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The Culture of Democratic Debate and Its Foundations in Antiquity

Press Release No. 3/2009
3 07 2009
Interdisciplinary Hengstberger Symposium (10-12 July) dedicated to political communication in the ancient world
With the German general elections coming up soon, the question of the potentialities and limitations of public (mass) communication and rhetoric is back in the forefront of interest. Given that the foundations of modern-day democratic debate were laid in Athens and Rome, a comparison with the world of antiquity suggests itself. “Political Communication and Public Opinion in the Ancient World” is the title of a Hengstberger Symposium taking place on 10-12 July at Heidelberg University’s International Science Forum. Its declared intention is to intensify cross-disciplinary exchange between ancient studies and modern communication studies, not least with a view to advancing the cause of a research field that is still in its infancy: historical communication studies.

“The convincement strategies employed in the ancient world by major politicians and orators like Demosthenes and Cicero have lost little of their immediate relevance,” says Dr. Christina Kuhn of Oxford University, the organiser of the symposium. “In modern communication research the principles, ideas and concepts expounded by Greek and Roman theorists in connection with effective rhetoric still play an important part. Our central concern at the conference is with public communication and public opinion formation in the ancient world.” With reference to non-mediatised societies this involves the investigation of political discourse and rhetoric as well as different kinds of symbolic action (e.g. political rituals). Among the crucial issues addressed at the symposium are the range of techniques employed to influence public opinion and the communication strategies that proved to be especially persuasive.

The symposium brings together established experts and younger scholars from four nations. One of its aims is to generate new analytic tools for historical studies and map out perspectives for future research. The engagement with the culture of political discourse in antiquity also extends beyond the classical world to encompass the civilisations of Asia and the ancient Orient (Israel, Egypt, China). This makes it feasible to identify differences in the conception of what the word “public” meant at the time and also to define varieties of political communication and the various roles played by “public opinion”.

Till January 2009 Dr. Christina Kuhn was on the staff of Heidelberg University’s Department of Ancient History and Epigraphics. In 2008 she was one of the recipients of the University’s Klaus-Georg and Sigrid Hengstberger Prize awarded annually to three young scholars, scientists or research teams. The award is worth 12,500 euros and designed to enable young researchers to organise an interdisciplinary symposium at Heidelberg University’s International Science Forum. Applicants from all areas of academia – medicine, natural sciences, humanities, social sciences - are eligible for the award.

Journalists are very welcome to attend the event. They are asked to notify Dr. Christina Kuhn beforehand. Requests for interviews should also be addressed to Dr. Kuhn.

Conference programme

Dr. Christina Kuhn
Classics Department
University of Oxford
66 St Giles
GB-Oxford OX1 3LU

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Irene Thewalt
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