Rhetoric and Gender in Greco-Roman Theorizing

Cheryl Glenn & Rosalyn Eves. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

Historical maps are necessarily exclusionary: to be comprehensible, they require selecting certain details at the expense of others. In Burkean terms, historiographies are a selection, reflection, and deflection of potential interpretations (Burke, 1966, p. 45). Our perspective on rhetoric’s disciplinary landscape has been shaped predominantly by a view of rhetoric that is male, aristocratic, and Western, which has made it difficult for scholars to see terrains or rhetorical practices that do not fall neatly within these terms (Royster, 2003). Therefore, any and every interpretation comes at some cost. Our focus here is on gender and rhetoric in a Greco-Roman context, which is only one of several possible interpretations of that context. Our focus necessarily obscures other important considerations of gender in ancient rhetorics: rhetorics that are not Greco-Roman, ancient Near Eastern (including biblical), Egyptian, Asian, or even of Christians during the Roman republic.

In this chapter, we seek to identify theories and research on rhetoric and gender in Greco-Roman theorizing and to identify gaps in this knowledge. Accordingly, we examine the central research topics in this area and the primary theories and methods that inform research in this area. We provide an overview of existing research and, finally, potential sites for future research.

General Research Trends

Until the appearance of feminist and other revisionary historiographies in the last 15 years or so, the history of rhetoric had been gendered masculine: predominantly a history of male historians writing about aristocratic male rhetors. Thus, men composed the default audience for rhetorical strictures and practices. When Plato talks about the value of true rhetoric to lead the soul toward good, it is an unquestionably masculine soul (trans. 1925). When Aristotle offers a rudimentary audience psychology in his Rhetoric, it is for an audience of men (trans. 1991, Book. II). And when Cicero (trans. 1942) describes the ideal orator as one combining wisdom and eloquence, his definition rests on that individual’s ability to participate in the public sphere of civic action—a sphere closed to women. Because men have been the default rhetors described in Greco-Roman texts and initial secondary scholarship, much early work focused on establishing alternative gendered models for rhetoric and rhetors (e.g., Glenn 1997b; Jarratt 1993). Such work, as Glenn states in the introduction to Rhetoric Retold (1997b), seeks to recover historical women rhetors and recuperate their rhetorical practices and contributions. Zaeske (2002) similarly argues that such recovery work acknowledges women’s contributions to rhetorical theory. These studies assume that gender informs rhetorical performance and that gender, far from being natural and inevitable, is socially constructed.

One of the earliest research trends entailed comparing the rules of discourse for physical bodies inscribed as masculine and feminine (McClure, 1999, “Introduction”). Other studies have deduced gendered rhetorical theories from the rhetorical practices of historical men and women. However, since neither rhetoric nor gender remains a stable category (let alone a master narrative) over time or space, more recent studies have focused on close readings of individual rhetors.

Knowing full well that gender is neither transparent nor natural, some scholars have turned their attention to the ways masculinity and femininity are constructed in rhetorical treatises and how writers use language alternately to (re)enforce or question traditional gender norms (Ballif, 2001; duBois, 1982, 1995; Graver, 1998). Such studies also consider how rhetors are constructed by the gender norms evinced in rhetorical theorizing. According to Gleason (1995), “Rhetoric was a calisthenics of manhood” for Roman men (p. xxii).

A current research strand situates itself beyond any masculine/feminine divide to concentrate, instead, on alternative constructions of masculinity (Gleason, 1995; Graver, 1998), disrupting the notion of a stable self and its concomitant dual gender system by exploring the treatment of figures sexed male but construed as nonmasculine (if not feminine). Because gender has become increasingly understood to be a marker of power differential (rather than a social construct affixed to a sexed body), gendered rhetorics are now based on issues of class, foreignness, effeminacy, and the like. Similarly, scholars are trying to understand alternative representations of femininity, as in Glenn (1997a) and Henry’s (1995) studies of Aspasia, McClure’s (2003) theorizing of courtesan and hetaerae rhetorics, O’Higgins (2001) work on women’s cultic joking, Maurizio’s (2001) work on Delphic priestesses, and others.

A final research trend involves recent moves to identify sites of gender that are not traditional, aristocratic, male, and/or Western. Such studies include Zaeske’s (2002)work on the rhetoric of Esther; Lesko’s (1997) and Lipson’s (2003) work on women’s rhetoric in ancient Egypt; Royster’s (2003) preliminary work on Enheduanna, a Sumerian high priestess; and work on nonelite groups within the Greek or Roman empires, such as Kennedy’s (1999) work on Hipparchia the Cynic (whose embodied practices were themselves rhetorical). Whatever their specific goal, a central issue for all of these researchers has become understanding the social conditions in which rhetoric is produced, the conditions that dictate who can speak—for whom, to whom, in what manner, and in what context (Berlin, 1993; Campbell, 2002; Glenn, 1997b).

Theories and Methods

Campbell (2002) argues that traditional theories and methods in rhetoric are insufficient to the task of feminist recuperation because they rely on male-gendered norms. Her warning suggests that any investigation of gender and rhetoric must be guided by contemporary theories and methodologies that successfully undo what Burke calls the “trained incapacity” (1984, p. 7) that has long elided gender within a masculine norm. Rhetorical historiographers working with classical texts now regularly rely on theories and methods that highlight gender and other social disparities, drawing on gender studies, postmodernism, feminism, material Marxism, and postcolonialism.

These studies rely on gender studies’ recognition that gender is a socially and historically contingent construct imposed on a sexed body (Glenn 1997b). Construed along a differential of power, gender can be concomitant with but not limited to sexual difference. Halsall (2004) explains gender “as a performed identity,” one that “crosscuts and is crosscut by all the other possible factors that constitute an individual’s identity: ethnicity, age, social class or rank, religion, family, or kin group” (p. 19). If gender operates along power differentials, and rhetoric, according to Berlin (1993), is “a set of strictures regarding the way language is to be used in the service of power” (p. 142), then discussions of rhetoric (and therefore power) are inevitably about gender.

The association of power with rhetoric and gender is largely a legacy of those aforementioned theoretical approaches, all of which draw scholarly attention to disparities of power in society as it is shaped through discourse. Along with Foucauldian notions of power, postmodernism also shapes our understanding that any truth (such as social concepts of gender or rhetoric) is relative and socially, politically, and economically contingent. Feminist studies of rhetoric and gender focus on the forces that have historically prevented women (as both gendered and sexed bodies) from speaking (Glenn, 1997a). Marxist theorists demonstrate the necessity of considering alternate, nonelite dissenting voices that helped constitute historical rhetorics (Poulakos, 1993). Postcolonialism, similarly, creates an exigence for studying non-Western rhetorics that also have been devalued or co-opted by traditional rhetorics.

These various theoretical underpinnings operate to differing degrees in historio-graphical methods. Historiography recognizes that no grand narrative reconstruction of the past is ever possible, that history is always contingent and always interested (Glenn, 1997b). Thus, histories of rhetoric and gender are particularly complex because both are historically contingent constructs and, therefore, doubly subject to context. As such, they are shaped by the needs of their own era and our own. Revisionary historiography looks for traces and absences in the rhetorical record in order to create multilayered, multiperspec-tival, polyphonic accounts of the past that better approximate historical truths (Sutherland, 2002).

Perhaps most vexing for scholars working with issues of rhetoric and gender in antiquity is the paucity of texts. McClure (2001) describes the difficulty of extracting women’s voices from fragments, especially from male-authored texts. The solution for some has been to read against the grain, to read as much for what is not there as for what is. For example, Glenn (1997b) describes reconstructing the Periclean-era (fifth-century BCE) female rhetor Aspasia through careful readings of the Sophists and knitting together the existing strands of her rhetorical contributions in order to shape the context of her work’s disappearance. Similarly, Poulakos (1993) advocates negotiating between Marxist and poststructuralist approaches to disrupt the contexts in which the voices of nonelite speakers would have been silenced. When texts are available, scholars read them closely, tapping a range of interpretive methods, including discourse analysis, which reveals gendered speech patterns in written texts by men and women (McClure, 2001). Enos (2002) has suggested that a fuller understanding of rhetorical traditions and contexts requires discovering new sources of primary evidence, including nontextual sources, by adopting and adapting archeological methods. Although classical scholars often rely on art and artifacts in addition to textual sources, such studies in rhetoric are rare.

Gender and Rhetoric in Greece

Because gender constructions are historically contingent (e.g., our current understanding of gender expectations in Greek antiquity is mostly limited to the fourth and fifth centuries BCE), Jarratt (2002) admonishes scholars about applying a single set of gender expectations across multiple historical periods. In her study of Sappho, Jarratt claims that gender expectations were less rigid in archaic Greece than in the later classical era and women had more freedom to move about in society. Glenn (1997b) suggests the possibility of women’s education in schools like those Sappho established. However, there is considerably less scholarship on the understanding of gender in archaic Greece than in the classical era.

The golden era of rhetoric in classical Greece was marked by increasing codification of gender lines, which duBois (1982) explains by the shift from narrative discourse to increasingly polarized philosophical discourse over the course of the sixth through fourth centuries BCE. Thus, the Greek male in the fifth century was described in terms of difference: “not-animal, not-barbarian, not-female” (p. 4), and thepolis, the public sphere of aristocratic male citizens, was founded on the exclusion of foreigners, slaves, and women (Glenn, 1997b). Because women were confined to the oikos, the domestic sphere, men became the default norm in the public sphere and its discourse.

By our contemporary standards, a woman’s role was paradoxical in that women were essential to marriage, the domestic economy, and the perpetuation of society but were excluded from public life, educational opportunity, and legal rights and protection (duBois, 1982; Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001). In addition, class hierarchy exacerbated differences among women of various social classes (Glenn, 1997b), despite a gendered system of limited engagement in leading religious rituals and in domestic responsibility. By the second and first centuries BCE, aristocratic women gained limited power in terms of holding public office (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001). Nonetheless, only prostitutes and hetaerae—not respectable women—appeared in public or participated in the polis (Cape 1997; McClure, 1999).

This gender binary was codified in discourse. Both philosophy and rhetoric (in imitation of philosophy) “emphasiz[ed] reliance on rational argument and universals and understating the role of emotion, belief, style” (Campbell, 2002, p. 49). This position reinforced binary distinctions by privileging a masculine rationality over a feminine emotionality. DuBois (1993) argues that early philosophers of rhetoric distinguished themselves from women, barbarians, and slaves by their lack of emotion and that this distinction was maintained in their public discourse.

Cultural and philosophical beliefs about biology also reinforced these gender constructions. As Glenn (1997b) points out, the Aristotelian belief in the superiority of the male helped naturalize social hierarchies. The Greeks perceived sexuality in gendered terms as well, specifying differences in sexuality on the basis of role (active or passive) rather than biological sex. And as naturally finer beings, only masculine males had the right to participate in public discourse (Glenn, 1997b).

Displaying Gender in Greek Rhetorical Discourse

In an era when hereditary power and language were used to influence the community, language became a marker of status, defining elite members of the polis as well as barbarians, or those who “babble” (duBois, 1982). Areté, the highly nuanced understanding of virtue essential to masculinity and available only to upper-class males, was demonstrated only through rhetorical prowess in the agon, the arena for public disputes (Hawhee, 2002). As the instantiation of societal power differentials, the deployment of language was inevitably informed by gender expectations.

Just as social masculinity was figured in terms of what it was not (duBois, 1982), so was rhetorical masculinity. Masculine speech was to be straightforward, rational, and unadorned; adornment was equated with femininity (Plato, 1925). Similarly, speech that aimed at pleasing, like that of many Sophists, was suspect for its feminine associations (Ballif, 2001). When Hellenistic oratory became increasingly florid and ornamental, this “Asianist” style was read as a sign of the increasing degeneracy of classical oratory (Walker, 2000).

Masculine discourse was considered the transparent norm, so most ancient commentary on gendered discourse patterns focused on deviant (usually feminine) speech, which could be found in the dramatic performances of female characters (Glenn, 1997b). Although Greek actors relied more on costume and gesture than language to indicate sex, female characters exhibited distinctively female patterns of speech: “lyric expression of fear and grief; prayers to the gods for help;… references to domestic activities …; references to the intimate relations between child and mother or between sexual partners” (Griffith, 2001, p. 123). Although not necessarily characteristic of actual women, such patterns were culturally coded feminine with the most distinctive sign of femininity being the failure to speak at all: “a silence that would be shameful or cowardly in a man might… confer an ideal air of ‘modesty’ and ‘good sense’ upon a woman” (Griffith, 2001, p. 123).

Rhetorical Constructs of Gender

In addition to the ways that gender expectations inform rhetorical practices, scholars also have examined the ways in which gender is constructed explicitly in rhetorical texts, most commonly in Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. As mentioned above, duBois (1982) critiques Platonic philosophy for its debilitating binaries of reason and emotion, masculine and feminine. Ballif (2001) argues that Plato’s philosophic rhetoric in Phaedrus equates purity of soul with masculinity and recasts women as the inferior gender by associating them with sophistry. Jarratt and Ong (1995) argue that Plato’s promotion of autochthonous birth—the birth of warriors directly from the land—in the Menexenus enacts a fantasy that men do not need women, displacing women from one of their few socially valued roles.

Similarly, scholars critique Aristotle for promulgating the biological inferiority of women and for explaining the accomplishments of extraordinary women like Sappho by suggesting that they are somehow more or other than women (Glenn, 1997b). In fact, because of the widespread assaults by feminists on Plato’s and Aristotle’s depictions of gender (particularly the feminine), feminist philosophers have issued two scholarly collections attempting to rehabilitate the Greek philosophers’ work (Tuana, 1994; Freeland, 1998).

Rhetorical Practices of Gendered Individuals

By far the largest body of scholarship on gender and rhetoric in Greek contexts explores rhetorical practices of rhetors gendered differently from the norm. Often driven by feminist goals, this scholarship mostly focuses on female rhetors, women (such as Sappho, Aspasia, Diotima, and Hipparchia) who must compensate by moving beyond “the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle, trans. 1991, Book I, ii) to transform or otherwise adapt the spaces and circumstances in which they find themselves. However, as indicated below, Roman (and Greco-Roman) rhetoric offers examples of alternatively gendered male speakers as well.

Perhaps the most distinguished of those female rhetors is Sappho, whose existence can be re-membered from extant poetic fragments (unlike Aspasia, who must be reconstructed from fragments, and Diotima, who appears in writings by men). DuBois (1995) argues that Sappho’s writings disrupt many of our notions about antiquity:

She is a woman but also an aristocrat, a Greek, but one who turned toward Asia, a poet who writes as a philosopher before philosophy, a writer who speaks of sexuality that can be identified neither with Michel Foucault’s account of Greek sexuality nor with many versions of contemporary lesbian sexuality. (p. 25)

In Sappho, Glenn (1997b) finds evidence for female literacy and a gendered rhetoric: Sappho’s poetry reveals her skill in and resistance to traditional, male-approved forms and subjects, such as epithalamium, epiphany, and priamel (epigrammic catalog). Similarly, Lardinois (2001) argues that “the poetry of Sappho was closely modeled on the public speech genres of women in ancient Greece,” which included prayers to female goddesses, laments, and the praise of young brides (p. 75). In her comparison of Sappho with Alcaeus, another sixth-century lyric poet from Lesbos, Jarratt (2002) discovers in Sappho a gendered form of memory that actively constructs feminine desire and later influences Cicero’s and Quintilian’s formulations of rhetorical memory.

Aspasia also has a long, albeit contested, history. Henry (1995) argues that, next to Sappho and Cleopatra, “Aspasia’s is the longest and richest female biographical tradition to come down to us from the Greco-Roman past” (p. 6). As Glenn (1997a, 1997b) and Jarratt and Ong (1995) have demonstrated, Aspasia’s ability as a rhetor was extraordinary: despite her position as a non-Athenian woman, she transgressed gendered boundaries and established herself as an eloquent rhetor (she is said to have written Pericles’s funeral oration), as a possible teacher of Socrates, and as a potential inventor of the Socratic method.

Scholars interested in gendered rhetoric also have recovered the rhetoric of women such as Diotima of Mantinea and Hipparchia the Cynic. Some dispute the existence of Diotima (see Halperin, 1990), who appears only in Plato’s dialogues. Swearingen (1995) and Glenn (1997b) counter that Plato was not known to use purely fictional characters. Diotima demonstrates the ability of a gendered figure to speak, and she makes an argument about love that emphasizes the unity of spirit and body and transcends the typical sensual-spiritual (and, by extension, feminine-masculine) dichotomy that so often characterizes Plato’s work. Kennedy (1999) suggests that Hipparchia the Cynic can teach us useful things about a feminist rhetoric and ethic of embodiment. A highborn woman in Hellenistic Greece who deliberately embraced social exile when she married a Cynic, Hipparchia offers a historical precedent for the ways that women can find spaces for an embodied rhetoric that espouses ethical principles and for the use of exile to critique cultural institutions.

Recent studies have also attempted to work out uniquely feminine rhetorics by examining the speech patterns of particular groups of women, including women’s cultic groups and Delphic priestesses. O’Higgins (2001) examines women’s cultic joking and mocking in secret Demeter cults by reading often derogatory male references to such joking through a gendered lens. McClure (2003) also works toward a feminine gendered rhetoric in her study of representations of courtesans in Book 13 of Athenaeus, where the riddles of the hetaerae are shown to allow them to control access to meaning and gain the upper hand in discourse. Maurizio (2001) argues that the Pythian or Delphic oracles deliberately adopted ambiguity to meet their clients’ expectations and to resist straightforward (one word/one meaning) masculine writing. Other potential sites for studies of gendered rhetorical practices include philosophic groups whose positions were gendered in opposition to the dominant Platonic and Aristotelian rhetorics. Such studies include Ballif’s (2001) and Jarratt’s (1991) work on the Sophists, but they might also include groups more often overlooked in rhetorical studies, including the Cynics, the Epicureans, and the Pythagoreans. Kennedy’s (1999) work on the Cynics suggests the potential for further gendered analysis of their embodied discourse. The Pythagoreans also merit study for their contributions to the conceptualization of rhetoric; their female members—Theano, Phintys of Sparta, and Perictyone—helped spread the Pythagorean philosophy of harmonia and adapted it to the microcosm of the home (Glenn, 1997b).

Gender and Rhetoric in Rome

Gold (1998) suggests that, in antiquity, gender and sexuality intersected in interesting ways: gender categories were not set up as rigid binaries, but often were constructed through the performance of individuals. Gleason (1995) similarly suggests that, within the Greco-Roman era of the Second Sophistic, gender was not bound to anatomical sex. Although qualities of masculinity and femininity were highly polarized, an individual might register anywhere along the spectrum between them. Because the culture was highly dimorphic in terms of gender and humans are only weakly so, Greco-Roman cultures developed an elaborate system of gender identifications.

Masculine ideals in the Roman empire were strongly influenced by Stoic ideals, which posited that men should represent a union of mind and body; the ideal man’s noble birth could be read in his bodily deportment and his character (Gold, 1998). Men were often defined by continence and self-control, in opposition to women and barbarians (Halsall, 2004). Gleason (1995) notes that the Second Sophistic (second century ce) was a time of some cultural anxiety. A rhetorical display of paideia was used to increase the distance between the educated elite and others and to make their superiority appear “natural” (p. xix). In particular, those involved in government required education and familiarity with rhetoric to demonstrate their civic virtue and masculinity (Halsell, 2004). Before the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century ce, masculinity allied martial virtue with civic engagement, but as the empire began to break apart, the army began to develop its own identity, projecting a masculinity that was more fierce, non-Roman, and animalistic (Halsall, 2004), with the worst characterization for a man being androgynous (rather than feminine).

Despite changing cultural contexts, the feminine ideal appeared much the same for women in Rome as in Greece. Cape (1997) suggests that well-born Roman girls were less confined and better educated than Greeks, even in rhetorical precepts, as they were often educated alongside boys and that they also were allowed to speak in courts. Elite Roman women could occasionally appear publicly to advertise the family’s wealth and influence (Skinner, 1997). However, women were still expected to adhere to the domestic ideal of the influential Roman matron (Glenn, 1997b). Quintilian (trans. 2001) praises in hisInstitutes of Oratory the educated mother who influences her son’s ability to speak well. Women were not entirely valorized. They were still denied full access to public spaces (Richlin, 1997), and, in contrast to masculine seamlessness, their bodies were held to represent a mind/body split (Gold, 1998).

Displaying Gender in Roman Rhetorical Discourse

According to Gleason (1995), Richlin (1997), and Gunderson (2000), rhetoric was an integral part of male socialization during the Roman Empire, with schools and performance halls providing significant opportunities for the construction, development, and performance of manhood; in Cato’s words, vir bonus dicendi peritus, the orator was vir bonum. As Gunderson tells us, the Latin word vir refers to a man who is a husband and a soldier; “a man in Latin is a real man, a manly man” (p. 7). Thus, a man’s rhetorical style revealed not only his masculinity but his character. Rhetors with defective (i.e., effeminate) style were also morally defective (Graver, 1998; Gunderson, 2000; Richlin, 1997).

Rhetorical performance was measured not simply in formal style and speech, but in physical voice and deportment as well. Summing up rhetorical treatises, Gleason (1995) explains that “the orderly man … reveals his self-restraint through his deportment: he is deep voiced and slow stepping, and his eyes, neither fixed nor rapidly blinking, hold a certain indefinably courageous gleam” (p. 61). Gunderson (2000) describes Quintilian’s ideal masculine orator as one who is restrained in his movements. Such restraint differentiated rhetoric, and its association with truth and spirit, from acting, which was associated with deception and the body. Enders’s (1997) work on delivery is a fascinating study of the way rhetoricians—in Greece but predominantly in Rome—tried to police gender and genre lines by discouraging aspiring orators from theatricality in their delivery.

Rhetorical handbooks also indicated that gender could be read in the presentation of the body, according to types of dress and degrees of adornment. Masculinity and virile character could be read in clothing. An orator should be neither disheveled nor dandified (Gunderson, 2000). Adornment became associated with feminine fraud, deception, and illicit sexuality (Richlin, 1995)—or worse with femininity because, like the Greeks, Romans viewed sexuality in terms of role rather than partners (Gunderson; Skinner, 1997). Thus, a male rhetor who offered listening pleasure to others was vulnerable to taking on the label of feminine. When Demosthenes was denounced for dress deemed too elaborate, the denunciation took the form of sexual slurs; his attackers accused him of performing oral sex on other men (Gunderson). In terms of rhetorical presentation (stylistic, behavioral, or physical), masculinity was the default norm. And as Gunderson argues, masculinity, embedded in the delivery of one’s text as well as of one’s body, was always negotiated in relation to other texts and bodies—the feminine, the foreign, the slave.

Rhetorical Constructs of Gender

As the preceding section suggests, much of the rhetorical work of gender construction was accomplished in rhetorical handbooks. In particular, scholars have studied the way prominent rhetoricians—Cicero, Seneca (both the elder and younger), Tacitus, and Quintilian—implicitly have configured gender in their instructions on the presentation of a rhetorical self.

For instance, in her study of masculinity during the Second Sophistic, Gleason (1995) makes her case for the rhetorical construction of masculinity by drawing on the Roman belief that physiognomy coded gender and, therefore, Roman rhetoricians stressed that association. Cicero’s rhetor should control his eye movements, as the eyes were an important indicator of internal thought. He should also attend to vocal variety, which was important for maintaining the audience’s interest, but too much variety was dangerous because it risked betraying the rhetor as unmanly. For the elder Seneca, depraved or overly smooth speech was an indicator of depraved morals.

Graver (1998) argues that the younger Seneca takes his father’s position one step further, suggesting that if speech and behavior indicate internal character, so do writing and other personal characteristics. In particular, she examines Seneca’s attacks on Maecenas for his departure from a “virile” style. From his writing, Seneca concludes that Maecenas himself is mollis (soft), a reference to sexual deviance as well as to a “failure to discipline oneself” (Graver, p. 611). For Seneca, rhetorical failure stems ultimately from flawed character—a failure to discipline oneself, to be(come) a man.

According to Gunderson (2000), Quintilian believes that a good, masculine man (vir bonus) reveals his character through his physical presentation. This ideal, however, is constantly threatened by the rhetor’s body, which may signify independently of the speaker if not closely disciplined. Thus, rhetorical success, like successful masculine performativity, requires constant vigilance and a restrained physical presentation. Enders (1997) argues that the discourses of Quintilian and Tacitus link theatrics, bad rhetoric, and effeminacy. This tactic, she charges, “marginalized women, homosexuals, bad oratory, and theater by casting certain types of speakers and speech as perverse and disempowered” (p. 253). For Quintilian, good rhetoric (and masculinity) is best described by what it is not—it is “not dull, coarse, exaggerated … soft or effeminate” (Enders, p. 260). This rule of masculine rhetoric relied on what Gunderson calls the “mythology of decorum”—a mythology that protected rhetorical provinces from women and from nonelite males, who might find it difficult to adopt a style for which there are no rules.

Rhetorical Practices of Gendered Individuals

Because rhetoric and masculinity were mutually constructed, feminine rhetors (sexed female or male) were always already barred from full participation. To speak at all, they had to reconfigure their words and appearance to a speaking moment. Their difficulties are illustrated by Gaia Afrania, whose attempts to speak in public courts were ridiculed, and by Amasia Sentia, who was praised only for presenting her argument like a man (Cape, 1997; Glenn, 1997b; Richlin, 1997).

One of the few women to successfully speak in public was Hortensia, the daughter of Quintilian’s rival, Quintus Hortensius. She spoke to the triumvirs in the Forum in Rome (Cape, 1997; Glenn 1997b), arguing that women should not have to give money for war efforts when they could not participate in politics. Her successful public speaking was condoned only because she was her father’s daughter, because she spoke for other women, and because this was an isolated instance.

Cape (1997) suggests that although women did not regularly participate in public oration, they successfully participated in private conversations or sermo. Both Glenn (1997b) and Cape (1997) describe the widely reputed epistolary eloquence of Cornelia, mother of the Graccus brothers (Tiberius and Gaius). Glenn describes additional Roman women who found their way into the historical record by virtue of their education and family connections—Verginia, Sempronia, Fulvia, Octavia. Still, upon entering the public sphere, they were vulnerable to attacks on their virtue, honor, and families.

Gleason’s (1995) study is one of the few that focuses on alternative masculine rhetorics. She describes the rhetorical rivalry over gender correctness that existed between the ultramasculine Polemo and the sexually ambiguous Favorinus. Favorinus was multiply disadvantaged as a Sophist, a Gaul, a congenital eunuch, and effeminate in physical appearance and voice. Yet he fascinated audiences with a self-conscious presentation that refigured his liabilities as advantages. Gleason’s study underscores the interdependency of gender and rhetoric: gender is necessarily rhetorical, and rhetoric, as it deals with issues of power, is necessarily gendered.


Despite its relatively recent emergence, scholarship on rhetoric and gender in antiquity displays numerous strengths, the most obvious being the facility and creativity scholars have shown in locating alternate sites for rhetorical work and in learning to reread male-centered texts for alternative perspectives. Particularly powerful are the studies of specific women rhetors in Greece and the studies of Roman masculinity. Because these sites are fairly recent, it is difficult to offer a widespread critique of the field, but we believe that many of the existing gaps and problems in the field will be resolved with time and additional scholarship. However, some of the more prevalent weaknesses include insufficient understanding of rhetorical masculinity in Greek culture; insufficient studies of alternative gendered positions, such as class, ethnicity, age, or disability; and a Western bias that privileges the origin of rhetoric in classical Greco-Roman culture. In addition, the field faces an interdisciplinary challenge—although studies on masculinity and rhetoric are conducted within classics and rhetorical studies, there is not yet a rich interchange between the two.

The possibilities for future studies in gender and rhetoric in antiquity are exciting. We began by suggesting that this chapter presents only one possible reading of gender and rhetoric in Greco-Roman theorizing. We would like to close by inviting alternative readings to complement and complicate this reading. Royster (2003) suggests three powerful means of shifting our focus on the rhetorical landscape to illuminate unexplored terrain: shift where we stand, shift the rhetorical subject, and shift the circle of practice.

To shift our stance we need to explore rhetorics that are not male, elite, or Western in the rhetorical practices of contemporary or even preexisting cultures. For example, Wells (2003) points out that the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the writings of Enheduanna predate Homer, yet few scholars have explored their rhetorical possibility. Other Near Eastern rhetorics have also been neglected; Zaeske’s (2002) study of the biblical Queen Esther’s rhetoric offers a productive model.

Egyptian rhetoric offers another possibility for the study of rhetoric and gender. Although scholarship on Egyptian rhetoric is gradually increasing (Hutto, 2002), scholarship on gendered rhetorical practices is still sparse. Some exceptions include Lesko’s (1997) study of women’s rhetoric in ancient Egypt and Lipson’s (2003) rhetorical study of hieroglyphics (including those of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut). Similarly, the first section of Jackson and Richardson’s (2003) recent collection shifts the scholarly focus from classical Greco-Roman rhetoric by exploring the Egyptian origins of African American rhetoric.

Another place rhetoric and gender in antiquity could be explored is in Asian rhetoric. Wu (2002) argues that feminist historiography in Chinese rhetoric is problematic: studies of Chinese women are not rhetorical, and studies of Chinese rhetoric ignore women. Royster (2003) suggests that rhetoricians could study the work of Pan Chao (48-117 ce), “a royal historiographer, librarian, and teacher during the great Han empire in China” (p. 156; see also Donawerth, 2002).

Shifting our stance might also include looking at rhetorics within Greco-Roman culture that exemplify other gendered positions: class, geography, and so on. Cribiore (2001) offers a preliminary glimpse ofGreek women writers in the second century ce from the Egyptian cities of Hermopolis and Heptakomia. Although Cribiore offers tentative theorizing about these women’s writings, other readings, interpretations, and theorizings are still possible.

Other neglected rhetors of this period include Christians and Jews. Augustine’s Christianization of rhetorical practices opened the way for later Christian women such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe to claim divine inspiration as their justification for public speaking, and it is surprising that more rhetorical work on Christian rhetoric in this era is lacking. Burrus (1996), Cameron (1994), and Clark (1994) explore rhetorical strategies in early Christian male writings about women. Harvey’s (2001) study of biblical woman in Syriac tradition argues that Syriac homilies and hymns gave women a rhetorical voice lacking in biblical narratives. But much of the work on gender constructions in early Christianity, including voluminous research in Paul’s New Testament epistles, has been done by religious scholars (see Penner & Stichele, 2004), not by rhetoricians. Contemporary Jewish rhetorics (including Old Testament rhetorical practices) are another promising research topic.

A final option for the study of rhetorics within Greco-Roman culture involves marginalized philosophical groups. Much work has been done recently on reclaiming the Sophists (Ballif, 2001; Jarratt, 1991; Schiappa, 2003). Other studies have suggested the association between Stoicism and masculinity (Graver, 1998). Schilb (1994) suggests the need to move beyond the conventional opposition of Sophists versus Platonists by including the Cynics, Epicureans, or Pythagoreans. Kennedy (1999) and Glenn (1997b) have identified preliminary options for rhetoric and gender work among these philosophic movements. Branham and Goulet-Cazé’s (1997) edited collection on the Cynics and Gordon’s (1996) work on Epicurus might offer other useful starting points for rhetorical work.

Royster (2003) also asks us to shift our perspective by shifting the rhetorical subject and “focus on the recovery of specific women rhetors within these territories and time frames” (p. 152). Although many of the studies surveyed in this article do just that, there is still work for feminist rhetorical historiography, as Plant’s (2004) recent anthology demonstrates. In addition, scholars might identify rhetorical subjects who are gendered in other ways. For example, most of the descriptions of rhetoric in this era assume an able-bodied, voiced individual. With the exception of Gleason’s (1995) study of Favorinus, there are few models of rhetorical practices for physically nonnor-mative individuals. Just as masculinity is figured as healthy, it is also perennially youthful (or at least, not old). We need more studies exploring the impact of aging on rhetorical and gendered practices.

Gleason’s (1995) conclusion suggests that the focus on masculine definition in rhetorical sources too often disguises issues of social class. Finding ways to study the rhetorical practices of nonelite individuals would also be a valuable contribution. The collection of essays in Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture (Joshel & Murnaghan, 1998), which attempts to excavate the gendered experiences of women and slaves, is one such contribution.

Royster’s final suggestion is to shift our circle of practice, to reconsider what counts as rhetoric. Many of the potential projects described here fall partially under the purview of this option. As Lu (1998) notes, Chinese rhetorical practices were not as self-consciously theorized as those of Greco-Roman writers, but they were no less “rhetorical.” Biesecker (1993) suggests a need for increased study of community rhetorics that disrupt the predominantly individual-centered narratives of rhetorical study. Here again, Kennedy’s (1999) study of the Cynics seems to present a productive option. We offer these suggestions in lieu of closure as an invitation to further discussion.