Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.08

Sander M. Goldberg, Epic in Republican Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xii + 196. $29.95. ISBN 0-19-509372-0.

Reviewed by Oliver Phillips, University of Kansas (

Forty-six lines or fragments of lines from Livius Andronicus' Odissia, as given in Warmington, survive. The longest citations run to three or parts of four lines; most comprise a single line or less. All of these without exception are citations from grammarians to illustrate archaic diction of one sort or the other. Andronicus is never cited as literature but serves only as the corpus vile to illustrate matters of language. Naevius fares a bit better, for Servius quotes him to demonstrate the source of passages in the Aeneid. Ennius comes off the best, largely due to Cicero's affection for the old poet, but still most of our surviving Ennius comes from grammarians as well.

If the post-Ciceronian ancient world had trouble recognizing these writers as poets possessed of any sort of aesthetic merit, so has the modern, for the most part. It is just this deficiency that Goldberg undertakes to remedy in his brief (171 pages plus ancillary material) but dense study of Andronicus, Naevius, and Ennius, with Cicero both as a translator and original poet added as a fourth. Goldberg firmly excludes Lucretius and Catullus' longer narrative poems: "Whole texts are bullies" (v).

The author must face down a formidable array of critics who have minimized the literary merit of these poets: among them Wilkinson, Conte (9-11), and Brooks Otis (56-57) in our own day and, more daunting, Horace and others in antiquity, who had the advantage of having whole texts before them (46). We even must add to these ancient critics Ennius himself, with his famous put-down of his predecessors and their Saturnian measure: "scripsere alii rem / vorsibus quos olim Faunei vatesque canebant" (206-07 Skutsch). He supports his contention that the poets of Republican epic did in fact possess literary talent and did deliberately use poetic artifice by careful analyses of passage after passage. In laying his foundation he finds it necessary to reject the contention that these writers were, on one interpretation, strongly under Alexandrian influence (vi-vii) and on another belonged to a "bardic" tradition (44-45).

At first the reader may be surprised that Goldberg speaks in his preface of "my New Critical impulse" (v) and yet on the next page discusses the way in which "the historical record has things to teach and ... students of literature should heed its lessons" (vi). He even comes eventually to speak collegially of "New Historicism" (19). Goldberg's seeming paradox has an adequate explanation, however. I think he feels that the very act of considering the Republican epics as literary work so flies in the face of the treatment they have received by the scholarship of the last two centuries as to constitute the sort of rebellion the New Critics engaged in against the sort of literary analysis they inherited from their predecessors. In any case, the book has a firm grounding in Roman civil and literary history.

A pervasive approach to Republican epic Goldberg objects to appears in what he calls the "teleological bias" of literary historians who judge "them against the greatness Vergil achieved as if their only significance lay in establishing the standards he would surpass" (25). This is not to say that Goldberg does not respect Virgil as the master of Roman epic, but rather that his "brilliance ... actually sets his poem apart from the tradition we too often think synonymous with it" (25). The reader has only to consult the eloquent concluding paragraph of this book (170-71) to ascertain Goldberg's view on the subject.

The best statement of the structure of Goldberg's book comes from the author himself, who sets it forth in his introductory chapter, "Ruins":

This literary history remains at heart an exercise in poetics. Its construction nevertheless begins in chapter 2 by considering the cultural climate that fostered production of Rome's first epics, and it will return to issues of politics and patronage in chapter 5. These discussions provide the necessary frame for two more traditionally literary chapters, which outline the developing aesthetics of epic style in Latin. Chapter 6 then joins the cultural and aesthetic strands of the inquiry by using cultural values to explain the consequences of Cicero's poetic choices as he produced what turned out to be the last Republican epics, while chapter 7 seeks to measure by example and analogy what the early epic poets accomplished and to understand the eventual limits of their achievement. (26)
On the way to his goal Goldberg deals with a number of significant questions in the history of Republican Latin literature, often coming up against the conventional view, and he is usually (not always) persuasive when he does so.

He is convincing when he casts doubt on the usual interpretation of the famous Saturnian exchange between Naevius and the Metelli (33-36), disbelieves Terence's excuses for the failure of the Hecyra (41-43), dismisses the notion that Ennius was a cliens in a structured system of patronage (114-15), and maintains that the Romans did not laugh at Cicero's attempts at original epic either because of deficient technical merit or even because of his vanity (149-51). Less convincing are his ingenious reading of Ilia's dream in the Annales (96-101) and his somewhat labored interpretation of the curious pair of stone chests found on the Janiculum in 181 BCE (124-131).

Perhaps most valuable are Goldberg's conclusions in the last two chapters about the difference between Greek and Roman epic -- including Virgil in the latter category for this purpose. Consistent with the Roman epic tradition even the Aeneid is not tragic (147, n. 13). Goldberg employs his arguments convincingly to support his contention that Roman epic from the earliest fragments on has a different character than Hellenic, and, curiously, Cicero's translation (Fin. 5.49 = fr.30) of the Sirens' song from the Odyssey (12.184-91) has a key role in demonstrating his contention (137-45).

Epic in Republican Rome is written with clarity and accuracy. Proof-reading has obviously been thorough. A reviewer can complain of little -- and of course will. It is puzzling to find the archaic topper described as a "sequential" adverb (p. 70). Further, in a book well equipped with an index of text and abbreviations (xi-xii) and an index of passages (190-92), it's a shame (and a very slight one) that the "D.H. 2.9-11" of n.15 on p. 120 is not adequately identified as Dionysius of Halicarnassus nor does the abbreviation appear in the list of abbreviations or the index of passages, though he was mentioned on the previous page and in the general index. This might puzzle the unwary, but surely the unwary would not be reading this book, even though every passage of Latin and Greek is provided with the author's own English translation for their benefit (and probably for ours, too, since both language and text of archaic fragments present more than normal difficulties). Goldberg also gives a concordance of citations of epic fragments ranging from four to six columns on pp. 182-89.

In sum, Goldberg's Epic in Republican Rome constitutes a serious and important engagement with a difficult set of fragments, and he manages to pull out of these a coherent and mostly satisfying picture of the social and aesthetic world of the poets themselves.