Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.04.21

Giulio Guidorizzi, Il mondo letterario greco: storia, civiltà, testi. Vol. I: Età arcaica; Vol. 2: Età classica (2 vols.). Vol. 3: Dall'età ellenistica all'età cristiana (2 vols.).   Milan:  Einaudi Scuola, 2000.  Pp. xl, 7; 1,024; 94803.  ISBN 88-286-0841-6; 88-286-0482-4; 88-286-0483-2.  L. 50,50; L. 59,500; L. 59,5000.  

Reviewed by Lowell Edmunds, Rutgers University (
Word count: 1118 words

Though G.'s anthology, intended for the liceo classico, will not be used outside of Italy, it is of interest to classicists everywhere for two main reasons. First, it embodies a canon that inevitably differs from, and thus invites comparison with, other canons of other Greek literature. For Hellenists in North America, this comparison is especially intriguing, for the reason that their canon is an implicit one, articulated perhaps only in Ph.D. reading lists and the syllabuses of survey courses. Second, G. demonstrates an approach to the history of Greek literature, giving his own answer to the question (to vary the title of a book by David Perkins [1992]): is the history of Greek literature possible? Again, comparisons suggest themselves, this time with histories of Greek literature that have appeared in Europe and in England in the last decade or so.

As for G.'s canon, the most striking aspect is the inclusion of Christian literature (Vol. 3). His choice is in line with a recent tendency observable in Albrecht Dihle, Die griechische und lateinische Literatur der Kaiserzeit: von Augustus bis Justinian (1989), Jean Sirinelli, Les enfants d'Alexandre (1993), and Suzanne Saïd, Monique Trédé, and Alain Le Boulluec, Histoire de la littérature grecque (1997). Cf. already, tentatively, Jacqueline de Romilly, Précis de littérature grecque (1980). This tendency in Greek literary history is, of course, part of a larger reconceptualization of the chronological and geographical boundaries of ancient history, which in the past generation have been widened and pushed forward in time. But I have the impression that the largely implicit literary canon in North America does not yet include Christian writers and probably not even the New Testament, which is arguably (and not just from the believer's point of view) the most important book ever composed in Greek.

To go back to the beginnings of Greek literature, G.'s choices again contrast with those that many or most Americans would instinctively make. His selections from the Iliad include the Lycaon episode (21.34-135) but nothing from Book 9, which, because of Jasper Griffin's commentary and Richard Martin's discussion of Achilles' speech in The Language of Heroes, not to mention an older preoccupation with the figure of the hero, is probably in this country the central book of the epic. The Homerica include the prooimion to the Batrachomyomachia and selections from three Homeric Hymns, though none from the Hymn to Demeter, the one that seems to be of central interest on this side of the Atlantic. The selections from monody, elegy and iambic are less useful for the comparison that I am making: stinginess of transmission has decided what we can read and thus what we do read. But Pindar and Bacchylides offer a wider range. From the former G. includes Ol. 6.22-76 (the birth of Iamos) and from the latter Dithyrambs 17 and 18, which are hardly canonical, I would say, for Anglophone Hellenists, even if dithyramb was in a certain sense more important in its day than tragedy. As for Ol. 6, it appeared in only two of the dozen or so Ph.D. reading lists I once collated. The volume includes sections on the Orphics (with some of the gold tablets in translation) and Pythagoreans. The major pre-Socratics are present, with the surprising exception of Empedocles, who has been much under discussion recently, both because of the Strasbourg papyrus and because of interest in the Empedoclean background of Lucretius. (Empedocles is mentioned in a "box" on iatromanteis and shamans [676].) The volume concludes with several of Aesop's fables.

From this brief survey of Vol. 1 of G.'s anthology, two tendencies emerge. One is probably national, reflecting an older Italian canon. The other, more striking tendency is a broadening of scope to include the para-literary and even (as most would still say) the non-literary. (The omission of inscriptions is an exception to this principle of inclusiveness.) In G.'s new canon the sublime and the humble stand in the same space.

How to write the history of Greek literature? G.'s answer is complex. First, this history is different from all subsequent literary histories because it begins with an oral literature that only over the course of centuries becomes a written one. The social function of literature, the modalities of literature as a form of communication, thus immediately enter the picture. G. proposes to use the tools of social anthropology to place the texts in their historical context of communication. But the anthropologist of Greek literature and society, relying, in large part, on texts, cannot do without philology (Vol. 1, p. XXV). The basic terms and concepts that G. lays out in his preface therefore divide about evenly between these two sectors. The first seven belong to anthropology, the rest to philology (in a broad sense): 1. Cultura, 2. Immaginario, 3. Folklore, 4. Società tradizionali, 5. Totemismo, 6. Endogamia/Esogamia, 7. Antropologia del mondo antico, 8. Epigrafia, 9. Papiro, 10. Codice, 11. Critica del testo, 12. Scoli, 13. Lessicografia/Etimologia (Vol. 1, pp. XV-XL).

G.'s arrangement of texts, however, remains the traditional and perhaps inevitable one: by genres and forms. He thus combines an "intrinsic" and an "extrinsic" approach, to use the terms of Lee Patterson in his article "Literary History" (in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, ed. Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed. [1995], 250-62). The former approach sees the history of literature as the history of poets or authors and genres. The latter sees it as the expression of historical context. The relation of these two approaches is, on a broad view, the current challenge to those who care about Greek literature. Oliver Taplin has recently offered a collection of essays on audiences of ancient literature, both Greek and Latin (Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A New Perspective [Oxford, 2000])--a contribution to an extrinsic history. In Gregory Nagy's Pindar's Homer (Baltimore, 1990), the history of archaic and earlier classical Greek literature to which I most often turn, I sense a fundamental antinomy between a text-immanent approach built on a historico-linguistic model and an "enunciative" one sensitive to performance and thus to historical circumstances.

In any case, clearly it is no longer sufficient to adduce bits of historical information about ancient Greek literature along with occasional aesthetic judgments (cf., for example, Albrecht Dihle, A History of Greek Literature from Homer to the Hellenistic Period [London, 1994], ch. 2.) One must face the challenge, as G. has done. His anthology is a masterful reconciliation, on a large scale, of the two approaches, intrinsic and extrinsic, and an accomodation of a sophisticated vision of Greek literature to pedagogical purposes. His introductions to and commentaries on a vast array of Greek texts will be useful to all teachers of Greek fortunate enough to own these volumes.

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