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The Rhetoric of παρρησία in Greek Imperial Writers

Matthew Taylor

The Greek term παρρησία has a historical life: it possesses a different meaning under different periods and in different contexts, denoting a practice, an ideal, or a right. This paper focuses specifically on παρρησία as the ethically-oriented performance of frank-speaking that Foucault schematizes as “monarchic parrhesia,” and explores how Greek authors under the Principate deployed it as a rhetorical trope with which to pass judgment on Roman emperors.

Monarchic παρρησία requires certain generic circumstances in order to be properly constituted: the frank-speaker (or παρρησιαστής) must stand in a subordinate position to his interlocutor, must therefore be in some danger when speaking frankly to him, and consequently must be understood to manifest courage in choosing to speak frankly even in the face of such danger. Παρρησία in the monarchic context is classically oriented towards helping the monarch govern better, in the interest of himself, the παρρησιαστής, and, indeed, all of his subjects. While it requires the παρρησιαστής to commit himself to speak sincerely, the discourse of παρρησία also enjoins the monarch to observe what Foucault calls “the parrhesiastic contract,” withholding his anger so as to permit the expression of frank advice. The monarch must also show himself capable of discerning true παρρησία from flattery (κολακεία). This paradigm of monarchic παρρησία—which was established as early as Plato (Laws 3.694A–B)—with its rules of behavior for all involved, provided Greek authors with a straightforward means to characterize the just ruler—whether Greek or Roman.

This paper concentrates in particular on three authors who wrote in Greek under the Roman emperors—Josephus, Cassius Dio, and Philo—in order to demonstrate how the discourse of monarchic παρρησία was still very active in this period. It first examines a sequence of passages in Josephus (Ant. 15.187, 189, 193–4, 217, 362) where παρρησία is used to characterize the relationship between Herod, Augustus, and Agrippa; Herod takes on the role of παρρησιαστής, and his continued success in offering παρρησία to the Romans is used to indicate both his standing with them and their own benevolence as rulers of the empire. Turning to Dio, it looks briefly at the famous debate between Agrippa and Maecenas (52.2–40), itself an exercise in παρρησία, wherein Maecenas, as the advocate for μοναρχία, preaches to Augustus the value of observing the parrhesiastic contract (52.33.6). The paper reserves its longest treatment for Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium, which it argues is nothing less than a sustained demonstration of the values inherent to parrhesiastic discourse; here, however, the terms of the contract are turned to critique, as the emperor Gaius’ programmatic failure to appreciate the παρρησία offered to him figures him as the worst kind of tyrant, and prefigures his treatment of Philo’s embassy at the climax of the text.

While recent years have seen the publication of several monographs and volumes on free speech (Sluiter & Rosen), παρρησία (Monoson, Markovits), and libertas (Arena, Kapust), none of them have yet addressed the practice of monarchic παρρησία as it appears in Greek authors under the Principate. Wirszubski—still a touchstone in most discussions of free speech in a Roman context—is decidedly thin on this period, and does not address παρρησία directly. While this paper is heavily indebted to Foucault, his work on παρρησία was limited by his expertise and  ultimately most interested in the psychagogic role to be played by philosophy in such exchanges. Roller has treated the practice of speaking truth to power under the Principate at some length, but works mainly with Seneca and is more concerned with how Roman aristocrats were to use frank speech to construct their social relationships with the emperor. This paper takes a more philological approach than Foucault, and adopts a more Greek perspective than Roller, in order to show how Greek authors turned monarchic παρρησία to their own advantage as writers, and to the advantage of their readers as subjects of the emperors.

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Free Speech

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