Appreciating Aper: the defence of modernity in Tacitus' Dialogus de oratoribus

Classical Quarterly 49 (01):224-237 (1999)
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Abstract

Nearly a century ago, Friedrich Leo argued with his characteristic acumen that the neo-Ciceronian style of Tacitus'Dialogus de oratoribuswas as much a function of its genre as its subject. ‘The genre’, he observed, ‘demands its style. One who deals with different genres must write in different styles.’ Alfred Gudeman, the target of Leo's review, had therefore missed a key step in the argument for Tacitean authorship when he invoked ‘the influence of subject-matter’ without considering the demands of genre. In hindsight, the point seems almost obvious, and the sophistication of recent work on the date and style of theDialogushas left Gudeman's discussion far behind. The advance in method—if not necessarily in results—has been profound. Leo's success in linking genre and style, however, has also had a second, less happy result: it has encouraged belief in a corresponding link between genre and content, as if Tacitus necessarily embraced Ciceronian values along with his Ciceronian forms. TheDialogusis often thought to accept Cicero's aesthetic agenda and to examine why the orators of succeeding generations failed to maintain its ideals and standards. Perhaps inevitably, its analysis is then read as a rather depressing tale of oratory's literary, social, and moral decline. This view demands reconsideration. To explore, as theDialoguscertainly does, the collapse of Ciceronian values is not necessarily to regret that collapse. We have, I think, too often read our own prejudices into theDialogusby presuming a post-Augustan decline in oratorical standards and, in the process, reducing our sensitivity to important variations in and departures from the generic conventions that Tacitus so deliberately recalls. The result is a significant distortion of theDialogus' view of oratory under the empire.

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