Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome

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Bodily gesture. A Roman worshipper spins in a circle in front of a temple. Faced with death, a Roman woman tears her hair and beats her breasts. Enthusiastic spectators at a gladiatorial event gesticulate with thumbs. Examining the tantalizing glimpses of ancient bodies offered by surviving Roman sculptures, paintings, and literary texts, Anthony Corbeill analyzes the role of gesture in medical and religious ritual, in the gladiatorial arena, in mourning practice, in aristocratic competition of the late Republic, and in the court of the emperor Tiberius. Adopting approaches from anthropology, gender studies, and ecological theory, Nature Embodied offers both a series of case studies and an overarching narrative of the role and meanings of gesture in ancient Rome.

Arguing that bodily movement grew out of the relationship between Romans and their natural, social, and spiritual environment, the book explores the ways in which an originally harmonious relationship between nature and the body was manipulated as Rome became socially and politically complex. By the time that Tacitus was writing about the reign of Tiberius, the emergence of a new political order had prompted an increasingly inscrutable equation between truth and the body—and something vital in the once harmonizing relationship between bodies and the world beyond them had been lost.

Nature Embodied makes an important contribution to an expanding field of research by offering a new theoretical model for the study of gesture in classical times.

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Editorial Reviews

Religious Studies Review
In this widely accessible study Anthony Corbeill applies anthropological and sociological approaches to aspects of gesture and body language in ancient Rome. . . . Corbeill examines textual and verbal evidence . . . to offer innovative and often bold interpretations.
— Philip Hardie
Religious Studies Review - Philip Hardie
In this widely accessible study Anthony Corbeill applies anthropological and sociological approaches to aspects of gesture and body language in ancient Rome. . . . Corbeill examines textual and verbal evidence . . . to offer innovative and often bold interpretations.
From the Publisher
"In this widely accessible study Anthony Corbeill applies anthropological and sociological approaches to aspects of gesture and body language in ancient Rome. . . . Corbeill examines textual and verbal evidence . . . to offer innovative and often bold interpretations."—Philip Hardie, Religious Studies Review
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691074948
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 11/14/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Nature Embodied

Gesture in Ancient Rome
By Anthony Corbeill

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2002 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-07494-8



WHEN GREGORY BATESON was conducting fieldwork in New Guinea, his friends among the native Iatmul could not understand why he had to work so hard to learn their language: "But our language is easy to understand" they told him, "we just talk." I wonder how Romans would react to an American studying their gestures from a distance of two millennia. A predictable response would be that their body language is easy to understand; they just move. It is in this common lack of self-reflection that both the complications and rewards of studying ancient gesture lie. Since gesture normally does seem the natural thing to do with the body from day to day, the texts and visual representations from antiquity tend to be uninterested in depicting the particulars of how Romans moved their bodies as they interact with their environment and each other. At the same time, however, this very lack of interest makes the subject ideal for a cultural critique. When our sources mention a gesture being performed, and its intention being understood by a viewer, we gain access to a shared area of knowledge, one based not on the expression of individual will but on cultural circumstances. As an early modern historian has remarked in introducing a group of essays intended to apply the study of gesture to the humanities, to "interpret and account for a gesture is to unlock the whole social and cultural system of which it is a part." To give an example that has recently engendered much discussion and that I shall not discuss in this book: when a Roman man scratches his head with his middle finger, and his audience is able to understand that he wishes through this gesture to advertise his sexual availability to another man, the common area of belief underlying the practice affords the scholar a glimpse into a world of homoerotic activity for which Roman texts of the period otherwise give only shadowy outlines. In researching and writing about Roman gesture I have kept in mind Bourdieu's concise formulation concerning the role of the body in the social and political life of the individual: "It is because agents never know completely what they are doing that what they do has more sense than they know." The modern scholar, therefore, confronts a rare opportunity in which distance from the subject studied can be construed as an advantage. Gestures provide access to a system of thought and prejudice otherwise not accessible to us-and one often only dimly perceived by contemporaries.

It has become a cliche to say that the body "speaks." I wish to consider the implications of this cliche of the speaking body by demonstrating how much of the gestural language displayed on the streets and in the houses of Rome can in fact be shown to belong to a self-consistent language, and to one no less complicated and subject to exploitation than the spoken language of Latin. In antiquity, Roman authors debated the extent to which Latin grammar and syntax ought to be regularized or whether it should be allowed to develop in anomalous and potentially difficult directions-the so-called analogy-versus-anomaly controversy. The analogists wished to rationalize grammar to eliminate unusual formations from the language-the deponent form adsentior, for example, should yield to the formally regular adsentio; Julius Caesar proposed that Latin adopt a present participle for the verb "to be" (ens) in order to fill an inconvenient gap in Latin morphology. Cicero, by contrast, was a strong opponent to the analogists, insisting that speaking a rule-bound Latin constituted speaking against Roman tradition. This topic of debate, centered on the distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" changes to the language, has implications beyond the grammatical, involved as it is in the politics of excluding provincials and the undereducated from the ranks of the late Republican elite. In similar ways, elite authors of rhetorical and philosophical texts are found debating the relationship between the body and nature and underlining the importance of maintaining particular bodily etiquettes. Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.

The clearest example of this need to control the public body on display can be found in the third section of the eleventh book of Quintilian's Institutio oratoria. Modern scientific research into the role of the body in spoken language has uncovered increasing evidence for the claim that "the gesture and the spoken utterance are different sides of a single underlying mental process." Such claims Quintilian would have found self-evident. His discussion of oratorical delivery, which covers approximately fifty pages in modern editions, includes numerous minute details of how to hold the head and fingers. To quote one example of the complexities that faced the aspiring orator as he strove to master the hand position appropriate to his words: "Grasp the tip [of the index finger] lightly on both sides and gently curve the remaining two fingers-the little finger less so [than the ring finger]. This gesture is appropriate for argument. If you wish to seem to argue more keenly, grasp instead the middle joint of the index and have the last two fingers contracted more tightly to correspond with the tighter position [of the thumb and middle finger]." Quintilian's remarks do not only show the types of details the student of oratory was expected to internalize; in order for these gestures to possess any kind of persuasive power, we must also presuppose an audience trained at some level to interpret these gestures correctly. This tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker's mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant. It is not surprising, then, that the gestures taught in "foreign schools" are on one occasion singled out for derision (11.3.103); the non-Roman, as often in Latin texts, is marked as morally suspicious. Quintilian is perfectly clear on the body's role in persuasion: emotional appeals to an audience fail to convince when they are not "set aflame" by the skillful use of vocal inflection, facial expression, and "the carriage of nearly the entire body." And yet, in a paradox not lost on the author, formal training is necessary to act naturally. This need for training has further repercussions beyond the exclusion of non-Roman elements. Easily understood pantomime gestures-such as pretending to reach for a cup or threatening to strike a blow (11.3.117; see also 90, 104)-are discarded by Quintilian's handbook in favor of the less direct, and less easily mastered, system he describes. Commonly understood gestures are constructed as beneath the orator's dignity. The gesture that is widely recognized (vulgaris) becomes distinct from the more desirable form that derives from art (ex arte; 11.3.102).

The particular configuration of knowledge-as-power that we see at work in Quintilian resembles a recent assessment of the role twentieth-century education plays in replicating class distinctions:

The judgments that teachers make with regard to students ... take into account not only knowledge and know-how, but also the intangible nuances of manners and style, which are imperceptible and yet never unperceived manifestations of the individual's relationship to such knowledge and know-how and the "half-uttered or unuttered or unutterable" expression of a system of values which are always deciphered in terms of another system of values which themselves are just as unuttered and as unutterable.

These remarks are applicable to the specific context of the control of the body. "Unuttered and unutterable" rules legislate the elite orator's body movement and, as a result, the physical demeanor of the right-thinking citizen. Pliny the Younger offers a rare glimpse of an ancient awareness of how such elite mannerisms undergo silent replication: "It has been established since antiquity that we should learn from our elders not only with our ears but also with our eyes the things that we must ourselves do and, in turn, pass on to our descendants." Pliny describes the tirocinium fori, the period of education during which sons of the elite received instruction in the fine points of speechmaking and statesmanship by observing the successful friends of their fathers. This training is then repeated for each subsequent generation, insuring replication within the elite ranks.

Modern scholarly research on Roman gestures has been dominated by two works. Sittl's Die Gebärden der Griechen und Römer, published in 1890, offers a magisterial survey of gesture in both Greece and Rome that has not been replaced. Yet this groundbreaking and comprehensive study must primarily concern itself with providing taxonomies, and the tendency to conflate Greek and Roman practice offered few opportunities for Sittl to provide extensive culture-specific analysis. The second landmark in the study of Roman gestures is Brilliant's Gesture and Rank in Roman Art. Although primarily restricted to how status is represented in sculptural and numismatic sources, the work contains much of value to a study of bodily expression in Roman society in general. Especially helpful is Brilliant's notion of a Roman "appendage aesthetic." In contrast with the Greek artist, who tends to glorify the individual parts and particular musculature of the body, Roman art "is characterized by the manipulation of significant parts of the image without reference to the physical qualities of the body to which they are attached." Those parts consist primarily of the arms, legs, and head, the appendages Quintilian describes most fully in his analysis of the importance of rhetorical gesture. Since the 1980s the tremendous growth throughout the humanities of scholarly interest in the body has accordingly given rise to a number of detailed studies on gesture and the body in ancient Rome. I hope that this book will complement these already published specific studies of the body with a general consideration of why and in what ways gesture in ancient Rome was able to assume so much importance.

It should by now be clear that I do not intend in the following to provide a taxonomy of the types of gestures used in Rome and to describe the range of their uses. In particular I will not be adopting the distinctions among gestures that one finds in modern studies of nonverbal behavior. A common category employed in these works comprises those gestures normally referred to as "emblems" or "quotable gestures," gestures that "may be quoted and provided with verbal glosses so that they can be listed apart from the contexts of their use." These gestures are distinct from so-called batons or beats, that is, movements of the hand that act in tandem with speech by punctuating and emphasizing the spoken word. Recent studies have shown that the great majority of quotable gestures, as used in modern situations, are "concerned with the regulation of interpersonal relationships, with displays of one's own current mental or physical condition, or with an evaluative response to another." They are, in other words, concerned first and foremost with conveying and interpreting internal states through unspoken means. Many Roman gestures of this type would be quite familiar to the modern viewer: Romans pointed with the index finger to draw attention to a person or object, scratched the head and bit the fingernails in anxiety, and put a finger to the lips to request silence. And yet Sittl's compendium of many of these "quotable gestures" in his sixth chapter (tellingly entitled "Symbolische Gebärden") reveals that the ancient authors who preserve even such apparently straightforward gestures do not consider their uses restricted to interpersonal communication. Rather, the gestures frequently derive their validity from a perceived relationship between their individual expression and workings in the world that exist outside the gesture's ad hoc usage. The most familiar example of the coexistence of a human and transhuman element in gesturing is the extended middle finger. Originally representing the erect phallus, the gesture conveys simultaneously a sexual threat to the person toward whom it is directed and an apotropaic means of warding off unwanted elements of the more-than-human.

This possibility, that even common gestures are perceived to have connections with a world beyond interpersonal communication, is the first of three basic assumptions that underlie my project. A corollary of this belief is the possibility that gestures originally represented not arbitrary signifiers but had a stage that was somehow mimetic, even if the precise connotations of that imitation are now lost. Many students of gesture, for example, attribute the Western head shake of disagreement to the movement of a feeding infant's head from its mother's breast when done nursing. As a second assumption, I presuppose a continuity of gesture across the time and space of the ancient Roman world unless there exists clear evidence to the contrary. Third, I assume that there exists a principle of gestural economy. If a gesture can be demonstrated as having one meaning in one context, then that same gesture will tend to retain a single primary meaning in different contexts within its single, coherent culture. An instance of the workings of gestural economy in the modern United States is in the meaning of the sign consisting of the index and middle finger forming the letter "V." This sign, interpreted in English-speaking countries beginning with the First World War as the "V-for-victory" salute, now commonly connotes "peace" (apparently originally in the sense "victory for peace"), regardless of the context in which the gesture is made. These latter two assumptions-of gestural continuity and gestural economy-are particularly crucial for a study of gesture in antiquity, since the limitations of our sources for bodily movement will often force me to employ evidence not only from different media but from different centuries. I would like now to demonstrate briefly how these three assumptions can be applied to a specific case. In the next three paragraphs I shall apply each to an analysis of thumb gestures in Roman antiquity.

I begin with the first assumption, that gestures originate from some mimetic principle that connects the body with the world outside the body (a detailed demonstration of this assumption occupies chapter 1). Ancient authors remark on the etymology of pollex, the Latin word for "thumb," an etymology that distinguishes it from the remaining fingers and appears to be unique among the Indo-European languages: "the thumb (pollex) received its name from the fact that it has power (pollet)." This etymological connection between the thumb and power is supported by the ways in which the Romans refer to thumbs in diverse areas of their culture: in contrast with the other fingers, it alone is used in synecdoche for activities involving the entire hand, such as spinning and writing; the thumb plays a prominent role in preparing medicines and effecting cures, with the result that it is occasionally designated in combination with the ring finger as one of the "medicinal fingers." The living connection between words and things reveals in this case the thumb's access to a power that lies outside the human physique.


Excerpted from Nature Embodied by Anthony Corbeill Copyright © 2002 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
List of Abbreviations xi
Acknowledgments xiii
Gesture as a Cultural System 1
Participatory Gestures in Roman Religious Ritual and Medicine 12
Physicality of Words 15
Hands 20
Romans and Earth 24
Physicality of Prayer 26
Physicality of Cures 33
Conclusion 37
The Power of Thumbs 41
Textual Appearances 42
Visual Representations 51
The Sign for the Deathblow in the Arena 62
A Riddle 64
Conclusion 65
Blood, Milk, and Tears: The Gestures of Mourning Women 67
Gendered Funerals 68
Gendered Gestures 70
Greekand Etruscan Mourning Gestures 72
Legal Evidence 75
Roman Mourning Gestures 77
Women as Scapegoats 84
Woman's Work 85
Roman Death Ritual as Double-Birth 89
First Funeral 90
Second Funeral 95
Milkas Nurture for an Adult 100
Conclusion 105
Political Movement: Walking and Ideology in Republican Rome 107
Philosophy in Action 108
Body Movement and Political Competition 111
Movement in Oratory and Philosophy 114
Movement in Daily Life 117
Incessus in Cicero 118
Cinaedi and Elite Politicians 120
Enforcement 124
Conclusion 137
Face Facts: Facial Expression and the New Political Order in Tacitus 140
Gesture as Metaphor 140
The Politics of the Face 144
Eye-Movement in Roman Antiquity 146
Aspectus in Republican Tradition 147
The Decline of Rhetoric as the Decline of Physical Representation 151
Aspectus as Appearance 157
Conclusion: Tiberius and the New World Order 165
Bibliography 169
Index Locorum 187
General Index 198

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"Showing exemplary control of his Latin sources, Corbeill alerts readers to Roman feelings about certain formal and ritual gestures, about stance and gait, and about facial expressions. He makes a significant contribution to Roman history and historiography—and to our understanding of the Roman soul."—Alan L. Boegehold, Brown University, author of When a Gesture was Expected

"This is an important successor to the author's well received and frequently cited Controlling Laughter. Corbeill argues that gesture responds to nature as man's instinct for harmonizing bodily existence with the power of the earth but, with increased social complexity, becomes systematized and studied. In contrast to other treatments, Corbeill's range of gesture includes not merely what is done with the hands or prescribed in rhetorical treatises but all aspects of bodily movement, facial expression, dress, posture."—Eleanor Winsor Leach, Indiana University, author of The Rhetoric of Space

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