Andrew Worley

Department: Classics
Discipline: Classics and Ancient History

Project Summary

Expressing and Manipulating Public Opinion: the use of acclamations and other popular reactions in the literature of the Roman Empire

There has been considerable recent work done on the study of acclamations of specific genres or locations. Studies such as these are predominantly concerned with epigraphical or papyrological acclamations, on account of their appearing as verbatim accounts of actual instances where an expression of public opinion has occurred. There has not been a study in English (to the best of my knowledge) which critically deals with the usage of acclamations and other expressions of popular reaction in literature of the Roman Imperial period. Given that such expressions of public opinion are utilized by both Roman oratory of the late Republic and historiography of the Empire, as well as in other literary genres of the period, it certainly seems pertinent to conduct such an investigation. I propose that the use of public opinion (i.e. the use of acclamations and other expressions of popular reaction) in classical literature is as much open to abuse, interpretation and ambiguity as any other historical detail.

My MA research was predominantly concerned with the problem of the efficacy of acclamations. These surface readings of instances where popular opinion or reaction is recorded in classical texts for the purpose of deciding whether acclamation was always an expression of popular opinion suggested to me a different line of future enquiry. Rather than accept the premise that all acclamations were either useless stage-managed affairs, or spontaneous public reactions, I propose that a rhetorical game is being played with their usage by authors. My proposed enquiry, in order to substantiate such a hypothesis, would need to consider the rhetorical techniques involved in citation of public opinion. Much modern interpretation of Roman public opinion still appears to be based on uncritical observations from either the recorded actions of the ruling class (i.e. the supply of grain doles, offering of public games and largess), or by recorded demonstrations of public opinion. Such an approach leads to a conclusion of a negative, parasitic existence for the urban plebs, who are portrayed as caring little for politics and interested only in being fed and amused by their political masters, (in effect agreeing with Fronto (Principia Historiae 17)). The idea of a stage-managed adulatory acclaiming populace perhaps owes more to the present age where the public reaction to events is scrutinized for signs of official interference, for a recent example the publicized images of the people of North Korea in reaction to the death of Kim Jong-Il and the subsequent critical attitude of Western political commentators, than to any actual critical reading of ancient sources.

Previous studies on popular acclamations have largely focused on the negative, petitioning aspects of the plebs at Rome, yet it is worth noting here that public opinion has examples of Senatorial public opinion being expressed also. My proposal is therefore to investigate Roman imperial literature to isolate examples of authors quoting or referring to instances of public reaction or expressions of opinion, and then to textually analyze them.

Supervisory Team

Prof. David Braund (Primary Supervisor)

Dr. Richard Flower (Secondary Supervisor)

Authored Publications/Reports

Andrew Worley (May 2014) The Curio Incident: Of the Camp in the Night-time, Pegasus, 57