Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.08

David Braund, Christopher Gill, Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome. Studies in Honour of T. P. Wiseman.   Exeter:  University of Exeter Press, 2003.  Pp. x, 358.  ISBN 0-85989-662-5.  £40.00.  

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, University of California, Los Angeles (
Word count: 1623 words

Even after Augustus left the city of Rome clad in marble, a stray dog could still find a severed hand in one of its streets. That gem of a detail, though tucked discreetly into a footnote (p. 4 n. 8, citing Suet. Vesp. 5.4), seems to stick with almost every reader of Catullus and his World. And rightly so: it is a particularly graphic example of Peter Wiseman's special gift for seeing Rome as a real place and bringing it to life for his readers, too. He has been doing this since the 1960s by calmly and productively ignoring the traditional barriers between historical and literary studies, and as our discipline now increasingly strives to do the same, his work seems fresher and more challenging with every passing year.

Some acknowledgement of that phenomenon was certainly in order, and in March 2000 the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter took the occasion of his sixtieth birthday to organize a conference, "Myth, History and Performance: A Celebration of the Work of T. P. Wiseman." The present volume captures the good-natured immediacy of that occasion in an Introduction (David Braund and Christopher Gill), an Appreciation (Elaine Fantham), and an Autobiographical Note by T.P.W. (who also supplied a bibliography of his work to 2002), but the thirteen essays at its core make a serious claim to lasting attention. These are:

1. Nicholas Purcell, "Becoming Historical: The Roman Case" (12-40).

This provocative and perceptive inquiry into the nature of historical consciousness moves from general observations about the nature of Greek historike to the development of a specifically Roman historical sense, which Purcell traces back as early as the fifth century. It was, he suggests, not a primarily literary development, nor was the Roman historiographic tradition simply a gift of Greece.

2. Filippo Coarelli, "Remoria" (41-55).

In Remus (114-17), Wiseman identified the Remoria with the Sacred Mount. Coarelli suggests instead the so-called Colle di Piche ("Magpie Hill"), south of the city near the fifth milestone on the via Campana, and argues that location on the boundary of the archaic ager Romanus, leads to a series of identifications of Remus with the Roman countryside and Romulus with its urban core.

3. Michael Crawford, "Land and People in Republican Italy" (56-72).

Crawford argues from the location of certain rural sanctuaries and hill-forts and the evidence of sixth-century weight-standards that archaic settlements in Appennine Italy centered not on river basins but on summer pastures in the high mountains, a pattern both pre-Roman and un-Greek.

4. Tim Cornell, "Coriolanus: Myth, History and Performance" (73-97).

This article identifies the main elements of the Coriolanus legend and argues for their compatibility with what we know from other sources about aristocratic society in central Italy around 500 B.C. Cornell traces the development and survival of such a story to the kind of pre-literary activity -- ballad, epic, or play -- to which Peter Wiseman has recently been calling attention.

5. Elaine Fantham, "Pacuvius: Melodrama, Reversals and Recognitions" (98-118).

Concentrating on plays with significant recognitions (Atalanta, Medus, Iliona, Chryses) enables Fantham to identify some significant traits of stage action and style in Pacuvian tragedy. She then uses these 'sound-bites' to make more general suggestions about the Roman taste in tragedy and the genre's place in the ludi scaenici.

6. James Zetzel, "Plato with Pillows: Cicero on the Uses of Greek Culture" (119-38).

Zetzel's sensitivity to the nuances of Cicero's frame in de Oratore leads him to reconsider the nature and degree of Cicero's acceptance of Greek culture. Further evidence drawn from the pro Archia and Fourth Verrine supports the idea that Cicero was rather more guarded and utilitarian in his use of Greek learning than is often thought: "Cicero's pillows cushion Rome from the naked irrelevance of Greek theorists" (135).

(Incidentally, the fact of Crassus' benches is at least as revealing a detail as his cushions. It is extremely difficult, as I can report from personal experience, to sit on the ground when wearing a toga and virtually impossible to get up again without grievous loss of dignity. A Roman would probably have taken his toga off before making the attempt, clearly an ideological impossibility for the discussants of de Oratore.)

7. Susan Treggiari, "Ancestral Virtues and Vices: Cicero on Nature, Nurture and Presentation" (139-64).

Virtue had a pedigree at Rome. The specific virtues (or lack of them) in individuals were thought to be traceable to the moral characteristics of their families. Treggiari collects a wide array of material from Cicero's writings that bear on this ancient version of the nature vs. nurture debate, which Cicero and his contemporaries exploited for political as well as social advantage.

8. Francis Cairns, "Catullus in and about Bithynia: Poems 68, 10, 28 and 47" (165-90).

Cairns weaves a complex web of literary, archaeological, and historical arguments to make a series of points about poems reflecting Catullus' personal interests in Bithynia. He posits the exploitation of Protesilaus' tomb at Troy as the link among the seemingly disparate themes of poem 68 and argues that Catullus is genuinely hostile to Memmius in 10 (with 28 and 47), and that Plotius Tucca is the "Porcius" of 47.

9. A. J. Woodman, "Poems to Historians: Catullus 1 and Horace Odes 2.1" (191-216).

Woodman's close reading of the two poems of his title treats them as responses to the work of the historians addressed, Cornelius Nepos and Asinius Pollio. He examines with appropriate brevity the "Callimachean" qualities of Nepos' history and then more fully the echoes of Pollio's themes in Horace's poem. This leads to observations about Pollio's history of the Civil War and, through appreciation of Horace's deliberate distancing of poetry from history, to a broader consideration of generic distinctions in the later first century.

10. Mario Torelli, "The Frescoes of the Great Hall of the Villa at Boscoreale: Iconography and Politics" (217-56).

Torelli offers not simply a masterful analysis of these famous frescoes in all their complexity -- his refusal to privilege one or another allegorical reading is itself significant -- but makes an important statement about the interpretative process itself by making the layout of the building, the perspective of the viewer, the changing significance of the subjects in Hellenistic and Roman contexts, and the taste and social status of the villa's owner integral parts of the argument. Modest but well chosen black-and-white photographs and drawings make this necessarily complex argument a pleasure to follow.

11. Erich Gruen, "Cleopatra in Rome: Facts and Fantasies" (257-74).

Gruen is hardly the first to challenge the historicity of Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, but he makes important new suggestions about her ancient prototype. Business brought Cleopatra to Rome in 46, and she left in timely fashion. It was a second visit, again essentially diplomatic in nature, that was ended so hurriedly by Caesar's death. The facts, at least when read Gruen's way, become even more remarkable than the familiar fantasies.

12. Karl Galinsky, "Greek and Roman Drama and the Aeneid" (275-94).

The dramatic focus here is on fifth-century Athens. Galinsky examines the epic's tragic sense as a response to Homer that was shaped by the experience of Athenian tragedy. He illustrates the point through discussion of Aeneid 9 (Nisus and Euryalus) and 12 (the death of Turnus). The influence of Roman drama on Vergil's sense of tragedy is much more briefly treated.

13. Edward Champlin, "Agamemnon at Rome: Roman Dynasts and Greek Heroes" (295-319).

Why Pompey would risk identifying himself with Agamemnon or Octavian (or Nero) with Orestes raises interesting questions about the shaping of Roman public images and the Romans' ability to compartmentalize their readings of the legendary past. The problem has not received all the attention it deserves, and Champlin takes an important step in advancing what may well become a rich line of inquiry.

Each of these essays is self-contained, with its own footnotes and bibliography. (Composite indices of topics and ancient passages cited appear at the back.) Some individual essays complement each other particularly well. Cornell, for example, provides a case study of the process outlined more abstractly by Purcell. Roman elements missing from Galinsky can be inferred from Fantham. Topographical evidence figures prominently, and yet differently, in the arguments of Coarelli and Crawford, and there is more than coincidence to the fact that Zetzel ends and Treggiari begins with the invocation of Edmund Burke. Other connections can and will be made, as readers identify their own favorites and make their own associations. My little glosses above, as readers will soon discover, hardly do justice to the rich content of this book.

A different kind of complementary process also deserves mention. Special effort was made to relate these pieces to Peter Wiseman's particular interests and insights, and the recurring references to Roman topography, social history, historiography, and performance practice mark the editors' success in that regard. Another less obvious connection is also significant. What makes Peter Wiseman such a striking figure in Roman studies is his extraordinarily felicitous combination of empiricism and imagination, which he invariably presents in clear, vigorous prose that never fears to be understood. Precisely because the Romans' world was not ours, its reconstruction demands firm foundations in the evidence and frank acknowledgment of its limitations. The essays here work on similar principles. They are solidly, sometimes even aggressively empirical, evidence-driven rather than theory-driven. Their presentation is unabashedly straightforward. This is not the kind of scholarship that recuperates or inscribes, embeds or elides, problematizes, occludes, or interrogates. Some of these essays are nevertheless quite radical in their implications. Many are provocative. All are valuable. It is good to be reminded that so many different roads can lead us back to the Romans ... a fact that Peter Wiseman of course knows as well as anyone.

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