Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.11

Lodewijk J. Engels, Heinz Hofmann, Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft. Bd. 4, Spätantike, mit einem Panorama der byzantinischen Literatur.   Wiesbaden:  AULA-Verlag, 1997.  

Reviewed by James W. Halporn, Indiana/Harvard
Word count: 2078 words

Thanks to the suggestion of Manfred Fuhrmann (Constance), a separate volume was dedicated to Late Antiquity in this series which in its twenty-five volumes is intended to cover all areas of world literature.1 This volume bridges the period between Greek and Roman antiquity and the Middle Ages, regarding Late Antiquity as an independent historical and literary period between them. Most literary histories deal with Latin and Greek literature as separate entities, and this division carries over in the treatment of the early medieval period in the West and the Byzantine era in the East. Standard literary histories of Late Antiquity are also divided by languages and by political periods (x).2

Unlike previous literary histories, this one treats Latin and Greek literature together so that the relationships of the two literatures can be made apparent. It also includes Christian literature in both languages. There are chapters on the Greek and Latin Bibles, beginning with the Septuagint and covering the literature of the New Testament and the apocryphal writings. The organization of the material is generic rather than chronological and does not separate profane and Christian literary documents.

Because the periods for the early Middle Ages and Late Antiquity are not firmly fixed, the editors include a section on the importance of Late Antiquity for the early Middle Ages in terms of reception; so, too, a section on Byzantine literature from the sixth through the fifteenth century.

This history is noteworthy both for its treatment of the literature in both languages, and for the variety and breadth of the accompanying illustration.3 Not only do the pictures illuminate the text, but their lengthy captions also serve as a backdrop for the literary and historical analyses.

In the opening chapter Alexander Demandt presents a historical framework for the work to follow. Late Antiquity is here defined more closely as the period between Greco-Roman antiquity and the Roman-Germanic or Byzantine-Slavic Middle Ages in the Mediterranean world. Demandt emphasizes the difficulties of periodization according to dates and political history by offering two choices for a starting point: the imperial crisis in the rule of the solder-emperors (235-284) and the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine (284-337). He suggests several possibilities for a closing point as well: the traditional date, the removal of the last emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus by Odovacer in 476 or (more suitably) the end of Justinian's unsuccessful attempt to reunite the Eastern and Western Empires (527-565). Demandt sketches the period of the reforms and the period of decline, with special sections devoted to the organization of the state, to social and economic developments, and to religions. Though in many respects Late Antiquity is a time of decline, Demandt draws our attention to specific new developments, mostly technical ones, like the coming of the codex book (mostly on parchment) to replace the volumen (mostly on papyrus), which also led to the creation of new scripts.

Demandt's survey of political and economic events in this time sets part of the framework and background for the texts. L. J. Engels and H. Hofmann fill in the rest in their chapter on the social aspects of Late Antiquity. This essay, which focuses on the connections between literature and society in the period, creates a literary and historical background for the genres that will be treated in the volume. Of importance for this inquiry are questions of how literature fits into historical periods and the developments in the two languages during these times. Early Christian literature added various genres to the standard arrangement, including gospels and related testamentary materials, as well as saints' lives, biblical commentaries, sermons, as well as church histories. In this period we also find the flowering of specifically Christian poetry, though this genre almost entirely followed the metrical and linguistic structures of its classical models, despite the new themes introduced from the Hebraic poetry of the Bible. The rich variety of literary types in Late Antiquity is marked also by a rebirth in epistolography and the growth of a rich legal literature as well. Yet there is also a continuity in the late classical literary generic tradition that runs from the third through the eighth century.

Engels and Hofmann devote a section to how literary texts were communicated in this period. In addition to the continuing classical tradition of recitation and public performance we find an increase in purely written literary production. This led to an increase in the fashioning of books, and the further development of public and private libraries (including among the latter, those of the new monastic foundations). As the Western Roman and Eastern Greek Empires became separated, the problem of languages for texts also became crucial. As the number of bilingual individuals diminished, the need for translations increased. The Western church needed the Greek Bible to be rendered into Latin, and scriptural study led to the need for commentaries and other exegetical works in Latin as well. In the other direction, it was necessary to translate the works of Roman law into Greek. At the same time, the educational system became ever more fixed and restricted, and the number of authors and texts handled by the schools led to a canon of texts. During this period the loss of works not part of the canon became pronounced. A demand grew for compendious texts for the purpose of private study. Excerpts, anthologies, and mere outlines of extensive texts became so common that they often drove out the originals.

The following chapters extend the themes outlined in the historical and social survey, emphasizing genres rather than authors (here is another difference from the new and old "Schanz-Hosius/Schmid-Stählin" literary histories). Detlev Dormeyer offers a thorough consideration of the Bible, from its Hebrew rendering into Greek in the Hellenistic period to the development of the New Testament as well as other literature of early Christianity. The translation then of the Greek (and later Hebrew) Bible into Latin led to problems about the nature of this literature. Despite its importance in religious training, at no time did Biblical texts replace pagan texts for training Greek or Latin pupils linguistically. Basil Studer surveys the theological literature to the period of Constantine, focusing on texts that served to defend Christianity against its opponents, both Jewish and pagan, and to support the orthodox church against heretics.

Manfred Fuhrmann's contribution on philology and rhetoric in classical education is of interest to the classical scholar. The tradition of the grammaticus and rhetor continued despite the crisis of the third century. What is noteworthy is the separation of the two languages. The Roman grammarians and rhetoricians are specifically ignorant of work done by the Greeks. There develops a fixed curriculum (based on the artes liberales), devoted entirely to pagan texts. As liberal arts (in the root meaning), these teachings supported the culture and ideals of the Imperial court, the ethos of the late Roman aristocracy. But the works that formed the cultural bridge between Late Antiquity and the Renaissance and the modern world were the Artes of Donatus (the teacher of Jerome) and the Institutio grammatica of Priscian (a Latin grammar written in Constantinople). Tied to this grammatical tradition was that of the commentary on a canonical text from the school canon. The accompanying illustrations emphasize the bookish nature of this culture, for example, the Trier relief from Neumagen showing the classroom of a Roman grammarian and an illustration from the Vergilius Romanus (a manuscript of the early fifth century) showing the poet seated between a capsa (for a collection of scrolls) and a writing desk.

It is more difficult to understand the rationale for the inclusion of the two following chapters in a literary history, however fascinating the material included in them.4 Klaus Sallman deals with technology and the development of the encyclopedia in Late Antiquity. The practical disciplines of mathematics, natural history, and engineering seem suitable to a history of the sciences, as does medicine. In what way does the a survey of maps or a consideration of the Christian topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes fit into this study of literary texts? Even less compelling is the inclusion of such practical skills as agronomy, surveying, and military tactics. It is telling that this indiscriminate gathering of disparate materials should conclude with a consideration of the curious Marriage of Mercury and Philology of Martianus Capella. Jan den Boeft considers the Late Antique philosophical school, Neoplatonism. There is an attempt here to treat authors in the Greek tradition, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, and the Latin tradition, from Augustine to Boethius from a literary point of view. Still, the reader is always conscious that these materials belong more properly to a history of philosophy, and that much is lost in the reduction of these texts to literature.

More compelling is the treatment of oratory from pagan speeches to Christian sermons by Karl-Heinz Utheman. He gives special attention to collections of homilies, with the largest individual collection that of Augustine, who marks the culmination of the oratorical tradition in the West. Michaele Zelzer discusses the history of the letter, including the collections of letters and major Christian writers of letters in the fourth century in the East and West. Basel Studer treats the theological literature of the fourth to the seventh century. The wide variety of texts produced in this period, especially after Nicaea, ranges from apology to polemical writings against a host of Christian opponents from Jews to heretics. Other battles within the Church were the occasion for many texts, leading eventually to the creation of pastoral and catechetical works. In addition there were works intended for the new monasteries, as well as works in a variety of forms of exegesis.

The writing of history in Late Antiquity from studies of the empire to world chronicles and the histories of peoples are surveyed by Heinz Hofmann. He also treats biography and autobiography (important late genres) as well as the new form of hagiography. Fictional literature, including but not restricted to the novel, is the subject of Chapter 12 by Bernhard Kytzler. Besides the Aesopian fable, Late Antiquity saw the appearance of texts of considerable influence in late European literature, in particular the histories of Troy and the romance of Alexander. Jean-Louis Charlet deals with the poetic forms of this period, which ranged from epic and didactic to lyric and hymns. It was also a period of clever experimentation in centos and figured poems.

Another chapter that seems out of place in a literary history is the one on legal science. Peter E. Pieler devotes a chapter to the development of this study to the beginning of the fourth century, and then considers the expansion and codification of legal texts from the fourth to the fifth century as well as to the tractates created under the auspices of Justinian (527 CE). Alongside these were works for the teaching of law. Here again the illustrations explicate the complicated nature of Roman law and legal arrangements. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the laws of the Germanic tribes and of the canon law. There follows a list of pre-Justinianic collections, Justinianic sources, Germanic law, and Church law sources, and church law sources, together with their modern editions. It is doubtful to this reader, however, that anyone interested in the study of law in antiquity would think of looking at a history of literature.

L. J. Engels presents a picture of Late Antiquity and the Latin Middle Ages from the point of view of the history of reception. This chapter may be an introduction to the sixth volume of the series, which is devoted to the early Middle Ages, but can scarcely do more than briefly discuss some of the major contributions of Latin Late Antiquity to the coming era. The volume concludes with an overview of Byzantine literature by W.J. Aerts. He presents a rapid survey and in no way can his treatment be more than an essay into the literature of some eleven centuries.

Each of the chapters has an excellent bibliography of secondary literature (mostly oriented to German works), divided into the various categories addressed. They are not as detailed as the bibliographies in the new "Schanz-Hosius," nor do they discuss the sources or the editions of the texts under consideration to any degree. As a whole, then, the work is a useful supplement to the work of Herzog and Lambrecht, and offers a different perspective on an important and previously neglected period of Latin and Greek literary study.


1.   The series includes the following volumes: 1. Literatures of the Ancient Near East. 2. Greek Literature; 3. Roman Literature; 4. Late Antiquity; 5. The Eastern Middle Ages; 6. Early European Middle Ages; 7. High European Middle Ages; 8. Late European Middle Ages; 9. Renaissance and Baroque I; 10. Renaissance and Baroque II; 11. European Enlightenment I; 12. European Enlightenment II (nyp); 13. European Enlightenment III; 14. European Romanticism I; 15. European Romanticism II (nyp); 16. European Romanticism III; 17. European Realism; 18. Fin de siècle -- Turn of the Century I (nyp); 19. Fin de siècle -- Turn of the Century II (nyp); 20. Between the World Wars (nyp); 21. Literature after 1945 I; 22. Literature after 1945 II; 23. East Asian Literatures; 24. South and Central Asian Literatures (nyp); 25. Literary theory, index to the set (nyp). As is clear from this list, the literary history varies its contexts: languages, periods, styles.
2.   Thus, the standard histories of Latin literature and Greek literature (M. Schanz-C. Hosius, Geschichte der römischen Literatur bis zum Gesetzgebungswerk des Kaisers Justinian, Munich, 1914-1935; W. Schmid-O. Stählin, Geschichte der griechischen Literatur, II: Die nachklassiche Periode der griechischen Literatur, Munich 1920-1924) were divided by periods and styles. In addition there are histories of early medieval Literature (like M. Manitius, Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, I, Munich 1911 and F. Brunhölzl, Histoire de la littérature latine du moyen âge, I: De Cassiodore à la fin de la renaisssance carolingienne, trans. H. Rochais, Turnhout, 1990), as well as histories of early Christian literature and of Byzantine literature (O. Bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, 5 vols, Freiburg i. Br., 1912-1932; K. Krumbacher, Geschichte der byzantinischen Literatur von Justinian bis zum Ende des oströmischen Reiches, 2 vols., Munich 1897).
3.   I know of no work which corresponds with this study. More detailed, but less wide-ranging, are the two volumes edited by the late Reinhart Herzog and Peter Lebrecht Schmidt intended as a replacement of the older "Schanz-Hosius." These are volumes 4 (117-283 CE) "Die Literatur des Umbruchs," and 5 (284-374) "Restauration und Erneuerung" of the Handbuch der lateinischen Literatur der Antike (Munich, 1989-1997).Volume 5 has appeared in a French translation by Gérard Nauroy as Nouvelle Histoire de la Littérature Latine, 5 (Turnhout, 1993). A French translation of the other German volume is expected.
4.   Problems in the writing of literary history are discussed in a lively and informative book by David Perkins, Is Literary History Possible?, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Read Latest
Index for 1998
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:25:49, Friday, 03 April 2009