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A Child’s Game and Sensory Perception in Minucius Felix’s Octavius

Christopher S. van den Berg

Amherst College

This paper examines the interconnection of sensual perception and rhetorical argument in Minucius Felix’s apologetic dialogue Octavius (early third-century CE). I argue that the dialogue’s initial staging—an idyllic scene of children skipping shards across the water near Ostia—serves as an allegory of the conflict between human knowledge and rhetorical expression of the divine, a theme revisited in the debate and its allusions to Ciceronian dialogues. My paper draws on scholarship on the senses (e.g. Squire 2015) and intertextuality (e.g. Hinds 1998).

Interpretations of the Octavius have emphasized the physical setting’s reflection of competing philosophical positions (Fürst 1999), the opening scene’s allusions to religious conversion (Uhle 2008), and the work’s broad-ranging philosophical sources (e.g. Becker 1967, Gärtner 1999, Freund 2000, Heyden 2009). Little has been said about the meaning of the game of epostrakismos (3.5-4.1; on its accuracy, see Pastorino 1956, Labhardt 1964). Epostrakismos involves skipping shards or stones across the water more often (frequentius) and farther (longius) than one’s competitors. The topic—a child’s game—and the lavish physical detail of the preface have often been taken as belletristic scene-setting or dialogue convention modeled on Plato and Cicero. Yet, I argue, the description is crucial to the dialogue’s examination and promotion of sensory perception. The scene is an allegory of epistemological conflict: the visually perceptible and verifiable stones cross the water’s surface but then plunge into the imperceptible-yet-undeniable depths below the surface. This allegory anticipates a fundamental tension in the work: logical and rhetorical arguments about religious practices come into conflict with claims to know unseen divine forces or to hold impugnable religious beliefs.

It is hardly surprising that sensory perception is a mainstay of the work’s antagonistic reworking of two key intertextual models, Cicero’s de Divinatione and de Natura Deorum (cf. Beaujeu 1964 passim, Valgiglio 1973, Heck 2009). I conclude the paper by examining a select number of intertexts. Minucius tendentiously revises and challenges the Ciceronian material to emphasize feeling or perception as valid forms of proof. For example, Octavius refashions Ciceronian language to emphasize feeling and perception as well as understanding. Thus, sentiri perspici intellegi (17.6) are all necessary to comprehend divine truth, yet the Ciceronian forerunner for the surrounding passage had focused solely on the rational intelligibility of phenomena (ratione intellegi, nat. 2.115). This is but one example of the brazen rewriting of Cicero’s theological perspectives (or those of his dialogues’ speakers). Minucius repeatedly promotes the validity of feeling and perception where Cicero had emphasized rational thought.

The Octavius has often been depicted as theoretically facile, lacking real debate (O’Connor 1976, Powell 2007), and reductive in portraying Roman religion (Kytzler 1993, Rüpke 2006). The work’s emphasis on the senses underlies its exploration of religious knowledge—indeed Minucius tacitly signals the importance of visual perception in the name of his soon-to-be-converted interlocutor Caecilius (“The Blind”). The Octavius thus represents a crucial stage in the transformation of Ciceronian dialogue and religious inquiry.

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