Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.11.09

Gesine Manuwald, Pacuvius. Summus tragicus poeta. Zum dramatischen Profil seiner Tragödien. BzA 19.   München/Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2003.  Pp. 189.  ISBN 3-598-77803-1.  EUR 86.00.  

Reviewed by Vincent Hunink, University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands (
Word count: 1231 words

Scholarly interest in the work of archaic Roman poets is rarely directed at questions of literary composition and seems virtually non-existent outside Italy. The fragmentary status of the remaining fragments from archaic Latin poetry is usually considered to be an obstacle to questions that transcend the level of individual words or lines. The German scholar Gesine Manuwald, the author of an earlier study of Fabulae praetextae (München 2001; review in BMCR 2002.06.13), has published a book about Pacuvius (220-ca. 130 B.C.) that is a welcome exception.

In her monograph, M. examines the whole of Pacuvius' works as we have them, in an attempt to establish which particular qualities of his dramas made the Romans consider him their number one tragic poet (e.g. Cicero Opt. gen. bon. 2) with the special profile of being doctus.

Perhaps surprisingly, the surviving fragments of Pacuvius actually provide sufficient material to analyse his choice of themes and his dramatic technique, on the level of both content and form. The resulting image is that of a poet who has consciously designed his dramas by choosing interesting mythological tales, deliberately concentrating on themes related to important social, religious, and political values, and bringing his plots to a happy ending. This book makes us understand and feel something of Pacuvius' qualities, which is an impressive scholarly achievement.

M.'s monograph opens, as is customary in German books, with a rather elaborate introduction (pp. 11-27) explaining the state of research and the methods applied in the present study.

The first main section (pp. 28-41) discusses the question of how Pacuvius selected his mythological material. The starting point here is the common assumption, expressed by O. Ribbeck and others, that Pacuvius generally preferred to write about mythological tales that were rare or even obscure. This would have given his tragedies a special appeal that distinguished them from the works of other dramatists, such as Ennius. However, his dramas generally seem to have shared the subject matter of the three Greek writers of tragedy, as is apparent even in their titles: Iliona, Chryses, Dulorestes, Hermiona, Orestes, Niptra, Teucer, Medus, Pentheus, Antiopa, Periboea, and Atalanta. Pacuvius clearly did not look for abstruse material but chose most of his tales from mainstream mythological cycles, such as 'Troy', 'the Argonauts', 'Dionysos', or 'Thebes'. But, as M. convincingly shows, within this field the poet deliberately focused upon lesser known versions of tales, which enabled him to bring something new too.

The largest part of the study (pp. 42-110) is formed by a detailed analysis of Pacuvius' dramatic techniques. Some motifs and patterns of plot development appear to have been used repeatedly: in many plays, human relations play an important role. M. specifically analyses the motif of false against true identity, relationships between parents and children, and between pairs of brothers or sisters or close friends. Secondly, questions of power are often touched upon (e.g. abuse of absolute power, which calls for revenge). In general, moral issues and values can be seen to play a role, notably that of injustice turned into justice again. In the end, the persons who prevail are also the morally superior ones. Finally, religion, augury, and philosophy are constantly in the background of the action, creating a familiar, typically Roman frame of reference.

A somewhat shorter section (pp. 111-127) is devoted to the formal aspects of Pacuvius' dramatic technique. M. makes some sensible observations about Pacuvius' 'realism', notably in his representation of grief and suffering, and his strong dramatic effects, including the use of stage instruments. By such means, he must have made a direct appeal to the emotions of the audience. Finally, his specific stylistic means are analysed. In this section (pp. 120-127), which one would have liked to be a little longer, some fascinating aspects of Pacuvius' special style are highlighted: his long, spectacular neologisms (such as the well known Nerei repandirostrum incuruiceruicum pecus to describe dolphins), his use of music and, possibly, extensive prologues.

A final chapter with conclusions and hypotheses (pp. 128-147) brings the argument to a close. In Pacuvius' plays a pattern repeatedly emerges: separated relatives or friends meet again in dramatic circumstances and recognize each other just before a catastrophe is to take place, or a situation of injustice and chaos is eventually turned into justice and order, thereby creating a happy ending. No serious discussion of power and authority is involved in the plays, royal monarchy being evidently felt to be characteristic of mythology, and no existential unease is left in the minds of the audience.

The picture of Pacuvius that emerges from all this is clear: on the basis of his wide erudition, he chose versions of ancient myths and motifs that would be new and interesting for his Roman public, and that allowed for some basic patterns of dramatization, including a happy ending. Philosophical and religious aspects, ethical and political thoughts were woven into his texts and granted them a special colour apart from their dramatic tension, which allowed the audience to join in emotionally with the staged tale, and to learn from it. Special language, sensational effects, and display of pathos further enhanced Pacuvius' effectiveness as a playwright. The combination of these elements of content and form allows us to consider Pacuvius as dramatist with a special, personal profile. This helps us to understand why the Romans so greatly appreciated his work. 'Roman drama from the republican period' then, is a vague notion which can be differentiated to a certain extent.

The book concludes with a helpful bibliography, concordances, indexes, and an English summary (an example worthy to be widely imitated).

M.'s book cannot exactly be said to make exciting reading in itself. The tiresome German academic style and the often highly detailed analyses require a considerable effort from the reader and occasionally obscure the line of the argument. But this book is an important contribution to the study of archaic Roman literature. Being clearly structured and well-ordered, it shows that even a collection of apparently scattered poetic fragments does permit literary analysis to a certain extent, if the texts are approached with caution, common sense, and good questions. Scholars are not condemned to sceptical silence or vague clichés in their assessment of poets such as Pacuvius. M. shows the courage to ask new, exciting questions with regard to these fragmentary remains.

Not everything in the book is equally excellent, of course. For instance, M.'s attempt to arrive at more precise relative or absolute dates of the pieces (pp. 138-143) seems less successful than her previous analysis of the plays themselves. But generally speaking this sound study constitutes an advance in Pacuvian studies.

M.'s research is based on a thorough analysis of the texts themselves and all relevant secondary literature, and the ensuing portrait of Pacuvius is convincing indeed. We can start to understand why the Romans praised this poet as their best tragedian: with his instructive and sensational, but positive plots he must have given them the excitement of new areas of thought, within an essentially safe and familiar context. His plays seem to have been inspiring, thrilling, and edifying, while ultimately being unproblematic. So they must have brought just about everything the Romans expected good literature to bring.

This monograph makes us long to read the original texts, a desire that will have to remain unfulfilled. M. is not to blame here, of course. Quite the reverse: she deserves great praise.

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