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“A bellyful of honour – the aesthetics of the ugly and the rhetoric of inversion in Pseudo-Quintilian’s ‘cannibal declamation’ (Decl. mai. 12)”

Nicola Hömke (Universität Rostock)

In a terrible famine, a town has turned to cannibalism. It blames its defaulting legatus, who was ordered to buy grain, and sues him for high treason.

This case is undoubtedly one of the most drastic of the 19 Declamationes maiores, fictional court speeches wrongly

attributed to Quintilian but more likely dating from the 3rd century AD. The description of cannibalistic excesses offers a multifaceted field of investigation for the ancient use of an aesthetics of ugliness. It culminates in a furious rhetoric of horror (or the grotesque) when the declamator calls the eaten relatives in his belly as witnesses to the .


Clearly, Seneca's Thyestes functions as a pretext, both motivically and linguistically. Nevertheless, as I will show, the author of Decl. mai. 12 does not simply indulge in reminiscence and a rhetoric of mere exaggeration: by giving the cannibal citizens a voice in court, by reflecting on pietas and responsibility, guilt and betrayal from their point of view, and even by portraying them as sympathetic figures, he relieves them from the mythological precedent of breaking taboos and allows the question of condemnability to be renegotiated.


This, in turn, contradicts a common interpretation of the social function of the practice of declamation in the imperial period: namely, that it was intended to convey a Roman system of values and a Roman situational ethic to young elite Romans by means of legal role-playing.


Instead, declamations such as Decl. mai. 10 and 12 offer a much more experimental and open-ended stage for the negotiation of Roman values and do not shy away from fundamentally questioning social norms and expectations through a rhetoric of irritation. This flexibility and openness is probably one of the main reasons for the centuries-long popularity of the art of declamation in the Roman imperial period.


Selective bibliography:

N. W. Bernstein (2013), Ethics, Identity, and Community in Later Roman Declamation, Oxford et al.

O. Cappello (2016), Civitas beluarum: the politics of eating your neighbor. A semiological study of Ps.-Quintilian’s twelfth Major Declamation, in M. T. Dinter – Ch. Guérin – M. Martinho (eds.), Reading Roman Declamation. The Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian, Berlin – Boston 2016, pp. 209–236.

N. Hömke (2002), Gesetzt den Fall, ein Geist erscheint. Komposition und Motivik der ps-quintilianischen Declamationes maiores X, XIV und XV, Heidelberg.

N. Hömke (2006), Die Entgrenzung des Schreckens: Lucans Erichto-Episode aus Sicht moderner Phantastik-Konzeptionen, in N. Hömke – M. Baumbach (eds..), Fremde Wirklichkeiten. Literarische Phantastik und antike Literatur, Heidelberg, pp. 161–185.

N. Hömke (2010), Bit by bit towards death – Lucan’s Scaeva and the aestheticization of dying, in N. Hömke – Ch. Reitz (eds.), Lucan’s Bellum civile. Between Epic Tradition and Aesthetic Innovation, Berlin – New York, pp. 91–104.

N. Hömke (forthcoming), The declaimer’s dealing with the gruesome, dreadful and disgusting in Declamationes maiores 10 and 12. In: A. Lovato – A. Stramaglia – G. Traina (eds.): Le ›Declamazioni maggiori‹ pseudo-quintilianee nella Roma imperiale. Berlin – Boston (BzA 394; date of publ.: 6 September 2021).

N. Hömke (forthcoming), In der Todeszone. Die Darstellung und Funktion des Schrecklichen, Grausigen und Ekligen in Lucans Bellum civile, Berlin – Boston (BzA).

A. Stramaglia (2002), [Quintiliano]. La città che si cibò dei suoi cadaveri (Declamazioni maggiori, 12), Cassino.

A. Stramaglia – M. Winterbottom – B. Santorelli (eds., forthcoming), [Quintilian]. The Major Declamations, I–II, Cambridge (Mass.) – London (Loeb; date of publ.: 1 December 2021).

D. van Mal-Maeder (2004), Sénèque le Tragique et les Grandes Déclamations du Pseudo-Quintilien. Poétique d’une métamorphose, in M. Zimmerman – R. van der Paardt (eds.), Metamorphic Reflections. Essays Presented to Ben Hijmans at his 75th Birthday, Leuven, pp. 189–199.

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