Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.01

T.P. Wiseman (ed.), Classics in Progress. Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome. Published for The British Academy by Oxford University Press.   London:  The British Academy, 2002.  Pp. xvi, 451.  ISBN 0-19-726270-8.  $72.00.  

Contributors: J. Barnes, M. Beard, A.K. Bowman, Av. Cameron, P. Cartledge, M. Crawford, J.K. Davies, P. Easterling, J. Griffin, P. Hardie, M. Heath, M.M. Mc Cabe, P. Parsons, M. Schofield, R.R.R. Smith, O. Taplin, T.P. Wiseman

Reviewed by Alessandro Barchiesi (
Word count: 1522 words

The British Academy (established 1902 by Royal Charter) has commissioned a number of new collective volumes, each of them offering a panorama of a disciplinary field at the turn of the XXth century. The initiative is turning out to be a success in spite of the obvious problems involved: selection and coverage, price of the volumes, the difficulty of dealing with a specific national tradition whilst inhabiting a worldwide intellectual market. The collections offer access to the present state of international research and can be recommended not only to specialists but also to graduate students and others looking for updated introductions to the various areas covered. The general reader interested in academic knowledge may well be a fiction, but the idea of a scholar in a neighboring field who is interested in updating her approach to Classics, or, for that matter, Archaeology (see the other Centenary Monograph, B. Cunliffe-W. Davies-C. Renfrew, Archaeology: The widening debate, 2002), is not unrealistic.

Wiseman has served the project well. The essays have been commissioned from leading scholars, as the Notes on Contributors clearly indicate, and even more importantly, the scholars have adopted a very clear and direct style of discussion. The topics and authors at a glance:

Contemporary poets from Ireland and England, their relationship to Greek models, and the sea-change in Classical education in the UK (Oliver Taplin)

Canons (Pat Easterling)

Papyrological discoveries create new puzzles, solve old conundrums in Greek literary history (Peter Parsons)

The new historical approach to visual production and its consequences for neighboring disciplines (R.R.R. Smith)

Cicero's letters: the meaning of their textual presentation, and the historical significance of choosing between the ancient manuscript arrangement and Tyrrell-Purser (Mary Beard)

Diocletian's price edict: one ancient document, its reconstruction, and the impact of successive discoveries and autopsies, of chance and supplementary information (Michael Crawford)

The study of late antiquity solidifies into the discipline of Late Antiquity in the late XX century (Averil Cameron)

Egypt as the test for a multicultural, interdisciplinary approach to Mediterranean history (Alan Bowman)

Changing approaches to Greek history (John Davies)

Slavery challenges its interpreters (Paul Cartledge)

Socrates and the Vlastos-Stone controversy: professional Classics versus free-lance Classics in the United States, Greek democracy as the battlefield (Malcolm Schofield)

Roman politics during the Roman Republic: conservative and progressive approaches (T.P. Wiseman)

A close reading of Horace Odes 4,15 (Jasper Griffin)

A new reading of the Ganymede ecphrasis in Aeneid book V, the polarization between optimistic and pessimistic readings of the poem, and the problem of how to extend the limits of political interpretation (Philip Hardie)

Reading Plato vs analyzing Plato's arguments: a new approach to reading the dialogues in the light of Platonic intratextuality and Stoic reception (Mary Margaret Mc Cabe)

Christians confront the tradition of ancient logic: clashes and negotiations (Jonathan Barnes)

A change in periodization, Mid-Antiquity instead of Late, measuring Homer-the fall of Constantinople instead of -the end of the Roman empire in the West, facilitates a reassessment of Imperial rhetoric and literary scholarship in Greek (Malcolm Heath).

The new collection demonstrates openness and polyphony, especially if -- as the introduction recommends -- the Blackwell volume edited in 1954 by Maurice Platnauer devoted to Fifty years (and twelve) of Classical Scholarship is taken as a foil. It was impossible for this new collection to sample all the developments of Classics, but it is still a bit surprising that there is so little about gender and sexuality, nothing about anthropology and its border with Classical studies, and almost nothing about texts and transmission (although Mary Beard's paper is an invitation to read Cicero's letters without taking for granted their standard textual presentation -- a good protreptic to remember that cultural studies and textual criticism are not necessarily enemies).

Some of the essays are truly impressive in their scope and methodological generosity: R.R.R. Smith, for example, offers a concise analysis of some of the crucial problems of doing visual history nowadays. Almost all contribute insights and considerations that extend beyond the limits of the specific assignment. The three preferred formats are surveys, case studies, and close readings, but there are also combinations of different formats. It is perhaps instructive that some of the fields have been covered in terms of survey when the emphasis was on the dynamic transformation or even the (re)invention of a discipline -- so e.g. Averil Cameron on the emergence of late Antiquity, Alan Bowman on Egyptian multicultural and interdisciplinary studies, J.K. Davies on the recently redefined discipline of Greek history -- while others, especially Latin literature and the history of philosophy, have been represented by close readings and specific soundings. Most of the authors should be congratulated for not avoiding controversial and difficult areas, in a context that makes it all too easy to celebrate generational achievements by 'playing it safe'.

In general terms, the surprise is that those revisitations of late XX century scholarship show no pessimism about even more recent developments (the 'kicking away the ladder' strategy often practised in the humanities). The only paper that takes a negative position about recent criticism and advocates a return to healthier traditions is Jasper Griffin's reading of Horace, Carmina 4,15, but here I had problems in following the link between close reading and critical argument. Griffin asserts that he prefers traditional German studies of Horace (he mentions Doblhofer and Lefevre but not, surprisingly, Fraenkel or Kiessling and Heinze) over recent scholarship in English (Fowler, Lowrie, Oliensis). He may well be right, and as always he has interesting points as a close reader, but we are not offered, as we say in Italy, 'uno straccio di argomento', and we end up not knowing what is so wrong in those late XX century readings. Griffin mentions the negative influence of Romanticism on English-speaking authors, but those ideas have been around for a long while and are certainly not absent in the German tradition. He presents his own Horace as a historically validated image of the author and contrasts in horror Don Fowler's definition of Carmina 4,5 as "Horace's most Fascist poem". In spite of appearances, Fowler's scandalous idea has a richer historical content than Griffin's: Fowler was arguing not that we (hypocrite tenured radicals that we are) should feel entitled to pass judgment on Horace's politics but that Fascist receptions of Horace are just as interesting as the British stereotype of Horace the man of the world, the independent, detached, jaded, witty observer of social life. For a scholar working within the tradition of English Horatianism, a tradition that takes for granted that one of those two perspectives is the natural one and the other an occasional aberration, this was an important point to make: by contrast, Griffin seems to believe in a spontaneous identification between critic and author, so that his program seems to be (as Ralph Hexter pointed out about another Horatian critic) 'others will read Horace their own way, I will read Horace his way'. By contrast, Philip Hardie offers an explicit, falsifiable, and accountable argument about ideology and historicism in the interpretation of the Aeneid, and anticipates and invites controversy by laying out clearly his methods and agenda; in fact his paper in this collection has already sparked an equally clear response from the opposite front (see M.C.J. Putnam, CW 96.2 (2003) 177-84). These polemics have a clear advantage over many previous discussions of the Aeneid, because the focal area is not whether the poet is an optimist or a pessimist, but how far critics should use a political and social context when interpreting textual details which is, I think, a more promising way of framing arguments, one that has an interface with what visual and material culture interpreters are arguing about.

The authors have been particularly effective in their style, and the essays are inviting, lively, often a pleasure to read. R.R.R. Smith invokes some of the worst Hollywood movies ever made as a parallel to the execution scene on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, p. 82 "The modern visual parallel is not 'All Quiet on the Western Front' but something more like 'Robocop' or 'Death-wish'" (but then he might have quoted a torture scene from Anthony Mann's important The Fall of the Roman Empire as a parallel for the less easily categorized torture vignette on Trajan's Column, a parallel suggesting that visual productions for large audiences may well incorporate contradictions and ambivalence, cf. p. 79).

Overall, my favorite moment of wit would have been Peter Parsons' parallel between the Alcman 'interpretation' of the Derveni Papyrus and the deranged commentary in Nabokov's Pale Fire -- until I saw Michael Crawford's redefinition of that most stale of genres, the 'Notes on Contributors'

M.C. is Professor of Ancient History in the History Department of University College London: he is quite certain that Classics is not a discipline. His publications include Roman Statutes (two volumes, 1996).

On a less frivolous note, thanks are due to Oliver Taplin for quoting, in his discussion of Classics and contemporary English lyric, an Aeschylean pastiche by Seamus Heaney: the passage has the potential to become a motto on living in the West during the early XXIst century:

no such thing
as innocent

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