Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.03.06


R.G.M Nisbet, Collected Papers on Latin Literature. Ed. by S.J. Harrison. Oxford University Press 1995. Pp. x + 449. $80.00. ISBN 0-19-814948-4.


Reviewed by Elain Fantham, Princeton University.

Two score years ago and five, when your reviewer sat in fear and trembling as an ignorant freshperson at the seminar of the great Eduard Fraenkel, the most awe inspiring young scholar across the green baize table was "Mr Nisbet," the not yet Fellow of Corpus who would succeed Sir Roger Mynors as Corpus Professor of Latin in 1970. In 1961 Robin Nisbet produced a masterly edition and commentary on Cicero in Pisonem, with an appendix on invective that has remained definitive even after the appearance of Ilona Opelt's Lateinische Schimpfwörter: turning to Horace, he then co-edited with Margaret Hubbard the major commentaries on Book 1 (1970) and Book 2 (1978) of the Odes. Of these immensely learned works -- with all the parallels and precedents and persuasive interpretation of each poem in its own right -- it was said locally "this is the book of Hubbard and Nisbet's, but which are her bits and which are his bits?" There were rumors that the delay in producing further volumes was due to differences of viewpoint and temperament: now perhaps retirement (the Corpus Professorship is no sinecure) will accelerate N.'s forthcoming solo volume, and bring us ultimately to book 4, which badly needs a commentary fuller than Gow (1955) and newer than Kiessling Heinze.

To be a Horatian editor and commentator is difficult enough, but N. is not only a Horatian, and a leading textual critic: this collection shows his amazing versatility. Certainly if we consider these twenty six papers in terms of the Latin work and author, Horace is the alpha and omega, focus of items 1, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 21 (largely) and 26. But 21 considers also Catullus (subject of 5 and 24), Juvenal (theme of 2, 15 and 17) and a key passage of Georgics (4. 176-80) where N. has rightly identified amor ... habendi as corrupt, yet is less convincing with the suggested amor ... agendi. Other works treated are Cicero's speeches (19 on colometry, 22 on reader response to a passage in Verrines 2.5), the Gallus fragment (6); Virgil's Eclogues (4, 20, 23), and Aeneid (7); Senecan tragedy (13 and 18); Petronius (2), and individual passages of Ovid (9), Lucan (11), and Statius (3).

But it is more to the point to consider the aspects of Latin prose and verse texts covered in these papers. They include localized and highly specific textual criticism (2, 5, 10, 12, 15, 16, 17 and 24) with judicious comment on editions and editors (Housman on Juvenal, Müller and indirectly Fraenkel on Petronius, Shackleton Bailey), moral and social interpretation of Verrines and Aeneid for more general audiences, specialized analysis of astronomical and topographical lore (Ovid and Lucan) a brilliant and almost persuasive claim for Seneca's Hercules Oetaeus as authentic and the old man's counterpart of Oedipus at Colonus, and marvelous interweaving of historical and literary data in what to me are N.'s most impressive papers, on the literary world of the triumvirate.

N.'s amazing command of historical continuity from the Neoterics into the Principate is at its finest in his contribution to the editio princeps of the Gallus papyrus (surely early, as he argues, and addressed to Caesar and a still youthful Lycoris), his 1984 analysis of the historical setting and significance of Horace's Epodes (10), and the recent prosopography of over twenty literary survivors (25, previously unpublished). The study of Lucan's widow Polla Argentaria in Silvae 2.2 Felicitas at Surrentum shows how richly he could fill in another discontinuity, between the Neronian and Flavian literary worlds, and reminds us that we owe to N. and his doctoral pupils a fine study of Statius' epideictic poetry and its patrons (A. Hardie, Statius and the Silvae [1983]) a superb literary and social commentary on Silvae 4 (K. Coleman [1988]) and a masterly commentary on Thebaid 9 (M. Dewar [1991]).

What gives most pleasure and stimulus to the reader is often N.'s insights and comments on methodology: on detecting interpolation (2, 6-7, 18-21, 284), on the role of prose rhythm and anomalies such as preconsonantal atque in establishing internal colometry (19), on the difficulties and false assumptions involved in establishing priority within an author's work: "it was not inevitable that the more integrated treatment should have been written first."

The Textual Critic

Since the recent "How Textual Conjectures are made" (MD 26 [1991]) is one of the most personal and illuminating of these papers, let me offer a sample as preamble to the articles offering N.'s own conjectures on individual authors. According to N. the process of conjecture is only inhibited by a mass of reference books, and is far more often stimulated by "sensible and lazy students" or the conjectures of "wild editors." It involves three stages; the most important is (1) to know that there is a corruption and what part of speech ought to have stood there: the last stage (3) of testing and verification is described as very much harder work than making the conjecture itself, but in between (2) "the solution may come in a flash without any conscious exercise of the mind" (340; cf. 361 end). The secret of success is sneaked in modestly on the last page: "ideally we should have an accurate recall of most that we read." There is, after all, no substitute for knowledge. Yet with all this N. describes himself only as a "textual critic some of whose conjectures have been accepted by some people other than himself," and sets more value on recognizing the problem than on the fainter hope of providing a solution.

His modesty and caution are borne out by some forays into the conjectures he has proposed. Besides an index nominum et rerum and an index verborum. Harrison's extraordinarily full and patient index locorum lists around 60 passages of Catullus, over a hundred of Horace, over 40 of Petronius and 140 of Juvenal discussed. In "Four conjectures on Catullus 64" the simple inversion in 197 amens ardenti caeca furore seemed brilliantly right, and iuvenis in 371 appropriate to the context and easily ousted by coniunx after coniungite. On the other hand 64 "levi variatum pectus amictu" conflicts with the sense of variare in 351 variabunt pectora palmis and seems to contradict non contecta with its hint of flesh discolored by the (striped or spotted?) robe; again vestiflui for vestibuli/o in 276 might pass in a Technopaignion but comes too unprepared after the ripples of the sea at dawn.

But a better guide to the success of N.'s proposals will come from noting those adopted by skilled editors. The Juvenal papers of 1988 and 1989 followed Courtney's commentary and separate edition, but make for a "leaner and meaner" Juvenal altogether: if it is good to be rid of 1.28, 1.144 (see 20, 229, 352) reading hinc [subitae mortes et intestata senectus / it] nova nec tristis per cunctas fabula cenas and Apula's too explicit orgasm in 6.65, and to heal 3.10 (gratum limen amoeni / secessus) 4.48 dispersae ... algae, and 6.107-8 (sulcus attritus galeae), and if the reader has learned to follow Reeve and do without mens sana in corpore sano (approved on 360) and reject quicquid agunt homines ... nostri farrago libelli est (283 in the steps of Scholte and Harrison) (s)he may still wonder whether the quest for logical rigor and "classical perfection" has thrown out some slightly flawed but legitimate babies with the bathwater.

N.'s judicious views on Müller's first Petronius edition have certainly borne fruit: free of Fraenkel's overwhelming authority Mueller has since (Artemis-Verlag 1983, and now Teubner 1995) adopted Nisbet's judgment or modified his earlier text in about a quarter of the passages discussed, restoring phrases deleted as interpolations (41.8, 49.2 and four other instances of coepisse; 53.2, 57.1, 97.5, 105.2 [printing Buecheler's obumbratae] and 139.4) and others defended by N. for their prose rhythm (4.3, 12.4, 14.5, 15.2 and 4, 26.7, 40.8, 41.8, 65.5 [not 6], 102.15, 105.10 and 11). Other suggestions of N. have been adopted or led to reconsideration at 17.9 (N.'s tres), 44.18, 55.6, 60.5, 74.13 and 15, 79.4, 84.2-3, 85.4, 115.9, 118.3 (but with Pithoeus' vanitatem for sanitatem.)

No new edition of the Odes has appeared to reflect the influence of N.'s scrupulous reviews of Shackleton Bailey's and Borszak's almost contemporary Teubners of Horace (see 12 and 16): in fact the new Cambridge Epodes (Mankin) and Epistles I (Mayer) show little influence from N.'s more sparse comments on these texts: but with all respect I would see N.'s greatest service to Horace, as to Virgil's Eclogues, as interpretative: in his unique combination of learning and common sense; in his response to style, his gift for pinpointing how the Augustans modify the texts to which they allude, and his interpretation of both ethos (psychological as well as moral) and context.

The Interpreter and Literary Historian

From the earliest note on three passages in Epistles 1, which misses only the potential allusion to Manlius filius, as opposed to pater in 1.5.6 vel imperium fer, to his latest (previously unpublished) protest against Protean polysemy (26) N. has stood for the integrity of each poem on its own terms, and if there is room for criticism it is perhaps for offering as much resistance to Santirocco's or Porter's cautious attempts to explain connections between adjacent Odes, as to the wildest deconstructive abandon. Since N. is not too concerned with the relationship between the world of the private odes and "reality," it is perhaps a pity that the editor included the inevitably disjointed review article on Griffin's Latin Poets and Roman Life rather than his important study of Odes 3.14 (Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 4 [1983]), which would have appeased those hungering for the commentary on Odes 3, or the meaty reviews of Grassmann's Erotischen Epoden (CR 17, 163-4), Doblhofer's Augustuspanegyrik (CR 19, 173-5) or Borszak (Gnomon 58, 611-15).

I have already mentioned the Eclogues. N. deals brilliantly with their elusive, often songlike, style (23, to be recommended for all students), with the complex basis of Eclogue 4 in the language of the Septuagint and Hellenistic Jewish prophecy, (4: see now Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity, H.W.Parke / B.C. McGing [Routledge 1988] acknowledging Nisbet's breakthrough), and with some unsuspected genital allusions in 4.28-30 (23). However, there is almost as much to learn from incidental judgments in the discussion of Gallus (124-31) and of Epode 16 (160-69), not to mention prosopographical notes in "Survivors" on, e.g., Alfenus Varus.

Only in one area does N. seem to reach beyond his grasp, and yet here too N. offers an alternative approach beyond most literary critics: I refer to "The Dating of Seneca's Tragedies" (18). Here the opening principle that "we should look not only for allusions to recent happenings but for remarks that would be implausibly tactless after a certain date," leads to an impasse. The political arguments have been too often rehearsed and argued to and fro to afford conviction, and there are too many skeletons in the Julio-Claudian closet for the plays to have been opportune at any time in Seneca's manhood: as N himself confesses "we have not yet found a time when Thyestes could have been recited without embarrassment." From this point on he argues more profitably turning to chorus allusions to the Far East, whether to Colchian Rhoxolani or Caspian Gates. Indeed the parallel between Thyestes' reconciliation with his brother and the Parthian coronation of Ann. 15.2.4 suggests a dating for Thyestes after Seneca's retirement, (in keeping with the implications of Fitch's sense-pause analysis), and perhaps a time of final indifference to political risk. It is a pity that this would leave the retired statesman too little time to compose (besides the Naturales Quaestiones and Epistulae Morales) what we have of Phoenissae and the endless Oetaeus, or to reverse his stylistic choice of shortened verb forms in final -o in the latter play!

I hope I have made clear enough how much there is of immense value in these dense pages, and how accessible to a wide range of readers: besides N.'s masterly presentation of the Gallus papyrus, "Aeneas Imperator," "Horace's Epodes and History," "the Style of Virgil's Eclogues," "How textual conjectures are made," and "The Orator and the Reader" are all papers we would want to give our students and to consult ourselves. Happily, given N.'s continuing vigour, there is surely more to come.