Why are you holding your hands so awkwardly?
February 8, 2010 1:08 PM   Subscribe

In the HBO series Rome, people who are making formal speeches often make very stylized gestures with their hands. What do these gestures mean?

From what I can gather, this was a common part of the art of rhetoric, but I'd love to hear more about what these gestures were meant to accomplish. Also, if specific gestures have specific meanings, I'd be interested in hearing those details.

posted by cider to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You know who else often used stylized gestures with his hands during his terrifying speechs...?

Ok, ok , to compensate for my bad joke, here's an article on the subject..

The Gesture entry on Wikipedia has a ton of links that may help you at the bottom.
posted by CitoyenK at 1:28 PM on February 8, 2010

I'm not a Roman history scholar or an expert on oration by any means.

If you look at statues of orators in the Classical tradition, they're almost all making a particular gesture (arms spread, one raised).

From this article:
This is one of the most popular and easily identifiable gestures in Roman art, the ad locutio gesture or the gesture of speech. In Roman public life, the orator played a central role. The ability to convince an audience through an effective oration was critical to the success of a politician. For a military leader, the ability to rally and motivate the army was a hallmark of a great general. The ad locutio gesture conveys of the voice and authority of the figure.

So, it's definitely orator iconography. I really don't know what it means beyond the fact that it's supposed to convey authority; maybe someone else can stop by and explain that. I do know that Rome is a very stylized show in general, so they might have been exaggerating the ad locutio's usage.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:49 PM on February 8, 2010

Unfortunately, when I took a class that actually covered this it was about five years ago. One element of the style is also supposed to represent self control. That in turns is supposed to be reassuring, adding weight to the speaker's words. I mean, do you really want to listen to anyone who's waving their hands around like a crazy person?

Incidentally, the implied nod to Hitler above is a good example of what the Romans would have thought of as horrible public speaking.

When I saw Rome picking up on this it made my history geek radar fly off the charts.
posted by Atreides at 2:09 PM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

These are literally formal rhetorical gestures -- there were appropriate gestures for certain statements, for example, on the statement of fact:

One of the commonest of all the gestures consists in placing the middle finger against the thumb and extending the remaining three: it is suitable to the exordium, the hand being moved forward with an easy motion a little distance both to right and left, while the head and shoulders gradually follow the direction of the gesture. It is also useful in the statement of facts, but in that case the hand must be moved with firmness and a little further forward, while, if we are reproaching or refuting our adversary, the same movement may be employed with some vehemence and energy, since such passages permit of greater freedom of extension. On the other hand, this same gesture is often directed sideways towards the left shoulder: this is a mistake, although it is a still worse fault to thrust the arm across the chest and gesticulate with the elbow. The middle and third fingers are also sometimes turned under the thumb, producing a still more forcible effect than the gesture previously described, but not well adapted for use in the exordium or statement of facts

This is from Quintilian. For more of the original work (translated into English): Quintilian on Gestures
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:11 PM on February 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

If I'm not mistaken, they cut off Cicero's hands; as an orator, his hands were the "tools" of his trade.
posted by notsnot at 3:42 PM on February 8, 2010

From Wikipedia:
According to Cassius Dio (in a story often mistakenly attributed to Plutarch), Antony's wife Fulvia took Cicero's head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in final revenge against Cicero's power of speech.
posted by tim_in_oz at 5:06 PM on February 8, 2010

They're so people in the back can understand the speech without having to actually hear the words. Romans didn't have microphones, so only people in front could hear what was actually being said. The audience would have understood the meaning of each gesture and have been able to figure out what was going on.
posted by canadia at 7:26 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The book Nature Embodied is all about gesture in ancient rome. I have the book and just skimmed through it, there is a short section about gesture in oratory. The rest of the book is pretty interesting too, gesture in rituals, mourning, walking, the use of thumbs, etc.
posted by aetg at 8:01 PM on February 8, 2010

Wikipedia sez: "On Antony's instructions his hands, which had penned the Philippics against Antony, were cut off as well; these were nailed and displayed along with his head on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum"

So perhaps less to do with the use of hands in oratory than in writing.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:04 PM on February 8, 2010

These gestures are an essential part of Italian life and language to this day. As they say, tie an Italian's hands behind his back and he's struck dumb. Watch a TV newsreader or a reporter doing his stand-up and windmilling his hands - you may think randomly, but in fact according to a strict code. And watch a newly-arrived foreigner try to imitate it, and the perplexity this produces on his Italian listerners' faces: unless you know the code, it's better to keep your hands in your pockets. The epitome is reached in the deep south (and in many other Mediterranean-shore societies), where the gesture entirely replaces the word: in Sicily or Greece, the word "no" is rarely heard; instead, you'll see a short, sharp jerk backwads of the head (sometimes, but not always, accompanied by a click of the tongue behind the top teeth).
posted by aqsakal at 4:30 AM on February 9, 2010

They're so people in the back can understand the speech without having to actually hear the words.

This is it. The same reason that when stage actors point at something while performing, it is not a casual little flick of the wrist and a straightened forefinger, but a fully extended arm and a visible armpit.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:17 AM on February 9, 2010

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