THE RHETORIC OF INSCRIPTIONS
Edwin A. Judge
Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
Rhetoric is the art of the forum. For Greeks and Romans it is the key to communication in the community. Faced with a judgment in court, or in the field of battle, one must claim one's ground first with words. The rhetoric is needed to master the encounter, but must arise from it. As with modern television, an authentic human engagement cannot be contrived merely by art. Whether one is attracted or repelled depends upon the integrity of the personal ap peal that is being made. The insincerity of a set script may be fatal. Yet its felt aptness to the speaker will open the door to persuasion.
The literary record has not only lost the living voice and its audi ence. Even where it preserves the work of a great orator (Demos thenes, Cicero), it has been kept only to cultivate a refined discipline enshrined now in higher education. True, all literary work was still declaimed, but only to the artificial audience of school or salon. The art came to be admired for its own sake. With the foundation of the first university (the Museum of Alexandria, in the third century), a contemporary sceptic had already found a word for it: “if only these dinner-table rhetoricians would get over their verbal diarrhoea” (τη̑ς λoγoδιαρρoίας άπαλλαγω̑σιv).1 As has been said of the sophist Gorgias, “having nothing in particular to say, he was able to concentrate all his energies upon saying it”.2
Inscriptions may seem at first sight more locked into artifice than is literature. But this is an illusion created by the fixity of stone. In at least four respects the very stones themselves (or bronzes, or coins, or certain other vehicles)3 offer a “living” contact with the original rhetoric of their particular forum.
1 Ath. 1:22E Gulick, taken as a continuation of the witticism of the Pyrrhonist
Timon of Phlius, cited in D.
2 J. D. Denniston, Greek Prose Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), p. 12.
3 R. G. Collingwood and R. P. Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1965), registers in vol. I 2329 texts on stone, while the fascicles so
far published for vol. II already exceed that tally for texts on 80 other types of
medium (not including coins). But virtually all of these are of interest only as private
records. It is the texts on stone and bronze that typically constitute a rhetorical
address to the public.