“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.
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