Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism

Rhetorical and Theatrical Fictions in Chorikios of Gaza

Ruth Webb, Birkbeck, University of London; Université de Paris X–Nanterre

The surviving works of Chorikios of Gaza encompass the main genres of post-classical Greek rhetoric. He is probably best known for his panegyrical descriptions of two churches in Gaza containing some of the most prominent early examples of the ekphrasis of church buildings. [1] But he also left examples of other epideictic speeches marking moments in the lives and the deaths of members of his community, like the funeral speech for his teacher, Prokopios of Gaza. Then there are his declamations, twelve speeches which have been preserved together with their introductory discourses (dialexeis) and theoretical introductions (theōriai), para-rhetorical material that provides us with an invaluable commentary on the main speeches. [2]

Chorikios’ rhetorical corpus underlines one of the main problems involved in discussing ‘Late Antique Literature’: the fact that there is very little that falls easily into the category of literature as commonly understood. Any definition is highly problematic, but it is safe to say that the aesthetic plays an important role in our general conception of ‘literature’ and ‘the literary’ and that ‘literature’ is most readily exemplified for the modern reader by fiction and poetry, genres which either create worlds (like the visual arts), or make artistic use of language, or both. [3] Both of these definitions of the ‘literary’ tend to imply a degree of disinterestedness. As Gérard Genette has pointed out, a work of fiction creates through statements that are neither true nor false. [4] As Genette also points out, this definition of fiction goes hand in glove with the idea that the literary is disengaged, that it exists within an aesthetic sphere that is removed from reality.

Such a conception of literature leaves rhetorical productions, like those of Chorikios, in an ambiguous position. Oratory is anything but disengaged and the importance of argumentation to any rhetorical work (even epideictic speeches) sits uneasily with the emphasis on the aesthetic that underlies our idea of ‘literature’. There is also a common assumption, though this is not always articulated, that ‘literature’ is written. Widdowson has emphasised the importance of the idea of reproducibility to the modern conception (and reality) of literature: ‘the fact that the determinate medium of literature since the invention of printing has been that it appears in print means that the “original” work is expected to be extensively reproducible without damaging or detracting from the experience of the work itself ’. [5] The definition of any ancient or medieval texts as ‘literature’ would, of course, be affected by this statement. It raises significant difficulties, however, in the case of oratory, where the subsequent written versions of a speech are clearly removed from the ‘original’ moment of performance.

All the speeches of Chorikios (or any other orator) whether introductory lectures (dialexeis), declamations or examples of epideictic were first and foremost oral performances, designed for a specific occasion and a specific context. This is most clear in the case of the epideictic speeches that celebrate or lament particular places, people and events. [6] Unlike a novel or a poem designed to be read where all readers share the same stance relative to the imaginary world evoked within the text, the reader of an epideictic speech is constantly aware of the missed occasion and that when the speaker says ‘now’ or ‘here’ these terms refer to a specific juncture time and place that is irrecoverable. [7]

Of all the rhetorical genres of antiquity, declamation has the closest relationship to the fictional and to ‘the literary’. The speeches themselves may be uttered by voices that are anything but disengaged, arguing passionately for one side of a case or another, but the cases themselves and the characters are fictional, as the rhetor adopts the role of some historical or generic character for the duration of the speech. Chorikios’ declamations, for example, illustrate the full range of personae: characters from the Trojan War (Priam, Polydamas and Patroklos), characters from classical history (Miltiades and a Spartan contemporary of Praxiteles), and generic characters who inhabit a generalised idea of the classical polis (a young hero, his miser father, a general, an orator). Their original status as oral performance, often improvised, may exclude these declamations from the general conception of ‘literature’. But, in contrast to the epideictic speeches, the relationship of the modern reader to the content of the text is very similar to that of the original audience: we are all faced with fictional characters inhabiting a fictional world. Furthermore, many declamations have a complex relation to ‘the literary’ in that their scenarios are based on the canonical texts of classical Greece—the historians, orators and Homer—all of which had already enjoyed a long afterlife as written texts. It is therefore particularly interesting to consider Chorikios’ declamations as examples of ‘literature’ both in the broadest meaning of the term as ‘text’, and in the more specific sense in which the term is commonly understood.

I. Declamation

The declamations (meletai) belong to a centuries long tradition of practice rhetorical speeches where the speaker took on the role of a particular character facing a particular legal or moral conundrum and had to make an appropriate speech. Traditionally, the situations were either drawn from Greek history (a category that could include the Trojan War), or from a set of typical scenarios involving stock characters—the miser, the hero, the tyrant slayer—arguing about imaginary laws. One recurrent example that we find in Chorikios’ repertoire involves the conflicts arising from an imaginary law that gives the hero his choice of reward for saving his city. Two of Chorikios’ declamations treat the conflict arising from the young hero’s choice of marriage to a poor girl as his reward, against the wishes of his miserly father. Chorikios presents the young man’s arguments first (Declamation 5), then, by popular request he claims, the father’s (Declamation 6). Four more of Chorikios’ surviving declamations use the traditional character-types and situations. These fictional themes (plasmata) are, as was customary, set in the non-specific city of the past that Russell has characterised as ‘Sophistopolis’. [8] In one (Declamation 7), a theme treated also by Lucian, a man who caused a Tyrant to commit suicide by killing his only son argues that he should receive the traditional reward for the Tyrannicide, even if the act was indirect.9 [9] In another (Declamation 9), a father who killed his daughter to save her from a Tyrant’s advances is held responsible for her young lover’s death after he commits suicide.

One of the Homeric speeches (Declamation 10) represents Patroklos’ imagined words to Achilles when he begs him to return to battle. The episode is based on Iliad 16 and, as often, the subject requires the declaimer to work around a well known text and to think himself into a situation in order to find and develop the appropriate arguments. There is no attempt to recreate Homeric language, except in the most generalised way, but there are very close allusions to the text which an educated audience was no doubt intended to recognise and appreciate. [10] The other two Trojan War speeches (Declamations 1 and 2) are inspired by non-Iliadic material: the story, versions of which are found in Servius and in the fictional accounts attributed to Diktys and Dares, that Achilles fell in love with Priam’s daughter, Polyxena, and offered an alliance with the Trojans in return for her hand in marriage. [11] In the first speech Polydamas argues for Achilles’ qualifications as an in-law and an ally, in the second Priam presents the counter-arguments based on Achilles’ portrayal in the Iliad. As Chorikios explains in his introduction (theōria) Priam needs to blacken Achilles’ character as Demosthenes does with Philip (3) and therefore to stress his arrogance, his love affairs, his unstable character, his lack of respect for authority, his irreverence and his mistreatment of Hector. [12] The speech is an excellent example of the way in which declaimers engaged with the literary tradition. The Iliad provides a wealth of material on which the speaker representing Priam could draw, selecting those details that best suited his argument. Moreover, the text provides a common point of reference shared by speaker and audience who, as long as they are familiar with the poem, are able to judge both the validity and the ingenuity of Priam’s arguments and the skill of Chorikios in composing the speech. But it also provides a point of contact between the speaker and the persona he adopts for the duration of the speech, for the events of the Iliad, known to the speaker from his reading, are understood as part of the experience of the character, Priam, and his fictional addressees. As this example suggests, the stories and characters of classical literature and mythology continued to be a vital source of material for rhetorical manipulation.

II. Declamation as Fiction

As Malcolm Heath has recently stressed, the art of declamation was an effective way of teaching skills of argumentation that remained relevant throughout late antiquity. [13] Particularly at its highest level, declamation also encompassed skills that we might properly consider to be ‘literary’ such as description, characterisation, and the mastery of linguistic style. In terms of content, dramatic and romantic plots had always been a feature of declamation. The taste for stories of young heroes, pirates, thwarted desire and rape was no doubt influenced by the need to attract the attention of students, but many of these themes, as Robert Kaster and others have recently argued, had a wider social significance. [14] Chorikios’ corpus is no exception. The theme of sexual desire leading either to marriage or the threat of rape is evident in a high proportion of Chorikios’ declamations: there is Achilles’ desire for Polyxena, the miser’s son’s love for a beautiful but poverty-stricken young girl glimpsed at a festival and the triangular relationship of the girl desired both by the tyrant and by the young man who kills himself on her death.

In addition to qualities that could be described as ‘literary’, the practice of declamation itself demanded the creation of a coherent, fictional world. The reliance of ancient techniques of argumentation on the plausible and the likely meant that practice speeches had to be set in a world where the actions of a particular character could be judged as likely or unlikely and where there was a similar set of moral values to those pertaining in the real world of speaker and audience. The result is a self-contained universe, peopled by characters whose ethos and whose actions are largely dictated by the historical and literary tradition from which they derive. [15] In Chorikios’ corpus the speeches of Polydamas and Priam illustrate this phenomenon well since the fictional speakers’ claims about the character of Achilles can be judged by the real audience, whether ancient or modern, against their own knowledge of the background derived from literature and tradition. The audience is also able to judge the skill of the real speaker, Chorikios, in selecting the appropriate arguments and examples for and against Achilles.

The particular interest of Chorikios’ declamations is that they show an intensification of the ‘literary’ aspects of declamation. This is not to say that they are devoid of argumentation, but that the exploration of the ēthos and of the psychological motivation of both the speakers and the other characters is of paramount interest to the declaimer. Chorikios’ interest in character and motivation is also evident in the technical introductions (theōriai) which focus not on the technical issue at stake in each speech and the argumentative strategies he will use, but rather on the ēthos that is to be created for each character. [16] He even elaborates on the ēthos of the speaker’s opponent, who can only be portrayed indirectly through the speaker’s own words. In his introduction to the Orator’s speech (Declamation 12) where he tells us that he envisages the speaker’s opponent (the General who claims credit for the victory) as being like the soldier Thrasonides from Menander’s Misoumenos. Similarly, in the introduction to the Tyrannicide (Declamation 7), where the speaker must argue that causing the Tyrant to commit suicide by killing his only son is equivalent to killing the Tyrant himself, Chorikios speculates on the argumentative nature of the hero’s opponent who has tried to prevent him claiming the Tyrannicide’s reward. [17]

This interest in character and in motivation is evident in the speeches themselves. Again in the Tyrannicide speech, Chorikios makes his speaker explain the thoughts and feelings that went through his mind just before he killed the Tyrant’s son. [18] One of the most striking examples occurs in the speech of the General who dressed as a woman (Declamation 11). This speech is given by a victorious General who has saved his city by dressing as a woman to fool the enemy troops. It is the imaginary tradition in this imaginary polis to commemorate victories in an honorific painting that will preserve the details for posterity. Our General’s rival (who previously failed to defeat the enemy by traditional military means, forcing the speaker to take his drastic action) has proposed this embarrassing ‘reward’ of being depicted in female dress and the General now has to argue against it. In one passage the speaker elaborates on the state of mind that made him cross this particularly sensitive boundary: [19]

For I saw that, as our troops’ strength was waning and that of the enemy increasing, the situation required me to come up with a clever stratagem, and, picturing (anaplasas) in my mind the capture of the city I thought of all the terrible things that capture usually (eiōthe) brings with it, and, most bitter of all, the outrages that enemies usually (sunēthē) commit when they take a city, defiling bridal chambers, raping unmarried girls, not sparing young boys.

It was because of this mental image, he explains, that he adopted his disguise, concealing his true nature (phusis) to protect the women and young people of the city.

This passage is an example of topos with a long tradition in history, poetry and oratory alike: the ekphrasis of the sack of a city. [20] It was frequently used to inspire feelings of pity for the victims or outrage against the perpetrator, but here it is used to express the inner thoughts of the character and to make the audience share, not an actual experience, but the character’s imagination of what might happen. [21] In rhetorical terms, this strategy is an example of sugnomē or metastasis, where the speaker acknowledges the act but appeals to mitigating circumstances to explain his actions. [22] The speaker’s presentation of his mental image as reflecting ‘what usually happens’, shows the importance of the creation of a consistent world in which the characters of declamation can operate. This makes it possible for the audience to judge their choices and their actions: such outrages occur in this imaginary world (as in the real one) and the General’s fears can therefore be seen as reasonable. But, at the same time, ‘what usually happens’ is a generic statement, referring to the literary and rhetorical tradition itself so that the phrase gives us a glimpse of the authorial voice through the words of the character. Something similar occurs in Priam’s speech (Declamation 2) where the Trojan King in his attack on Achilles’ character shows an intimate knowledge of events in the Greek camp that would be readily available to a reader of Homer’s Iliad, like Chorikios himself, but not to the character, Priam, besieged in the city of Troy.

This interest in character, which is also evident in Libanios’ declamations, may be a sign of the heightened interest in lives and in the individual in late antiquity that Averil Cameron has pointed out. As Cameron stresses, this tendency is ‘not to be dismissed as indicative of a general softening of the intellect’. [23] It is true, however, that characterisation and the exploration of motives and intentions are a more or less important feature of declamation, and of oratory in general, in all periods. What really distinguishes Chorikios’ corpus is the emphasis within the speeches themselves on the themes of artistic representation and of disguise. In the eighth declamation a Spartan argues against a sculpture of Aphrodite by Praxiteles being used as a cult offering to the goddess. In this fictional scenario, the Spartans have commissioned the sculpture as an offering to appease the goddess and put an end to the plague of ugliness that she has inflicted on their daughters. However, as Praxiteles has modeled this particular statue on his mistress, the courtesan Phryne, the speaker argues that it is inappropriate to use what is in effect a portrait of a prostitute as a cult statue. The Spartan’s speech, not surprisingly, dwells on the relation of the subject and its representation. It explores the question of how the subject of a statue is defined when the speaker argues that visual resemblance, whether through features or attributes, is the key issue (26) and that simply supplying a title, which can be replaced and changed, is not enough. He also touches on the representation of the divine (39–40), citing the story of the Homeric inspiration for Pheidias’ great statue of Zeus at Olympia discussed by Dio Chrysostom (Or. 12), and on the difference that setting makes to the meaning of a work of art (33).

Artistic representation and its interpretation are also major themes of the General’s speech (Declamation 11) as he must argue against the (apparently flattering) proposal that his deed be represented. One particularly interesting argument against the painting concerns the future reception of the work. Its function is ostensibly to preserve memory of the deed for the future and the General’s strongest arguments concern the responses of future viewers who will see the work outside its temporal context. He imagines a foreigner visiting the city and interpreting what appears to be an image of a woman saving the city as a sign that the city lacked weapons and armed men (41) which will, he warns, force the people to reveal his opponent’s failure to defeat the enemy by conventional means. Further on he speaks of the embarrassment the image will cause him as people’s memories of the danger fade, and of the possibility that future generations will not know the real reasons behind his actions and will understand his stratagem as a result of his own weakness and failure (64–66). In both cases, he argues, what is intended as an honorific monument will provoke dishonour because of the potential viewers’ lack of knowledge and the inherent ambiguity of the image itself.

The theme of artistic mimesis occurs in at least one other Greek declamation theme discussed by Hermogenes (a painter is prosecuted after his painting of a shipwreck is displayed in a harbour and puts ships off entering). [24] There are, of course, many ekphraseis of paintings and sculptures in the collection of elementary exercises attributed to Libanios. Elsewhere, the theme of artistic mimesis provides material for model ēthopoiiai, like Libanios’s speech in the persona of a coward who sees a painting of a battle in his own home, or his artist in love with a painted girl. [25] But the relative frequency of these motifs in Chorikios’ work is enough to provoke further reflection on their significance. Rather than seeing them simply as a sign of the personal or collective interest of Chorikios and the ‘School of Gaza’ in the arts, I would suggest that there may be a generic significance: the theme of artistic representation serves as a figure for the art of declamation itself. It draws attention to Chorikios’ own project, to the way in which he creates imaginary worlds and their inhabitants and is thus as much a ‘plastēs’ ‘modeller, sculptor’ as the character of Praxiteles whom he represents. [26] Chorikios himself makes precisely this point in one of his introductory ‘talks’ (Dialexis 21) where he explicitly compares his own craft as a speaker to the visual arts which made such famous representations of character as Lysippos’ Alexander. It is thoroughly appropriate for declamation that both of the speeches on artistic themes dwell on questions of interpretation and definition, for these problems lay at the heart of many declamation themes and were thus intrinsic to the art itself.

Disguise, and the identity or dissonance between a person’s outward appearance and their inner nature, is another recurring theme within Chorikios’ corpus of declamations. In addition to the General’s speech, which combines the themes of disguise and artistic representation in its discussion of whether his deceptive stratagem should be represented, there is a further example in one of the historical speeches, Declamation 3, The Lydians. The speech is set in the time of Cyrus and is based on an episode from Herodotos, History, 1.155. After their defeat by Cyrus, the Lydians have been ordered to dress in women’s clothes and to spend their time playing music instead of their traditional martial pursuits. Now that Cyrus needs military help, he has asked them to put down their lyres and take up their weapons again but their representative argues against a return to their former life style. This speech, as Chorikios explains in his introduction, is figured (eschēmatismenos), that is, the real intention of the speaker is the opposite of his apparent intention. The Lydians are to be understood as desperate to throw off their robes and pick up their weapons again but afraid that Cyrus will see them as a continuing threat if they say so openly. By arguing against a return to the martial life they hope to convince Cyrus that they have been so thoroughly feminised and pacified that they no longer represent a danger.

These two declamations explore the related themes of representation and of impersonation with the Lydian’s speech in particular asking questions about the relation of appearance and reality and about the effect of habit on character. The Lydians attempt to argue that their artistic and ‘feminine’ pursuits have brought about an irrevocable change in their nature and that they are living proof that ‘manners maketh man’. Their argument had a firm basis in ancient thought about the ability of education to mould the individual, reflected in the idea that repeated imitation could have a lasting effect on the soul. [27] However, it is made clear in the introduction that the Lydian speaker is playing a role. Although he argues that appearance represents reality, in fact his effeminate appearance hides an unaltered nature, just as the General stresses that his female disguise did not affect his phusis.

Again, there is a certain congruence between these fictional speakers and the activity of the declaimer himself. Each one adopts a persona in response to the demands of a particular moment, whether a public performance or the need to mislead an enemy. Chorikios is aware that the practice of declamation requires him to engage actively in mimesis, not only depicting a character acting in a world but actually embodying that character in his performance. In the introduction to the sixth declamation he discusses the difficulty of pretending to be an elderly miser, stating that his art (technē) gives him the means to effect this mimēsis. [28] In another striking passage he compares himself to Homer who acts out his characters, a reference to Plato’s distinction between the mimetic passages where the poet or reciter takes on the character of Achilles or whoever, and the narrative passages where he simply tells us what happened in his own voice. [29] Alongside this classical comparison Chorikios also compares himself to the contemporary pantomime performer who is also able to persuade the audience that he is what he is not. [30] In adopting the persona of a character like the Lydian who is cloaked simultaneously in the physical disguise of his effeminate costume and the rhetorical disguise of his deceptive speech, Chorikios brings out clearly the fictive nature of declamation.

III. The Significance of Chorikios’ Declamations

Chorikios’ corpus of declamations shows the rich potential of this rhetorical genre. Declamation provided a demanding training in analysis, presentation and argumentation, as is abundantly clear from the complex theoretical treatises that have survived from later antiquity. But at its highest level it also required speakers to create a consistent character inhabiting a vivid and consistent world whom they were required to embody convincingly. In these particular speeches, Chorikios is exploiting what might properly be called the literary features of the traditional art of declamation. As if to underline this, he gives pride of place to themes of representation and impersonation and to the problems of interpretation that they raise.

So it is possible to read Chorikios’ declamations themselves as a form of commentary on the art of declamation. These are not examples of his everyday teaching but were occasional performance pieces, as is clear from his reference to his annual declamation in Dialexis 22. They were an opportunity for Chorikios to display his rhetorical wares and such events could be vital to a teacher’s career. It would be entirely appropriate for the performer to offer a commentary on his art on such occasions. This reference to yearly performance is also a reminder that these speeches were pronounced for a particular audience in a particular time and place and were not confined to the scholar’s private study. It is easy to dismiss Chorikios’ declamations as the result of a cultural conservatism, continuing ancient traditions in a city that was cut off from the main stream. This is the picture presented by Downey who ascribes ‘excellence in belles-lettres’ such as we see in Chorikios’ corpus to the physical setting which made Gaza ‘an eminently pleasant residence for academic folk’. [31] But, however venerable the tradition, each performance of declamation took place in a particular cultural context. Recent studies have tended to emphasise the engagement of declamation and declamatory performance with society in contrast to the long-standing view that these were school pieces, thoroughly removed from the real world. As Mary Beard has argued for Roman declamation, these speeches can be seen as vehicles for addressing tensions and ambiguities in their society. [32]

So, though it may well be true that the prestige of tradition had a great deal to do with the survival of the art of declamation, this is not enough in itself to explain the huge outlay of time, effort and money demanded. The intensive study of rhetoric survived because it remained relevant, providing essential skills for advocates and others. And in the case of Chorikios’ performance pieces, I would suggest that these particular declamations represented a response to the needs of the time and that the creative, fictive aspect of declamation that is foregrounded in several of the speeches is a feature of this wider significance. The significance of this aspect of declamation appears far more clearly if we read Chorikios’ declamations alongside another speech in which he engages with a very contemporary issue: the place of theatrical performance in society. This is the subject of his speech In Defense of the Mimes, or, to give the work its full title, Speech on behalf of those who represent life in the house of Dionysos which contains precious information about the subjects and techniques of sixth-century mime and shows that this theatrical form was still flourishing, despite centuries of opposition from the Church. [33]

IV. Chorikios on the Mime

Chorikios’ speech in defence of the mime is itself a type of rhetorical exercise. The speaker presents it as a response to the challenge of rescuing actors from unfair accusations, despite the risks to his own reputation, ‘for I think a contest involving risk is the greatest test for an orator’. [34] The fact that the speech can be considered a type of exercise does not mean that its arguments can be dismissed. Even a rhetorical exercise needed to strike its listeners as plausible and to achieve this the arguments had to be acceptable and recognisable to the audience. The speech on the mime is couched as a response to an anonymous opponent to whom a variety of objections are ascribed, ranging from the subject matter of the plays to the morality of the players themselves and the supposed negative effect that they had on their audiences. In response to the charge that the subject matter is immoral Chorikios points out briskly that not all plays deal with adultery (108–110), and even those that do show the victory of moral order at the end (55). To the charge that mime performance had a negative impact on the audience he counters with what he claims as empirical evidence that people seem to leave the theatres quite unscathed (50–51), and just experience a pleasant feeling of hēdonē. Indeed, he suggests, they may even benefit psychologically from the experience of watching these plays (102 and 113).

A great deal of the argumentative thrust of the speech is devoted to the question of the actor’s identity. To the charge that the actors were like the morally compromised characters they played on stage, Chorikios points out that they are just acting, they do not become their characters:

Whom do you think the acting harms? Tell me, do you think it emasculates the actor himself or the spectator? You will say both, I will say neither of these. For a soul does not change along with clothes even if one utters words that fit the disguise. The lion’s skin did not make Aristophanes’ Xanthias into a brave man, nor did female dress make Peleus’ son [i.e. Achilles] a coward, and if I take off this orator’s dress and take up military equipment I will not become a warlike man. [35]

We have already noted the prevalence of the theme of disguise in Chorikios’ declamations, and his acute awareness that he himself is adopting a persona when he performs. In this passage there is a clear echo of Declamation 3 (The Lydians) where the speaker presents the mirror image of the argument from the Apology: ‘a man puts down his courage along with his armour’. [36] Where the speaker in the Apology argues for a dissociation between costume and character, the anonymous Lydian argues for a direct effect. But his argument is itself a ploy, as we know. The echoes in theme between this and other declamations and the speech on the mimes help to remind us of the dangers of attributing all the views expressed in the latter speech to Chorikios himself. As Malcolm Heath has pointed out with respect to Libanios, orators were adept at taking on personae to suit the occasion. [37] But I would suggest that the resonances go further and that the Apology, with its thoroughly contemporary theme, may shed light on Chorikios’ project in the declamations.

What Chorikios argues for, above all, in the speech on the mime is an acceptance of a fictional realm, partially removed from daily life, but with an intimate relation to the everyday. An actor takes on a role for the duration of a play, but does not become that role. The audience respond and may even be affected psychologically (Chorikios only admits change for the better) but they get on with their lives. It is possible, he argues, for an actor to pretend to be someone else for a short while and for the audience to enter into that pretence temporarily. But the transformation is only partial and fleeting. The mime therefore does exactly what Chorikios does in his declamations: in both types of performance a coherent fictional world is created for the audience. This world belongs to the domain of likeness, of ‘as if ’, which is neither true nor false.

Chorikios’ arguments in defence of the mime are so commonsensical by our own standards that it can be hard to see how they could have been controversial in their day. However, the views attributed to his imaginary opponent in the speech were held by many, as the intensity of anti-theatrical polemic in late antiquity shows. The identification of actor and act is rarely as explicit as it is in the mouth of Chorikios’ interlocutor but it is an assumption that underlies a great deal of the polemic. [38] John Chrysostom’s arguments against the theatre in general often rely on the close identification of actor and act, whether the ‘effeminate’ pantomimes or the ‘wanton’ actresses with their lewd songs and shameless movements. He also describes the way in which audiences returned from the theatre transformed by what they saw there. [39] Closer to Chorikios’ day, Severus of Antioch argued that anyone dressing for a traditional festival was in effect joining in an act of pagan worship. [40] For him, external appearance did matter and the adoption of a costume worked a profound effect on the soul.

Throughout his speech in defence of the mimes, Chorikios insists on the dissociation between actor and character, between a person’s costume and appearance and their inner nature. The world of the play is an autonomous zone of likeness and make-believe. Just like the worlds and characters created by the declaimer, the mime presented scenarios that were like reality, neither identical to it, nor complete fancy or untruth. The products of mime and declamation were therefore inherently ambiguous, neither true nor false, but in an intermediate domain. Through the interrelated themes of visual representation and cross-dressing Chorikios’ declamations explore the problem of likeness and its ambiguities: the painting that shows a true event that is not what it seems, the Lydians whose feminised appearance is a charade that provides a means for them to recover their warlike identity, the statue that may or may not represent the woman whose likeness it is. In the declamations, Chorikios is performing an elite version of his vision of the mime and in the process he sketches out a domain of the imagination, that we might recognise as literary, in a culture that had no word for ‘literature’.

We have become used to calling this domain ‘fiction’, but there was no single term in antiquity for this dual state of being but not being, of being like but not identical to. Indeed, when we begin to consider what is involved in the notion of ‘fiction’ and in the practice of reading it, it can become as strange as the notion of ‘literature’. I would suggest therefore that Chorikios’ speech in defense of the mimes and his corpus of declamations represent a body of work that grapples with the idea of the fictional and, in the case of the declamations, the literary and that Chorikios recognised that these ideas were potentially transgressive, like the pantomime to whom he compares himself, or the mimetic function of the poet within Plato’s critique, or the very act of cross-dressing which serves as a paradigm for his fictional enterprise.

V. Mime, Declamation, and the Secular

I have suggested elsewhere that Chorikios had a project of very contemporary relevance in the speech on the mime, that is, to define a form of entertainment that was not in itself Christian but was not incompatible with Christianity. [41] It is noticeable that he only argues for the mime. These plays and skits involving several actors were very different from the solo pantomime. Though mime provoked disapproval throughout its long history for its explicit scenarios, its slapstick violence and its female performers, it was never as dangerous or controversial as the solo pantomime. Its staple was the ‘imitation of life’, plays set in vaguely contemporary urban settings, involving contemporary types. [42] Pantomime, the danced depiction of the old myths, aroused passions and was the subject of frequent imperial bans one of which, imposed by Anastasios, was celebrated by Chorikios’ teacher, Prokopios of Gaza. [43] To my knowledge, no bans were ever directed against the mime in general, though the mimic portrayal of certain Christian subjects was forbidden by Justinian. [44] Chorikios’ choice of the mime, rather than the more problematic pantomime, is thus significant. The rhetorical contest he engaged in this speech may have been imaginary, but it was one he had some chance of winning.

I would suggest therefore that, despite its classicising form, Chorikios’ speech on the mimes is a response to a real cultural challenge and to a continuing source of tension and ambiguity within his own culture. Though it is not necessary to agree with Barnes’ argument that the author of a speech in defence of the mimes could not have been Christian, his point is a very important one and reminds us that the place of theatre in society was fraught with contradictions. The fifth-century correspondence of Barsanuphios of Gaza reveals the real tensions that existed between the social importance of the theatre in late antique cities and the Christian opposition to attending the theatre. [45] I suggest that part of Chorikios’ project is to define an art form that is potentially compatible with Christianity, not Christian, but not ‘anti-’ or ‘non-’ Christian either. He is doing this without a straightforward vocabulary to do so and without an unambiguous concept of the ‘secular’.

In the speech on the mime, Chorikios is also outlining a concept of ‘innocent entertainment’ that may seem self-evident to the modern reader but that was in fact an innovative concept in a culture where the vocabulary of entertainment, including such terms as psuchagōgia and apatē, suggested a relationship of power and seduction. The very idea of fiction could be just as controversial (and in certain contexts still is today). The rejection of fiction in the name of the Church and the refusal to counter a third category of resemblance, somewhere between truth and lies, could not be clearer than in Tertullian’s critique of the theatre. In the name of the Christian God he identifies fiction (omne quod fingitur) clearly with falsehood (falsum), closing off the possibility of any third term between the true and the false, and equates it with the transgressive act of adultery, which is itself a form of feigning. [46]

In his speech on the mime and in his own practice as a declaimer Chorikios is pointing towards concepts that appear natural to us—literature, fiction, secular entertainment—but for which there were no words in his vocabulary and which were not clearly defined as concepts in his society. Richard Lim has argued for the development of an Imperial-secular domain in late antiquity, particularly in the reigns of Justin and Justinian. [47] I would suggest that Chorikios is adumbrating a private counterpart in his rhetorical practice. It may be significant that the declamations seem to have been given at the annual festival of the Rosalia, one of the traditional festivals that survived because it was not overtly pagan in character and could therefore be described itself as ‘secular’. The festival occasion is marked in two of the introductory discourses, dialexeis, which present variations on the theme of Aphrodite, Adonis and the Rose. [48] In another speech, Chorikios celebrates a different festival, the Brumalia, that survived for the same reason. The ban on the Brumalia by the Council in Trullo, however, shows that this category of ‘secular’ or ‘neutral’ festival was also ambiguous and unstable. [49]

There is therefore both a practical and a conceptual connection between Chorikios’ practice as a creator of fictions and the secular domain. The practical connection is the festival of the Rosalia that provided a context for the speeches. The conceptual connection is the way in which, like the fictional, the ‘secular’ can be seen as a third term between two polarities that partakes of both but is neither. It is interesting in addition to consider the theme of transvestism that is so prominent in Chorikios’ declamations in this context, for here too we see the creation through artifice of a third term between the ultimate polarities of male and female. It is possible therefore to see the declamations as both a figure for and an enactment of the secular.

Wolfgang Iser has emphasised the importance of the act of creating fictional worlds in and of itself, pointing out that ‘the reality represented in the text is not meant to represent reality; it is a pointer to something that it is not, although its function is to make that something conceivable’. [50] As with the theatre, the important function of declamation was the poetic function (in the original Greek sense of poiēsis) of making things which do not exist appear to exist, creating a world of ‘as if ’. Chorikios is presenting directly (in the speech for the mimes) and indirectly (in his own rhetorical practice) an argument for the validity of mimesis and of fiction in itself. I would suggest that what his fictions ‘point to’ is the very existence of the intermediary and the ambiguous.

In his celebration of the poetic power of language Chorikios emphasises the creative and mimetic function of texts. He is, in effect, pointing towards the idea of the ‘literary’ as an autonomous zone where worlds can be created, as defined at the beginning of this chapter. It is, however, only possible to define the declamations as ‘literature’ if one acknowledges the problematic nature of the term and allows for the engagement of ‘the literary’ with society and culture. The explicit and implicit parallels between Chorikios’ declamatory art and the art of the mimes and pantomimes serve as a powerful reminder that his was a practice rooted in its cultural context and that a classical form could be used to address very current concerns.

Works Cited

Albini, Umberto. ‘Il mimo a Gaza tra il V e il VI sec. d. Cr.’, SIFC 15 (1997): 116–122.

Barnes, Timothy D. ‘Christians and the Theater’, in William J. Slater (ed.), Roman Theater and Society (Ann Arbor: 1996), 161–180.

Beard, Mary. ‘Looking (Harder) for Roman Myth: Dumézil, Declamation, and the Problems of Definition’, in Fritz Graf (ed.), Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft: Das Paradigma Roms (Stuttgart and Leipzig: 1993), 44–64.

Cameron, Averil. Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1991).

Cassin, Barbara. L’effet sophistique (Paris: 1995).

Cresci, Lia Raffaela. ‘Imitatio e realia nella polemica di Coricio sul mimo (Or. 32 Förster-Richtsteig)’, Koinonia 10 (1986): 49–66.

Downey, Glanville. Gaza in the Early Sixth Century (Norman: 1963).

Dupont, Florence. L’invention de la littérature: De l’ivresse grecque au texte latin (Paris: 1994).

Flusin, Bernard. ‘La culture écrite’, in Cécile Morrisson (ed.), Le Monde Byzantin I: l’Empire romain d’Orient (330–641) (Paris: 2004), 255–275.

Foerster, R. and E. Richststeig. Choricii Gazaei opera (Leipzig: 1929).

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (Baltimore: 1996).

Genette, Gérard. Fiction and Diction (Ithaca, NY: 1993).

Heath, Malcolm. Hermogenes On Issues: Strategies of Argument in Late Greek Rhetoric (Oxford: 1995).

———. Menander: A Rhetor in Context (Oxford: 2004).

Iser, Wolfgang. The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: 1993).

Kaster, Robert A. ‘Controlling Reason: Declamation in Rhetorical Education at Rome’, in Yun Lee Too (ed.), Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity (Leiden: 2001), 317–337.

Lim, Richard. ‘Consensus and Dissensus on Roman Games in Early Byzantium’, Byzantinische Forschungen 24 (1997): 159–179.

Mango, Cyril. The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312–1453 (Toronto: 1986).

Paul, George M. ‘Urbs Capta: Sketch of an Ancient Literary Motif ’, Phoenix 36 (1982): 144–155.

Regnault, L., P. Lemaire, and B. Outtier. Barsanuphe et Jean de Gaza: Correspondance (Sablé-sur-Sarthe: 1971).

Rispoli, Gioia. Lo spazio del verisimile: Il racconto, la storia e il mito (Naples: 1988).

Romm, James. ‘Wax, Stone, and Promethean Clay: Lucian as Plastic Artist’, Classical Antiquity 9 (1990): 74–98.

Sallmann, Klaus. ‘Christen vor dem Theater’, in J. Blänsdorf (ed.), Theater und Gesellschaft im Imperium Romanum (Tübingen: 1990), 243–259.

Schmitz, Thomas. Bildung und Macht: Zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweite Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaiserzeit (Munich: 1997).

Schouler, Bernard. ‘Un ultime hommage à Dionysos’, in Marie-Hélène Garelli-François and Pierre Sauzeau (eds), D’un ‘genre’ à l’autre (Montpellier: 2002), 249–280.

———. ‘Choricius déclamateur’, in Catherine Saliou (ed.), Gaza dans l’Antiquité Tardive: Archéologie, rhétorique, histoire (Salerno: forthcoming).

Webb, Ruth. ‘Imagination and the Arousal of the Emotions’, in Susanna Braund and Chris Gill (eds), The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature (Cambridge: 1997), 112–127.

———. ‘The Protean Performer: Mimesis and Identity in Late Antique Discussions of the Theater’, in Luisa Del Giudice and Nancy Van Deusen (eds), Performing Ecstasies: Music, Dance, and Ritual in the Mediterranean (Ottawa: 2005), 3–11.

———. ‘Logiques du mime dans l’Antiquité Tardive’, Pallas (forthcoming).

———. ‘The Imagines as Fictional Text: Ekphrasis, Apatē and Illusion’, in Stéphane Rolet (ed.), Philostrate, Callistrate et les énigmes de l’image sophistique, volume of La Licorne (Poitiers: forthcoming).

Weismann, Werner. Kirche und Schauspiele: Die Schauspiele im Urteil der lateinischen Kirchenväter under besonderer Berücksichtigung von Augustin (Würzburg: 1972).

Widdowson, Peter. Literature (London: 1999).

Wiemken, Helmut. Der griechische Mimus; Dokumente zur Geschichte des antiken Volkstheaters (Bremen: 1972).


[ back ] 1. Laudationes Marciani (I and II = Or. 1 and 2 F.-R). Partial English translation in Mango, 1986: 60–72. Chorikios’ works are cited in the edition by Förster: 1929, abbreviated as F.-R.

[ back ] 2. Very little attention has been paid to these declamations, see now Schouler, forthcoming (with some references to earlier discussions). I am very grateful to Profesor Schouler for allowing me to see the text of this article before publication.

[ back ] 3. Peter Widdowson has recently noted the importance of the aesthetic in definitions of literature as in this one from the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has a claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect…’ Widdowson, 1999: 6, see also 34.

[ back ] 4. Genette, 1993: 10.

[ back ] 5. Widdowson, 1999. Dupont, 1994 discusses the contrast between oral and written transmission in Antiquity.

[ back ] 6. See the general comments of Flusin, 2004: 257.

[ back ] 7. Certain texts make a conscious play with this phenomenon. In his Eikones, for example, the Elder Philostratos creates a fictional time and place and fictional live performance. See Webb, forthcoming volume of La Licorne (Poitiers).

[ back ] 8. Russell, 1983. For full summaries of Chorikios’ declamations with discussion and analysis see Schouler, forthcoming.

[ back ] 9. For a comparison of Chorikios’ treatment of the theme with that of Lucian see Heath, 1995: 175– 179.

[ back ] 10. See, for example, Declamation 10, 1 (p. 437, ll. 11–14 F.-R.) with its echo of Homer, Iliad, 16, ll. 7–10.

[ back ] 11. See Gantz, 1996: 628.

[ back ] 12. Chorikios, Declamation 2, Theōria (p. 153, ll. 14–17 F.-R.).

[ back ] 13. Heath, 2004.

[ back ] 14. See, for example, Kaster, 2001: 317–337. Thomas Schmitz has argued convincingly for the social significance of the practice of declamation in the second century context in Schmitz, 1997.

[ back ] 15. As Hermogenes On Issues, 33, notes, one cannot make Socrates a frequenter of brothels, for example. See Heath, 1995: 31.

[ back ] 16. The same applies to Libanios’ introductions. Heath, 2004: 238 suggests that this may be because they were aimed at the most advanced students who would not have needed help to discern the structure of the speech.

[ back ] 17. Declamation 7, Theōria 1 (p. 284 F.-R.).

[ back ] 18. Declamation 7, 7–10 (p. 287 F.-R.)

[ back ] 19. Chorikios, Declamation 11, 33 (p. 486–487 F.-R.): εἶδον οὖν, ὅτι ῥώμης συνεσταλμένης τοῖς ἡμετέροις, ηὐξημένης δὲ τοῖς ἐναντίοις μηχανῆς μοι δεῖται τὰ πράγματα, καὶ τὴν πόλιν ἁλοῦσαν ἀναπλάσας τῷ λογισμῷ τά τε ἄλλα διενοούμην, ὅσα ποιεῖν ἅλωσις εἴωθε δυσχερῆ, καὶ τὸ πάντων πικρότατον, τὴν συνήθη τῶν ἐν πόλει κρατούντων ἐχθρῶν ἀκρασίαν, παστάδα λυμαινομένων, παρθένους βιαζομένων, παίδων ὥρας οὐ φειδομένων.

[ back ] 20. See Paul, 1982: 144-155.

[ back ] 21. On its use in oratory see for example, Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, 8.3.67 with discussion in Webb, 1997: 112–127.

[ back ] 22. See Heath, 1995: 256 and 260 (‘Mitigation’ and ‘Transference’).

[ back ] 23. Cameron, 1991: 147.

[ back ] 24. Hermogenes, On Issues, 65, translation in Heath, 1995: 46. Heath cites some further examples in his notes on this passage, 118.

[ back ] 25. Libanios, Forster, 1929: 417–419 and 435–437.

[ back ] 26. On the connection between the notion of plasma ‘fiction’ and platto ‘to model’ see Cassin, 1995: 473–487. Rispoli, 1988. See also, Romm, 1990: 74–98.

[ back ] 27. See, e.g. Plato, Republic 3, 395, d–e and Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, 1.11.2.

[ back ] 28. Chorikios, Declamation 6, Theōria, 6 (p. 253 F.-R.).

[ back ] 29. Plato, Republic 3, 392d–393c.

[ back ] 30. Chorikios, Dialexis 12 (p. 248 F.-R.) cf. Lucian, On the Dance, 65 also comparing declamation and pantomime. Chorikios also uses the analogy with rhetoric and other arts as part of his defence of the mimes, 13 (picking up a point made by Libanios in his defence of the pantomime as noted by Cresci, 1986: 53.

[ back ] 31. Downey, 1963: 112–113.

[ back ] 32. Beard, 1993: 44–64.

[ back ] 33. Apologia mimorum (XXXII = Or. 8 F.-R.). On the speech see: Albini, 1997: 116–122; Cresci, ‘Imitatio e realia’: 49–66; B. Schouler, 2002: 249–280; On the Church’s opposition to the theatre see for example: K. Sallmann, 1990: 243–259; Barnes, 1996: 161–180; Weismann, 1972.

[ back ] 34. Chorikios, In Defense of the Mimes (Apologia mimorum), 1 (p. 345 F.-R.).

[ back ] 35. Chorikios, In Defense of the Mimes, 76–77 (p. 361 F.-R.): τίνα δὴ βλάπτειν ἡγῇ τὴν ὑπόκρισιν; αὐτόν, εἰπέ μοι, τὸν κεχρημένον ἢ τὸν θεώμενον οἴει θηλύνειν; σὺ μὲν ἀμφοτέρους ἐρεῖς, ἐγὼ δὲ τούτων οὐδέτερον. οὐ γὰρ συναλλοιοῦται τοῖς ἐσθήμασιν ἡ ψυχή, κἂν συνᾴδοντά τις τῷ σχήματι φθέγξηται. οὔτε γὰρ ἀνδρεῖον ἡ λεοντῆ τὸν Ἀριστοφάνους ἐποίει Ξανθίαν οὔτε δειλὸν ἡ γυναικεία στολὴ τὸν Πηλέως, κἂν ἐγὼ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦτο τῆς ἀγωνιστικῆς ἀποθέμενος ἀναλάβω στρατιώτου σκευήν, οὐ γενήσομαί τις πολεμικός.

[ back ] 36. Chorikios, Declamation 3, 6 (p. 182): ἅμα γὰρ ὅπλοις ἐκδυομένοις συνεκδύεται καὶ τὸν θυμὸν ἀνήρ.

[ back ] 37. Heath, 2004: 166.

[ back ] 38. On this identification with reference to pantomime in particular see Webb, 2005: 3–11.

[ back ] 39. John Chrysostom, In sanctum Barlaam martyrem, PG 50 682.

[ back ] 40. Severus of Antioch, Homily 95, PO 25, p. 94.

[ back ] 41. Webb, ‘Female Entertainers’: 299–300.

[ back ] 42. On the Greek mime see Wiemken, 1972. For an interpretation of the significance of mime see Webb, forthcoming in Pallas.

[ back ] 43. Prokopios of Gaza, Panegyric of Anastasios, 16.

[ back ] 44. Justinian, Cod. Just. Nov. 123, 44.

[ back ] 45. Regnault, 1971: 836 (V 840) and 837 (V 841) (504). I am very grateful to Peter Brown for this reference.

[ back ] 46. Tertullian, De spectaculis, 23.5: ‘non amat falsum auctor veritatis; adulterium est apud illum omne quod fingitur’.

[ back ] 47. See Lim, 1997: 159–179.

[ back ] 48. Specific references to the Rosalia in Dialexeis 9 (pp. 196–197 F.-R.) and 24 (pp. 476–478). Declamation 8, The Spartan, with its discussion of the statue of Aphrodite is dedicated to the goddess (Theōria, 5 p. 315, ll. 21–3 F.-R.).

[ back ] 49. See Lim, 1997.

[ back ] 50. Iser, 1993: 13.