chapter  13
Margaret Mullett How to criticize the laudandus
Pages 16

In the 1970s and 1980s, the heyday of New Criticism in classical literature, it became fashionable to use the rhetorical handbooks of the second sophistic and late antiquity to create new readings of (largely) Latin (and largely) verse. Obscure poems were identified as rhetorical genres, Dido was analysed as a ‘bad king’, as against Aeneas as ‘good king’ and so on. Readings, however daring, could be legitimized by consulting the processes of epideictic oratory taught in the schoolrooms of the empire. Only one thing was taboo; it was deemed illegitimate to assume criticism of the laudandus, the person who is to be praised. So you would hear ‘You can’t criticise the laudandus.’1 Classicists have long moved on from this type of interpretation, but Byzantinists are still faced with the legacy of just those rhetorical handbooks, the basis of the education of the rhetors and writers of the Byzantine empire.2 No writer whose work was thought worth preserving was without the training of at least the progymnasmata.3 Most show signs of using something like Menander Rhetor. Some appear aware of Hermogenes’ more advanced works.4 And this goes not only for rhetorical texts, i.e. speeches, poems and letters written according to the genres of the theoretical literature, but also for parts of what we might regard

as official documents, and for those few works that in unguarded moments in our own post-romantic expectations we might think of as ‘literature’.