The Persian and Peloponnesian Wars in Sopater’s Division of Questions

Craig A. Gibson, University of Iowa

Imagine asking American high school students to turn U.S. history into fiction by composing and performing two kinds of speeches: those that could actually have taken place, say, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor or just before the Boston Tea Party, and (2) those that place famous historical characters in non-historical situations; e.g., George Washington asks Congress to allow him to commit suicide in London in order to secure independence for the colonies.  As strange as it may seem, this is essentially the approach to history encountered in the imperial-era schools of Greek rhetoric.  In order to be able to create and perform these two types of historical fiction, students would have to have learned something about history, to be willing to fictionalize that history, and to have absorbed the rules of historical declamation, i.e., the limits within which one was allowed to fictionalize historical figures and events.

How did students learn this?  While progymnasmata were used to teach students how to develop the component parts of a declamation and to help them review historical figures and events, they usually did little to prepare students for the idea that history could be fictionalized.  At this point students would not have been able to compose full-blown declamations on historical themes.  Rather, as I argue, students were introduced to the idea of historical fiction at an intermediate point: when they had mastered the progymnasmata and had just begun their formal introduction to the multi-layered complexity of stasis theory, the practical application of which required considerable creativity on the part of teachers and students alike.

Sopater’s Division of Questions (fourth century C.E.) shows how a teacher could help students make the difficult transition between progymnasmata and historical declamation, and introduce them to the world of historical fiction.  In this textbook, the teacher-narrator proposes a series of 81 themes illustrating different types of stasis.  The parameters within which he can fictionalize history are never explicitly laid out, but the main rule seems to be that once the initial premises of the historical theme are granted, the declamation must be developed plausibly, with attention to ethos and firm reliance on known details from history and biography.  This becomes very clear through analysis of Sopater’s treatment of characters and events from the period of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.  In my paper I illustrate my thesis by comparing the contents of the themes that concern the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars with the treatment of those wars in the four surviving ancient theoretical handbooks on progymnasmata, in collections of exercises preserved in the manuscript tradition, and in scholia and commentaries to both.

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