Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.02

Luciano Canfora, Histoire de la littérature grecque à l époque hellénistique. Originally published in Italian as Storia della Letteratura Greca (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1986, 1989). Translated by Marilène Raiola and Luigi-Alberto Sanchi.   Paris:  Éditions Desjonquères, 2004.  Pp. 415.  ISBN 2-84321-066-6.  €45.00.  

Reviewed by Jacqueline Klooster, Universiteit van Amsterdam (
Word count: 1647 words

This volume is the second part of a general history of Greek Literature by Professor Canfora (henceforth C.), which was first published in 1986. The first volume deals with the period from Homer to Aristotle, and this one with the period from the death of Alexander the Great (322 BCE) to the death of emperor Justinian (565 CE). This begs the question of why it is called History of Greek literature in the Hellenistic Age,1 since, disputed as the term Hellenistic may have been since J.G. Droysen used it in 1833, surely the implication that the Hellenistic age went on until well over the boundaries of what some would consider as the beginning of the Byzantine era needs some clarification.2

The book's accomplishment, according to the blurb, is that it paints the 'vaste aventure de l'esprit' that constitutes the development of Greek culture in the period mentioned above in a 'rich yet clear account, revealing the roots of modern western society.' And indeed at times this book reads more like a Geistesgeschichte than a literary history. It looks as if it was written for an audience of general readers who wish to gain an overview of the intellectual and cultural developments of the period. As a manual for students of the classics however, it would not fulfil its purpose, since much of the scholarship on which it is based is clearly outdated.

The book is divided into three parts: Hellenism, the Roman Hegemony, and Late Antiquity. An extensive appendix containing chronology, bibliography on different authors, and name index fills the last hundred pages. At the end of some of the chapters synopses appear, which briefly treat other authors of the period under discussion, name their works and refer to the standard text editions. In addition the volume contains some maps and illustrations, the relevance of some of which was not always clear. Each of the three parts is subdivided into smaller sections representing what C. judges to be the main themes of each era. In general the volume is written in a clear, readable style, and contains many amusing anecdotes that serve very well to capture the spirit of the period C. is discussing.

The part concerning Hellenism contains the following chapters: 1, "The Hellenistic World", sketching the outlines of the Hellenistic world from a historical and a theoretical point of view (a considerable amount of attention is dedicated to Droysen and his use of the term Hellenism); 2, "The Sciences", which treats both the Alexandrian practitioners of mathematics, astronomy and geography and the philologists of the Museum; 3, "The New Poetry", which treats the (mainly Alexandrian) poets of the third century; 4, "Athens, Provincial Metropolis and Menander", which sketches the descent of Athens into provincial unimportance, the emergence of the new quasi-bourgeois society which is reflected in Menander's comedies as much as in the judicial writings of the age; 5, "Utopists and Historians", which discusses the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, most importantly stoicism, on the historiography of the age.

The part entitled Roman Hegemony treats the way in which historians writing in Greek (Polybius, Posidonius, Flavius Josephus and Plutarch) dealt with the ascendancy and hegemony of Rome, both in their personal lives and in their writings. It also contains chapters on the New Testament, the Second Sophistic, Lucian of Samosata, the Novel and a chapter entitled "Towards Late Antiquity", which discusses the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Cassius Dio, Herodian and the emergence of abridged versions of historical works.

The third part, Late Antiquity in chapter 1, "From Alexandria to Caesarea", traces the emergence of Christian literature; the way the Christian message was diffused by writing; how Greek philosophy and philology influenced Christianity and its writings and how Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius chose their respective positions in dealing with the pagan heritage in their writings. The second chapter, "Julian the Apostate and the pagan reaction", discusses the anti-Christian politics and writings of this short-lived emperor. The third, "The last of the Pagans", treats the last three intellectual centres of paganism: the school of Libanius in Antioch, the Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum, destroyed during the war between emperor Aurelianus and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. This is followed by the brutal murder of the learned Hypatia by Christians and the rivalry between the Neo-Platonist schools of Alexandria and Athens.

As is obvious from the wide scope of this literary history, C. possesses considerable erudition, which enables him to write essays on the most diverse topics. He does so in a pleasant, sometimes personal style. It is clear that he has his favourites. The chapters on historiography convey much more enthusiasm than the one about the Alexandrian poets, who receive less attention than one would expect in a literary history of the Hellenistic age. Throughout the book C. displays a predilection for the picturesque anecdote and often uses it to good effect. The main aim of the book, as stated above, clearly is in the first place to trace a history of ideas and mentality rather than a simple history of who wrote what and in what genre. This explains for example the relatively large amount of attention dedicated to the Neo-Platonist martyr Hypatia, who mainly wrote on mathematics, and whose works do not survive at all. It is clear that she functions more as a demonstration of the intellectual climate of the age than as a sample of its literary achievements.

In this connection, one of the things that to me seemed slightly problematical was the fact that this volume does not contain an introduction explaining what the boundaries of (Greek) literature are according to C. and why he chooses to single out certain authors to discuss at length, while naming others only in the synopses.3 A reasonable criterion could for instance be the importance of an author as example of his own age, or his influence on later tradition, or the simple availability of his writings. However, if we consider for instance the treatment of the third century poet Aratus of Soloi, author of the Phaenomena who appears only in the synopsis, it seems that none of these criteria apply. Aratus is an important example of the erudite poetry of the age (the 'new poetry' as C. calls it), was widely read in his own and later periods, and has left us a readable poem. This looks like a somewhat subjective choice. It does of course not mean that it isn't defensible, but it is nowhere justified.

Similarly problematic is the question of what made C. decide to end his history of Greek literature in the sixth century. Of course any chopping up of history into periods remains arbitrary, but it would have been interesting to have an idea of what led the author in this case. Throughout the book one also keeps wondering about the title: why is it called History of Greek literature in the Hellenistic Age? If we look at C.'s own definition of Hellenism we are much wiser (p.10):

Its specific character consists in the fact that, far from being a pure and simple expansion of Greek civilisation, this historical process has engendered a radically new syncretistic civilisation, which owes its originality to the fact that it cannot be reduced to any of the sources that constitute it.
If this is true, which I am sure not everyone would agree, do we need to apply it also to the periods of Roman hegemony and the later, Christian era? The division of the book into three parts seems to imply a negative answer to this question.

Another point, already touched upon, is the fact that C. seldom includes recent scholarship in his discussions of the main authors. This means, to give only one example, that he does not in the least doubt the tradition of the quarrel between Callimachus and Apollonius, nor does he mention anyone who does so in his bibliography. This makes his literary history untrustworthy in its details for one who wants to learn the Stand der Forschung on certain subjects. It might certainly be argued that the broad scope of the history and its attempt to trace the development of mentality in the Greek writing world do something to compensate this wrong. The discussion of some of the nineteenth century theories (as of for example Wilamowitz, Droysen, et al.) on the other hand is an unusual feature of this book. C. often gives us his personal opinion on the faults and merits of their theories: he turns out to be a great champion of Droysen, and vigorously attacks this historian's critics whom he accuses of not having read Droysen's work well enough.

Some small typographical mistakes I noted: p.21 Equos Troianus; p.71 Aitiai; p.129 avant JC instead of après JC (Appianus Alexandrinus); p.264 Simonide Hsiode, no comma, which makes it as if there was a poet of this composite name.

This book is a readable if somewhat unevenly balanced account of the way Greek thought and writing developed in an ever-extending region where Greek was spoken, under different hegemonies (the Hellenistic monarchies, the Romans, the Christian emperors and the Church). Its strong point is the clear characterization of the eras of Greek literature that most people, excluding specialists, are not very familiar with, at times highlighting some of the more unexpected and marginal figures. The weak points are the neglect of contemporary scholarship and the lack of theoretical justification of C.'s choices. This makes it difficult to decide for what kind of audience this book could be of use. The specialist will probably be annoyed that much of the information does not convey the state of the art in Greek literary criticism, while the novice might enjoy reading it but would have to supply himself with more recent scholarship to be really up to date.

[[For a response to this review by Luciano Canfora, please see BMCR 2004.10.10.]]


1.   I have chosen to literally translate into English all quotations and titles of chapters in the book to facilitate the reading of this review.
2.   Cf. Pauly (1997) s.v. Byzanz. Or compare P. Green, From Alexander to Actium, Berkeley 1990, p. xv: The Hellenistic Age has one great advantage: it is clearly definable. Its unity was first perceived, its limits set, even its name invented by Droysen. (Green goes on to state that the limits of the Hellenistic age are to be set at 323-30 BCE.)
3.   I regret the fact that I could not obtain volume 1 of this book to check if this did contain an introduction. At any rate I still think that, if part two is to be read independently, it should contain an introduction of its own.

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