Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.13

Antoine Foucher, Historia proxima poetis. L'influence de la poésie épique sur le style des historiens latins de Salluste à Ammien Marcellin. Collection Latomus, 255.   Brussels:  Latomus, 2000.  Pp. 487.  ISBN 2-87031-196-6.  

Reviewed by Christina S. Kraus, Oxford University (
Word count: 1955 words

This substantial thèse has an impressive pair of 'Doktoreltern,' Professors Hellegouarc'h and Dangel, whose influential work on Latin lexicography and historiographical style continues to underpin many current studies. And indeed, the core of Foucher's book, analyses of poetic diction in the historians and of specific intertextualities between historians and poets, will be of considerable use. It is regrettable, therefore, that so much of the book seems to this reviewer on the one hand to rehearse basic, often dated material, and on the other to veer strangely between sensible judgments and self-contradictory statements, errors, or misunderstandings.

F.'s study centers on Sallust, Livy, Curtius Rufus, Tacitus, and Ammianus, though he occasionally includes other historians, and makes consistent use of Greek and Roman rhetoric. The book is divided into three parts: (1) the theoretical basis for the close relationship between history and the epic (comprising discussions of Cicero and the rhetorical foundation of history, of epic and historiographical moralizing discourses, and of rhetoric and history); (2) 'Une forme simple de l'intertextualité' (epic vocabulary, preceded by a discussion of archaisms and poeticisms); (3) 'Les formes complexes de l'intertextualité' (poetic 'citations', poetic rhythms in prose, and battle narratives in poetry and in prose). An Appendix providing further frequency information for the lexical chapters is followed by Indices of words and passages discussed. The argument is in general richly illustrated; the bibliography is wide-ranging, though -- despite the unconscionable lateness of this review -- it was not up-to-date even for publication in 2000.

Starting from Quintilian's famous statement that historia is proxima poetis (10.1.31), F. proposes to show more precisely how this is true and, more importantly, what implications that relationship has for the way the ancients understood the qualities and purpose of their historiography. The main connections between historia and poetry for which he argues are lexical and moral/philosophical -- the one reflecting the ancient rhetorical description of historia as tending toward the 'grand' style, one which admits a fluid linguistic and tropological decorum; the other, Roman history's grounding in exempla and the national preoccupation with uirtutes and didactic moralism. F. is surely right, and importantly so, to insist on the close connection between means of expression and core of purpose: epic does not simply decorate Roman history, it offers it a way of thinking about the past that in turn -- via the interaction of Lucan and historical prose, say -- informs the way imperial epic views history. Yet there are difficulties, both in detail and in some of F.'s main argument. Why is Fabius Rusticus described (13) as a 'modern' and therefore a Sallustian historian on the basis of Tac. Ag. 10 (where his pairing with Livy could well suggest parity between two writers of different generations, rather than contrast)? Why are Cato's Origines characterized as 'not establishing a relation between the past and the present' (21) -- granted the difficulty of knowing anything substantive about the articulations and themes of Cato's text, it is still the case that the very title suggests an obsession with precisely such a relationship. Curtius Rufus is 'the first historian clearly influenced by Vergil' (24) -- what, then, of Velleius? If Vergil places 'de véritables héros' at the center of his work (27), I'd hate to see what the flawed ones look like; and it mystifies me why F. maintains that the Romans 'took such a long time to get interested in contemporary history' (17), given the primacy in Roman historical writing of Fabius Pictor and the existence of Ennius and Naevius. F.'s whole discussion of the way the Romans were mired down in the 'carcan des traditions religieuses et sociales' (14) and only latterly fought their way to a literary history to match that of the Greeks seems to me far too Tullio-centric, at best, to be sustainable.

This mix of curiously dated, poorly digested, and sometimes apparently irrelevant material punctuates the whole. I would, personally, not take to heart many of F.'s literary judgments, which are often self-contradictory (e.g., Germanicus' cupido at Tac. A. 1.61.1 marks his pietas, while the same emotion [H. 2.70.1 concupiuit] marks Vitellius as proud and impious [100-1]), often outmoded (e.g., he revives the old idea [via McDonald's influential 1957 JRS article] that Livy was a disciple of Cicero [78]), and sometimes just questionable. Two examples: first, the reason Tacitus and Ammianus seem to have 'internalized epic' in a way that Sallust and Livy did not (115-16) may have less to do with the overwhelming influence of Vergil (important though that was) than it does with the loss of Ennius; secondly, F. describes Cicero's work as dominated by the 'maîtres-mots' of Atticism 'en dépit de quelques avancées asianistes' (137; no discussion of the problematics of those labels), but on the next page Quintilian is 'a partisan of Atticism who goes so far as to take a stance against the Asianist tendencies of his master Cicero', and five pages later (142) Cicero is seen opposing the 'Néo-attiques' (no definition of this term vis-à-vis simple 'Atticism') in Brutus and Orator. I can see ways in which all of these statements are partially true; but for all of them to be true all of the time seems to me to invite confusion. A lot of chapters II (moralism in history and epic) and III (rhetoric and history) read like potted literary history (II: Sallust and Livy; III: Tacitus and Ammianus), in which wheels are reinvented (we do not need another proof that imperial Latin literature is characterized by the breakdown of boundaries between poetry and prose) and artificial lines are drawn (it would be helpful to have Livy, at least, included in an investigation of declamatory rhetoric's influence on history; and both Sallust and Livy -- who in F.'s eyes seems condemned to celebrate only proud Roman virtues [e.g., 288] -- should be included in an investigation of history which 'confounds, indeed inverts, heroic values' [110]).

F. is steeped in Latin lexicography (he has worked at the TLL), and Parts 2 and 3 of Historia proxima poetis are the most rewarding. Using Lebek and Hoffman-Szantyr (among others) as his base (147-51), he is scrupulous about the criteria for inclusion in his lists of 'vocabulaire poétique' (156-64) -- though here again, I question some of his assumptions. For instance, the first criterion -- for which the spiritual ancestor is Syme's famous Appendix, 'Words not in Tacitus' (cf. Foucher 93) -- is that to be included in the words he studies here, a lexical item must not appear in Caesar (156-7; the corpus Caesarianum is not entirely excluded). The basis of the exclusion is familiar: Caesar's language is 'closed to poetic "impurities"' (165 n.735). The problem, of course, is that Caesar's language does contain what in other authors we would classify as 'poeticisms' (F. helpfully lists some of them at 156-7); the assumption that Caesar is 'pure' (cf. Cic. Brut. 262) determines our classification of his diction, rather than observation of the diction itself. The overall conclusion drawn (257-60) is that the number of poetic words increases through time in the authors surveyed -- though the case of Tacitus is more complex -- and peaks in Ammianus, whose poetic lexicon shows 'extraordinary variety' (260). Not a surprise, perhaps; but the discussions of individual words, and indeed the lists themselves, should be much used.

Chapter VIII, 'La citation poétique,' is a rich reading of identifiable poetic allusions in the historians under discussion; the intertextuality is primarily Vergilian, though Ennius and Lucan receive some attention. Ovid -- as is the case throughout the volume (with a handful of exceptions -- citations only -- in the word-lists) -- is not mentioned; a pity, given the Metamorphoses' influence on subsequent prose. But these discussions are interesting and will deepen our understanding of the way in which these five historians use poetic citation to create 'a true rhetoric of allusion' (319). In particular, F. discusses in detail the precise linguistic/stylistic ways in which his historians alter/rework their poetic citations. Refreshingly, Vergil is allowed to borrow from Livy (though F. prefers to limit these borrowings to 'technical' i.e., military vocabulary); rather less refreshingly, Ammianus' intertextualities are deemed 'inferior' to Tacitus', and the familiar image of the copybook quotation is raised. Conte (Rhetoric of imitation, trans. 1986) and Compagnon (La seconde main, ou le travail de la citation, 1979) provide the theoretical underpinnings for the chapter; surprisingly, given the recent -- and some not so recent -- efflorescence of discussion of the nature and effect of imitatio and allusion in classical texts, these are the latest secondary discussions cited.

Finally, building on the previous chapters, F. discusses epic metrical effects in prose (Chapter IX), then focuses in on the battle narrative (Chapters X-XI). He rightly insists that the apparent historiographical preference for heroic clausulae must be measured against the fact that the overwhelming majority of such clausulae are formed with four- and five-syllable words (against, that is, the dominant trend in epic verse); and through detailed analysis shows that Sallust and Tacitus use heroic rhythms the most flexibly, and pointedly, of the historians under review (Ammianus is discounted, as his clausulae follow a different system altogether). While F. resists claims that the particular configurations of dactylo-spondaic clausulae studied establish a link between historia and epic, he does show that Latin historians made creative, sometimes even structural use of such 'epicizing' rhythms in their artistic prose.

It is in battle narratives, however, that the influence of epic on historiography demonstrably comes into its own. F. begins (without benefit, so far as one can tell from the notes, of much secondary support) with literary genre, which he defines by the combination of a 'communauté de thèmes' and a 'mode d'écriture' (358-9). Not wrong, and not impractical for his purposes; but the avoidance of critical discussions again impoverishes what should be a solid foundation for his argument. He then moves, via analysis of sample parallels between Homer, Ennius, and Vergil (no Apollonius), to the De oratore, where he seems to take Cicero's discussion at 2.63 of what is required by history's rerum ratio to be specific to battle narratives (378): it is not. Quintilian on the urbs capta concludes the chapter, which serves as theoretical introduction to the close readings which follow in XI. Here F. summarizes the Greek background -- unfortunately presenting an antiquated view of Herodotus and downplaying the degree to which Thucydides and Polybius are indebted to epic (no mention of Sicily at all, and nothing on Polybius as Odysseus; see e.g. T. Rood, Thucydides: Narrative and explaination, 1998 and F. Walbank, Polybius, 1972) -- before coming to Rome. Here, as in the chapters on poetic intertextualities, there are good observations in his close readings (e.g. of the end of Sallust's Bellum Catilinae, the siege of Rome in Livy 5, the battle of Cremona in Tac. Hist. 3, and Ammianus 19 on Amida), but the whole is underwhelming. Ultimately, we learn that epic serves the eloquentia of history by enhancing its fides (refreshingly taken throughout in its strictly rhetorical sense) and its twin purposes, mouere and delectare; and that epic provides the historians with a special vehicle to enhance Roman uirtus. In sum, the epic style of Roman historiography reveals a philosophy of history which 'guarantees the immortality not so much of the Roman people as of the virtues incarnated by the Romans' (437-8).

This is not so much a bad book as one that seems to me to miss the point. F. has amassed a great deal of useful material and has provided a service to those who wish precise points of comparison between epic and history. But he has read that material through the lens of unexamined assumptions -- and the result is less than satisfactory.

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