May 23, 2015
Today we’re doing a podcast on Dionysius of Halicarnassus, not least because it’s so fun to say his name. Some people just have the kind of name that makes you want to say it all out, in full. Say it with me: Dionysius of Halicarnassus. It’s lovely. Fortunately, we’ll lget to say Dionysius of Halicarnassus several times today.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, being of Halicarnassus, was Greek, but he wasn’t one of the 5th century golden age Greek rhetoricians--he lived around 50-6 BC during the Roman empire. Indeed, he studied in Rome and gave lessons there as part of the Greek educational diaspora. Dionysius of Halicarnassus could be seen as a great reconsiler between Roman and Greek thought, or he could be seen as a stoolie for the romans. He wrote of the Romans as the heirs of Greek culture and was always talking up the qualities of the Romans.
But he did love Greek rhetoricians. He writes admiringlyof Greek poets like Homer and Sappho of Greek rhetoricians Isocrates and Lysius, and even of Dinarchus, whom most people thought was kind of a lousy rhetor and even Dionysius of Halicarnassus admits was “neither the inventor of an individual style … nor the perfector of styles whcih others had invented” (1). He compiledhis thoughts on rhetoric into a more-or-less treatise known to us rather unimaginatively as the Art of Rhetoric. Not to be confused with all of the other Arts of Rhetoric, but the one by Dionyius of Halicarnasus. In the Art of Rhetoric and On Literary Composition, he offers in-depth analysis of many of the greatest Greek rhetors and rhetoricians, giving long examples in his text. As a matter of fact, much of the fragments we have from folks like Sappho comes from Dionysius of Halicarnassus, because he loved to quote big chunks of text and then go back and describe what was happening in those texts, even down to the level of the sounds of the vowels. that’s the level of analysis you get from dionysius of Halicarnassus.
And rather not surprisingly. Dionysius of Halicarnassus cited big chunks of text because he was a firm believer of imitation. Imitation,in this case, wasn’t the same as mimesis. Let me describe the differences: For Aristotle, Mimesis was about looking to nature and imitation from nature. So you see a bowl of grapes, and you get your teeny, tiniest paintbrush and you paint thos grapes so realistically that someone walking by might jam their finger reaching out to grab one. that’s mimesis. Dionysian imitation, though, is about imitating an author. Or authors. So now instead of staring at a bowl of grapes, you might stare at a poem about a bowl of grapes. Pedagogically, you might first emulate the poem, trying to recreate the poem as closely as you can, then adapt the poem, maybe now instead of a poem about grapes you make it a poem about plums. then you might rework and improve the poem, cutting back the long winded parts, or where the original author used a lame analogy or something. But then, in your own work, you continue this process with not just one poem, but dozens of poems, and not just by one author, but by dozens of authors. Through careful reading and analysis, you can identify the styles and methods most appropriate to your situation. This was popular for the Romans and it’s popular with us. If you’re going to write a love poem today, for instance, you might write a sonnet because of the successful love poems of Plutarch and Shakespeare, and you might find yourself using similar kinds of tropes and figures as Plutarch and Shakespeare, cataloging the beauty of your beloved, or comparing them to an animal or flower.this is all Dionysian imitation on your part. The Dionysian imitation caught on in a big way among Latin writers. Quintilian was a fan and included imitation of authors in his own pedagogy. Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ 3-volume treatise, known to us as--surprise--on imitation became a relative best seller. It makes sense considering the politics of greco-roman relations: if the Golden Age rhetors, Isocrates and Lysius, really are teh best, they can serve as models for Roman writers. these Roman writers, though, can exceed the Greek models. Just like how Dionusus of Halicarnassus thought that Romans were the literal descendents of later Greeks, he found a way that their writing could be descended from Greek style.
It may sound weird to us to not value originality, but Romans were sort of world-weary, “nothing new to be said” sorts who recognized the long literary precedent of Greek and Egyptian writers. Dionysian imitation could give them a way to feel that they were taking this long history and improving on it. And that meant a lot to them.
If you, like Dionysius of Hallicarnassus, have a fun name to say, or if you know of a rhetorician who, like Dionysius of Hallicarnassus, has a fun name to say, why not drop us a line at email@example.com? Until next time, Dionysius of Hallicarnassus.