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How Not to Compose Prose: Hegesias of Magnesia as an Antimodel of Style

Steven Ooms

In ancient literary criticism the name of the Greek rhetorician and historian Hegesias of Magnesia is inextricably connected to bad taste. We find fierce criticisms of his style in Cicero (Brut. 286, Or. 226, 230) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Comp. 4.11, 18.21-29). According to the latter, Hegesias epitomizes bad composition: “In the large volume of writing which the man has left behind, you could not find a single page that has been felicitously composed” (Comp. 18.23). The purpose of this paper is to establish why it is that ancient critics such as Cicero and Dionysius take offense at Hegesias’ prose.

            Hegesias’ style is usually described as affected, puerile, and monotonous – by ancients and moderns alike (Norden 1909, Roberts 1910). This verdict is rooted in the ideology of classicism and Atticism: Hegesias is presented as the symbol for all that is un-Attic, the paradigm of Asianism (Wiater 2011). Furthermore, as I argue, Hegesias does not satisfy the criteria of the theory of composition (σύνθεσις, compositio) that Cicero and Dionysius dictate. This can be checked in the surviving fragments of Hegesias, which have hitherto received only little attention (Spinelli 1989).

            This paper consists of three parts. First, it explores the use of Hegesias by classicist and Atticist critics. Hegesias is believed to be a founding father of the Asiatic school and is hence held responsible for the radical break in style and mentality after Alexander’s death. Dionysius (Comp. 18.22) describes Hegesias’ degeneracy in moral terms: he is “bedeviled and mentally deranged,” and his words “could be adopted only by women or emasculated men.” In every respect Hegesias is constructed as the nemesis of the classicist program.

            Second, the condemnation of Hegesias’ style is connected to the theory of composition. This theory, which Cicero and Dionysius derive from rhetorical, poetical and musical doctrines, concerns word order and sentence structure. Hegesias allegedly does not meet the important requirements of composition, such as nobility of rhythm, variation and propriety. Dionysius (Comp. 4.11) rewrites a sentence from Herodotus, once in the style of Thucydides, and a second time in the style of Hegesias. In both instances Dionysius changes only the order of the words: thus he allows us to see at a glance his conception of good and bad composition.

            Third, we turn to Hegesias’ own words. The largest surviving fragment comes to us through Dionysius (Comp. 18.26), who quotes a sample from Hegesias’ prose without an accompanying analysis: he rather leaves it up to his readers to assess the style of the passage. A close reading reveals that Hegesias’ style of composition indeed deviates from Cicero’s and Dionysius’ standards. It seems, however, that their prejudice against Hegesias also weighs heavy in their judgment: the only reason why Hegesias’ rhythms are considered “degenerate” and “effeminate,” it seems, is that they are his.

            The story of Hegesias is the story of a literary outcast. His style was rejected, based on an interplay of bias, analysis and theory. He constitutes a case study of ancient literary tastes. On the one hand, we have the rare opportunity to study non-canonical prose style. On the other hand, his case offers us insights into the process of canonization: Hegesias was used as a foil to the examples of Attic style, and as such he underscores, by contrast, the distinctive qualities of “good” prose.          

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