Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome

Aldrete, Gregory S. 1999. Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press
...attitude [of Roman rhetoricians] is best exemplified by an anecdote that Cicero, Quintilian, and nearly every other commentator on oratory repeated concerning Demosthenes, the greatest Greek orator. When asked to list the three most important elements of rhetoric, Demosthenes replied that the single most important element of great oratory was delivery, the second was delivery, and the third was also delivery. Roman rhetoricians conventionally divided their discipline into five portions: invention (inventio), arrangement (collatio), style (elocutio), memory (memoria), and delivery (actio). Delivery itself was formally defined as having two components, voice tone and gesture. Gesture, therefore, formed an integral part of ancient oratory, which in turn was one of the most prominent features of life at Rome. (Aldrete 1999: 4)
Retoorika komponendid.
The story of Demosthenes practicing his speech with a mouth full of pebbles in order to clarify his enunciation is well known (Quint. Inst. 11.3.68). Quintilian noted that gestures could convey meaning without words and constituted an entire language that the orator can and must master in addition to his control of words. He commented that for the mute, gestures took place of language, and for the orator, they were no less valuable (11.3.65-66). Cicero too spoke of the sermo corporis, the "language of the body," which was at least as influential in swaying an audience as the words of the oration (Cic. Orat. 58). This idea in antiquity of the existence of a natural language of gesture can perhaps be found in Lucretius's account of the early days of humanity. He described an era before the development of speech when communication was accomplished nonverbally through gestures and inarticulate noises (Lucr. De Rerum Natura 5.1031). (Aldrete 1999: 5)
Peegli kasutamine kõne harjutamisel. Sermo corporis e. "kehakõne".
Although explicit literary references to exploitation of features of the environment are scarce, enough exists to indicate that Cicero and others did take advantage of the symbolic richness of their surroundings and made direct verbal and nonverbal allusions to them. A famous example that seems to have particularly impressed the ancient rhetoricians occurred in a speech by Gaius Gracchus in which he emphasized his unhappy situation by repeatedly asking, "Where can I turn?" After each repetition he suggested a destination that should have offered him refuge, such as the Capitol or his home, and then explained why he could not go there. Gracchus acted out his pleas by stretching out his arms toward each failed santuary in turn. (Aldrete 1999: 24)
The Romans seem to have believed that certain gestures constitute a natural language in which the signifiers were based not on meaning but on emotion. These comments show that a complex nonverbal vocabulary was not confined to the elites but rather that all sectors of the populace were accustomed to watching and being able to interpret such a language. (Aldrete 1999: 53)
Žestid kui loomulik keel milles tähistatav on emotsioon.
The great orator Quintus Hortensius was one of the most avid students of gesture, since he devoted more time to developing his delivery and planning his body movements than he did to composing the speech and practicing his elovution (Val. Max. 8.10.2). His theatrical delivery drew censure on the grounds that he too closely resembled an actor because he "used energetic hand gestures excessively," and on one occasion he was taunted by being addressed as Dionysia, a notable dancing girl (Aul. Gel. 1.5). (Aldrete 1999: 68)
Adding to an orator's difficulties in making himself heard was the reality that Roman audiences were not passive listeners; they actively and vocally reacted to the speaker's message as well as making known their own desires through shouts, clapping, and chants. At an oration given in the Forum (such as during a law trial) there would also have been considerable backgound noise from other trials, from people conducting business in the area, and from those passing through or simply loitering about. (Aldrete 1999: 77)
If the gestures used were unusual ones, or if the distances were great enough, even this strategy was not always successful and could result in misunderstandings. A notorious incident involving both difficulty in hearing a person and a misunderstood gesture was Julius Caesar's oration to his troops before crossing the Rubicon. The soldiers "on the fringe of the assembly, who could see better than they could hear," misinterpreted Caesar's pointing gestures toward his ring to mean that he was promising to give all of them equestrian rank in exchange for their support (Suet. Caes. 33). Similarly, during one of Tiberius Gracchus's speeches appealing to the people for help, "those who were standing farther away . . . could not hear his voice." Becoming aware of the problem, Tiberius tried to convey his message nonverbally by pointing to his head, indicating that he was in danger. This unfamiliar gesture backfired when it was misunderstood by some as being a request for a crown, an interpretation that his enemies advertised widely (Plut. T. Gracch. 19). (Aldrete 1999: 82)
In some specialized circumstances such as gladiatorial combats, nonverbal exchanges formed an important part of the performance itself. The most notable of these dialogues was the much copied "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" gesture used to determine whether a beaten gladiator would be slain. Hollywood has decreed that the "thumbs down" gesture meant death for the gladiators and "thumbs up" life, but the ancient sources, while confirming that some gesture involving turning the thumbs was used, are vague concerning the precise nature of this gesture. Indeed it may be that the "thumbs down," rather than denoting death, actually was the crowd's way of calling for the victorious gladiator to drop his sword and spare his vanquished foe. (Aldrete 1999: 90-91)
The English word acclamation has acquired connotations of approval and praise, but the Latin word from which it is derived, acclamatio, simply means any shouted comment, whether positive or negative. Similarly, the first definition of the verb acclamo is "to shout," the second is "to protest," and only the third is "to shout approval, or applaud." The following discussion demonstrates that the Romans used acclamations for all of these purposes, and that sometimes even a single acclamation could contain elements of both praise and criticism. Thus, in the following chapters the term acclamation will be used in its original sense to denote any shouted comment. (Aldrete 1999: 101)
For the urban plebs to a much greater degree than for the other groups, however, acclamations became the primary means of communication and interaction with the emperor. The numerous occasions at which acclamations could be employed facilitated with various areas of the city of Rome offered plentiful opportunities for interaction between emperor and plebs. (Aldrete 1999: 102)
The subsequent discussion focuses on this most flexible use of acclamations, those directed at the emperor by the urban plebs. On these occasions the basic forms that acclamations took were, in increasing order of complexity, simple applause; rhythmic applause of various types; individual shouted words or titles; brief formulaic phrases; longer, often rhythmic sentences; and, finally, entire series of phrases that were chanted or even sung. These types of acclamation were used alone or in any combination and could be delivered by any number of persons, from a single individual to tens of thousands. The urban plebs used acclamations for three basic purposes: to greet or praise, to react to a speaker, and to criticize or petition. Acclamations possess several unique features that made them versatile forms of communication between emperor and urban plebs. The existence of a body of well-known acclamation formulas and the rhythmic nature of many of the acclamation chants themselves are the two most significant of these chracateristics. The rhythmic and formulaic nature of acclamations made it easy for large numbers of people not only to deliver them in unison, but also spontaneously yo vary and improvise upon the standard formulas. (Aldrete 1999: 103)
In addition to its role in greeting the arrival or entrance of the emperor, applause could also be used to praise a popular emperor. If, for example, the emperor's name was mentioned by a public official, a well-disposed crowd would often spontaneously spring to its feet and applaud. Such a reaction could also occur even when the emperor's name was only implied, as in the well-known incident when an actor in a comedy at which Augustus was present spoke a line about a "good and benevolent lord" (O cominum aequum et bonum), and the crowd immediately jumped up and applauded enthusiastically (Suet. Aug. 53). These actions were so clearly identified as a mark of favor that they could be used to praise others, so that when a line from Virgil was recited in the course of a theatrical performance at which he was present, the spectators rose to their feet and applauded, giving "homage to the poet, just as they would have done to the emperor himself" (Tac. Dial. 13.2). (Aldrete 1999: 107)
Vrd. Nõukogude Liidu ritualistlike ürituste transkriptsioonides esinevate kirjetega "palav applaus Leninile" jne.
Not only was the emperor expected to attend, bu thtere were expectations about how he should behave. Many of these expectations revolved around the idea that the emperor and the audience were coparticipating in the performance. At the games, the emperor and the people were psychologically linked by both being spectators of the performance. More than this, however, they joined together to take an active role in directing the performance, particularly in those entertainments involving violence. The most ibvious form that this interaction took was at gladiator games when the emperor and the spectators played a role in deciding the outcome of the combats. When a wounded fighter dropped his shield and raised a finger of his left hand in submission, the people made gestures and shouted to indicate whether the unfortunate man should be spared or dispatched. Although the decision was the emperor's, only rarely would he disagree with the consensus of the crowd. The awards given to the victor were also determined by an exchange of gestures and mutual consultation between the emperor and the rest of the crowd. (Aldrete 1999: 120)
Both acclamations and gestures seem to have acquired greater prominence and complexity during the transition from republic to empire. Between Cicero and Quintilian, the nonverbal vocabulary available to orators became much more elaborate and the conventions of acceptable behavior grew broader so that orators were expected to gesticulate more frequently and more vigorously. Acclamations directed at the emperor grew out of the informal applause accorded to popular individuals as a token of approval whenever they appeared in public, but rapidly became a central facet of imperial identity. (Aldrete 1999: 166)
  • Key, Mary R. 1982. Nonverbal Communication Today: Current Research. New York: Mouton
  • Davies, M. and J. Skupien eds. 1982. Body Movement and Non-Verbal Communication: An Annotated Bibliography, 1971-1981. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  • Bull, Peter 1983. Body Movement and Interpersonal Communication. London: John Wiley and Sons


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