Talking Hands: Gesture and the Orator in Sculpted Panels of the High Roman Empire

Lea Cline

All delivery is concerned with two different things, namely voice and gesture, of which the one appeals to the eye and the other to the ear, the two senses by which all emotion reaches the soul.
(Quint. Inst. 11.3.14)

This paper is a study of communication—how Roman orators communicated with their audiences, how audiences in turn replied, and how sculptors of the High Roman Empire exploited this closed and effective mode of communication.  The communication between performer and audience requires a system of rules to govern the interactive process; a set of rules need necessarily to be in some way predictable and tacitly agreed upon by both parties.  Such a system is manifest in the bodily gestures of a Roman orator, a set of signifiers upon which this interactive form of communication relied.  This system of rules, and how they appear in sculptural relief panels, is the primary subject of this paper, and the goal to examine this flexible and versatile language and its use to communicate a message to an audience.  I propose that, through an examination of the nonverbal language employed by orators and actors, we might come to understand the transferal of that language into state relief panels.  In this pursuit, I will consider three monuments often debated in modern literature, the adlocutio panel from the Arco di Portogallo, three Aurelian panels housed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, and the Anagylpha Traiani/Hadriani.  By examining the gestures employed in these objects, combined with all other relevant historical and artistic details, I hope to suggest a richer, and possibly more informed evaluation of their rhetorical value.  Finally, once I have come to an understanding of the gestures in the reliefs, I will attempt to reconstruct the experience of a viewer—how the space, size and positioning of the monuments in question affect the viewer’s ability to participate in the internal dialogue of gestures within the panels.

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