Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.06

Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, Mythologie et littérature à Rome. La réécriture des mythes aux Iers siècles avant et après J.-C.   Lausanne:  Editions Payot, 1998.  Pp. 271.  ISBN 2-601-03228-6.  149F.  

Reviewed by Barry Powell, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Word count: 526 words

This learned and elegant essay is not concerned with the origins of myth, or with the theory of myth, but is an astute review of mythical themes, as commonly understood, in the Latin authors of the first centuries B.C. and A.D. Surely the Romans adopted Greek myth, but always they imparted new meanings and Fabre-Serris sets out to explain what they are. As such, the book falls into two neat divisions: authors B.C. and authors A.D.

In the first chapter of the first section, F-S approaches the topic of the Golden Age, to see how, first, the Greeks presented it, then its special recasting in political terms by Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, and Ovid. In general F-S proceeds in this fashion throughout the book, describing, and occasionally interpreting, how different poets approach a given theme, giving the book the feel of a catalogue raisonné of mythemes in Roman literature. The first chapter also examines the Gigantomachy in Horace and Ovid and various myths of impietas, in which Roman moral virtues were held up to scrutiny.

The second chapter gives an account of the myths of Roman origins, of course Vergil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Horace and the elegiac poets, too, inevitably discuss such themes in an age when the moral renewal of the Roman world was a principal social and political objective. Chapter three explores carefully the difficult relation between myth and the Roman's recasting of Greek philosophy. So Lucretius condemns religion, but begins his poem by invoking a god, and F-S reviews this famous crux. Anchises speaks like a Stoic when he instructs his son in the underworld, but Vergil's has his own special view. F-S also discusses the speech that Ovid places in the mouth of Pythagoras in the Metamorphoses. Chapter four is devoted to myth in the poetry of love: Catullus, Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, Horace, Vergil, and Ovid, with focus on the furor of love and such special myths as Narcissus and the erotic hunt or bath.

The second section, myth in the Neronian age, is perhaps more interesting. As in the earlier century, the return of the Age of Gold is a topos, treated in Seneca's Apocolocyntosis and De Clementia, Calpurnius Siculus, and Lucan. F-S examines then investigates its counterpart, the myth of the Age of Iron (in Sencea's Medea and Phaedra). Nero seems to have justified his extravagant building projects, especially the domus aurea, by a conviction that the mythical Age of Gold had returned.

Chapter 2 takes up the Roman recycling of myths of the Trojan War, beginning with the Aeneid, then Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the elegiacs. Chapter 3 is given wholly to Seneca's efforts to reconcile philosophy with real life; on the one hand myth, with its ideal types; on the other, the Neronian court. In Chapter 4, F-S discusses Trimalchio's hilarious bungling of myth, and the literary ends that serves, then untangles the mythical underpinning of the Satyricon, deeply subversive of the Odyssean nostos.

This book is not so much about myth as about literature. Written in a charming academic French, the book offers a pleasant overview of special literary concerns in the first centuries B.C. and A.D.

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