In Praise of Praise

By Paul Roche

We have a professed cultural aversion to full-scale praise. I say professed because, of course, we all love being praised. But propriety sets a limit, and only a limited number of cultural contexts condone a lengthy public meditation on the virtues of our peers (e.g. a retirement speech, a eulogy, an introduction to a guest speaker). There is also an expectation that the laudand (the one being praised) cut short or undercut the sentiments expressed in their praise (“Don’t believe a word”). Praise can be a tricky thing. Too lengthy an encomium can reflect poorly on both the speaker and his subject.

Illustration of people clapping
...good rulers should recognise what they have done and bad ones learn what they ought to do

It was not quite so in antiquity. Formally constructed praise was an art form, and comprised part of the third main division of rhetoric; this was called epideictic, or demonstrative oratory. The other two were forensic oratory (treating things that were) and deliberative oratory (treating things that will be). Demonstrative oratory was all about showing the speaker’s skill. Praise was in more practical terms the bread and butter of many an inventive poet and orator. The lyric poet Pindar (born c. 518 BC), for instance, travelled around the Mediterranean from regime to autocratic regime, extolling the virtues of his patrons and inventing divine genealogies for newly-installed tyrants, some of whom had barely had time to clean up after their coups. The ancients were naturally alive both to this transformative power of praise – Pindar’s knack of turning small beer into champagne – and its utility for the silver-tongued. Consider Artotrogus, a sycophant from Plautus’ (born trad. 254 BC) comedy, Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier). In the middle of lavishly extolling the military virtues of his patron, Pyrgopolynices (the soldier of the title), he confides to the audience, “It’s only for my stomach that I stomach him. While ears are suffering at least my teeth are suppering (34–5)”. In fact Plutarch (born AD 50) wrote a treatise outlining, precisely, how to tell a flatterer from a friend (Plutarch’s underwhelming answer is that friends will criticise you, but flatterers will cultivate your basest instincts).

The normative power of praise – the ability to shape the subject through the action of praising – is something that antiquity openly endorsed. Aristotle, in his rhetorical treatise On Rhetoric wrote that praise and advice were related, and that praise ought to persuade the recipient to a desirable course of action. He urges the orator to praise what they want their subject to do: “If you desire to praise, look to what you would suggest; if you desire to suggest, look to what you would praise.” In the Roman Empire this notion took on a particular kind of urgency. When the emperor sat above the law and transcended his peers in authority, what avenues were there left to the ordinary and the outsider to offer advice to their emperor?

Pliny the Younger (c 61 – c 112 AD) offers a glimpse at how an answer might look, in his Panegyricus, a speech he delivered in the Roman senate on 1 September 100 to the new emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117), often styled Optimus Princeps, or “Best of Emperors”. It was the practice of incoming consuls to offer a brief speech of praise both to the gods and to their emperor in appreciation for being elected to public office. There would therefore have been dozens of similar speeches delivered to the emperor in a regular year. Pliny took the hitherto unique step of revising, expanding, and publishing his own consular speech of praise. The result is an oration which has long drawn the malice of its scholars and readers, almost exclusively on the grounds of the lengthy (at 97 chapters) and incessantly inventive praise that Pliny offers Trajan. But we should also remember the unique importance of Pliny’s Panegyricus, since it is also the only complete speech surviving in the three centuries elapsing between the death of the great republican orator, Cicero, in 44 BC, and a speech (as it happens) in praise of the emperor Maximian on his birthday in 289 AD.

In Pliny’s formulation, the Panegyricus was conceived in true Aristotelian terms, “so that good rulers should recognise what they have done and bad ones learn what they ought to do”. Viewed through this lens, the Panegyricus can be taken as a senatorial manifesto. It offers guidance to Trajan on issues which were central to the concerns of his contemporary senators, but on many other aspects of imperial rule and individual rulers besides. Pliny’s praise is ultimately important, both because it uniquely offers us a senator’s complete view of what an ideal Roman emperor should be – Pliny treats everything, from the emperor’s pastimes (hunting), to his wife (subservient), and his diet (simple) – and because it embodies the values (constitutionality, accessibility, selfless service to the state) that a senator on the rise might wish to be seen to endorse in 100 AD (Pliny was mid-career when he delivered the speech).

A very big part of the reason why Trajan is still popularly considered to be one of the best of the Roman emperors is precisely because that is how Pliny describes him in the Panegyricus:

“One man may have been eminent in war but fallen into torpor in peace; another man may have been adorned with honour by the toga but not by weapons of war; one gains respect through fear, another gains love through pandering to the base; one man destroys in public the reputation he acquired at home, while another loses his public reputation through his private life. In sum, there has been no-one whose virtues were not dimmed by the close proximity of his vices. But what great harmony, what a symphony of all praise and of every glory has fallen to our emperor! Nothing is detracted from his sternness by his good-humour, nothing from his gravity by his lack of pretension, nothing from his majesty by his essential humanity!”

But this heavy-handed confidence in Trajan’s excellence conceals an anxiety that was built into a culture that used praise as a means of communicating with the powerful. If the same basic topics could be used to flatter a bad emperor (such as the unpopular Domitian (ruled 81-96), how could a senator reassure a new emperor at one and the same time that he didn’t really mean all those things that he had said to his predecessor, and that he now really wasn’t just going through the motions and paying lip-service in well-worn tropes of praise?

Much of the introduction to the speech is actually devoted to establishing its own sincerity. Pliny states, “it is my intention that every citizen now should say nothing about our new emperor which could have been said of any of his predecessors”. But of course this was impossible, because by Pliny’s day every reasonable criterion for praising a head of state had been explored; and Pliny moreover knew that he was caught in an insoluble rhetorical problem, because he couldn’t fully acknowledge the insincerity of past praise without casting doubt on his present words. We see some of this conundrum when he tries to prevent his audience from interpreting his praise as ironic:

“There is no danger now that if I call him ‘down to earth’ he will think I mean ‘arrogant’, or if I call him ‘financially conservative’ he will think I mean ‘ruinously extravagant’, or if I call him ‘forgiving’ he will think I mean ‘cruel’.”

In fact there was every danger (and hence the disclaimer). Roman audiences had long been trained under the empire to sniff out the faintest whiff of irony in praise, and there was, by Pliny’s day, no cordoning off a tribute from its own potential to be read as an ironic allusion to an emperor’s worst traits. Clearly, previous emperors had been satirised through extravagant praise, accompanied by a knowing glance to a select audience that knew better.

In publishing his speech in praise of Trajan, Pliny achieved for himself a strange version of immortality: he created a new literary genre out of the standard protocols of the Roman senate. He was remembered in late antiquity as the father of Latin prose panegyric, a genre which flourished in the third and fourth centuries and exerted considerable impact upon subsequent court cultures, such as those in 17th century England and France (the Panegyricus was, for example, widely disseminated, translated, and read at the court of Louis XIV). Pliny was himself forever associated with the extravagant praise he offered Trajan in 100 AD and was at the same time instrumental in defining an emperor who has been lauded in his own, Plinian, terms ever since.