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Historiography and intertextuality: the case for classical rhetoric

Scott Kennedy

The Ohio State University; Dumbarton Oaks

In recent years, classicists have increasingly explored the intersection of intertextuality and historiography. A series of SCS panels, articles, and books have have questioned how historiographical intertextuality relates to poetic intertextuality (e.g., O'Gorman 2009; Damon 2010; Levene 2010: chap. 2; Pelling 2013). They have raised the questions: how do historians reflect or contradict the prevailing cultural discourses? How do they translate reality into words? How do historians interact with literary texts? One aspect of the latter question that has been overlooked thus far is the role of ancient schools and rhetorical theory. Modern studies of intertextuality often compare texts A and B with little regard for the educational practices that mediated A for the author of B. This paper will contend that historiographical intertextuality was far from innocent, but mediated by the practices of those rhetors who taught later writers how to read history. Since Thucydides was widely used in imperial era rhetorical schools (Nicolai 1992), generating an ample corpus of criticism and scholia, this paper will use Thucydides as an emblem for the greater issue. By examining how rhetors taught Thucydides in the classroom, we can better understand how later historians intertextualized Thucydides.

The first section of this paper will consider issues of propriety, τὸ πρέπον in classical rhetoric. Ancient scholars often faulted Thucydides for malice and impropriety. For example, the scholia to Thucydides draw attention to the Athenian plague (2.47-54), accusing Thucydides of slandering (διαβολή) the Athenians when he describes the Athenians’ wholesale descent into vice in 2.53 (Hude 1927: 142). For historians trained in rhetorical schools, Thucydides' bias problematized their reading of this passage. Writing their own plague scenes modeled after Thucydides, historians such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus (9.42.1-2, 10.53) and Livy (41.21) often avoided imitating 2.53. Out of a possible nine imitations of Thucydides’ plague from the ancient world, only Procopius imitated 2.53. However, his adaptation is noticeably improved to avoid charges of slander. He crucially notes that only some members of society were morally bankrupted by the Justinianic plague (541-2 CE), rather than society in general (History of the Wars 2.23.14-16).

More provocatively, the second section of this paper will suggest that there other forms of intertextuality recognized by ancient readers, which escape modern scholars. In deliberative oratory, rhetors formed their argument around principal themes called headings (e.g., Expediency, Justice, and Feasibility). Over time, rhetors observed certain patterns in Thucydides' deliberative speeches. For example, ancient rhetors noted the sharp dichotomy between Expediency and Justice in Thucydides' Corcyran debate (1.32-43). Just like modern commentators (Hornblower 1991: 75; Pepe 2013: 35), the scholia note that the Corcyrans offer arguments based on Expediency, while the Corinthians rely on Justice (Hude 1927: 33). When they taught their students to write speeches, rhetors often encouraged students to lift headings from a model text. These habits endure when their students went on to write their own texts. As an example of this phenomenon, I will discuss Livy’s treatment of the outbreak of the First Samnite War in 343 BCE (7.29-31). Modeled on Thucydides' Corcyran debate (Oakley 1998: 293-4), the speech of the Campanian delegation before the Roman senate re-appropriates Thucydides' headings. But while replicating Thucydides’ arguments, Livy reverses the outcome of the Corcyran debate, confounding his readers’ expectations. Thucydides’ Athenians had been swayed by the Corcyrans’ arguments from Expediency, but Livy’s Romans remain unmoved, refusing to start an unjust war with the Samnites. Livy thus shows the moral superiority of Rome over Athens with this Thucydidean intertext.

Classical rhetoric has many limitations as an interpretive tool for the modern critic. But by better understanding how the theories and educational directives of rhetors impacted the study of historical texts, we can see intertextual connections through a lense that would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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Style and Rhetoric

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