Limits of Speech: Studies on Silence and Omission in Ancient Oratory and Rhetoric

Ulrike Stephan

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis is concerned with a number of phenomena in ancient oratory and rhetoric connected to limits of speech: being silent, pausing, not treating a topic. All of this can happen either as a matter of incapacity or failure—or deliberately.
Research in this particular area is scarce. A first desideratum is therefore a phenomenology, or typology, of these limits of speech in antiquity, both as they occur and are dealt with in practical oratory, and as they are discussed in rhetorical theory. This thesis focuses on Cicero, in whose works both sides can be studied, but also considers earlier and later authors.
A comprehensive typology of the large area of omissions of topics, facts, opinions, and even words and styles, from a speech leads especially to the phenomenon of explicit omission, usually termed praeteritio. This figure, widely used in practice but quite underrated in (ancient) theory, is the most prominent example of ancient oratory making use of its limits.
Similar observation are made in other areas: the issue of structural pauses within a speech is closely related to prose rhythm; less studied, but equally interesting are longer pauses used to leave time for something else, especially for interaction with the audience or individuals, or enforced when the orator is interrupted by the audience.
Another reason for interruptions is the orator’s own incapacity: memory failure, voice failure, or other health issues. The rhetorical writings provide some instruction for prevention and remedies; but also in practice, orators not only avoided or handled possible failures, but turned the issue around into a rhetorical device, employable to their advantage.
All these aspects provide a fresh perspective on the (ancient) principle of artem arte celare and contribute to a new view on oratorical practice and rhetorical theory: although the gap between theory and practice has been seen and stated in research often enough, the point of this thesis is the rarely observed influence (or rather lack of influence) of practice on theory: the fact that oratorical practice develops far beyond the theoretical instructions, and yet no rhetorician reintegrates these developments fully and systematically into rhetorical theory. The explanation suggested here is that written rhetorical theory separated itself from oratorical practice quite early on and developed an independent existence of its own throughout antiquity, and that this is especially evident in the oratorical use of limits of speech.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Powell, Jonathan, Supervisor
Award date1 Dec 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • oratory
  • rhetoric
  • silence
  • omission
  • Ancient Literature
  • Cicero

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