeco-Roman conceptualizations of literature, remains underexplored in classical scholarship, especially as it pertains to the larger ideological missions carried out by this embodied metaphorical system. This paper analyzes the multifaceted gender dynamics at play within ancient rhetorical theory to demonstrate how personification interacted with both an anxious poetics of manhood as well as an aesthetics of perfection.

Buffon’s famous declaration that “style is the man himself” (from the 1753 lecture Discours sur le Style) can only partially apply to 1st-century BCE Rome: as my gender-bending title implies, two of the most prolific ancient theorists of verbal art––Cicero and Dionysius of Halicarnassus––presented their rhetorical theories through the woman. In this paper, I first explore the cultural and political fears revealed by the feminine embodiment of verbal art. Cicero personifies expression and oratory (dictio and oratio) as martial female figures skilled in battle (in de Oratore 1.157 and 2.187; similarly Orator 63-64), endowing feminine nouns with masculine qualities and thereby assuaging fears of effeminate style. In Dionysius’ essay On the Ancient Orators, fears of the corrupting cultural influence of the Asiatic rhetorical style are embodied by a foreign “harlot” (hetaira), who vanquishes the personification of Attic style, a lawful and chaste wife (eleuthera kai sôphrôn gametê).

In the second part of this paper, I examine a striking feature that counterbalances and complements such symptomatic indications of cultural fear: the use of the female body to theorize perfection. Zeuxis, the renowned classical painter who combined the most beautiful body parts of many women when drawing the perfect female form of Helen of Troy, is used by both writers as a metaphor through which to imagine the ideal manner of creating and experiencing perfected verbal art (in the first chapter of Cicero’s de Inventione Book II, and in Dionysius’ On Imitation).

Previous mention of the above passages has taken gender and feminine embodiment as ancillary to themes of mimesis (Mansfield 2007, Hunter 2009), classicization (de Jonge 2014), and metaphor (Leidl 2003). Scholarship on gender in ancient rhetorical theory has focused primarily on how the smooth, elegant subcategory of style is gendered “feminine” in opposition to the harsher grand style (Keith 1999, Worman 2015); it does not account for the feminization of verbal art more broadly. Finally, while important work has been done on fears of effeminacy and the cultivation of masculine oratorical delivery styles (Gleason 1995, Gunderson 2000), the implications of the contradictory idea that oratory itself is gendered female despite fears of effeminacy have not been fully explicated.

Understanding how gender colors the theories of Cicero and Dionysius clarifies ancient conceptualizations of verbal art and literary history, as it simultaneously illuminates one stage in the wider history of the objectification of female figures. Notions of the feminine––idealizing and vilifying––have influenced aesthetic discourses and notions of “beauty” throughout modernity.