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date: 19 June 2021

ekphrasis in Latin literaturelocked

ekphrasis in Latin literaturelocked

  • Basil Dufallo


The imperial-age Greek Progymnasmata in which the term ekphrasis first appears show that the rhetoricians of the Greco-Roman world identified “descriptive speech” as an important component of rhetorical narrative and other elements of an oration insofar as it created “vividness” (ἐνάργεια) and “clarity” (ͅσαφήνεια) so as to bring persons, places, events, objects, etc. “before the eyes” (ὑπ’ ὅψιν) of listeners. The Roman rhetoricians draw upon Greek concepts and terminology to express the value in oratory of vividness (evidentia, illustratio, repraesentatio) imparted through description (descriptio, sub oculos subiectio, etc.). Many examples of such techniques can be found in Roman oratory as well as the Roman historians, who, like most Roman authors, share with the orators a strong familiarity with rhetoric. But if, in general, neither oratory nor historiography exhibits a high degree of self-consciousness about differences between ekphraseis/descriptiones in Greek and Latin, one type of ekphrasis—that of art objects in Roman poetry and the Roman novel—does. This constitutes one reason why it merits separate attention, in spite of the fact that the Progymnasmata suggest that in Antiquity it was viewed as a subcategory of the larger phenomenon. Many of the ways the Latin authors use ekphrasis of art (real or imagined) are, again, drawn directly from Greek practice. For example, these ekphrases often represent in metaliterary fashion the larger text in which they appear (a technique known in modern discussions as mise en abyme) or, in a related gesture, allude through analepsis and prolepsis (flashback and “flash-forward”) to other parts of the main text. They often interrupt the course of the larger text’s narrative by encouraging its audience to concentrate on a visual narrative within the art object and yet demand to be integrated into the larger narrative, however problematically or imperfectly, by an interpreting audience. Whether implicitly or explicitly, moreover, they often affirm verbal art’s capability to express things that a silent art object cannot and thus seem to assert the primacy of the text over the image. All of these are inherited Greek techniques; but the Latin authors extend the self-referential quality of ekphrasis’ conventional functions to encompass focused scrutiny of the relationship between Greek and Roman culture. We can sometimes discern, moreover, ways in which allusions to Greek elements of actual painting, sculpture, architecture, etc. enhance this dimension of Roman ekphrasis. Latin authors’ uses of these interrelated techniques develop and change over time.


  • Latin Literature
  • Roman Material Culture

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