From Cicero to Amanda Knox

In one of my classes, we have been reading about the Roman notion of persona, and the conscious exploitation of appearances among rhetoricians.  The Romans had little problem with masks, and Cicero confirms this in several places, including De Oratore:

A memory for the concrete is the unique possession of the orator; we are able to imprint this memory on our minds when the individual masks [singulis personis] have been well ordered, so that we assimilate ideas by means of images and their sequence by means of places (2.359).

Carlin Barton, the historian, makes this more plain in her book Roman Honor:

As a mortal, what one risked in the contest was one’s ‘face.’ Latin facies (from facere, to be effective, to pose, place, make) was not like our ‘face,’something one was born with; it was something that one made, that one willed into existence. It was the manifestation of one’s being, the thing presented to view, the spectacle (56).

The classicist Maud Gleason in Making Men: Sophists and Their Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome tells us that “Dio Chrysostom, for example, frequently adopted the personae of great persons of the past in his orations and showed a particular fondness for presenting himself in the guise of Diogenes, Socrates, or Odysseus” (151).

In an article from Friday’s Guardian by John Hooper, he explains that Amanda Knox and her legal advisors apparently did not realize that the Italy of Cicero’s time corresponds in some interesting ways to the Italy of the present, especially in terms of attachments to appearances. Hooper puts it this way: “But then she [Amanda Knox] is a daughter of the US west coast, with its laid-back, be-yourself ethos, so very different from that of provincial Italy where the accent is on figura (appearances).”


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