Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.2.04


Michael von Albrecht, A History of Roman Literature from Livius Andronicus to Boethius with Special Regard to Its Influence on World Literature. Mnemosyne Supplement 169. 2 vols. Pp. xviii, 1,843. $257.50. ISBN 90-04-10712-6.


Reviewed by E. J. Kenney, Cambridge.

This book is addressed 'to students and teachers of classical and modern languages and to all friends of literature' -- a huge and unhomogeneous constituency. With Juvenal's remarks about The Young Person in mind I will begin a necessarily discursive notice by considering its user-friendliness. This is a book to be consulted; few are likely to read it continuously or for pleasure. It takes a good deal of stamina to negotiate 112 pages of ground-clearing discussion of Republican literature before being allowed sight of our first author; is it really helpful to involve students with Lucan, Claudian and Prudentius before they meet Livius Andronicus? The majestic sweep and synoptic scope of von Albrecht's treatment command admiration but will be apt to daunt the unlearned.

The translation is on the whole serviceable, but does not always do justice to the quality of von A's critical insights, or in some cases convey their meaning: what, for instance, are we to make of 'Valerius' terse and nervously wavering style' (938)? Livy, we are told, does not attract the young; they are unlikely to be turned on by a chapter on his literary technique that begins: 'To convey a literary picture of whole wars and periods, of the very history of a people, particular narrative means are required, facilitating a comprehensive overview by elements of form' (842). Similarly with 'Purposeful composition and dramatic arrangement are among the specific literary qualities of ...' (1,111) -- guess who? In fact Tacitus, but it would serve equally well for Terence or Seneca, or indeed Livy. Plonking apart, there are many lapses in English idiom, and occasional downright barbarism, as in the paraphrase of Valerius' Argonautica (933-4). Particularly obnoxious are 'likely' for 'probably', 'like' for 'as', and (a lost cause ? I hope not) 'convince' for 'induce' or 'persuade'. In a book translated from the German the repeated 'leitmotif' is a curious lapse, compounded at p. 1,459 by italics; and 'à l'outrance' is not French, nor 'Burmann' Dutch. Hae nugae seria ducunt: such things may not raise hackles in all quarters, but they are symptomatic of what happens when a large and elaborate book such as this is inadequately edited.

Cross-referencing is barely attempted, and deficiencies in that area are not always repaired by the large and indiscriminate index. So the 'obelisk inscription' first obscurely referred to at p. 18 is only explained at pp. 744-5. The Alcestis Barcinonensis figures in passing at pp. 88 n. 2, 1,281 and 1,299, but no bibliographical information is forthcoming until p. 1,310 n. 3, which will not be found in the index. The fragmented treatment of that much-abused term contaminatio (97, 104, 136, 174, 220 n. 1) can only muddle the uninstructed. Enallage is mentioned apropos of Ennius (137), and hypallage of Lucan (921 n. 1), but the index notes only the former, and there is no indication that the two are connected, or as many would hold, identical (H-S 100). The bibliography on diatribe is divided between p. 244 n. 4 and p. 289 n. 1; the index is unhelpful. It may surprise some to read that 'for some time [Cicero] was Rome's greatest living poet, and his artistry prepared the way for Augustan classicism' (939), since nothing that has preceded this (as I would maintain correct and important) assertion gives any idea of, or offers any bibliographical guidance towards, the evidence for it (Soubiran's edition is not listed). Readers whose appetite is whetted by the casual reference to the death of Papinian at p. 626 must restrain their impatience for nearly another 900 pages before they discover who or what was responsible (1,505).

No scholar should think explicitness beneath him. Students need to have the facts about (e.g.) Catullus' metres clearly laid out (340; cf. 726 on Horace). Allusivity in a work of reference is a mere nuisance. What will the neophyte make of 'pure dactyl' (294) (it foxes me), 'the so-called evidentia' (917) (singular or plural?), 'synaloephe (so-called elision)' (1,012)? I now know what 'Conceptismo' (1,329) means because I looked it up, but for a reader without the Britannica at his elbow this is surely a tease? Why not help the enquirer by giving the other guises under which 'the so-called [does this imply it's not their real name?] Scholia Danielis' (1,474) are referred to? Those of us with experience in advising commencing researchers know that this is precisely the sort of small point with which they need and welcome help.

What graduate students in particular are likely to resort to are the bibliographies. These are long and comprehensive, but being for the most part in the form of undifferentiated alphabetical lists they are of limited assistance to those seeking orientation and wanting to know where to begin and how to identify the basic or especially important works. This deficiency is only partially remedied by the bibliographical guidance sporadically imparted in the footnotes. To take a single example: Elizabeth Hawson's Intellectual life in the late Roman Republic is not mentioned where it is specially relevant, apropos of Varro and his age, but is buried in the bibliography on philosophical writers (511). Clearly it would be unreasonable to complain that von A. has not managed to sweep every relevant item into his capacious net, but surprising omissions here and there leap to the eye, such Erik Wistrand's edition of the Laudatio Turiae (875) or, on the authenticity of the H.O., Bertil Axelson's Korruptelenkult (1173 n. 1). This latter instance illustrates a point that I have made before (CR 45 [1995] 311), that students embarking on research need to be guided through the proliferating morass of run-of-the-mill secondary scholarship back to the work of the outstanding few. Finally, before turning to larger issues, let me note, in usum studiosae iuventutis, one uncharacteristic factual lapse, the statement that 'in the Greek hexameter the penthemimeres and the caesura KATA\ TRI/TON TROXAI=ON are almost equally frequent' (136-7). That is simply not so.

The arrangement of the book calls for comment on two counts. Authors are categorized by genre under the main headings 'Poetry' and 'Prose'. This often makes the chronological sequence difficult to follow. There is a 'Chronological table' at the very end of the book, which helps a bit, and some compromise is obviously unavoidable here, but at times von A. seems to go out of his way to muddy the waters. It is slightly disconcerting to find the Younger Pliny and Seneca (in that order) preceding their elders and Seneca's plays figuring under 'Prose'. What is really odd is that Suetonius, who was born about A.D. 7O, figures among writers of the 'Middle and Late Empire' along with Ammonius and in the wake of a mixed bag of late historians from Aurelius Victor to the H.A. -- some 245 pages after his contemporaries. The reason, I surmise, is that in von A.'s schema he represents the tradition of imperial biography which took over from senatorial history (1283, 1297); but dates are dates, and, more importantly, this placing obscures Suetonius' status as a pioneer in the field, emphasized by von A. himself when he later refers to him as 'the first polyhistor among the Greek and Latin scholars of his time' (1407) (my italics).

It was also perhaps a questionable decision to relegate the chapter on 'The transmission of Roman literature' to the end of the book. The fundamental point about the essential orality of Latin literature on which so much criticism is rightly predicated needs to be made in the context of its prehistory (cf. 44), not by way of afterthought. This chapter indeed wears a somewhat perfunctory air. More might usefully have been said about the incidence of literacy and the size and character of readerships, topics which crop up only incidentally in the main text. What, at the date in question, was 'a large public' (268)? To call Livy and Pomponius Trogus 'professional writers' (829) is to invite fallacious inferences. What is said about word-division and scriptura continua on p. 1741 is misleading and is in effect contradicted on the next page. The statement that 'Codices were made mostly of parchment, since papyrus was difficult to fold' (1742) is double erroneous. In the period from the second to the ninth century A.D. surviving papyrus codices outnumber parchment by some three to two (E.G. Turner, The typology of the early codex [1977] 101-85), and I have it on the authority of Dr. W. E. H. Cockle, to whom I owe this reference, and who has himself manufactured the stuff, that 'there is no difficulty whatever in folding papyrus'. Students are also likely to be misled by the remark that Book II of Velleius 'consists of 131 chapters' (1063).

The individual sections are organized according to a rigid pattern. In the introductory chapters this admits of some variation; in the author sections it follows an unvarying formula: Life and dates; Survey of work(s); Sources, models, and genres; Literary technique; Language and style; Ideas I (reflections on literature); Ideas II; Transmission; Influence; Bibliography. This arrangement entails that the same facts are stated, and the same points made, often verbatim, several times from different angles; so we are told, for instance, three times over that Lucilius was doctus et urbanus or that Gellius lived in a bilingual culture. This is not only wearisome; it blunts the impact of what is said and the reader's response to it, and the resulting picture becomes too often diffuse and scrappy. That is a pity, since much of the discussion is valuable, and what von A. has to say, as one might expect, usually deserves to be attended to.

Comprehensive and apparently exhaustive as the treatment is, there are gaps and loose ends. Few, I dare say, will miss Vibius Sequester; but the Consolatio ad Liviam surely merits a mention? Like many other scholars, von A. is fascinated by 'the one that got away'; the texts we don't have often come in for more notice than those we do. So the Laus Pisonis is mentioned in passing (99O), but we are not told what it is about and it is not in the index. We are not directed to Courtney's commentary on Laevius (334), and indeed FPL seems to be another important item that has escaped the trawl. Calvus is mentioned in passing several times, but his Io is not named. (He is indexed under 'Calvus', but if you want to run Cinna to earth you have to know his nomen.) It seems odd to me that Sidonius Apollinaris, who is at least as representative of his age and culture as Ausonius, gets such short shrift (1314-19).

Readers prepared to persevere will find many rewarding insights. Von A. is excellent on such diverse writers as Lucretius, Tacitus, Ausonius, and the author of the Priapeia. Though his praise of Petron. 79. 8 (1233) seems to me wildly overstated, he puts his finger on a crucial point when he asks: 'Was there really nothing but hate of the milieu of freedmen at the bottom of this gallery of brilliant individual portraits ...?' (1244). He is, not surprisingly, better on some authors than others. On Virgil he is, to me, disappointingly bland; and it really will not do to send Horace on his way with 'The gracefulness of [his] lyrics defies any dissecting analysis' (731). (Message to students thinking of doing literary criticism on the Odes: forget it!) On Horace, by the way, I note that in his 'Survey of works' von A. presents his poems in the order in which they have come down to us in the MSS. Will the new edition that he desiderates (731) jettison this tradition and print them in a rational sequence, i.e., chronologically? It is high time. To assert that Lucan's metre is not monotonous (920) seems to me to fly in the face of the facts. The role of symbol and allegory in the Thebaid might usefully have been stressed; cf. C.S. Lewis, The allegory of love 49-56 (not in the bibliography). Silius is not overpraised, but von A. gives one no idea of the sheer dreariness of the Punica; it is significant that the chapter on 'Influence' is so brief and that there is only one modern commentary, on one book (6), and that a dissertation. The quality and force of Juvenal's irony in Sat. 4 (1020, 1023, 1029) is hardly conveyed; the discussion, as often elsewhere, is too diffuse to focus the essentials. It is not Apuleius who was a worshipper (1206) and a priest (1450) of Isis, but 'Lucius': a crucial distinction is burked.

The chapters on 'Influence' offer some of the best value in the book. They are full of fascinating and sometimes surprising information: who would have guessed at a possible connexion between the Ad Herennium and Bach (592)? (But Acis and Galatea should be credited to Ovid, not Virgil [702].) On Horace Kipling's lifelong devotion might have been mentioned. Corneille's preference of Lucan over Virgil (929) can be seen as heralding the coming triumph of Reason. So Horace Walpole: '[he] often says more in half a line than Virgil over a whole book' (to Mason, 29 June 1782). It deserves to be better known than I fancy it is that Lucan is the source of what is, for my money, the most brilliantly (mis)applied quotation from a Latin poet on record, the libel affixed to the Countess of Castlemaine's door in Merton College (the Court then being in Oxford) in January 1666:

hanc Caesare pressam a fluctu defendit onus ...
coarsely but effectively rendered
The reason why she is not ducked, Because by Caesar she is
Phaedrus' popularity as a school author should be noted: see now R. W. Lamb, Annales Phaedriani (Lowestoft 1995). Pliny's carefully structured epistolography was a model for English letter writers: Walpole's disclaimer to Lady Ossory, 'I cannot compose letters like Pliny and Pope' (16 November 1785) is typically disingenuous, that being precisely what he was doing. The chapter on Petronius, to whom I have already alluded, is especially good. It is instructive to ponder the fortuna auctorum as it is portrayed here, as exemplified, to take a single example, by the case of Florus, once esteemed by Montesquieu, Leopardi, and von Ranke (1418), now the preserve of specialists. A student who wanted to know what made some Romans tick could do worse than dip into him.

What distinguishes this from most histories of Roman literature and in my view especially recommends it is that it includes Christian writers. The emphasis thus imparted is extremely salutary. It is not only that the writers in question are important and influential in their own right. Classical studies have in modern times been bedevilled by concentration on the classical. In literature as in everything else it is, historically speaking, the transitional periods that are the most interesting, when things are in a state of creative confusion. This is preeminently true of the later centuries of the Roman Empire, when what von A. well calls 'the liberating effect and the regenerative strength of classical Roman literature' (1307) were fertilising and invigorating Christian culture. Minucius Felix beautifully illustrates a world still poised uncertainly between the old paganism and the new monotheism through a debate in which both parties indifferently exploit their common literary and philosophical inheritance (1554-68). Might not some students find the Octavius more rewarding and more thought-provoking than the De nature deorum? The claims of Christianity and competing faiths make headlines every day; Stoics and Epicureans are hardly more than names. (Many years ago an Etonian, disillusioned by 'teaching that left me and most of my contemporaries unable to construe an inscription or a memorial tablet, let alone to read with enjoyment an Ode of Horace or a Greek epigram', asked if 'the experiment [had] ever been tried of beginning Latin with St. Bernard's hymns, or the monkish Latin of the Gesta francorum' or the Vulgate (L.E. Jones, A Victorian boyhood [1956] 214-15).) A good question.

The sequence of writers end with Boethius; with him, Christian, senator, and courtier, we are in the thick of the emergence of Europe from the ruins of Rome. Moreover, he is very readable. There are, of course, no hard and fast beginnings and endings in this story. The book has to stop somewhere; and von A. neatly encloses his narrative in a striking and often cited synchronism: the same year, A.D. 529, saw the foundation of Monte Cassino by St. Benedict and the closing of the Academy by Justinian (1, 1709). Only, as Alan Cameron demonstrated nearly thirty years ago (PCPS 15 [1969] 7-29), it didn't: the Academy continued to function, albeit precariously, for another fifty years. So far, however, from invalidating, that rather reinforces the message. The reality is more enlightening than the edifying legend; historical processes of this order are not tidy and self-contained. The old and the new coexist and interact long after it might appear that the crucial battle had been fought and won.

This is a work of prodigious labour and encyclopaedic erudition, informative and protreptic in equal measure. Expensive as it is, no classical library can afford to be without it. Tollite (strong wrists needed), (e)legite.