Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.38

Elaine Fantham, Roman Literary Culture From Cicero to Apuleius. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Pp. xv + 326. ISBN 0-8018-5204-8.

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, UCLA,

Everyone knows that facts alone will not make a literary history. We also need a narrative, which means marshalling the facts and coaxing a story out of them. Yet the story that emerges is often shockingly familiar. Even as sophisticated a work as Gian Biagio Conte's recent Latin Literature: A History BMCR 5.5) preserves umpteen standard judgments about its standard figures. But why not? The conservatism of literary history is its strength. Who else but the literary historian can be trusted to keep the incense burning and to hold high the icons of our tribe? The job is important job, too, and its limitations only emerge when we start poking behind and under the traditional altars. This is precisely what Elaine Fantham does in her new book. Such questions as how, why, and for whom the Romans created the poetry and prose we now venerate take us beyond the literary icons to what she calls "literary culture," a separate realm where Atticus stands beside Cicero, where Fronto and Gellius are writers of stature, and where Apuleius' Apology eclipses his Golden Ass. It is a world Latinists tend to know more of than about, and F. performs a great service by focusing attention upon it.

Her eight chapter headings give some idea of both the breadth of her undertaking and its combination of the unexpected and traditional: (1) Introduction: Toward a Social History of Latin Literature, (2) Rome at the End of the Republic, (3) The Coming of the Principate: "Augustan" Literary Culture, (4) Un-Augustan Activities, (5) An Inhibited Generation: Suppression and Survival, (6) Between Nero and Domitian: The Challenge to Poetry, (7) Literature and the Governing Classes: From the Accession of Vespasian to the Death of Trajan, (8) Literary Culture in Decline: The Antonine Years.

A book tracing the social context of Roman literature naturally invites comparison with Elizabeth Rawson's Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (Baltimore 1985), and the two are in some ways companion volumes. Literature, however, is necessarily incidental to the larger social history that interests Rawson. F.'s own scholarly concerns -- abetted, I suspect, by the changed nature of intellectual life under the emperors -- enable her to focus more narrowly on the creation and reception of literature, and this is what leads her to devote so much space to what were once called "sub-literary" texts. The resulting discussion is often interesting in its own right, e.g. what the Historia Augusta has to say about the education of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (239-46), but even more significant is what her foregrounding of the sub-literary does for our understanding of the real thing. Take one example.

The Romans' fascination with declamation must embarrass most historians of their literature, for the histories they write generally obscure the relevant facts as best they can. The small section on declamation in the Latin volume of The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, for example, does not even define the term (37-39), and there is no section at all on, say, the elder Seneca. Conte takes the opposite tack. His brief treatment of Seneca (404-5) dismisses the declamations themselves as "pointless exercises," and we hear no more of them. One reason for the silence is clear: as rhetoric after Cicero loses its literary stature, it will naturally lose the attention of any history fixed on literary monuments. Yet there is also an ideological reason. Conte, for example, hopes to rescue Augustan poetry from the rhetoricians' embrace. That is why he enshrines even as rhetorical a poet (and successful a declaimer) as Ovid in "The Age of Augustus," while relegating Seneca, Ovid's older contemporary, to the next chapter, "The Early Empire," by which time, we are told, "the civic function of rhetoric is lost." That claim might surprise civic-minded and successful orators of the late first century like C. Caecilius Plinius Secundus and Cornelius Tacitus, but literary historians have long ignored their oratorical careers in favor of their other, better attested achievements. Thus, in the text-based world of literary history, neither is reckoned as an orator, and oratory after Cicero is scarcely reckoned at all.1 Contrast F., who has much to say about first-century oratory (191-6, 204-11) and whose index contains ten references to "declamation," with cross-references there to "education" and "rhetoric."

As she admits -- and right at the beginning of her book! -- "It may amaze the modern reader that Augustus, Agrippa, and Maecenas, as well as the historian Livy, found time to attend declamatory performances on hackneyed and fictitious themes ... but in Rome the art of language and its manipulation was second only to the arts of government and warfare ..." (10). This acknowledgment leads to a first discussion of declamation precisely where it belongs, with "The Coming of the Principate," where F. not just observes Ovid's borrowings from declaimers he had heard but draws the necessary and potentially unpleasant conclusion that "gradually the barriers between the decorum of prose and poetry were being forced by the jaded taste of participants and audience, who spent too much time in handling material without moral or intellectual significance" (93). What is so important here is not the mere truth of this statement but its timing (the Augustans) and context (Ovid). As a growing force in the making and reception of Roman literature from the end of the Republic, declamation becomes ubiquitous and so remains independent of any one major author or work. Histories centered on authors and works can therefore ignore its importance. F. does not.

At other times, her ability to recognize a shaping influence on Latin literature does coincide with a particular author. This is why, for example, sections on "Vicissitudes of the Epic Muse" (167-72) and "Professional Poets in the Time of Domitian" (172-82) are both dominated by Statius. At first glance, the result is curious. Few would question Statius's claim to priority over Valerius and Silius in the former section, but his dominance over Martial in the latter is more striking. Though Martial's oeuvre is surely as revealing of literary culture under the Flavians as the Silvae, F. dismisses Martial in less than a paragraph as "the Spanish epigrammatist," who is "a fine source for social pretensions, but ..." (174).2 Why the cold shoulder? The key lies in F.'s two pages on the elder Statius, pages brought on by discussion of Silvae 5.3 but motivated by F.'s realization that the bilingual Campanian culture that produced Statius was itself a major influence in the shaping of his poetry and provides, by extension, important insights into the literary dynamics of the period. Where a discussion of Martial would be merely descriptive, the treatment of Statius is by nature diagnostic and thus has a greater claim to our attention.

Yet despite her skill in recognizing defining moments and seminal forces in the growth of Roman literary culture, F. begins this book with a recusatio: "Let me start with a demurral. This book does not try to be a literary history; that would demand a rare combination of synoptic vision and intimate understanding ..." (xi). Is the tone modest or ironic?

She is right about the synoptic vision. Her chronological structure inevitably obscures issues that a synchronic approach might clarify. Commenting on Apuleius' use of Greek, for example, she writes: "Cicero thought it a solecism to include Greek words in his dialogues, and the only genre with any pretensions that admitted Greek was satire ... But in this cosmopolitan African milieu both languages are equally valid" (261). The first observation is especially significant because, as F. might have mentioned, Cicero's own Latin idiom was heavily laced with Greek. We see it all the time in his letters to Atticus. The decorum that kept Greek out of his formal writing reveals a conscious separation of spoken and written languages and thus a quite different idea of "the literary" from what we will find in Apuleius nearly two centuries later, when the gap between the literary and colloquial seems to narrow. F. chronicles the result but not the process of change that produces it. Nor does she ever define "literature" or "literary" in a Roman context -- no easy task, of course! -- though the shifting sense of these concepts must lie behind much of what she observes at work over the centuries that interest her. Romans surely recognized a qualitative difference between a line of Vergil and a butcher's bill, but how did they articulate that distinction? How would they understand the question if we could put it to them?3 F. keeps her thoughts on such topics to herself.

The other seminal inadequacy in her treatment rests in the notion of "literary culture." One of the most exciting developments in Roman studies of late has been the willingness, even eagerness, of literary scholars to consider the larger world that produced the works they study. At its best, this has meant not subsuming literary to cultural studies (not so fine a prospect), but putting literature in culture and valuing both its contribution to that culture and its appropriation of cultural artefacts for its own ends.4 "Literary culture" alone is thus quite an artificial construct, and F.'s study begs for a wider context. But that is not a fault. She has left things for the rest of us to do, which is just one more reason for Latinists to thank her for writing this book.


1. Thus for Conte, Tacitus' fame as an orator is a fact of his life, not of his work, a curious distinction. What constitutes fame in a public occupation without civic function?

2. Quintilian, himself more a source for F. than a figure in his own right, is never similarly dismissed as "the Spanish rhetorician." A footnote written with F.'s characteristic fairness, however, also directs readers to J. P. Sullivan, Martial: the Unexpected Classic "for a more sympathetic analysis." Conte 505-11 is also helpful.

3. My UC colleague William Fitzgerald once suggested eloquentia as a synonym for "the literary." That may put us on the right road, but some tricky curves lie ahead.

4. Two recent examples: on a grand scale, Karl Galinsky's Augustan Culture (Princeton 1966) and in a smaller, but equally significant way, the companion pieces on Roman hunting (CA 15 [1996] 222-60) and Ovidian venery (TAPA 126 [1996] 221-63) by Carin Green.