Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.06

John Henderson, Writing Down Rome: Satire, Comedy, and Other Offences in Latin Poetry.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1999.  Pp. xvii, 374.  ISBN 0-19-815077-6.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Catherine Keane, Reed College (
Word count: 2058 words

This volume brings together Henderson's essays on Roman comic and satiric poetry. The essays first appeared between 1987 and 1998 (see Preface for full citations), but Henderson has revised them for this publication. The book is arranged in three sections: the first on drama (consisting of two chapters), the second on lyric and bucolic (four), and the third on satire (four). In addition to endnotes, bibliography, and indices, readers will find in the back of the book a 'date chart' of both historical and literary-historical events, highlighting the appearances of the texts studied in this volume.

When it comes to describing Henderson's work, a reviewer has various difficult options; see, for example, Zetzel's 'This is not a review' review (BMCR 98.11.32; or, for a very different effort, see BMCR 7.6.16). Readers familiar with Henderson's work know that to paraphrase him is to rewrite him and to lose the intentional linguistic oddities of his essays. One even has to decide how to store away Henderson's arguments in memory: in their original, tangled, hard-to-cite form, or in a 'translated' form that Henderson might say misses the point. To cite Zetzel again, 'to say what H. says is to say what H. does not say,' and Henderson himself admonishes 'let no one skip over ... my English' (xiii). Still, instead of trying to mimic or quote that particular English, I have chosen to present my own version of Henderson's work.

The experience of reading Henderson is frustrating, and not just because he fills his pages with multilingual puns, anagrams, song lyrics, crossed-out words, and so forth. Henderson is interested in the phenomenon of catachresis -- word-abuse -- in the Roman authors (x), and he clearly intends his own text to resemble theirs in this respect. It can often take extra effort just to locate Henderson's subjects and verbs. Over the course of a single essay, this is taxing but can be rewarding. Over the course of the entire book, the reading experience just becomes wearing. It is useful to read Henderson's synoptic discussions of this decade's-worth of essays, so as to see how he thinks they hang together, but if you want to read the whole book, take your time -- even if you know some of the pieces already.

Henderson explains his choice of title in the Introduction and evokes it throughout the volume. The phrase 'writing down Rome' describes the practice of Romanists and Roman comic poets alike. To speak of 'writing down' acknowledges the role of cultural translation in scholarly writing (whereas, Henderson implies, 'writing about' and other such phrases mask that process). When applied to the Roman poets themselves -- as I understand it -- the phrase suggests that each author creates his own version of Rome, and chooses particular victims to put down. Henderson's title also emphasizes the comic and vulgar nature of the texts, through the word 'down' and its connotations of lowliness and crudity.

These essays are concerned with transgression; specifically, how authors perform it and how they force their audience to participate in it. Every one of the authors that Henderson studies 'sends up' Rome, and in the process sends up himself and what he pretends to stand for as well. This summary is deceptively simple, for in each individual case, comedy and satire are generated through different tactics. I will discuss the individual essays shortly, but for now I will comment that Henderson's approach seems most successful in the case of the hexameter satirists. Scholarship on the satiric persona has brought the authorial voice of satire to the foreground, and many readers have long felt that this voice is satirizing itself as much as its ostensible targets. Some scholars -- especially Braund and Freudenburg -- have been looking for meaningful ways to explain how this actually happens in the texts, and I find that Henderson's readings make a considerable and unique contribution. When studying other genres, especially comedy and Vergil's 'dramatic' bucolic, Henderson must listen for voices that are less discernible than that of the aggressive satiric persona.

Because the essays have been published before, I will review the content of each only briefly. Again, I think that I am presenting fragments of Henderson's arguments and points that I found particularly striking or significant, because there is really no way to give completely accurate summaries. Henderson begins his section on comedy with his study of Plautus' Poenulus. Innuendo in the Prologue forces the audience to apply Roman values and a Roman sense of humor to the dramatic situation. Henderson argues that the play's apparent choppiness and slap-dash construction are the key to understanding its value as 'cultural capitol' (sic, 22). The title character Hanno is both demonized war-conquest and emerging paterfamilias; his two daughters are both hard-working meretrices and dutiful, protected filiae. These doublings are just one aspect of the chaos in the play, a feature that makes 'a mess of the ethos of Athenian drama' (xiv).

In contrast to Plautus' irreverent scrambling of his Greek models, Terence performs his own act of cultural imperialism by transforming that genre into a refined classic. In Chapter 2, on Adelphoe, Henderson shows that this play, so long used as an educational text, thematizes teaching itself. The play does not present different natures or philosophies and argue that one is better than the other; this is an essentialist view that the play's reception has fostered. Instead, fatherhood and brotherhood are revealed to be social constructs with learned roles. Although this essay features the often-baffling bullet points and numbered sections that Henderson favors in most of his pieces, it makes a significant argument and, I think, is more successful than the Plautus chapter. Reading this, I began to think that Henderson is more appealing when he unwinds assumptions of criticism than when he attempts to produce meaning from chaos.

In generic terms, the lyric and bucolic texts of Part II fall into the category of 'other offences' mentioned in the subtitle. Henderson begins with Catullus. Chapter 3 deals with the Catullan poems that involve counting -- of kisses, of friends, of verses. Catullus scorns the Rome that is obsessed with counting, but in these very poems he mimics that activity by 'performing' the countings himself. This playing with numbers and equations is also visible in a less literal sense in other poems. Henderson advises 'you should read this piece with annoyance' (71), and by documenting the poet's obsessive accountancy, pretends to argue that it is Catullus who deserves our annoyance. As usual, though, critic mimics poet here just as the poet supposedly mimics his targets in Rome. Henderson moves on to Horace in Chapter 4. According to this essay, Epode 8 is a 'performative act of victimization' that enlists the reader as well as the author (96; if you can stand it, see the 'iconic translation' on 111 that illustrates this effect). Henderson acknowledges the now-popular belief that Horace is mocking his flaccid self here, but he wishes to emphasize the unpleasantness of the poem rather than disarm it by reference to authorial intention.

The rest of Part II is about representations of the country. In Chapter 5, Henderson reads Horace Odes 3.22, examining the literary backgrounds of its main 'characters' -- Horace, Diana's pine-tree, and the sacrificial pig. Intertextual clues encourage us to identify Horace with his victim, and enhance the hidden brutality of this seemingly peaceful poem. To Henderson, the poem performs its sacrifice each time we read it; the idea of performance also dominates the next chapter, on Vergil's third Eclogue. Here, we read that Vergil's representation of singing shepherds engages and confounds our 'urban' literary critical faculties. The participants in the contest may represent Vergil and his contemporaries in Rome, but the rustic setting signals that we will not understand the critical guidelines governing the contest. When Palaemon declares a draw at the end, this does not at all resolve the tensions of the cutting-contest that preceded. The opening question 'cuium pecus?' takes on metaliterary meaning: whose poetry, and whose judgment, are we reading?

Part III, as I have already said, contains some of Henderson's most interesting and satisfying essays. Many readers will already know Chapter 7, Henderson's 'signature piece' on gender in satire. In this essay, Henderson examines the ways that each of the Roman satirists performs his masculinity through invective and bodily discourse. Of particular interest is the section on Lucilius' fragments, which earlier scholarship proclaimed to be evidence for that satirist's free spirit and rational 'humanity.' Henderson argues instead that the fragments constitute the sort of phallic performance that is now understood as central to Roman male normality. This essay makes a nice introduction to the following three pieces on Horace, Persius, and Juvenal. As Henderson summarizes, satire writes down 'what a man's gotta do,' and we will see this happening in different contexts in the final three essays (201).

In Chapter 8, Henderson examines how the character Horace becomes a double of the Pest (or ille, as Henderson prefers) in Sermones 1.9. The verbal exchange between the two is not simply assaults and rebuffs but a dialogue; Henderson reads slowly to show how Horace scrambles for responses and even echoes his interlocutor. Not just the dialogue but the action elides the differences between the two characters: Horace's vain appeal to Fuscus puts him in the same position as the Pest's. Meanwhile, Horace represents his interlocutor in a less flattering light than he did himself when telling of his own rise (Sermones 1.6), thereby 'blocking his alter ego's apotheosis' (223).

When Henderson turns to Persius, he takes on a whole corpus rather than a single poem. Chapter 9 scrutinizes the label 'Philosopher-Satirist' which handbooks have given to this poet. Henderson argues that Persius stages a course in 'Care of the Self' in his Satires, in which each poem picks up where the last left off. This 'thematic sequence of pedagogical propositions' (237) starts with the instruction to look inside one's Self (Satire 1) and proceeds to 'graduation' (5) and musing about legacies (a metaphor for teaching, 6). Along the way, Persius represents instances of resistance to, and laughter at, teaching; this is an important move in an intellectual culture that valued self-determined freedom.

Chapter 10 is the best read in the volume. Here, Henderson confines himself to the first 21 lines of Juvenal's corpus, and re-examines the function of literary 'belatedness' in this opening tirade. A survey of silver epic reveals that Juvenal's catalogue of 'typical' epic scenes is his own pastiche, not direct allusion to particular texts. Juvenal provokes the reader to figure out that the satirist, despite his transgressive pose, is also just another post-Vergilian reciter. The reader must acknowledge, too, that 'belatedness' is a condition both of his informed reading and of Juvenal's imitative satire.

Again, I found this last, very focused essay the most engaging, but others might prefer those that survey more material. Also on the subject of audience, Henderson comments early on that his writing style is much more common outside classical scholarship (xiii), and the date chart at the end of the book seems to indicate that he has, and hopes to have more, non-Classics readers. If this is the case, these readers will have to get through a considerable amount of quotation of Latin, as well as translations that range from very plain to very free (compare the translation of Juvenal 1.1-21 with that of Epode 8).

Much as Henderson does with sources in his generally laconic endnotes, I have appropriated and translated this work into a language that makes sense to me. At the same time, I am sure that I will occasionally be compelled to return to the source, especially when thinking about satire. As far as readers new to Henderson are concerned, it would be better to read the essays separately or in their generic groups. It would even be useful to pair up thematically related essays from separate sections; for example, Chapters 2 and 9, which are both concerned with teaching. As I said earlier, it is good to read Henderson's words on the whole collection, and to think of it as a kind of anti-handbook that questions the assumptions and the very language of handbooks. But it would be reasonable, and just as useful, to set about absorbing these often provocative questions one at a time.

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