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Artistic license and civic responsibility in Greek and Roman declamation

Craig Gibson

In Greco-Roman rhetorical instruction, artists appear in ethopoeia, ecphrasis, and declamation. Taken collectively, these advanced rhetorical exercises invited elite young men to consider the potential conflicts between the private pursuits of those who, like themselves, possess technical expertise and the public good of their local communities.

In ethopoeia, the artist is portrayed as a private craftsman limited only by his technical competence. But with this freedom comes certain dangers. Working in isolation, with no avowed higher purpose than personal aesthetic gratification, and with no patrons or public duties, he runs the risk of being defeated by, falling in love with, or even becoming part of his artistic creation (Libanius, Ethopoeiae 11, 27).

In ecphrasis and declamation, by contrast, artists live in a community, and their art has recognized public functions. In his ecphrases, Ps.-Nicolaus urges the reader/viewer to understand statues in moral terms and to see the artist as a moral educator. Declamation, in turn, imagines the artist in conflict with other individuals or with the state. Here the artist runs afoul of public opinion when he gives into unrestricted artistic license, failing to consider the public effects of the art he produces. In Seneca the Elder, Parrhasius tortures an Olynthian slave to serve as a model for a painting of Prometheus (Controversia 10.5). Declaimers criticized Parrhasius for displaying a lack of piety and not using a guilty slave, thereby wronging his model, the viewer, and the state through his misuse of artistic license (Morales). In Choricius Declamation 8, a Spartan citizen argues that artistic innovation should be governed by moral, community-oriented concerns. When ugly female babies were being born at Sparta, the oracle advised the Spartans to appease Aphrodite with a new statue of her. Ostensibly in order to re-establish divine favor toward the state, the famous sculptor Praxiteles made such a statue, but he modeled it after the courtesan Phryne. Similarly, in three themes recorded in stasis handbooks, artists are accused of harming the interests of the state: (a) A painter displays his painting of a shipwreck in the harbor, and ships refuse to dock there (Hermogenes 65.18-20). The state argues that, despite his being a private individual, the artist has abused the arts to the public detriment, harming the city economically by cutting off its imports. The artist counters by portraying himself as an educator who, as Hermogenes says, makes himself useful to the community by advising to the best of his ability, as he is legally entitled to do. (b) Alcibiades is charged with harming the state when, recalled to Athens, he returns with drinking cups decorated with scenes from the Sicilian expedition (Hermogenes 68.6-8). The prosecutor argues that the art reminds the community of their suffering, making them grieve and lose their confidence for war. (c) After Marathon, the Athenian artist Micon paints the Persians bigger than the Greeks (Sopatros VIII 126.26-145.8). As part of his defense, Micon offers to erase the painting, but the city argues that the emotional damage to the community cannot so easily be undone. In each case artistic license exercised without forethought has unintended societal consequences.

In ethopoeia, the artist’s failures are private failures, affecting him alone. Ecphrasis celebrates the artist’s successes and portrays him as a public educator. Declamation, in turn, takes this successful artist and educator and pits him against his community. Despite his protestations that he is a private individual with artistic license, the prosecution argues that he is in fact a public figure with public responsibilities: he is advisor, moral authority, propagandist, and a craftsman with the power to help his community celebrate their common successes without causing undue private grief over their losses. Declamation thus calls the artist—and by extension, I suggest, the young orator in training—to a higher sense of civic responsibility.

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Civic Responsibility

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