The History of Banter #0 Intro

Well this begins a new series of posts I plan on doing entitled ‘The History of Banter’ or, perhaps more appropriately, ‘Rhetoric and invective in literary quarrels’.

Yes…I may have just summed up the Altar of Victory Dispute in one poorly executed cartoon…I can only apologise

So the plan is to write about some of the classic bust-ups, bitchiness and backstabbing that has occurred on the historical field, focusing predominantly on literature (hence the rhetoric). Literature as a medium for expressing political, cultural and personal messages forms a highly important part of Classical Studies. In a nutshell, ancient texts are all rhetoric. Some rhetoric is invective. Perhaps we should firstly fully explain – though I doubt it will ever be full enough – what exactly is meant by terms such as ‘rhetoric’ and ‘invective’.

  1. Rhetoric: According to my trusty Collins English Dictionary definition:


– n

1. the study of the technique of using language effectively

2. the art of using speech to pursuade, influence or please; oratory

3. excessive use of ornamentation and contrivance in spoken or written discourse; bombast

4. speech or discourse that pretends to significance but lacks true meaning: all the politician says is mere rhetoric

So, quite simply, rhetoric is the method employed by ancient writers and orators to persuade their audience to a certain viewpoint, often for the purposes of influencing them or to please a ‘higher power’. So one of the most common forms of rhetoric in the ancient period was panegyric, which is the lyrical praise of emperors or other important figures.

2. Invective: At its simplest, this is the reverse of panegyric. Rather than using rhetorical devices (such as comparison, metaphor, gendered virtues etc.) to persuade people that an emperor is good, just, wonderful and almighty, invective involves using rhetorical devices to persuade people that an emperor is bad, tyrannical, murderous, or often just incompetent.

Invective, like panegyric, is not solely limited to detailing the character of emperors, but they are often the most likely victims of it (Catullus – Caesar; Prokopios – Justinian; Suetonius – Nero; Petronius – Nero; Tacitus – Nero…poor Nero!).

Why is all of this historically significant? Well other than it just being a hoot! Traditionally academics have failed to properly value rhetoric. For a long time rhetoric was viewed as just all of the filler, lies, and bias that obscured the cold, hard, empirical facts of history that we could glean from ancient texts. However, fortunately, this is in the process of being reversed as historians, classicists, literary theorists etc. are beginning to appreciate rhetoric for what it is – a product of its time; and, as such, part of the cultural framework of expressing and navigating identity politics, sexuality and power. How can something that is a product of ancient history not tell us something about ancient history?!

So this neatly brings us on to the ultimate aim of this series: to highlight some of the most interesting historical disagreements, the literary methods employed and to showcase a little of the HUGE and AMAZING analysis and interpretation that is being performed on literary texts today.

Cos, y’know, even the Ancients totes had classic banter…



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