Embodied Ethos: Negotiations of Authority, Credibility, and Trust in Roman Republican Coinage and Renaissance Texts

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“Embodied Ethos” explores how coins negotiate rhetors’ ethos in antiquity and how Renaissance texts illustrated with coin images reconstruct and appropriate the ethos of ancient coins. With a methodological framework that puts in conversation ancient rhetorical theories, modern theories in visual and material rhetoric, and cognitive linguistics, the project approaches ethos as an interweaving of authority, credibility, and trust, as well as a form of inter-subjectivity between rhetors and audiences. Applied to a discussion of early Greek and Roman coinage, this framework reveals that the negotiation of ethos occurs in relation to transcendental, social, or individual systems of power, truths, and values. An analysis of Roman Republican coins minted at the onset of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey suggests that the warrying factions use coin iconography and inscriptions to negotiate the leaders’ ethos and to mount responses to political crises. While Pompeian coinage invokes Rome’s past and elevates Pompey to transcendental status, Caesarean coinage invokes Rome’s future and encourages allegiance to Caesar as an individual. In the Renaissance, coin images import the ethos of ancient coins into printed texts. Guillaume Rouillé’s Promptuaire des medalles integrates coin images into literacy-based contexts and appropriates the ethos of ancient coins in order to energize the life of the text, to advance a form of literacy that balances oral and visual reading, and to help audiences negotiate their own ethos as readers. Madeleine de Scudéry’s Les Femmes illustres appropriates the ethos of ancient coins to support the ethos of women as marginalized rhetors. In this text, coin images invoke the public roles of famous women of antiquity, draw attention to the female orators as a community of speakers, and encourage audiences to accept and read a rhetorical text about women. Overall, the transmission of coin ethos from antiquity into the Renaissance suggests that, as objects of cultural significance, coins participate in complex networks of objects and texts and carry persuasive messages across cultures and time periods.