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What politicians can learn from Cicero and Dionysius

'How do you write a slogan to win an election?' Steven Ooms answers this question in his PhD research into ideas about good prose in the time of Caesar and Emperor Augustus. This period is considered a high point for the development of literature. The Roman Cicero and the Greek Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who also lived in Rome), among others, payed a lot of attention to the question of how to move people with prose, but also how to get the public to do something. PhD defence on October 23.

Dialogue between Greeks and Romans

Cicero and Dionysius drew on the same selection of theories, terminologies and techniques about the quality and persuasiveness of language, but according to Ooms they did come up with different stylistic ideas. Together with other rhetoricians and critics they take part in a joint dialogue about what good prose is. Ooms believes that this shows that there was no one-way street of Greek influence on the Romans at this time; Roman insights also influenced Greek ideas. In addition, it appears that opinions on style at that time were not only about personal taste, but were influenced by cultural identity, moral beliefs and the writer's political agenda.

How to make a slogan you can win elections with? - PhD Steven Ooms

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Convincing melody

But the task of being able to write as convincingly as possible is still relevant, says Ooms. Something that every orator at the time agreed on was, for example, that word-arrangement was very important in order to obtain prose of a high quality. A melody can be created by putting words in a specific order. The idea that a beautiful melody is important for the persuasiveness of a text is still applied. 'For politicians, words are powerful weapons', says Ooms.

'Take for example Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again". This statement has a beautiful melody of "A" and "E" sounds and an enchanting rhythm. Apart from the content, it's actually kind of like music,' explains Ooms. Trump's presidential opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, used the slogan "Stronger Together"; this forgotten slogan has a much less beautiful rhythm and therefore doesn't stick as well and is less convincing.

Cicero and Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Steven Ooms defended his PhD on 23 October 2019.

Text: Lieke Bakker
Video: Lieke Bakker, Steven Ooms, Julia Nolet
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