Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.06.16


Peter White, Promised Verse: Poets in the Society of Augustan Rome. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Pp. xvi + 330. $45.00. ISBN 0-674-71525-X.


Reviewed by Denis Feeney, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Peter White's work on amicitia has contributed in large measure to the renewed interest in what most of us persist in calling 'patronage' ('Amicitia and the profession of poetry in early imperial Rome', JRS 68 (1978), 74-92; 'Positions for poets in early Imperial Rome', in Barbara K. Gold (ed.), Literary and Artistic Patronage in Ancient Rome (1982), 50-66). Now, with this eagerly awaited volume, in an impressively sustained piece of lucid argumentation, he provides the synthesis for which the prolegomenal studies have prepared us. He also provides immensely useful documentation on such subjects as the connections of all the Augustan poets, or the social status and income of all the known Roman poets from the beginnings of Roman literature to the middle of the second century CE.

He maintains many of the positions he had earlier established, arguing, in particular, that the poet is in no unique relationship to the grandee: 'From a Roman perspective ... the relationships between poets and their prominent friends looked no different from a mass of other relationships in upper-class society which presented subtly compounded elements of parity and inequality. All alike go by the name of friendship' (29). On p. 21 he glancingly acknowledges, without really engaging with, the main objection to this position that has been advanced since 1978, namely, that 'an ordinary client could not offer you immortal glory, nor would posterity have its eye on the nature of your relationship with him' (Jasper Griffin, 'Augustus and the Poets: "Caesar qui cogere posset"', in F. Millar and E. Segal (edd.), Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects (1984), 189-218: n. 43; cf. J.E.G. Zetzel in Gold's collection, 'The poetics of patronage in the late First Century B.C.', 87-102: 101).

The main innovation is that White now grasps the nettle of 'imperial patronage' and 'propaganda'. Having said in 1978 that 'the subject of patronage and propaganda deserves more discussion, but not in this paper' (74), he now devotes half of a sizeable book to three chapters on 'Poets and Augustus', in which the political dimension of the relationship is carefully and systematically scrutinised. In a way, this portion of the book may be regarded as a continuation of his mission of puncturing myths enshrined in Syme's Roman Revolution. Having disposed of the notion that Augustus downplayed Julius Caesar (Phoenix 42 (1988), 334-56), or that Maecenas fell into disfavour and was sidelined after 23 BCE (CPh 86 (1991), 130-8), he now tackles Syme's thirtieth chapter, 'The organization of opinion'. Augustus here becomes part of a continuum of traditional aristocratic behaviour. White sums up his viewpoint in a sentence of deliberately provocative blandness: 'Augustus approached poetry and poets in the same benign and patronizing spirit as did other Roman aristocrats, and poets in their turn experimented to devise overtures which would please him' (95).

It is undoubtedly this 'Augustan' half of the book which will attract most attention and controversy, but in fact the whole book locates itself in the centre of practically every controversial area of contemporary Latin studies: the 'life/literature' debate, the 'ideology/reality' debate, the cultural role of literature in Rome, the use of models from other disciplines (sociology, anthropology), to name only the most obvious. White was speaking with a sure knowledge of his audience, as well as with characterisitic wit, when he concluded his preface (after listing acknowledgements) with this sentence: 'Where so many have contributed improvements, the reader too is assured of finding exercise' (xii). This particular reader was most exercised by the positions White has adopted on the two most controversial issues within his ambit -- the reality status of literature, and Augustanism.

White uses the poems as evidence to recapture a social reality. Even though he acknowledges the difficulties of such a procedure, he seems to me to underestimate the implications of seeing that what we are reading is, after all, a construction by the poets. The poets are not mirroring something that is a given, but participating in a social praxis as they make their constructions, and they have their own very varied motives for constructing in the way they do. It is most important to White, for example, to establish that poets were friends like other friends, sharing similar tastes and backgrounds, reflecting in their poems the normal patterns of interaction between friends: 'The importance of a common background in creating friendships is evident also in the patterns of association one sees. Whereas upper-class Romans often befriend poets or philosophers, they rarely establish such connections with those artists and intellectuals whose origins and formation diverge radically from their own: musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, and even the schoolmaster-scholars known as grammatici' (14). But the evidence for this picture comes from the poetry, and instead of seeing this as a fact of social history from the perspective of the upper-class Roman, one might rather ask why the poets did not wish to represent themselves as on a par with Graeculi and freedmen (especially if a particular poet happened to be himself the son of a freedman). Fifty pages further on, White himself provides the counter-evidence , when he says that other forms of testimony do in fact show us grammatici and Greek writers rubbing shoulders with Roman magnates (63); as he says on that same page, 'Latin poets in many genres invoke the names of friends, and in some genres they invoke them by the score. Yet rarely do either Greeks or grammatici turn up among the friends whom poets name even when they are known to have had such ties.'

When White speaks, then, of the 'intimate, sustained contact' between Roman poets and their great friends (34), he exposes himself to the objection that he is not so much reporting social fact as reproducing the values and ideals generated by the poetry (and is 'intimate, sustained contact' the way to describe the relations which the reclusive Virgil had with anyone?). Further, the image he reproduces becomes in turn an interpretative tool for the analysis of the poetry. One example may be found in his discussion of the requests for composition which the poets so often report: 'Literature is a pursuit that Romans shared with friends as they shared many other cultural, political, and economic activities. That Roman writers were importuned by friends was a natural result of the time they spent in one another's company' (71). The literary function of the poetic passages evanesces at moments like this, and I still find the paper by Zetzel in Gold's collection a bracing corrective to such an approach: '[Maecenas] is an element in poetry, and as such is subject to the same creative transformations that anything else in poetry is' (98). It is, of course, exceedingly difficult in any discussion to keep all these balls in the air at once, and White anticipates, in the first page of his Preface, the kind of criticism I have just made: 'critics will not find the argument literary and historians may not consider it properly historical'. Still, it is one thing to deny that one is writing literary criticism, and another thing to overlook literary-critical problems while in pursuit of a different objective. A 'socio-literary' reading has to be the aim, I think, as diversely exemplified by Henderson ('Be alert (your country needs lerts): Horace, Satires 1. 9', PCPhS 39 (1993), 67-93), or Conte ('Empirical and theoretical approaches to literary genre', in K. Galinsky (ed.), The Interpretation of Roman Poetry: Empiricism or Hermeneutics? (1992), 104-23).

If White believes that poets were friends like any other friends, he also believes that Augustus was a friend like any other friend. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. White's main target here is the image of Augustus' involvement in poetry which comes through the pages of Syme, for example, an image which White believes to be an anachronistic distortion. His fourth chapter gives a highly interesting history of 'The political perception of Augustan poetry' from Tacitus to Henri Patin, and proves convincingly that the picture of Augustus systematically coordinating a literary propaganda campaign is the product of the seventeenth century above all. The problem is whether White has drawn up the terms of debate in a productive way. For some piece of poetry to count as 'political' or 'propagandistic' according to White, Augustus or Maecenas need to have stipulated a particular subject and its treatment, they need to have applied pressure to ensure its delivery, and the result has to be fulsomely orientated towards the interests of the regime. By these criteria, unsurprisingly, nothing surviving from the Augustan period qualifies. But this is not the only possible frame of reference, and on the very last page of the book White sketches a way of looking at the issues which I for one find a good deal more sympathetic, since it leaves aside the straw man of 'literary policy' and looks instead at the pervasive impact of the novel political culture which evolved during Augustus' lifetime.

The main area of difficulty, now as then, lies in the question of the position you take on how much had changed since the death of Julius Caesar. At times White speaks as if everything had changed (esp. 110; cf. 145: 'a prudent writer could not afford to close his eyes to what the reigning strongman said and did'). Overall, though, he wishes to stress continuity (e.g., 139: 'All these contacts between poets and the masters of the new order have promoted a belief that Augustan poetry was entrammeled in politics. But taken one by one, they show less influence of political imperatives than of long-established tendencies which anchored literary activity in aristocratic social life'). But some of the things which seem continuous to White will strike others as revolutionary. In discussing the language of sovereignty, for example, he points out that 'much of the phraseology emphasizing sovereignty over the nations was pre-Augustan. The difference is that prior to Actium expressions like "head of the world" and "ruler of the empire" were applied to Rome and the Roman people, whereas afterward they began to be transferred to Augustus' (167). Or else, speaking of the way the poets 'proclaimed Augustus' divinity', White will have it that 'they were not advancing an idea which was totally unheard of', but which had precedents in the Greek world (169). Again, other authorities put far more stress on the innovations involved: 'the notion that the cults directed to Emperors evolved from those for Hellenistic kings is hardly even a half-truth.... The sudden outburst of the celebration of Octavian/Augustus was a new phenomenon' (F. Millar, 'State and subject: the impact of monarchy', in Caesar Augustus, 37-60: 53).

I realise that I have devoted most of my space to disagreements, but the issues are, as I said, the most contentious we have to deal with. Anyone reading this book is going to be challenged to rethink all manner of things, and will learn a lot on all manner of subjects: 'The founding of a dynasty', for example (190-205), is a model of compression and rigorous argumentation, with some fascinating speculation on Octavius' teenage years. The book is beautifully produced, and the reading is made a pleasure also by White's style, economical, energetic, at times eloquent, and studded with diverting lexical items: 'caltrops', xi; 'mavens', 62; 'cenacle', 133; 'hariolation', 175; 'floscules', 179. The book is in many respects a work of reference, containing extremely valuable collections of information in the appendixes, which readers will be mining for a long time to come ('The Social Status of Latin Poets'; 'Connections of the Augustan Poets'; 'Iubere and Literary Requests'). This makes it all the more disappointing that there is so little Latin quoted, and, above all, that the bibliographical references have been purged by White's self-denying ordinance (xi). One can see why he found it intellectually challenging to write the book this way, and it does make for a stringent presentation of the argument. But the utility of the book is undoubtedly diminished by this decision.