Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.01


Francis M. Dunn and Thomas Cole (edd.), Yale Classical Studies XXIX, Beginnings in Classical Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. viii + 245. ISBN 0-521-41319-2.


Reviewed by Deborah Roberts, Haverford College.

Francis Dunn and Thomas Cole have brought together a collection of fine essays on beginnings in various works, authors, and genres of ancient literature; many of these essays also have interesting things to say or suggest about literary beginnings in general. Most are concerned in one way or another with issues briefly outlined by Dunn in his introduction: the way in which the beginning of a work expresses the relationship of the work to authorities or predecessors, the way in which the beginning addresses, defines, and appeals to its audience, and the relation of the beginning to the project of the work as a whole. Beyond these central preoccupations, however, there is a considerable variety not only of topic but of approach.

Both prose and poetry are represented and both Greek and Latin authors. Some of the critics seek to give us a sense of the varieties of beginning in a genre or body of work as a whole; others address in detail the problem of some particular beginning or beginnings, and still others investigate a particular beginning or beginnings as exemplary of more general problems of beginning in an author or genre. Some work largely within the terms of traditional classical scholarship; others make use of recent critical theory. Two of the essays seek explicitly to link literary beginnings with some other sort of beginning.

An introduction to a book on beginnings is presumably a particularly daunting and self-conscious task; Francis Dunn successfully combines three possible starting points and gives us a brief account of some central issues, an example of a study of beginnings in the form of an essay on the beginning of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus that focuses interestingly on the stage-setting and on place and its mysteries in the drama, and an outline of the different essays that follow. The first of these, William Race's essay ("How Greek poems begin"), is largely devoted to categorization; Race identifies four main types of beginning in Greek poems -- narrative, dramatic, discursive, and hymnal -- and concludes with a discussion of innovative mixtures of these types in Hesiod, Pindar, and Callimachus.

That innovation is in fact a feature of beginnings in the earliest extant Greek poetry is borne out by Victoria Pedrick's essay ("The Muse corrects: the opening of the Odyssey"); she sees in the proem to the Odyssey a tension between innovation and convention and a conversation wherein the Muse corrects the narrator's initial effort and suggests a subtler handling of the tradition. Pedrick is careful (following other recent work on Homeric narrative) to distinguish between narrator and poet; in this "staged enactment of the process of inspiration" (59) the Muse thus becomes not only the voice of tradition but the voice of innovation; she not only provides facts but tells the narrator how to structure those facts.

Hayden Pellicia ("Sappho 16, Gorgias' Helen, and the preface to Herodotus' Histories") also turns out to be concerned with innovation and tradition. His subject is the use in Gorgias' Helen and Herodotus' Histories of what he calls the "false-start recusatio," that form of recusatio in which the author begins without indicating that a choice is to be made but then abandons the initial topic or approach; Pellicia follows earlier work by Race in seeing a connection between each work and the priamel of Sappho 16, but argues for a direct connection as well between the two prose authors. The basic question for Pellicia here is the same, he says, as with other uses of recusatio: "what purpose does the rejected foil serve?" (69), and he analyzes the ways (to some degree similar) in which Gorgias and Herodotus by this technique are able to make use of tradition to support innovation. His claim of direct influence one way or the other (but probably from Herodotus to Gorgias) is based on the general similarity of rhetorical technique, the role of the Helen story, certain verbal parallels, and a context of rhetorical competition; it remains for me the least convincing part of the essay.

Charles Segal begins his essay ("Tragic beginnings: narration, voice, and authority in the prologues of Greek drama") by noting the way in which the prologue of the drama to some extent takes the place of the narrator in other genres, but with a difference, since the voice that speaks in the prologue is always someone in some way involved in the plot. The prologue must win the audience over in some way, but always raises questions about itself at the same time. Segal considers a number of prologue effects and prologue types, and ends with a examination of the detached prologue as used primarily by Euripides and of its particular literariness.

Diskin Clay ("Plato's first words") asks whether Plato's dialogues in fact accord with Socrates' statement in the Phaedrus about the necessity that works be structured like living creatures, with parts in their proper places in relation to each other and to the whole; taking as his examples the frame dialogues of the Phaedo and the Republic he first notes that these have understandably been regarded as external to the philosophical concerns of the dialogues, then explores the ways in which the frame dialogue does in fact anticipate each dialogue's subsequent preoccupations.

Niall Slater ("Plautine negotiations: the Poenulus unpacked") uses the prologue of Plautus' Poenulus as a focus for his discussion of the playwright's beginnings. He elegantly demonstrates the complexity of the prologue and the way in which its self-reflectiveness as performance foreshadows the thematization of role-playing in the play itself while its allusions to matters of law and authority foreshadow the problematic use of law within the play. Along the way, he considers such issues as metatheatricality, the relation of text to performance, and the difference between the audience who sees the play and the reader who can re-read. For Slater, "All of Plautus' prologues ... bid for the audience's sympathy for, and participation in, the project of creating the play" (145-146).

Gian Biagio Conte ("Proems in the middle") shares with Slater the view that the relation between poet and audience had a certain indeterminacy in the Roman context (Slater contrasts Plautus' audience with Menander's, Conte contrasts Roman and Hellenistic poetry with pre-Hellenistic Greek poetry), and that the need to define this relationship complicates the nature of beginnings. Conte argues that the traditional function of the proem in pre-Hellenistic Greek poetry is like that of a title, namely to tell what the work will be about, and that this function reflects "an unproblematized relation between poet and public" (148). In Hellenistic and Roman poetry, however, the audience must be defined by the poem, and the poet must say not only what the subject is but what sort of thing the poem is. He proceeds to discussion of several works which have what he calls a thematic proem at the beginning of the poem and a programmatic proem somewhere in the middle.

Barbara Gold further considers the possibilities of the programmatic proem in her "Openings in Horace's Satires and Odes: poet, patron, and audience." She looks at the multiplicity of voices and audiences in two opening poems (Satires 1.1, Odes 1.1) ostensibly addressed to Maecenas; noting that both have been treated harshly by critics, she defends them as programmatic in the sense that each provides a model of techniques Horace will use in the rest of the collection.

Thomas Habinek ("An aristocracy of virtue: Seneca on the beginnings of wisdom") goes beyond the other critics in this volume in the variety of senses he gives to "beginning." He considers three different sorts of beginning in Seneca: the origin of his works in a particular tradition (that of exhortation), the new beginning he urges on his readers, and the rhetorical strategy of the openings of his works themselves. He sees all three of these sorts of beginning as reflecting Roman society's problematic view of a person's social origins (yet another sort of beginning) in relation to status. Habinek places a particular stress on the relation between writer and reader, and of the seduction, sometimes violent, that works in both directions in Seneca's work.

Thomas Rosenmeyer ("Beginnings in Plutarch's Lives") examines the problematic relationship of Plutarch's prologues to the Lives they introduce; he notes that not all Lives have prologues, and shows through a careful examination of several examples that where there are prologues they reveal no standard technique, and may be excessive, inconsequential, or partial introductions to what follows. This "inventiveness and eccentricity" (223), he suggests, is in striking contrast with the apparent didactic assurance of the Lives themselves and may suggest an anxiety not otherwise revealed.

Finally, Thomas Cole's essay on the beginning of Tacitus' Histories ("Initium mihi operis Servius Galba iterum T. Vinius consules") deals with Tacitus' choice of a chronological starting point for his work, and suggests that to various literary reasons for this choice we must add the historian's political commitments; Cole seeks to present Galba in a favorable light in part because of the parallel between Galba's accession to the throne and Nerva's, a parallel which suggests both hopes and fears for the Nervan succession and points to the recurrence of beginnings in Roman history.

All the essays in this book are well worth reading (only Conte's has appeared in print before, and this is its first appearance in English translation). For some reason, however, the essays on Roman authors and on Plutarch seem to probe more deeply into the problematic nature of the enterprise of beginning. This may be an accident, but Conte points to one possible reason for the difference in his suggestion that Hellenistic and Roman authors have a more complex and self-conscious relation to their audience or readership, and a greater need to use beginnings to delimit the nature of the work as well as to announce its topic; on the other hand, the essays in this volume on beginnings in Greek literature suggest that authors from Homer to Euripides are already playing with and against audience expectation both of the author's subject and of how the author will treat it. The nature of the shift Conte sees thus deserves further elaboration. A concluding essay might usefully have taken up this and other questions, but I suppose it is appropriate for a collection on beginnings to have an introduction but not conclusion, and some of the work of synthesis and further exploration can be left to the interested reader (who may also want to look at A.D. Nuttall's new book, Openings: Beginnings from the Epic to the Novel, Oxford 1992, reviewed by Tony Tanner in the June 6 TLS). It would also have been useful to have more on what ancient criticism and rhetoric themselves had to say about beginnings (Clay opens his essay with some remarks on the ancient "cult of beginnings" (113), and Conte refers briefly to Aristotle's Rhetoric), but no collection like this can be comprehensive.

One final minor point: it's a pity that not all the essayists provide translations of Greek and Latin passages, since (as the jacket blurb rightly declares) the volume should interest other students of literature as well as classicists. A collection like this is important in part because it addresses a critical issue of interest to students of modern literature and can help reveal the limitations of a perspective which doesn't see that the modern and even the post-modern are themselves cyclical manifestations many of whose preoccupations appear already in antiquity.