What's fishing like ?:
The Rhetoric of Similes in Oppian's Halieutica*

Adam Bartley

University College,

The study of the use of similes by an obscure Greek epic author writing about fishing must appear, at first, a dry topic of study. However, the way in which the late 2nd century AD poet Oppian uses these comparisons to clarify the behaviour of fish and fishermen to his readers can tell us much about the developments in philosophy and rhetoric over a period of five hundred years. It also provides striking examples of the way in which imperial patronage was sought. By considering the way that Oppian uses similes in the Halieutica, a didactic epic containing five books of some 700 lines each, which, as its name implies, instructs the reader in the principles of salt-water fishing, it is possible to see more clearly the background to this unusual and formerly very popular work of Greek literature and gain a sense of the cultural environment in which it was composed.

I. Rhetoric

It is worth considering what a simile was understood to be and what its role was in ancient literature at the time when Oppian composed the Halieutica. Rhetoric is generally regarded as the art of persuasion. It evolved initially as a tool for persuading the listener whether someone was guilty or innocent of a legal charge, as practised by forensic orators such as Lysias, Demosthenes and Cicero, but was quickly seized upon as a tool of persuasion in other spheres of expression such as philosophy, where, despite the objections of Socrates that it was a triumph of style over substance,[1] its forms were mastered by a range of authors to help convince readers of the validity of their arguments, and in technical literature such as the scientific works of Aristotle, where the author was seeking to convince the reader that he was an authority on the subject concerned. The importance of being seen to be an authority on a technical topic was at that point already a feature of didactic literature. Long before the formal development of rhetoric, Hesiod states at Op. 10 that ???? ?? ??, ?????, ??????? ??????????? (?I would speak true things to you, Perses?), emphasising that it is particularly important to listen to him as through his skill as an instructor he has, somehow, privileged access to ???????, or ?true things?. When we consider the use of similes - a popular tool in rhetoric for giving the reader or listener a clear picture of the topic of discussion which might otherwise be too abstract for ready understanding[2] - in the Halieutica, it is tempting to regard their frequent use as a reflection both of the literary topos of the need to demonstrate expertise that has its origins with Hesiod and of the frequent use of vivid similes in the works of Homer.[3] However, when the nature of these similes is examined in some detail, the development of rhetoric over time is considered more closely, and the historical context in which this poem was written is taken into account, it quickly becomes clear that Oppian has presented us with an apparently novel conflation of the persuasive goals of didactic epic and the persuasive techniques employed in rhetorical discourse.

In his entry for Greek rhetoric in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Donald Russell follows the systematic classification of rhetoric by the 19th century German commentator Volkmann,[4] and states that the principles of rhetoric varied so little over time that it is possible to make generalising statements about the principles that underpin it which are ?roughly valid for the whole Hellenistic and Roman period?. While this view may be true of forensic rhetoric, although even in that case it should be taken with a grain of salt, the situation is quite different for rhetorical principles when applied to philosophical and technical discourse. When that genre is examined in detail, taking into consideration works such as the Ars Rhetorica of Aristotle, the Hellenistic treatise Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, the anonymous Latin work Rhetorica ad Herennium and discussions of rhetoric by Cicero, it is clear that rhetoric was as subject to the winds of fashion from the 4th century BC onwards as any other field of endeavour. Among the more modern commentators on rhetoric, McCall both identifies broad trends in the use of figures of comparison in rhetoric and also points out that we should exercise great care when using the term ?simile? as the vocabulary used to discuss them in the ancient languages both varies over time and often refers to figures that are not precisely analogous to what we would currently understand by the term ?simile?.[5] I will summarise the situation in broad terms. Prior to Plato there is no extant definition of similes, but figures which we would understand as similes were not uncommon. Plato refers to certain figures of comparison variously as an ?????, or image, a ?????????, or side-by-side comparison, or a ??????????,[6] that is an equation of one thing with another, while the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum at 11.1430b10 refers to a comparison as a ????????????, which McCall notes is not used elsewhere and suggests a ?parallel? comparison.[7] What we might describe in modern terms as a simile may actually involve aspects of visual description, parallel construction or an equation of one thing with another, but need not strictly conform to the concept that lies behind each of these terms. At Ars Rhetorica 3.11.11 Aristotle defines similes as a subset of metaphors, which involve an explicit comparison, rather than an implicit one that is simply based on the use of nouns or epithets which we would not expect in the context. A striking feature of similes in Oppian?s Halieutica is that they often involve an extended narrative, and it is, therefore, interesting that proverbs used to illustrate a point or of hyperbole are also, in Aristotle?s opinion, metaphors and therefore part of the broader group to which similes belong. Unlike Plato, the term that Aristotle uses consistently for similes is ?????, emphasising that it is a visual image, which is presented to the reader or listener. Aside from the more explicit focus on the visual aspect of the comparison, the main point of departure of Aristotle?s definition from the modern understanding of the term ?simile? is that, although a comparison is made, Aristotle does not specify that a term such as ?? or ???? need be used, whereas we would expect something of the form ?X is like/unlike Y, when...?.

Cicero also makes explicit comments about similes in his de Finibus and de Natura Deorum which give us insights into the rhetorical teaching of his time and also suggest some of the directions of the rhetorical studies of the Hellenistic period, which are only very poorly preserved. At de Finibus 4.23.64, when commenting about Cato, Cicero notes that the Stoic philosophers made frequent use of illustrative comparisons something very close to our understanding of simile, although it need not be as strongly signposted to the reader as is the modern norm. At de Natura Deorum 2.8.22 Cicero associates anthropomorphic similes with the works of the Epicurean philosophers. As will be seen when the style of the Halieutica is considered in more detail below, a link between the popularity of illustrative similes and Stoic philosophy may be a factor behind the sheer wealth of similes, especially given the numerous explicit dedications to the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius. However the wealth of anthropomorphic similes may also simply be a stylistic inversion of the Homeric norm of using animal behaviour to illustrate human behaviour, but, given their association with Epicurean philosophers in a well-known rhetorical text, it is worth considering whether their use is intended to suggest a more broadly philosophical tone, given the strong moralising tone that appears in many of them. It will be worthwhile, at this point, to consider similes in didactic epic and the Halieutica in more detail.

II. Similes in didactic epic

The use of similes in didactic epic varies considerably from one author to another. There is not one single simile in the Works and Days of Hesiod, while there are 10 in the Phaenomena of Aratus of Soli, a Greek didactic epic on astronomy and weather composed in the 3rd century BC. Of these two show some development beyond the fundamental comparison, a common feature of Oppian?s similes. The Theriaca and Alexipharmaca of Nicander, Greek didactic epics on poisonous creatures and the cures for poisons written in the 2nd century BC, have 2 and 4 similes respectively. The Georgics of Virgil have 5 longer similes within their 2187 lines. The more philosophical works of didactic epic are altogether more promising.  The extant fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles include a well developed simile of 11 lines at fr. 23, as well as 7 further similes.[8] This is particularly important as it appears that in Oppian?s time there may have been a tradition of Empedocles as the inventor of rhetoric, as attested by the fragment of Aristotle?s Sophist preserved by the 3rd century AD biographer of Greek philosophers Diogenes Laertius (Vitae philosophorum 8.57). It is not possible to state with any confidence whether Empedocles did, in fact, have any strong role in the development of rhetoric, but the perception that he did and the philosophical nature of his works may have been, in part, influential upon Oppian?s rich and frequent use of similes.

When we consider Latin philosophical didactic epic, a similar picture emerges. The truth of Cicero?s statements about Epicurean philosophers can be seen when we consider the fact that the de Rerum Natura of  Lucretius contains 19 similes which are more than a simple ?X is like Y? comparison in six books of hexameter verse.[9] Due to the very poor preservation of both the Greek hexameter philosophical texts and Epicurean philosophy, however, it is difficult to state dogmatically whether this quality of Lucretius? writing reflects the practice of non-Epicurean verse or Epicurean prose. It is useful, then at this point to consider the Halieutica in more detail.

III. Similes in the Halieutica

The Halieutica uses similes to highlight aspects of fishing practice or the behaviour of fish, including 45 similes which show some sort of development beyond the most simple form of comparison. Of these, 25 can be considered to be anthropomorphic, that is they liken the behaviour of fish to some aspect of human behaviour. The remaining similes either describe the fish in non-human terms or relate to the actions of the fishermen on some level. The anthropomorphic similes often have a strongly moralising quality, being pre-occupied with either the way in which the behaviour of the fish reflects the worst of human behaviour or the best. An example of the latter is the comparison of parrot-wrasse which work together to escape the fisherman?s net with men helping each other over difficult terrain in the darkness at Hal. 4.65-70. An example of less praiseworthy behaviour can be observed in the comparison of the behaviour of a bream to dissolute youths who spend all their time engaged in a party at an orphaned friend?s home at Hal. 3.358-63. The greatest number of such similes in a single book - 8 - can be found in the fourth book of the Halieutica, which is devoted to the way in which fish can be caught by the exploitation of their passionate natures. In an unexpected turn, the passionate, and often sexually so, behaviour of the sea-creatures is usually likened to human behaviour which involves passion of a more non-sexual nature. Examples include the comparison of a fish which fusses over a harem of mates to a mother fretting over her daughter who is in labour at Hal. 4.195-201, and that of fish which engage in unnatural relations with goats who mourn the goats? leaving with a mother mourning for her son who is going to sea at Hal. 4.335-42. If we were to overlook the role of rhetoric in the literature of the Second Sophistic, it would be possible to read these anthropomorphic similes as being present solely to give colour to what would, otherwise, be a dry technical discourse and to highlight the unifying theme of one book of the work. This is certainly one of their functions and should not be lightly disregarded. If, however, we consider the function of these similes within the framework of rhetoric and the historical context of the Halieutica, a more complex picture emerges.

IV. Similes, Rhetoric and the Emperor

As has been shown above, similes were, apparently, a common feature of epic poetry devoted to philosophical discourse prior to the Halieutica and were associated with Epicurean and Stoic philosophical discourse by commentators on rhetoric. It remains, then, to show whether the use of similes would have had a particular interest or value to Oppian. The figure which brings these aspects together is that of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor under whose reign Oppian composed the Halieutica,[10] and who was himself the author of the Meditations which present the principles of Stoic philosophy in the form of brief thoughts and guidelines for the reader. In these works Marcus Aurelius also gave explicit, if qualified, approval to the principles of Epicureanism.[11] As the emperor himself composed works on Stoicism, it is reasonable to expect that, if he had actually read the Halieutica, he might have been aware of and found attractive certain features, such as the rich and varied use of anthropomorphic similes which, as we have seen, were apparently viewed by rhetoricians as typical of his own favoured philosophical school. The challenge, then, is to find evidence that Oppian was interested somehow in attracting the imperial favour.

We have two sources of information that show this link exists. The first are the various extant vitae of Oppian. As Mair notes,[12] there was a most likely apocryphal story in what is classed by Westermann,[13] the 19th century editor of the biographies, or vitae, of the minor Greek poets, as Vita A which states that, by writing the Halieutica, Oppian won the release of his father Agesilaus from exile as a result of his alleged neglect of the visiting Emperor Severus. The Emperor Caracalla (211-217), the son of Septimius Severus, also presented Oppian with gold piece for each line of his work. Vita B, which also attributes a poem on fowling called the Ixeutica and, incorrectly, the Cynegetica to Oppian, does not mention this tradition. While this story should be regarded as spurious, not least because it incorrectly dates the composition of the Halieutica after the reign of Marcus Aurelius,[14] it does suggest that commentators of late antiquity believed that a link between Oppian and the imperial court existed on some level. The internal evidence suggests that this belief was well founded, even if the relationship was probably not expressed in the way suggested by the vitae. Explicit praise of Marcus Aurelius can be found in Oppian?s version of the story of the Ages of Man and the departure of Justice from the world at Hal. 2.664-88. This passage, which is ultimately inspired by the description of the ages of man at Hesiod Op. 109-201, includes a statement that Justice, a variation on the departed Aidos and Nemesis mentioned by Hesiod at Op. 200, has now returned to the earth in the form of Marcus Aurelius, at 680-4. There is also an explicit dedication of the Halieutica to Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus at Hal. 1.66-70, which is part of a longer discourse on the pleasures of hunting, fishing and fowling at Hal. 1.1-79. There is even some subversion of traditional themes to a style which would better suit the imperial tastes. At Hal. 2.1-42 Oppian describes the absolute power of the gods and the way in which men live by their leave, which includes a list of the gods that teach skills to men and the gods of the sea (read passage out). Within this passage there are two unusual features that suggest it was composed with an audience interested in Stoicism in mind.  In lines 7-11 Oppian states that men cannot disobey the gods, which are omnipresent - ??????? ??????? ???????? (?being near at hand from afar?), as they are constrained by the forces of necessity, and at lines 35-7, after listing the gods of the sea, suggests that they may, after all, simply be the reflections of one god of the sea. The omnipresence of the gods, the irresistibility of their power and the potential for monotheism are all suggestive of the precepts of Stoicism. It is interesting to note, however, that Oppian is somewhat restrained in his statement of these principles by ensuring that polytheism remains the core principle of the theology which he presents. It is impossible to state whether he does so in order to make his appeal to imperial tastes less obvious (which would appear difficult in the face of his dedication and identification with divine Justice) or whether this is a reflection of Oppian?s own beliefs. Either scenario implies a very strong desire to court imperial favour in this work, and it is as part of this more general appeal to Marcus Aurelius? own philosophical beliefs that the presence of the wide range of similes to illustrate fish behaviour and the preference for anthropomorphising should also be understood.

V. Conclusion The Rhetoric of Fishing

We can see, then, when we consider the historical developments of rhetoric and its use of figures of comparison, that the style adopted by Oppian is not only colourful and an attractive innovation that sets his work apart from that of his predecessors, but it would also have likely been particularly attractive to a reader at the imperial court through its apparent similarities to the style of philosophy which was in favour at that time. Now that we can understand one of the motivations behind their use, there remains a final point to consider. If rhetoric is the art of persuasion, just what is Oppian seeking to persuade us of ? The answer to that question comes at Hal. 1.1-79. This passage is not only notable for its dedication to the emperor and his son mentioned above, but also because it is a high stylised and complex defence of fishing as an art worthy of study which both praises hunting, fishing and fowling, and sets fishing above either of the other arts.[15]  It must have been a fairly straightforward task for Hesiod to argue the utility of his instruction in household management in the Works and Days. The Phaenomena of Aratus, with its description of the stars, their relationship to the seasons and further notes on the weather would have appeared useful to farmer and sailor alike, and the role of the works of Nicander on poisons and their cures is similarly clear.[16] For the authors of philosophical epics, such as Empedocles, it must have been a comparatively easy job to argue the utility of their works. Although the actual utility of most didactic epics is open to question and their greatest virtue seems to be that they provide a somewhat informative form of entertainment, all of their authors could readily adopt the pose of serious teachers. Oppian is left with what must have initially appeared to be the thankless task of presenting salt-water fishing as a skill worth learning, through which man might not only gain physical exercise and sustenance but might also learn something of himself and the nature of existence. The similes which Oppian employs so richly are, therefore, by their recollection of the norms of popular philosophical discourse, part of this broader persuasive framework something which their intended reader would probably have understood and appreciated well.

* Initially presented as a paper in the Dublin Classics Seminar Series at University College, Dublin, November 2004.

[1]See Plato Soph. 222a, with its depiction of the sophist as someone who is acquisitive and unprincipled: ?But that part of the paid kind which converses to furnish gratification and makes pleasure exclusively its bait and demands as its pay only maintenance, we might all agree, if I am not mistaken, to call the art of flattery or of making things pleasant?.

[2]M.H. McCall, Ancient Rhetorical Theories of Similes and Comparison (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), 46-7.

[3]This is especially the case with regards to Homer, where animal behaviour is often used to give a vivid image of human behaviour, a technique which appears to have been consciously set on its head by Oppian with his vivid anthropomorphic similes.

[4]OCD, 3rd ed., 1996, 1312-4,  s. v. ?rhetoric, Greek? after Richard Volkmann, Die Rhetorik der Griechen und Römer in systematischer Übersicht (Leipzig, 1885; repr. Hildesheim, 1963).

[5]McCall (n. 2), esp. 1-25.

[6]As in Phaedo 87b, which McCall (n. 2), 16, notes appears to refer to both a simile and a more general comparison; Philebus 33b2, where ????????? has a rhetorical meaning; and in the potentially spurious Epinomis at 990d3, where ?????????? has a rhetorical meaning.

[7]McCall  (n. 2), 21-3.

[8]M.R. Wright, Empedocles: The Extant Fragments, 2nd ed. (Bristol, 1995), 366.

[9]A good range of examples from the de Rerum Natura include 3.87-93, 3.221-23 and 3.403-7.

[10]See A.W. Mair, Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus (London, 1928), xiii-xxiii, for a full discussion of the date of the Halieutica, which depends for the most part on the dedications to the emperor contained within.

[11]R.B. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study, (Oxford, 1989), 24-5, notes that Marcus Aurelius explicitly quotes Epicurus as at Med. 7.64, 11.26 and 12.34, selecting those principles of Epicureanism that he finds favourable, while rejecting others.

[12]Mair (n. 10), xiii-xiv.

[13]A. Westermann, Vitarum scriptores graeci minores (Braunschweig 1845), 63-65.

[14]For a full discussion of the authorship and date of the Halieutica see Mair (n. 10), xiii-xxiii. For a dissenting view see P.G. Toohey, Epic Lessons (London, 1996), 199-200.

[15]For the widespread use of rhyme, anaphora and other figures of repetition in this passage see A.N. Bartley, Stories from the Mountains, Stories from the Sea: The Digressions and Similes of Oppian?s Halieutica and the Cynegetica (Göttingen, 2003), 29-42.

[16]We also have long fragments of a work on farming, the Georgica, by Nicander, see A.S.F. Gow and A.F. Scholfield, Nicander, The Poems and Poetical Fragments (Cambridge, 1953).

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