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Coloring Outside the Lines: Magnus Felix Ennodius’ Distorted Declamations

Miller Krause

Sophistopolis was never a pretty place: the fictional world of Roman declamation was surrounded by pirates, filled with poisoners, and run in turn by the treasonous rich and the envious poor when not subject to tyranny.  Yet, beautiful rhetoric flourished in its courts, where the erudite turned their eloquence to the resolution of conflicts, the reconciliation of families, and the restoration of justice.  This forms the fabric of declamatory myth, which, as Beard (1993) points out, sets the declaimer in the leading role of a mythopoetic drama that constantly renegotiates questions of ethics and identity.  The late fifth or early sixth century deacon and bishop Magnus Felix Ennodius, however, composed a series of Dictiones that self-consciously receive the earlier declamatory tradition and deform it, painting a much darker and grittier picture of a Sophistopolis where the legal safeguards by which rhetoric could solve problems have failed, and where only condemnation and judicial violence remain.  Ennodius is an understudied figure in the understudied genre of declamation.  Kennell (2000:74–78) reads Ennodius’ Dictiones in reference to the Church and contemporary events; I choose instead to explore the Dictiones as a reaction to declamation.
First, I briefly explore the character of earlier Roman controversiae.  While rhetors dominated the tradition, nevertheless Philo of Larissa, his pupil Cicero, and the authors of the Lives of the Orators associate philosophy with hypothetical argumentation as a form of ethical, quasi-medical therapy.  In practice, the declaimers often invent colores that turn acts terminating social and familial bonds, like the father’s right of abdicatio, into chances for redemption and reconciliation.  Most of the actions are private, and declamations featuring public prosecutors are rare.
Ennodius clearly knows the genre and its rules, going so far as to produce in Dictio 21 a full-length response to a pseudo-Quintilianic case (apparently Declamatio Maior 5, although see Winterbottom 2003:285–286) resembling the parable of the prodigal son.  Yet, his other Dictiones are much briefer, with little argumentation besides stern condemnation of his opponent.  His themata often break unwritten rules of the genre: although stepmothers of classical declamations often poison their stepsons, they never do their husbands; the noverca of Dictio 15 kills both.  While the logic of jurisdiction prevents a tyrant, who usurps and nullifies the authority of law, from answering charges in court, Ennodius prosecutes one in Dictio 18 on behalf of the city.  
In fact, he acts as a public prosecutor in most of these controversiae, contrary to the usual declamatory practice of arguing private cases.  Dictiones 21 and 23 are private, but the remainder of his controversiae, Dictiones 14–20, are public, and the advocate of Dictio 23, speaking for a mother assaulted by her son (pace Kennell 2000:160–167, who wants the mother dead), occupies a space between aggrieved citizen and public prosecutor.  
Often, the need for a public prosecutor arises because no aggrieved party remains.  Where a Sophistopolitan father normally would bring his son to court for not supporting him in his old age, as is the case in Dictio 21, the father of Dictio 17 failed to do so and died of starvation.  Likewise, while declamatory fathers normally bring an action of abdicatio against a prodigal son, the uncorrected son of Dictio 19 gambles away the land of his parents’ tomb.  Ennodius prosecutes the sons in both cases.  Declamation’s usual therapeutic mechanisms for repairing people and their relationships have failed, and it remains for Ennodius to invent a new kind of speech to explain to his fictive audience of cognitores these new kinds of crimes (novum facinoris genus qua explicem novitate sermonum, Dictio 19).  Ennodius’ Dictiones form a declamatory or post-declamatory subgenre of condemnation through zealous prosecution whose superhuman authority surpasses even the autocracy of tyrants, and where declamatory therapy is replaced by the medica manus, Ennodius’ circumlocution for euthanasia (Dictiones 17 and 18).

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