The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome


I thought that I’d make a quick post after reading an interesting article on ancient rhetoric that dealt with the art of criticism and “figured speech.” For the ancients (from Quintilian, a first century CE professor), speaking directly (palam) and speaking openly (aperte) were shaded differently: the former was unsafe, unwise; the latter, necessary and safe. One could criticize a tyrant so long as a favorable, flattering meaning was imparted at one level. This technique is one that Ovid uses – quite extensively – in the letter that I am studying. Here are two quotes from the article (author Frederick Ahl of Cornell) that I found interesting:

“For us an ancient writer employing figured speech is saying something simple in an elaborate way, not expressing the complexity of reality by complexity of language.”

and in reference to criticizing a tyrant (a word without negative connotation in Greek and Roman thought):

“Rhetorical theorists wanted to train students not in how to achieve martyrdom, which requires no special education, but in how to deal successfully with the powerful and even shape and direct their power.”

Perhaps this is why students of the classics are so sought after by law schools.

On to three new books, a thesis, and a dissertation.



  1. pbterenzioiii says:

    This is really interesting! Thinly veiled criticism of the ruling regime by intellectuals seems to be a tradition stretching back throughout the history of autocracies, although occasionally even the most metaphoric attempts at questioning the regime are seized upon by cultural censors (I’m thinking of twentieth century examples here: consider how the Soviets and Communist Chinese punished poets, playwrights, and essayists). But it certainly makes sense in the ancient context as well- it’s not hard to imagine a Roman dictator or Greek tyrant handing out proscriptions for such an offense. Could you give an example of some of Ovid’s criticism? Perhaps highlight a particular selection that seems to be praising Augustus (or whoever) and then reveal the actual meaning?

  2. bcevans says:

    Thanks for asking! I’d be happy to give an example – I like this one:

    cum subit, Augusti quae sit clementia, credo
    mollia naufragiis litora posse dari. (Epistulae ex Ponto 1.2.59-60)

    When it comes to mind what is the clemency of Augustus, I believe that soft shores are able to be given to my wrecked ship. (translation my own)

    This passage comes after around 50 lines in which Ovid describes the terror of his exile – barbarian tribes galloping over the frozen Danube and around Tomis’s fortification walls, shooting poison-tipped arrows into the midst of the city. Winter is harsh in Tomis, and Ovid describes himself as living in constant suffering and terror. His only respite is when he can visit Rome in his dreams and speak to those whom he loves. Then comes this line. Ovid describes himself as shipwreck out at sea. When suddenly Augustus’s clemency appears in Ovid’s mind, he believes that he will reach safety. This is the art of ambiguity: yes, this could indeed be taken as praise. Augustus specifically named his “clementia” as one of the qualities for which he should be known and praised; therefore, it would be expected for Ovid to praise him in this way. However, this couplet could be read more disparagingly: even if Augustus can provide such a soft shore for Ovid to land on, his ship has already been wrecked, and a soft landing doesn’t matter much to someone whose vessel is destroyed.

    Augustus is the one responsible for destroying Ovid: he is the one who punished him to an exile Ovid described as a living death for an indiscretion and a poem. The indiscretion, which Ovid claims was a mistake and nothing more, is unknown to us; speculations go from a personal affair somehow related to Augustus’s exile of his own daughter around the same time or witnessing a political conspiracy. The other cited reason for Ovid’s exile was a poem, the Ars Amatoria, a didactic poem instructing men and women how to seduce others and acquire beloveds. This poem rubbed the wrong way against Augustus’s social conservatism.

    In any case, there are many examples of this criticism both in this letter and in the exile corpus as a whole. Another choice bit from this poem is when he says that Augustus, even though gods know everything, doesn’t know how bad the conditions in Tomis are; if Augustus did know, he surely would relent. He leaves it for the reader to complete the argument that Augustus therefore must not be divine as is claimed.

    Thanks! Best,


  3. The excerpt from the Ahl article used above caught my eye– I’m very interested in the ways in which ancient historians artfully critique those in power, or use embedded oratory to articulate their message. Have you ever compared the techniques of Ovid with Greek predecessors? I’m look forward to learning more about your work at the research fair this fall!

    Kudos from a fellow classics major!