ancient deepfakes at classical world

Office Board by John F. Peto

The latest issue of Classical World includes my article on the shifting parameters of successful “impersonation” or sermocinatio in the ancient world, particularly as described in the fourth-century Ars Rhetorica of Gaius Julius Victor. Unlike his predecessors Cicero and Quintilian, who see impersonation as an occasion for “exaggeration and artifice” rooted in the so-called “grand style,” Gaius Julius Victor recommends that speakers use “less overt and even covert means” for taking on the personalities of others. In other words, I trace how impersonation shifts in the fourth century from a method of comedic, rhetorical excess to one of subtlety and even deception.

By recommending a style of impersonation that goes unnoticed, Gaius Julius Victor anticipates our own era’s novel methods of manufacturing deceptive likenesses in deepfake videos, where “concealing one’s fiction behind an expert veneer of sprezzatura is key to the impersonation’s persuasive potency.” His novel stylistic recommendations for sermocinatio in the fourth century show us how an impersonation might be designed to go undetected, not unlike various genres of contemporary disinformation.

The published article is hosted at Classical World, and the pre-print is available through my personal site’s archive.