Tuesday, February 04, 2003

The Rise of the Panegyric in Roman Oratory

In my audio course on the history of Rome, Professor Fagan pointed out the rise of the panegyric in Roman oratory during the imperial period. I was interested to learn more about it and found the following reference in James D. Garrisons Dryden and the Tradition of Panegyric:
"A late addition to the Latin language, the word panegyricus occurs only rarely in the Republican period and still infrequently in the early years of the empire. Cicero, for example, does not use the word except to refer specifically to Isocrates oration, while Quintilian finds only three occasions to use it in the entire course of the Institutio Oratorio. By the fourth century, however, the word is commonly used to designate an oration, either in prose or verse, addressed to a public figure, usually the emperor. The most important and enduring examples of late Roman panegyric are by the poet Claudian. Between 395 and 404, Claudian attached the panegyricus label to five poems, each of which celebrates the beginning of a new year and the installation of a new consul. Three of these poems are addressed to the emperor Honorius, including the Panegyricus De Quarto Consulatu Honorii Augusti, which begins:"Once more the year opens under royal auspices and enjoys in fuller pride its famous prince . . .," The public occasion, here an inaugural ceremony, now calls for eulogy of the emperor.
Combining the Greek example of Isocrates with the Roman example of Claudian produces a composite definition of "panegyric" like Kerseys: "a Speech delivered before a solemn and general Assembly of People, especially in Praise of a great Prince." If Kersey had a specific author in mind, however, it was probably neither Isocrates nor Claudian, but rather Pliny the Younger. Elected consul for the year 100, Pliny acknowledged the honor in a speech delivered before the senate. Titled an actio gratiarum, this speech includes expressions of gratitude and promises of faithful service to the senators. But these remarks are only tiny appendages to the body of the speech, an elaborate idealization of Trajan, who was present to hear himself praised as the optimus princeps . Although Pliny did not call the speech a panegyricus, later orators viewed it as a model of the genre. In fact, when Pliny's oration was rediscovered for the Renaissance in the fifteenth century, it was not alone but rather at the head of a collection of panegyrics that came to be known as the panegyrici latini or panegyrici veteres . Modeled directly on Plinys actio gratiarum, these other orations (eleven in number) publicly celebrate the Roman emperors from Diocletian to Theodosius. All of the orations in this collection fit Kerseys definition of "panegyric." They all praise a "great Prince" before a "general Assembly of People."

The general assembly that gathered to hear the eulogies of the later Roman emperors was not, however, necessarily restricted to the senate. On the contrary, the surviving panegyrics indicate that one of the most common occasions for this kind of oratory was an imperial visit to a provincial town. When the emperor decided to visit Autun or Treves, for example, the town showed its appreciation by having its most distinguished orator (usually a professor at the local school) deliver an address. The speech was an essential part of the ceremony, like the decorations, the festive games, and the military salute."