Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.6


Richard Jenkyns (ed.), The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. xi, 479. ISBN 0-19-821917-2. $30.00.


Reviewed by Charles Witke, The University of Michigan.

It is the function of legacies to be ample and timely. This book fulfills both expectations: a wide range of essays, written at a time when our knowledge and our means of organizing our facts have dramatically increased since the first version of this book appeared in 1923. If the earlier book more comfortably assessed the pervading and persistent presence of Rome in literature, art, institution and so on, the present work covers much more ground, perhaps because our methods of study are being freed from the shackles of a self-congratulatory if not imperialistic way of thinking about ourselves in relationship to our Roman benefactors. One might nevertheless like to see a bit more perspective on the increasing refusal of the legacy of Rome on the part of whole cultures and nations (the Muslim world, for example); what is left as legacy is what is important, of course, but its acceptance and implementation are not axiomatically seen as desirable as they once were.

The essays take their place in a renewed context of thinking about how we see Rome: for instance, William Vance, America's Rome (Yale University Press, 1989). Subjects addressed include text transmission cogently distilled by R.H. Rouse; the Middle Ages, elegantly presented by Charles Davis; the Renaissance, heroically struggled over by A.T. Grafton (it appears the Renaissance wins). Rhetoric receives a clear and persuasive overview from George Kennedy. Literature in the form of essays on Virgil (Jasper Griffin), pastoral (Richard Jenkyns), Horace, Ovid and others (Charles Martindale), satire (J. P. Sullivan) and drama (Gordon Braden) allows scope for assessing the dominance of Roman auctores in the practice of English letters for long stretches of time.

Ideas seem to fare better than architecture does when it comes to make its testimony available. The space allowed David Watkin is far too compressed to do justice to such a subject, and much the same might be said about art, presented by Geoffrey Waywell with somewhat less density, the result of judicious choice of example rather than drive for exhaustiveness. The essay on language (Rebecca Posner) sets out to demonstrate the connectedness of Romance Languages with Latin and succeeds well before it finishes; it provides tantalizing glimpses of an important element of legacy, the medieval language speculators on the notion of a universal grammar, but does not explore the significant role Latin grammar and syntax play in theological debate, e.g. Erasmus on Luther's defective grasp of the subjunctive in their debates on free will. There are also curious slips: "Early Latin Saturnian verse, like Christian Latin verse, appears to be exclusively geared to stress-timing" (p. 368). The question isn't so clear about Saturnians; and what about Prudentius and dozens of other Christian Latin poets?

Roman law is presented by Robert Feenstra who follows the various ways its reception took. He has a remark which all who go the legacy route may profit from: "Looking for a 'legacy' one is not interested in assets the deceased has had during his lifetime but which have got lost before his death: only what has been left is important" (pp. 399f). This reasonable attitude results in the shortest essay in the volume.

The concluding essay on the city of Rome by Nicholas Purcell is one of the most delightful and informative in the book. With that characteristic and occupational optimism of the classicist who recuperates from destruction a whole field of study, he skillfully links the stratigraphy of perceptions and interpretations of Rome's physical fabric from antiquity to modern times. He goes beyond Richard Krautheimer and Robert Brentano in grounding his perceptions in the human dimensions of anxiety, fear of transience, the tension between rebuilding and reordering and destruction, "antithesis, contrasts and accommodations" (p. 422).

In so far-flung a set of essays, mistakes are inevitable; they include the mis-spelling in text and index of the name of the archaeological consultant to the building of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California (Norman Neuerburg), and the confusion of post-modernist architect Michael Graves with the poet Robert Graves (p. 363 and index); still, as Robert Graves said, "There is one story and one story only..."; hence the confusion? The index on the whole is quite sound, and the reader must use it relentlessly to pull together topics to gain a coherent overview, such as Charlemagne's role in Roman continuity, or Lord Burlington as collector.

The appearance of this volume at this time may betoken persistent belief that Rome has something to teach others besides classicists and legacy hunters. May its resources transmit this belief into yet other generations.