Rhetoric and Historiography: New Perspectives

Rhetoric and Historiography: New Perspectives 


A two-day conference to be hosted by The University of Notre Dame, Rome Gateway Center


May 18-21, 2023, Rome


Conveners: Luca Grillo (University of Notre Dame), Emily Baragwanath (UNC, Chapel Hill), Andrew Feldherr (Princeton University) and Christopher Krebs (Stanford University)


2023 marks the 35th anniversary of the appearance of A. J. Woodman’s Rhetoric in Classical Historiography, a work that has transformed our understanding of the Greek and Roman historians, especially among anglophone scholars. Woodman argued above all that the aims of these historians must be understood according to the principles of ancient rhetoric, for example, to praise, inspire or entertain, rather than anachronistically presuming that they shared the same fundamental goal as the modern academic discipline of history: to represent the truth of what happened in the past.


This thesis, controversial from the start, has stimulated at least three lines of inquiry. One has used the canons of ancient rhetoric to make sense of some typical traits of ancient historiography: for example, acknowledging that ancient historians were trained in rhetoric (not in history) explains the presence of speeches attributed to characters and of a proemium and conclusion (e.g. Pelling 2002, Marincola 2007 and Malloch 2013); it also accounts for the prominence of praise and blame (a typical exercise in classical rhetoric; cf. e.g. Haltenhoff 2001, Hölkeskamp 2003 and Roller 2004). Similarly, rhetorical education taught how to elicit passions or craft a successful persona: hence, scenes of vivid pathos (e.g. Walker 1993 and Grethlein 2013) or the specific personalities we associate with different historians can be seen as self-aware literary constructions rather than straightforward reflections of “what actually happened” or “who a historian really was” (e.g. Herodotus and Livy are chatty, Thucydides and Polybius are rigorous and Tacitus is skeptical, etc. see e.g. Marincola 1997). The second line of inquiry has used various methods of modern literary criticism to explore the textuality of historical works: for example, narratology has helped to tease out the intricacies of shifting points of views in Herodotus (Dewald 1999 and Baragwanath 2008), Thucydides (Rood 1998, 2002 and Dewald 2005), Xenophon (Gray 2004 and Rood 2007, 2017), and Tacitus (O’Gorman 2000 and Kraus 1997, 1999); and intertextuality has shown how some historians established connections with their predecessors and hence grafted themselves onto the literary tradition (e.g. Thucydides: Marincola 1997 and Rood 1998, 1999; Xenophon: Rood 2004 and Flower 2017; Caesar: Grillo 2012 and Krebs 2018; Sallust: Feldherr 2021; and Livy: Levene 2010). The textual features of classical historiography, then, were not ornamental but integral to a historian’s work. A third line of inquiry, stimulated by Woodman’s emphasis on inventio, has examined the function in the ancient historians of mythical and fictional elements and different concepts of ‘truth’ than factual truth (plural accounts, exaggerations, mythic paradigms, lies, ‘nearly’ or Beinahe moments; e.g. Moles 1993, Hau/Ruffell 2018 and Baragwanath/de Bakker 2012). 


This conference honors that anniversary by attempting to reassess the merits and the limits of this approach, to explore its continuing potential to stimulate new research, and, especially, to open up new ways of thinking about ancient historiography. Thus, we invite papers that will address any of the following general topics:

1) The Contexts of Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: What was the intellectual context in which this approach was developed and adopted, and how can it be placed in dialogue with later theoretical approaches to historiography beyond the Greco-Roman world? And what alternative models for treating history as text were and remain available, especially in continental scholarly traditions?

2) Reading “Rhetoric" in Classical Historiography: What does Woodman’s method have to offer today for developing new approaches to Classical historiography? How might qualifying or countering aspects of his method contribute to opening up new approaches? Here we are not particularly interested in case-study papers that apply this approach to ancient historians but contributions which advance its premises and reflect on methodologies. This may be accomplished through a focus on writers and genres that do not play an important role in Woodman’s own development of his argument, for example, Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, the fragmentary historians, epitome tradition, and Jewish or Christian historiography.

3) Beyond Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: What new ways of conceptualizing classical historiography can supplement or challenge Woodman’s privileging of its rhetorical elements?


Please send an abstract (300-400 words) to Luca Grillo, lgrillo@nd.edu by 15th October 2022; we will communicate our decision by 1st December.


Thanks to the generous support of the Notre Dame Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA), we plan to provide full accommodation (meals and 3 nights) for all presenters.

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