ElAnt v2n2 - REVIEWS - The Art of Persuasion. Political Propaganda from Aeneas to Brutus

Volume 2, Number 2
August 1994

The Art of Persuasion: Political Propaganda from Aeneas to Brutus

by Jane DeRose Evans
Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press: 1992
pp. xii & 176; 56 photographic figures.

Reviewed by:

Robert Ketterer
Department of Classics
University of Iowa
Iowa City, 
IA 52242,
e-mail: robert-ketterer@uiowa.edu

This revision of a dissertation from the University of Pennsylvania begins with a review of modern work on propaganda, in which Professor Evans accepts the analytical categories in J. Ellul's Propaganda (NY 1973), supplementing them with other work in that field. Evans defines propaganda as 'the educational efforts or information used by an organized group that is made available to a selected audience, for the specific purpose of making the audience take a particular course of action or conform to a certain attitude desired by the organized group' (p. 1). Propaganda can be 'vertical'--used by a leader to influence his audience, or 'horizontal', in which 'the group is all-important and the leader serves only as discussion leader.' It can also be propaganda of agitation (often subversive in nature) or of social integration, and rational (dealing in facts) or irrational (appealing to emotion). Evans suggests that 'propaganda of integration' which provokes conformity and stability and aims to make 'the individual participate in society in every way' is applicable to Romans, and in this she corrects Ellul who believes that propaganda of integration is a mostly modern phenomenon (p. 2).

She reviews the difficulty of ascertaining the audience and success of Roman propaganda, and concludes that propaganda can only be successful with 'people who are actively engaged in the culture and who can focus on the society as a whole. This for the most part eliminates the lowest classes, who do not possess the standard of living that allows this leisure..Ironically, the more educated a person, the more susceptible to propaganda,' because he would have more exposure to it in the form of speeches, pamphlets, and so forth (p. 6). The chapter ends with descriptions of Republican tomb painting as an example of non-literate propaganda that paralleled the use of paintings which glorified Rome and specific families in triumphal processions.

Chapter 2 reviews what is known about Republican coin types and minting practices to suggest the ways numismatic evidence may be used to talk about propaganda. She suggests that there is little evidence that many Republican families linked their ancestry to legendary figures before 200 B.C., and that even in the first century B.C. the link between family and legend is a relatively small proportion the documented cases (p. 32). A table, somewhat difficult to read, offers a break-down of coin types and images from 211 B.C. to the death of Augustus. However, Evans also raises questions about whether we know enough about the minters' intentions in striking the coins (p.19) or the reaction of the intended 'audience' to the coins to be able to speak accurately of their value as propaganda (pp. 19-20).

There follow seven chapters, the bulk of the work, in which Evans traces the incidences and chronological development of particular figures from Roman legend and myth. Chapter 3 treats Aeneas, from the early Republic to his use by Augustus; Chapter 4, the wolf and the twins, mostly in respect numismatic representations, but an appendix also dicusses topographical problems connected with sacred fig trees, wolf statues and the Lupercal. Subsequent chapters discuss Romulus, with special emphasis on his use by Caesar and Augustus; the images in the hemicycles of the Augustan Forum, drawing on the previous discussions of Aeneas and Romulus; the Sabines, including images of the Rape, Tarpeia, and Titus Tatius; Numa and Ancus Marcius; and Marcus Brutus' use of Lucius Junius Brutus.

A short final chapter summarizes Evan's conclusions. By the third century the Romans were using their legends and myths to emphasize Rome's foundation by Trojans and its divine connections, 'partly to provide their founders with the same semidivine status attributed to the founders of many Greek colonies, and partly to justify their imperialistic aims' (p. 150). A few families claimed connections with legendary heroes but images on coins served the interests of state propaganda, and family and state propaganda were largely intertwined. During the second century B.C. an increasing number of coins show families claiming legendary ancestry. There is a great burst of such activity in the first century during the social war as Rome tried to justify fighting Italians, and the trend continues throughout the century until the advent of Augustus changes its nature. Augustus transformed the images, especially those of Aeneas, on the one hand, to create an image of his principate that connected him to those early examples of filial piety and devotion to the gods, and of the mature Romulus, on the other, to emphasize his military prowess. Both images illustrated his desire for deification. 'Augustan propaganda can be seen to be fulfilling the logical end of Republican propaganda.' (p. 154)

The end material includes full bibliography, indices and generous photographic plates. The type is easy to read and the book sewn so that it is sturdy and lies open easily. Michigan Press is to be commended for the production.

This work was evidently a respectable doctoral thesis, but it is not yet a book. There is too much summary of general knowledge, too many excursuses on topics off the point, material appears in the text that should be in footnotes, and material in footnotes is suggestive of discussions that ought to take place in the text. Cans of worms are opened awkwardly or unnecessarily, which serves to weaken the arguments Evans wants to make. These are all problems normal at the thesis stage (one remembers vividly), but irritating in the form of a published book. Furthermore, there is everywhere a tendency to limit discussion, which often makes the analysis superficial and reduces the text at times to a mere list of occurrences of the image in question. The trimming is frequently so drastic that it is difficult to see where the argument is headed. The result is that one is very quickly driven to hard thoughts about the academic system and job market which forces scholars to put their ideas on the table before they have had adequate time for them to cook. At the very least one wonders about the press's judgement in bringing things out that are still raw.

Other problems seem to me to be as follows. There is an obvious effort to address the current intellectual interest in rhetorical and ideological strategies. Hence the title of the book, the opening chapter on propaganda, and some propaganda itself on the dust jacket, announcing the book is 'of interest to...all those interested in the dynamics between those in power and those not.' But all this is misleading as a guide to the contents. The questions raised by the introductory matter are tantalizing, but they are not what the author really addresses. Evans seems to me to be genuinely interested in selected chronological, topographical and iconographical problems connected with Republican and Augustan use of Rome's mythic and legendary figures, especially in reference to numismatic evidence. That is what she studies in her seven main chapters, and in this respect, the book can be a useful compilation of the issues and the bibliography on these questions; in this regard, too, there are some useful discussions and solutions. (See below.) But the analysis of propaganda in Chapter 1 is not careful or detailed enough in reference to Roman history to persuade one that this is a good way for a student of Roman society to view the material, and the chapter finally wanders off onto the catalogue of tomb paintings without ever returning to what appeared to be the point. After Chapter 2 there is no meaningful reference to the system of analysis of propaganda which Evans set up in Chapter 1 in a way which would cast new light on the evidence under discussion, and one feels it was only there for appearances and not because Evans felt it made a genuine contribution to what she wished to say. In this I think she may be right, for it is not clear that Ellul's categories, as Evans sets them up, are really applicable for the material at hand. If a young Republican nobilis mints a coin with his family name on it, and makes a visual link to a legendary past, for whom does he speak, whom is he trying to influence, and to do what? Evans suggests (p. 19), 'This propaganda can be overt or counter propaganda, depending on how it is viewed by the audience; by definition it is either agitation or integration propaganda, always vertical and normally irrational. 'That coin types were used by an organized group--young members of the aristocracy (at least for most of the Republic)--is self-evident. The purpose of the types is generally supposed to be informational or educational; they are to advertise the moneyer to the general populace before his embarkation on a more prominent political career, with the selected audience being the citizens of Rome. Thus the particular course of action intended by the types is for the viewer to vote for the young man (or his political associates) when he presents himself as a candidate.'

The picture is much more complicated than either Evans or Ellul's categories allow, and the phrase 'depending on how it is viewed by the audience' seems to me to open whole sets of problems which Evans is not willing to pursue with any care. The moneyer's audience evidently includes, on the one hand, the members of the lower classes who could understand the significance of the coin images (see also p. 20), and so the propaganda is vertical, as Evans says; but her introductory chapter said that the educated classes were even more susceptible, since they could understand more clearly the symbolic value of the images. Are these coins, then, also horizontal propaganda, being used to influence the peer group, as it were to direct the discussion? But the moneyers are not yet leaders, either in power over the lower classes or as members of the senate, and I cannot think of a period from the second century until the principate when one would call them 'an organized group'. They are playing for power against one another within the Republican system of patronage and vote-getting (a topic the book does not explore in connection with propaganda or persuasion). In this respect the coins may be agitation propaganda, and but not subversive. Before the Social Wars, at any rate, the moneyers are not trying to subvert the system, only to get attention in order to become part of it. Is this propaganda then essentially integrational? Seemingly so, but the minters are trying to integrate themselves , to prove that they belong with the group and possibly at its head. This does not seem quite to fit into Ellul's categories, at least as Evans presents them, and in fact acceptance of those categories without discussion limits what can be said about what the Romans were up to.

Evans furthermore seems to me to hobble herself from the start by eliminating or devaluing modes of analysis and types of evidence which would allow her to ask fresh questions based on the topic of propaganda. Her discussion in Chapter 1 makes it clear that a consideration of the receivers of the propaganda is an important part of the analysis. But Evans seldom includes this element as part of her considerations, asserting that we can no longer know what the receivers thought (pp. 3-4,), and so suggesting only superficially as the book progresses who the receivers are or what the effect was supposed to be. She claims that 'the reception of spectacles--processions and games, with their attendant emblems, music, uniforms, and constumes' are 'almost entirely lost to us' (p. 4) and so she does not refer again to these vital means by which a Republican aedile gained favor for future elections and political efforts. 'We do not have most of the speeches that were made to the senate, people, or army, nor, of course, do we have recitations of written works. This propaganda is, necessarily, limited to the participants' (p. 4). And so there are no careful analyses of the images used in the speeches we do have, or of the conclusions one might draw from extant reports of those speeches. Certainly there is evidence of this kind to be had: Cicero's letter to Quintus of 12 Feb. 56 B.C.(ad Q.F., II.3), for example, in which the pro- and anti-Pompeiian factions battled each other with speeches, slogans, rumors and worse provides a vivid look at what Evans might call irrational, agitation propaganda. She knows about [Quintus Cicero's] essay on electioneering and even the value it may have for her subject, but we are told to go look at it ourselves (p. 4). The book is full of brief footnote references to such material, but refusal to exploit it more fully and entertain the questions it could raise therefore limits the analyses throughout.

The result, as I have said, is largely a catalogue of figures and images used in the public sphere during the third, second and first centuries B.C. This makes The Art of Persuasion a guide for someone interested in the individual topics in the central chapters. Evans conveniently gathers in one place the incidences of the various figures and motifs, and the plates assemble images not otherwise seen together and not easy to find. (If some of the photos of the coins had been enlarged, details would be easier to see.) The numismatists (I am not one) will have to judge the value of the interpretations of the coin evidence, but I found them sensible. Chapter 2 appears to be a contribution; significantly, that contribution begins where Evans essentially abandons Ellul and makes her own simpler but useful categories. The question she asks here is how to determine if, and in what way, early coin images are propaganda, and whether they in fact claim divine or legendary connections for the moneyer's family. (Previous scholarly debate is lengthy and cited in the notes.) Evans divides propaganda into two types. One type is 'generalized', that is, consisting of images that project a positive impression of Rome generally. The second is 'familial', images projecting positive image of a particular family through connections with venerable ancestors or military success. She agrees with other scholars that generalized propganda started early, but suggests that we can only tell if the coin is meant to assert legendary/divine background to the moneyer's family if we can confirm such a claim from the evidence of the ancient testimonia. She looks at all the families which the literature claiming divine or legendary ancestors (whether they minted or not) from the third to the first centuries B.C. and concludes that relatively few coin types actually claim familial connections with divine or legendary sources. Consequently, many of the images from myth and legend should be taken not as claims to venerable origin but rather as messages connected with the political scene of the moneyer's period. (I would add that in this chapter, as elsewhere, some clearer statements of logical and rhetorical direction would help the reader immensely in seeing the more interesting points.)

This last point about the contemporary political signification of the coins generates a number of Evans' interpretations of the coins throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 4 on the wolf and twins and Chapter 8 on Numa. The results do not seem earth- shaking but if she is right they are sensible correctives to misunderstandings about the intent of the images on the coins. As to the non-numismatic evidence, particularly in connection with the late Republican and Augustan material, Evans is working in the shadow of the much more detailed and subtler analyses of Zanker, Torelli, and others. The results, listed above, are mildly interesting but not controversial. The idea to connect the iconographical studies with a systematic study of the means of propaganda was an interesting one, which might have taken the material into new areas, if the author had wanted to follow it up. But she did not, and I at least would have felt better about the work if Evans had focussed on the methods and material which really seems to interest her, and told us clearly what she was up to.

Robert Ketterer

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 2 - August 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606