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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Purpose and Style in Classics

Purpose and Style in Classics

Most Greek and Roman literature is a blend of strong individuality and equally strong tradition. Great attention was paid to the rules of appropriateness of type and style to content. The control of self-expression by a traditional system of technical rules was a challenge which the great writers met with triumph. In all classical literature style is something of very great importance, all the more so as it was so closely related to the art of public speaking and literature was meant to be read aloud.

For some time I have been studying a few of these questions of style. They are constantly presenting themselves in anydiscussion of the original texts.

By the time of Cicero, a theory of three categories of style had been developed: the plain and elegant, or expository and intellectual category; the middle or flowery category, and the grand or 'emotional' category. The theory is probably understandable if we think that each category has a different aim, and in a broad and somewhat vague way represents a different emotional level, almost like the three degrees of comparison in grammar. Within a single speech all three categories might be brought into play according to the nature of the subject matter and the aim to be achieved. These questions are discussed at some length by Cicero in his works on literary page 16 criticism. Quintilian, almost a century later, also gives some attention to the question. Both seem, I think, to write in the very style which for the time being they discuss. They therefore do not merely indulge in vague description but give a lesson by example from which data may be gathered.

Quintilian makes the point that individuals differ in style, although he himself describes and for the moment works in the manner which is broadly typical of each category. Thus he makes the point that each stylist will have his own particular range and that almost infinite gradation will be the result. This is a healthy reaction from the rigid and mechanical following of precepts. There was a definite tendency to break with tradition at the end of the Roman Republic, and then within about seventy years a return to classicism at least in profession if not wholly in fact. The fate of the three styles in these circumstances may prove a worthwhile investigation.

The work of the Younger Pliny is interesting from this point of view. His Epistles are highly elaborate pieces of writing strongly influenced by poetry. The only long rhetorical work of his which is extant, the Panegyric, has been described as stylistically a collection of Epistles, but in an even more elaborate style. Scholars have shown that the Epistles about the eruption of Vesuvius show not only Stoic thought but the influence of the miniature epic. It seems to me that it may be possible to show that certain descriptive passages in the Panegyric show in their structure and style the influence of lyric poetry. Technical exposition of the nature and effect of certain legal enactments may be the clue to the severer passages of this speech to which Pliny himself refers.

In the long run these are questions which are just one aspect of the interest of the ancient world in right conduct. The standard may be a metaphysical one or some more or less sophisticated version of tradition and mos maiorton. Hence it is that in discussing right conduct the satirists touch on many topics, eating, drinking, correct spelling, even spelling reform and correct literary expression. When Horace says that Homer sometimes nods and Choerilus hardly ever does anything else, he may be delivering a playful slap to some rather ponderous literary criticism by Lucilius. The general pattern of thought of the ancient satirists is that we should observe carefully examples of the extremes and seek for a middle way. The satirists are much exercised about their own style. I hope to show that they might well be, because if fittingness be their aim from one point of view they are something of a paradox. They use the language and expression of everyday life — often in a very realistic manner in the metre traditionally associated with the heroic epic. When Quintilian talks about the merits of the great authors, he notes them according to literary types and style for the use of students who wish to perfect themselves in rhetoric. Perhaps he has the satiric paradox in mind when he describes satztra as wholly Roman, and says that Lucilius was the first to attempt it in any significant way. Horace and Lucilius made the satura a settled genre at Rome. Could Lucilius have been influenced by parody, didactic verse, the epigram? At any rate there seems to be no evidence for any such paradoxical style as a settled type in Greece, although there may possibly have been sporadic experiments.

H. A. Murray