Asiatic Speaking Style

by Tom Gardner

A few weeks ago I posted this passage from Petronius’ Satyricon. In it, the character Ganymedes makes reference to an ‘Asiatic’ speaking style, which hardly makes sense without some context and explanation. The relevant sentences are these:

In curia autem quomoda singulos vel pilabat tractabat, nec schemas loquebatur sed derectum. Cum ageret porro in foro, sic illius vox crescebat tanquam tuba. Nec sudavit unquam nec expuit, puto eum nescio quid Asiadis habuisse.

Oh, but how he used to hammer them in the Senate-house, every single one, and never with extravagant figures of speech, always straightforward. Then whenever he used to speak in the forum, how his voice would swell just like a trumpet! Never any sweating or spitting—I guess he had a touch of the Asiatic speaking style.

In Ganymedes’ nostalgia about his friend and orator Safinius, it is not entirely clear what characterises the ‘Asiatic style’, a concept which briefly became relevant during the Golden Age of Latin after being imported from Greek oratory. The style consists of a development from, and is mentioned in contradistinction to, the ‘Attic style’, and is named after the Hellenestic-period orators from Asia Minor with whom it is associated. The Attic style was known for being narrower, more austere, more technical, and more traditional; the newer Asiatic style exhibited more wordplay, emotion, and rhythm. Although we have essentially no examples of the true Asiatic style, the Attic-Asiatic dichotomy in Greek rhetoric was used to describe and assess Latin orators.

The chief Latin sources on these contrasting styles are Cicero’s De Oratore (55) and Orator ad Brutum (46). The following passage from Orator may hint at what Petronius means when he says that Safinius’ voice would ‘swell like a trumpet’, quite apart from volume:

Apud alios autem et Asiaticos maxime numero servientes inculcata reperias inania quaedam verba quasi complementa numerorum…Tertium est, in quo fuerunt fratres illi Asiaticorum rhetorum principes Hierocles et Menecles minime mea sententia contemnendi. Etsi enim a forma veritatis et ab Atticorum regula absunt, tamen hoc vitium compensant vel facultate vel copia. Sed apud eos varietas non erat, quod omnia fere concludebantur uno modo.[1]

Among others, especially the Asiatics, one would, being entirely a slave to rhythm, find whatever words can be stuffed into the empty parts of the sentence as if to fill up the metre…A third fault in composition is to be found in the speeches of those leaders of the Asiatic style, the brothers Hierocles and Menecles, who are by no means contemptible in my view. For although they stray from true form and from the structures of Atticism, nevertheless they compensate this vice by the richness and fertility of their language. But there is no variety in either of them, and they finish all their sentences in nearly the same way.

The passage evinces the fact that ‘Cicero sich niemals zu einer runden Verurteilung der Asianer herbeigelassen.’[2] But Cicero, himself labelled an Asiatic speaker, had every reason to criticise the style: as a contender for the title of ‘Roman Demosthenes’, the second-best orator in history, he had an Attic standard to live up to. One can detect a certain irony in Cicero’s condemnation of concludebantur uno modo when he himself was notorious for ending sentences with esse videatur, so much so that it became a caricature.

The esse videatur ending bears directly on the distinction between the Attic and Asiatic styles. The Asiatic style was associated with the use of a prose rhythm, especially the end of clauses and sentences (clausulae); this is what Cicero alludes to in the excerpt above. The principle of quantitative rhythm operates here in much the same way as metre does in Latin poetry, although orators preferred not to use verse patterns. An effective rhythm could provoke spontaneous applause.[3] The esse videatur ending is a resolved version of (– ∪ – ǀ – ×), giving Cicero an Asiatic flavour not only with respect to his unus modus but also his cadence.

This prose rhythm, then, is perhaps a part of Ganymedes’ trumpet simile: the patterns of a clausula’s cadence in speech of the Asiatic style would have a certain melody about it. And indeed Cicero’s rhythm ‘seems to have become a standard which many authors followed more or less consciously’.[4] In a broader sense, Silver Latin would suggest that there was an ‘Asian victory in the west’[5] and that the Atticist style fell out of favour. We can therefore hardly be surprised that a Silver Age orator such as Safinius (albeit fictional) would be employing such a style.

[1] Cic. Orat. LXIX/230-1
[2] Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, U. v. 1900 ‘Asianismus und Atticismus’ Hermes 1-52, 3
[3] Cic. Or. 214
[4] Powell, J. G. F. 2012 ‘Latin Prose-Rhythm’, in Hornblower, A., Spwaforth, A. and Eidinow, E. (eds.) Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th ed.) 1224
[5] Winterbottom, M. 2012 ‘Asianism and Atticism’ in Hornblower, A., Spwaforth, A. and Eidinow, E. (eds.) Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th ed.) 184