Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.12.01

Oliver Taplin (ed.), Literature in the Greek & Roman worlds. A new perspective.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. XV + 596.  ISBN 0-19-210020-3.  

Contributors: Oliver Taplin, Leslie Kurke, Peter Wilson, Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Chris Carey, Jane L. Lightfoot, Matthew Leigh, Christina S. Kraus, Llewelyn Morgan, Philip Hardie, Catherine Connors, Michael Dewar

Reviewed by Alessandro Barchiesi (
Word count: 3541 words

Since the volume spans the entire literary production in Greek and Latin until the end of the Roman empire, I ask leave not to tell the entire plot from cover to cover, although I know this is sometimes thought to be a duty of BMCR reviewers. Now for the big picture. If this collection of essays (now also in sibling paperbacks, one Greek one Roman) sells well, this is good news for the situation of Classics at large. The project is aimed at at wide audience, and I have rarely seen an introduction to the whole field of Classical literature at this level of clarity and intensity. The advance praises on the jacket are talking about the very same book that I have been reading, and I could easily use them all in my review, e.g. P.E. Easterling "an inviting book, written with panache, rich but uncluttered, and authoritative without being pedantic". The task is to survey Greek and Roman literature through its interfaces with the original audiences, and it has been carried out through a well-planned sequence of autonomous essays.

Almost every part of the collection offers a number of formulations which are not simply bien trouvé or epigrammatic but also inspiring and inviting to further reflection. Among the papers on Latin literature (the area where I am most au fait with secondary literature, and I am not implying that the Greek half of the book is any weaker) note e.g. Leigh's contextualisation of the excessively famous, and mysteriously isolated, line by Ennius moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque (296-7); Morgan on misreadings of Lucretius: "but this is to misunderstand the purpose of the poem, by interpreting the De rerum natura as a testament of Lucretius' beliefs rather than what it really is: a course of teaching" (346) and on the lyric poetics of Horace: "in short, Horace has constructed a lyric performance on the written page" (386); Hardie on the Centauromachy in Ovid's epic, which "has a strong feel of the amphitheatrical; the half-man, half-beast Centaurs may be read as a phantasmagoric image of the confusion of man and beast in the arena" (430); Kraus announcing the program of Livy: "(it) will confront the problem of change by engaging its audience in a process of comparison and imitation" (335). The contributors have been brave in facing the problem of generalization and finding the appropriate style: introductions to literary history are a serious pursuit, their style is integral to their purpose, and this is not the kind of work that one consults just to check the number of books of Ennius' Annales. If I have to single out for praise one chapter in my immediate field of expertise, Connors' piece on Imperial space and time: the literature of leisure is one that deserves special mention. The author is one Classicist who has (if I may say so) a genuine Raymond Williams touch, and the essay is simultaneously a vindication of some underrated texts (Statius' Silvae, Martial) and an important meditation on the space of leisure in Imperial culture. There are also new insights on the poetics of objects--e.g. gifts, exotic marble--in Roman poetry, and this should be of interest to scholars of material culture. Her final statement about "trajectories from public to private" and their relationship to Imperial ideology (518) invites further discussions on ways in which the opposition of public and private has been constructed and maintained (not without bias) in modern scholarship.

A successful collective work of this scale is also a good point of reference if one wants to test the major trends within the discipline. The one-volume edition, for example, is interesting continuous reading if the focus is on differences and similarities between Greek and Latin studies (I return to this topic for a moment below. I just want to add that in this perspective the single volume edition has its merits.) It is also a good vantage point on mega-trends, because the sequence of the individual pieces suggests an overarching pattern, one which shows how the practice of Classics, nowadays, tends to be constructed according to the privileging of different models of communication, not mutually exclusive, yet arranged in some kind of diachronical order of prevalence. A three-fold organization seems to emerge: (i) Greek, archaic and classical: oral and aural communication (ii) Hellenistic and Roman (Republican to Augustan): books (iii) Roman Imperial: performance and spectacle. Each center of attention has developed its own peripheries and contested boundary-zones. Of course this crude simplification reads like a parody, but it is not intended to be: it is important to realize what are the dominant models in today's Classics, and how they generate interpretations that respond to the evolution of paradigms. This is precisely the kind of general work that tells you how the background for individual interpretations has been shaping up over time, and perhaps also where the current paradigms might be vulnerable, or at least open to further discussion. (In this context, Don Fowler's study announced below will repay attention).

The other instructive result relates to the value judgments. The drift of the entire survey is that there are no bad texts anymore, partly because contemporary critics are not interested in aesthetic or bellettristic evaluation, partly because the implicit ideology of many reading practices is rescue, reappraisal and recuperation, rather than dissection and ranking. If one reads the entire book from cover to cover and looks for negative judgments, the result is that there are only two authors left in the entire literary history of Greece and Rome who still count as downright bad writers, and only one critic in this posse of scholars, Jane Lightfoot, who is interested in pinning them down. The culprits are Lycophron (226) "the Alexandra, his only surviving work, has the distinction of being quite the most repellent poem to survive from antiquity", with the corresponding audience-oriented remark at p. 228 "there were sections of the public...with very strong stomachs", and Nicander (p. 249). The discussion of Nicander is less abrasive, but I think that the criterion used to criticize him should not be left unexamined by future Nicandrian scholars: since Nicander claims that his work will be useful to real people in need--be it ploughman, herdsman, or woodcutter in need of a remedy--and this claim is "impossibly unlikely" because "no one suffering from a snake- or scorpion-bite would dream of consulting" such an epic poem, we are told that Nicander is "obsessively, wearisomely" erudite--but why not grant him some literary self-consciousness? The contrast between the esoteric descriptive style of the poem and the urgencies and emergencies that it purports to address could be a source of delight for many readers, if they accept that the joke is on the didactic addressee not on the virtuoso poet. Were someone to use the Taplin collection as a quarry for dissertation topics, it may turn out that Lycophron and Nicander are among the most promising future choices, considering that rescues from critical exile are still a very popular way to construct a new scholarly contribution. Only a few years ago, Apollonius Rhodius (fine discussion of his sense of time by Lightfoot, 243) could never have been discussed as a central author in this kind of collection. But of course most of the energy here moves in the opposite direction, reappraisals, upwardly mobile authors: the list easily accommodates Isocrates (A. Wilson Nightingale) Statius (M. Leigh and C. Connors) Nonnos (J. Lightfoot) and more surprisingly Silius (M. Leigh); others (e.g. Xenophon and Livy) are treated in a promising way but rather briefly, if one considers their growing status in contemporary research, so that it must be the tyranny of space rather than their lack of appeal.

The text as it is will be a pleasure to use for students and scholars alike. However, there may be a problem for those wishing to exploit the volume as a guide to further reading: reasons of space and the intention to attract as many readers as possible have resulted in a policy of no footnoting and selective bibliographies. This tactic has different implications for different levels of readership. Professional scholars will be frustrated in their justifiable ambition to see their names quoted in full: the style is sometimes Catonian (in the sense of Cato's Origines, where generals were not named but "depicted...simply as representatives of the Roman people" p. 328, Ch.S. Kraus), with tags like "it has been argued", "someone has pointed out", "it is widely objected that". Of course I am not implying that anybody reads scholarly books with a special interest in who is being quoted and who is being left out--but just in case, and I am not implying that any BMCR readers would be at all like that, I checked: the name filter lets through only four official exceptions among contemporary scholars (discounting, of course, those present in the bibliography only), and the names, as listed in the Index, are Burkert, Latacz, Milman Parry, and Seaford, with a whopping 50% for Swiss universities. (On the other hand, this listing is not complete; while reading the volume I have noticed the names of four more scholars, two Harvard and two Stanford professors: I can supply the names on request). More seriously, less experienced and less specialized readers are not particularly disadvantaged, at least when a major topic is being treated in the light of previous research and this piece of research is listed in the selective bibliography; the only difficulty comes when the text is obliquely and incidentally alluding to an item of more specialized scholarship, one that would normally belong in a footnote rather than in a basic bibliography. To quote examples at random, the problem of authorial persona and its generic implications is crucial enough to merit attention in Kurke's chapter on Herodotus, and readers wanting further guidance will not be disappointed if they consult the first item in the bibliography at p. 550, C. Dewald, 'Narrative surface and authorial voice in Herodotus' Histories', Arethusa 20, 1987, 141-70 (special volume on Herodotus, edited by D. Boedeker), and those already acquainted with studies of ancient narratives will easily agree that this paper is being justly singled out; but the observation that the first four words of the Ennian hexameter "moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque" spell out the name of Mars as an acrostich will be less familiar to most readers: its anonymous appearance (Leigh, p. 296 "it has been noted that...") is not matched by an item in the final bibliography, and the only Ennian entry is, resonably enough when space is so scarce, the Annals by O. Skutsch. (For the record, the idea had been formulated by Michael Hendry, Liverpool Classical Monthly, 19, 1993 (but circa 1996), 108-9).

The individual essays are autonomous but there is plenty of felicitous crossreference.1 The process can be creatively continued by individual readers, for example by connecting and contrasting Kraus on Imperial semiotics in Tacitus ("The only successful readers in Tacitus' text are those who can read the all-powerful emperor who, as the focus of aristocratic and plebeian attention alike, has himself become a dangerous new text which demands, yet frustrates, correct reading", 464) and Leigh on Domitian in the Thebaid ("the poem's construction of Domitian as a super-reader of the text", 487). Even local problems of interpretation can benefit from the dialogue between different essays. The tantalizing anecdote mentioned by Morgan (364)--someone made fun of Virgil, Georgics 1,299 during a recitation, by capping 'nudus ara, sere nudus' with 'habebis frigore febrem'--perhaps conceals a witty self-reflexive pointe if one considers what Leigh says in a different context (472): "The worst misfortune which a reciter could endure was known as a frigus or a 'chill'...those who were hostile to the poet could subject him to the silent disdain of the frigus". The reciting poet, not just the ploughman, is the one threatened with a 'chill' in the context of the recitation, if the heckler (Ignotus in Courtney FLP, Obtrectatores Vergili fr. 3--if my use of 'fr.' is indeed the right concept here; Ignoti Versiculus in Buechner, FPL p. 136) succeeds in sapping the stylistic boldness (and infidelity to Hesiod?) of nudus ara, sere nudus. Knowing about 'chill' as an institution of Roman performance culture could indeed help us to recuperate the intentions of Mr. Ignotus.

In sum, the success of the book is based both on the quality of the individual contributors and on the intelligent planning of the whole. Some of the authors should be congratulated for writing with originality and independence about gigantic figures (e.g. A. Wilson Nightingale, who introduces Greek wisdom traditions from the origins to the beginnings of Hellenistic philosophy), others have been nothing short of heroic in covering a huge and unforgiving landscape of texts (J. Lightfoot, less than 70 pages on everything written in Greek from Menander to Nonnos; M. Dewar, from the age of Apuleius to the fall of the Empire). Other chapters, based on a coherent genre and situation (Kurke on lyric, Peter Wilson on Attic drama, Carey on the Athenian orators), represent the closest equivalent to the audience-oriented program sketched by Taplin. All have been in full control not only of the issues, but of the brief to write about the horizon of the intended public, and of the importance of not writing just another handbook of literary history. Audience-oriented literary history is not merely a façon de parler or a packaging here: we are even offered an estimate of the number of immediate readers for Virgil' Eclogues--unlikely to be above two thousand when Rome's population was one million, according to Morgan p. 365--and a reader-response critique of the most famous intertextual fart in Roman literary chronicles--Lucan improvising on Nero's poetry in the latrines of the imperial palace and provoking terror in the audience (Leigh, 473).

Readers will be disappointed only if they start looking for what this book does not intend to be, for example, a deeply innovative revision of traditional literary histories, or a step forward in the dialogue between Classics and studies of reception and transmission. (Now, according to Taplin's introduction, readers who are contemporary to the production of a verbal work normally do not make this kind of mistake: they realize what the new work is about and so turn out to be most reliable guides to interpretation, but I am less optimistic and perhaps it is worth sketching out briefly what this book should not be expected to offer).

About the first aspect, the book as a response to the crisis of literary histories, one has a feeling that there has been a deliberate compromise between tradition and innovation: the structure, periodization, and general ideology of literary histories are substantially still standing, while the individual essays very often center on approaches that are fresh, innovative and related to contemporary agendas. In other words, this book is ideal for you if you want to discover as fast as possible how to approach or make interesting in a classroom a specific author or genre, for example in the context of a survey or an introductory class, less so if your aim is to find out about the history of literature as a problem and a field in need of rethinking. We are offered no systematic problematization of the concept of literature; very little on popular genres per se; non-literary and sub-literary forms of communication are visible only when when they relate to masterpieces and canonical authors; a diachronic plot of origins, blossoming and decadence somehow survives in the arrangement and proportions of the material, and in the privileging of Great Books, although of course many of the contributors are subjectively opposed to this kind of inertia. The absence of Graeco-Roman chapters is not particularly welcome and sounds slightly old-fashioned in a project which takes a fresh look at the contexts of textual production and the cultural constraints of reception, and marketing the work through a Greek volume and a Roman volume will increase a sense of separation. If those concerns matter, it would be easy to use this collection in combination with some essay where some of the implicit assumptions of literary history are more explicitly questioned--except that I, for instance, am not aware that many such tools exist for Classics in any language. The most helpful short discussion of periodization--perhaps the crucial issue in this area--that I have come across is in a book that is not normally featured in reading lists for survey classes in ancient literature, Susan Alcock's Graecia Capta (Cambridge 1993, 215-19. Note also M. Golden-P. Toohey (edd.), Inventing ancient culture, London 1997 (in particular the piece by Ian Morris); J.P. Schwindt, Prolegomena zu einer 'Phaenomenologie' der römischen Literaturgeschichtsschreibung, Göttingen 2000).

With reference to the dialogue with reception and transmission, the problem might be that there has been a strong asymmetry in the development of Greek and Roman studies in the present generation. If I may use a very rough simplification, reception studies in Latin have demonstrated precisely the kind of revitalizing effect and 'kick' that cultural studies have brought to archaic Greece and to classical Athens. This book is an eloquent testimony of the inevitable need to renounce bellettristic approaches to Sappho or Aeschylus; in the meantime, those working on Tacitus and Ovid, Virgil and Plautus, Seneca and Horace have discovered that knowing about reception makes them better interpreters of the original texts because it multiplies angles and perspectives. Those two traditions have something in common since they both strive to 'defamiliarize' the ancient text, but, while Hellenists focus on imagining ancient communities of addressees as a corrective to aestheticizing 'timeless' receptions, Latinists seem more interested in pitting different moments of reception history one against another. Both trends have their merits and their reasons, and in fact the practical effect, as I mentioned, is much the same. It is unlikely that the 'first audience', consumer-oriented approach that seems to dominate Taplin's introduction will produce a long-lasting reaction against the effects of reception studies.2 (I do not dwell on this problem because I look forward to the publication of Don Fowler's posthumous book on the Ancient Book, expected OUP 2002: Unrolling the text. Books and readers in Roman poetry. This thought-provoking essay offers many ideas that will generate a fruitful dialogue with Taplin's emphasis on first-time audiences and features inter alia a profound analysis of the oral-written polarization, one of the central concerns in this collection, and a striking interpretation of one of the least central texts in this collection, Seneca's tragedies. Fowler's starting point is obviously the widely recognized success of audience-oriented interpretations of Greek epic and drama, including Oliver Taplin's approach to Athenian tragedy.) As I read Taplin's short programmatic introduction, he is not actually advocating a 'new approach'--unlikely since the practice of historicism has been with us since the foundation of European professional and specialized Classics--but rather 'a fresh perspective', one that rejuvenates traditional historicism and avoids an excess of preliminary theorizing.3 Taplin's best contribution in this perspective is not the introduction, but his chapter on early epic. One and a half pages into this chapter, audience-oriented interpretation is featured at its best: "The internal audiences should not be treated as direct or literal 'evidence' for the world of the external audiences--though that does not mean that there is no relationship between them" (p. 23). There is nothing mechanical or naive in this way of contextualizing ancient texts.4 In the same vein, I think the introduction could have done a bit more with all those shady, but sometimes indispensable, characters which used to circulate in semiotic essays of the 70's: the implied author, the model reader, the resistant reader, & company.

My final point is about the aspect furthest removed from the intentions of this work, viz. transmission. The success of this introduction to Greek and Roman texts for a wide public indicates the need of a comparable tool in the area of textual criticism and approaches to transmission. Focusing as they do on the production of texts in the context of original communication and initial reception, the authors have very little occasion to refer to the process of transmission and reconstruction as a key aspect of Greek and Latin studies.5 We are invited to respond to Attic tragedy as it faces the polis not to reflect on the equally important fact that our perception of tragedy is based on a narrow choice of pieces surviving through the Byzantine manuscripts plus a very different set of fragments recuperated through ancient papyri, and the fact that our picture of the genre is affected by the kind of testimonies that we have and by the different degrees of attention commanded by the two strands of the tradition. It would be good to have another book written at this level of freshness and clarity, and focusing on a how-to approach to textual criticism, source criticism and transmission history. Every country with an academic tradition in Classics has its own great learned books in this area, and some have good handbooks, but very few of them are directly usable by beginners. If it is possible to make literary history and ancient audiences interesting again, it shouldn't be hard to write engaging accounts of how we work on ancient texts and their transformations.


1.   A couple of cross-references should be revised (p. 502 "see p. 456 below"; p. 435 "pp. 45-6" should be "345-6"). One of the very few slips I have identified, p. 295 "seventeen-book epic" referring to Ennius' Annales, is in fact virtually a cross-reference, since the contributor has also written important comments on Silius' Punica.
2.   Taplin himself is introduced in the Notes on contributors as the co-director of the Oxford-based Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman drama and is doing more than most people do in order to keep audiences interested in Classics and in Classics-cum-reception. My discussion only addresses a moment in his introduction, p. 2-5, where he seems too confident in the "original public" which received the work "fresh-minted from the maker" as a standard for our own interpretations.
3.   If Taplin's implicit target is the influence of Continental hermeneutics, I must mention that his dust-jacket picture is the same as seen in Lowell Edmunds' almost simultaneous Intertextuality and the reading of Roman poetry (Baltimore and London. 2001) - with the interesting difference that the reconstructive Taplin jacket credits 'detail from a Roman wall-painting from Pompeii' while the more deconstructive Edmunds jacket cautions 'unidentified young woman from Pompeii'. There was no caption in the cover illustration for Gordon Williams' The nature of Roman poetry (paperback short version, Oxford U.P. 1970), but the woman was the same.
4.   I found myself not entirely convinced by Taplin's use of the famous fragment by Choirilos of Samos (SH 317) as a coda to his discussion of traditional Greek epic. The fragment is more famous than it is successfully explained, and the generalization "there is a five-lines fragment from the later fifth century which epitomizes the great change from the open unselfconsciousness of performed epic to a written text which is searching for metaphors to express its metaliterary self-location" (57) places a heavy load on Choirilos' poetic wagon. I also had doubts about the precise interpretation of the spatial and agonistic imagery of the fragment: the final words are here translated "and though / I glance all round, I can not light on any new chariot to harness", but cf. e.g. A.S. Hollis, ZPE 130, 2000, 14 "Choirilos, as the backmarker, can find no vacant space amid the solid array of competitors ahead of him".
5.   Although some do, when space allows, e.g. Kurke on the nature of the evidence for archaic song culture.

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