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Politeness and Politics in Cicero’s Letters

Review of John Hall, Politeness and
Politics in Cicero’s Letters. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN
9780195329063. $72.86. Reviewed by
Emily Wagner, Eta Delta, Hillsdale College.

Jon Hall’s study of Cicero’s letters is
another indication that politeness theory is
rapidly becoming a popular way to reinterpret
Classical works. Hall studies real correspondence,
the closest thing we have to
the actual speech of the Romans, making
his particular choice especially important
for increasing our understanding of the
daily life and language of the Roman elite.
Hall has published numerous articles on
Roman rhetoric, oratory and Cicero, and
brings over a decade of experience to his
study. In his book, Politeness and Politics in
Cicero’s Letters, Hall analyzes the letters
according to politeness strategies used in
social interactions in order to shed light
on the political and social negotiations
that the Roman elite carried on in Cicero’s
time. Hall argues that these strategies tell
us what values they had, how they viewed
themselves, and how they viewed their
own places in society.
Although Hall uses the groundbreaking
politeness theory of Brown and
Levinson (Politeness: Some Universals in
Language Usage. Cambridge, 1987) as a
starting point, he adapts the theory to
suit his subject. Brown and Levinson
developed a useful theory in that they
recognized causes of social tension and
added concepts and terminology to the
study of the purpose of courtesy, doing so
in a way that is in keeping with our own
observations in everyday life. However,
Hall wisely avoids applying their theory to
his work wholesale. Brown and Levinson
only studied politeness theory in the
conversation of modern languages, not in
letters, other forms of communication, or
ancient sources, and they viewed politeness
as a binary combination of negative
and positive politeness, displaying a
marked bias in favor of negative politeness.
Hall instead sees three different types of
politeness strategies in the body of Cicero’s
letters: verecundia, respect through showing
restraint and distance; affiliative politeness,
reducing distance between speaker and
addressee through assertions of goodwill
and friendship; and redressive politeness,
compensation, particularly through
apologies, for making impositions on the
addressee. Hall’s terms more accurately
reflect the realities of politeness in Cicero’s
day than do Brown and Levinson’s.
Hall makes his book user-friendly for
the undergraduate student, since he next
provides the reader with a background in
letter-writing in Cicero’s day and a section
on the type of training in letter writing
that many upper-class Romans received.
He explains the semi-public nature of
Roman letter writing and compares
Cicero’s style of politeness with other
letter-writers, particularly Pliny. Hall also
explains the information in his book with
regard to how life really was in ancient
Rome; for example, he notes that generalizations
about Cicero’s correspondents will
be referred to as “he,” not “he or she,” since
all correspondents in the political sphere
were male, and it would misrepresent the
Roman culture to the reader to write “he
or she” just to avoid offense to moderns
(24). He then summarizes the following
chapters, a useful method to augment the
already well-organized style of his book.
Chapter 1, “Doing Aristocratic
Business: Affiliative Politeness and the
Politeness of Respect,” focuses on the
conventionalized strategies Cicero and
his contemporaries used both to convey
respect to their addressees and to minimize
distance by the assertion of friendship and
goodwill, as well as how these seemingly
opposite strategies interacted. In this
chapter Hall lays the groundwork for the
following chapters thoroughly. In chapter
2, “From Polite Fictions to Hypocrisy,” Hall
focuses on the ways that writers manipulated
the conventions of politeness to serve
personal interests. One statement that Hall
makes in this chapter seems misplaced.
He observes in his discussion of distrust
and politeness strategies that “a concern
with face exerted a powerful influence on
aristocratic behavior. We risk overlooking
a profound feature of human psychology if
we assume that cool academic logic always
governed their actions and reactions”
(84–85). However, the entire aim of politeness
theory is to show that people employ
seemingly illogical words and phrases in
a logical way to achieve a desired goal or
effect. If someone uses politeness hypocritically,
and you react with anger, this anger
or offense is not illogical — maintaining
your “face” is necessary to maintain a
secure place in social interactions. One
logically needs to defend against offenses
which threaten one’s appearance in the
eyes of others. Hence it seems incorrect for
Hall to call concern for “face” illogical or
Hall uses chapter 3, “Redressive Politeness:
Requests, Refusals, and Advice,” to
explore how an aristocrat such as Cicero
framed his requests to his superiors and
his responses to his own clients’ requests,
as well as how he attempted to minimize
offence in advising powerful men. This
chapter tends to get bogged down in rather
mundane examples of redressive politeness,
rather than drawing conclusions from
evidence and organizing that evidence into
a coherent order. Chapter 4, “Politeness in
Epistolary Conflict,” treats the language
Cicero and others, such as Marc Antony,
chose during political conflict. Romans had
to select carefully the particular mixture of
politeness and insult they would use in communicating
with a political rival. Since this
chapter concerns political conflict it proves
to be of more interest than chapters 1 and 3,
which deal with day-to-day business matters
and politeness. Hall’s final chapter, “Polite
ness and Political Negotiation,” focuses on
correspondence in the aftermath of Caesar’s
assassination, especially on how many
norms of epistolary politeness were used to
almost sinister effect in that dangerous time.
Hall shows how politeness in that tense
period could quickly turn to deadly effect,
which he makes especially visible with his
analysis of the correspondence of Brutus
and Cassius with Marc Antony. The virulence
of Marc Antony and the conservatism
of Brutus and Cassius are manifested in the
relative levels of familiarity or politeness that
they display, and in analyzing this contrast
Hall convincingly asserts the power of
politeness and its importance in the Roman
political sphere.
Hall concludes that Roman aristocrats
displayed an intense awareness of the need
to show and receive due respect. The rules
of politeness generally became apparent
only when violated, which event usually
earned an offended criticism from Cicero.
The particular political nature of Rome
at that time was conducive to widespread
use of polite fictions and phrases. The
appendix consists of an index of words and
phrases frequently used in the correspondence
as part of politeness strategies, organized
by type. This appendix is especially
useful for research, as each usage is cited by
letter and section number.
Despite the aforementioned minor criticisms,
Hall’s study supports the relevance
of correspondence to politeness theory,
and although not likely to be purchased by
undergraduate or graduate students, this
book would be a useful addition to any
undergraduate or graduate library.

About the Author
Emily Wagner is a recent graduate of
Hillsdale College, graduating Magna cum
Laude, with honors in Classics, with a
minor in English, and in the Honors Program.
In the fall she will be attending the
University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana
for an MA in Classics.

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