Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.45

Sander M. Goldberg, Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic: Poetry and its Reception.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. 249.  ISBN 0-521-85461-X.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Denis Feeney, Princeton University (
Word count: 2458 words

The subject of this book is not so much what we usually call the 'creation' of a literature at Rome (though it has plenty of interesting things to say about that), but rather the retrospective process by which already existing scripts and texts were transformed by later generations into an institution corresponding to 'literature'. Sander Goldberg [hereafter G.] has refreshing remarks on the usefulness and pertinence of the concept of 'literature' for Roman studies (41), and he aims to uncover how the institution of literature took root and flourished. In reconstructing how Rome came to have what we call a 'literature', G. focuses less on the work of poets and more on the work of grammarians, scholars, and readers. He discusses epic (principally in Chapter 1, 'The Muse Arrives'), tragedy (Chapter 4, 'Dido's Furies'), and satire (Chapter 5, 'Enter Satire'), but the real center of gravity of the argument is with comedy, which engrosses part of Chapter 1 and all of Chapter 2 ('Constructing Literature') and Chapter 3 ('Comedy at Work'). Comedy is the main topic because G. considers epic and satire (and, to a lesser extent, tragedy) easier to account for as part of the governing class's cultural formation, while comedy might have remained marginal or forgotten if not for a conscious act of institutional recovery. G. is particularly concerned to argue that comedies did not become 'literature' as they hit the stage but were turned into 'literature' generations later, by scholars who had their own motivations for converting scripts for performance into texts for study: 'The crucial step in drama's elevation came not in the third century when playwrights began providing scripts for the ludi scaenici but when the Roman upper classes began treating those scripts as books a century and more later' (81). At times he places the key developments in the late second century with Aelius Stilo and his son-in-law Ser. Clodius (60-2, 75), at times he places them even later, in the first century (211 n.14). The reception of G.'s book will inevitably focus on this major claim, and on its main corollaries--that the reception of comedy in the late Republic was overwhelmingly textual rather than performative, and that the processing of comedy and the other genres into an institutionalised literature can be attributed to identifiable moments in the social and cultural history of the late Republic. Not all the results will convince everybody (including your reviewer), but the book raises important questions, and it is a valuable contribution to the ongoing debates over the processes which led to what we call 'literature' at Rome. It is especially salutary in making us reexamine the evidence as we follow G. in reconsidering the various transformations that the 'same' text could undergo as it went from script to object of scholarly exegesis to school book to target of learned allusion.

The transformation of comedy from performance scripts to part of a literary canon is a fascinating story, and G. has many intriguing lines of attack, especially in his thought-provoking discussion of didascaliae (69-75). He sees an important watershed in the intervention of Aelius Stilo in the late second century BCE, when the scripts of comedy became the object of scholarly work and began to be incorporated into 'canons and curricula' (84). Before this transition, G. downplays the textual dimension of comedy very much in favour of its performance aspect; afterwards, the polarity is reversed, and he downplays the performance aspect in favour of the textual dimension. There seem to be two crucial, and related, issues at stake here for G. One is the social function of an institution of literature, which G. follows much recent opinion in seeing as safeguarding aristocratic values and policing the entryways into the Roman elite by means of increasingly codified hierarchies of education. The other is the question of performance versus reading, a question which matters greatly to G. because his model of the social function of literature becomes more powerful the more powerfully access to the cultural patrimony of drama is controlled by the guardians of grammar, and not by the public medium of stage performance.

As far as the social function of literature is concerned, G. follows those who see Roman literature serving the needs of the ruling elite, and he casts Aelius Stilo in the role of the trailblazer for an educational system which enlisted comic texts--newly redefined as texts--in this service: Aelius thus represents 'the aristocratic values at work in shaping and controlling the new curriculum' (85), and his 'exegesis was part of what, at least in retrospect, appears to be a concerted effort to codify cultural authority by establishing canons and curricula and the methods for studying them that could simultaneously define knowledge and restrict access to it' (84; emphasis added). That phrase 'at least in retrospect' is telling, since this language describes a situation which we may recognize in the high Empire, but which it is difficult to cast back into the period of Aelius Stilo with any confidence, given how very little we know about Roman education at the time. Our evidence for Aelius is, as is so often the case with early Roman literary history, rather more than you might think. G. carefully collects and discusses it, and much of it comes from Suetonius' De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus. Here it is important to apply G.'s own advice concerning the use of later testimonia (8-9), and to ask why Suetonius tells the story in the way he does. As Kaster has shown, it matters very much to Suetonius to represent Aelius and his son-in-law as crucial innovators in the development of grammatica at Rome because Suetonius needs to show the art of grammar moving both up the social scale and along the linguistic axis from Greek to Roman;1 Suetonius' picture of Q. Vargunteius redeeming Ennius' Annales from obscurity is likewise part of a teleological narrative dotted with the culture heroes of grammatica, and its true evidential value for the reception history of Ennius' epic is hard to assess (25-6). One sees why G. depicts Aelius in the role he does, but how much of the picture is really retrospect is beyond recovery.

It is worth remarking in passing that G.'s argument about internal Roman literary history leads him into an oddly miscued emphasis when describing Aelius' work on comedy. Since G. sees Roman epic as preceding comedy in being appropriated into scholarly and educational discourse, he is led into saying that Aelius took epic as his model for his scholarly work on comedy when he tried to boost comedy into something like the same cultural niche as epic: according to G., Aelius and his son-in-law were imposing on comedy 'the ideas of authorship and standards of explication that were first developed in the context of epic' (84; cf. 62, 'with Aelius the Romans began paying the same kind of attention to Plautus that their Greek predecessors had paid to Homer'). Whatever Aelius' motivations may have been, it would be more economical to look rather to the work that Alexandrian scholars had been doing on Attic comedy for many years: this work concentrated on Old Comedy, but Aristophanes of Byzantium was writing on Menander within ninety years of the poet's death--and a scant century before Aelius.2

The second major question, of performance versus reading, is related to this overall picture of a developing institution of text-based curricula incorporating comedy. It is part of this strategy to downplay the amount of comedy actually on view in Rome in the late Republic. G. first comments on the 'curious and even surprising fact that productions of palliata comedies become increasingly hard to document at theatrical shows in the late Republic', remarking that Cicero 'mentions not a single palliata performance among the dramatic programs of the 50s and 40s' (55). G. seems to me to overplay his hand here. He refers to Cic. Fam. 7.1.1-3 as evidence that the 'gala inauguration of Pompey's theater in 55 included Latin tragedies, mimes, and Atellan farces but no comedies worth mentioning' (55); but Shackleton Bailey, at least, takes it for granted that Cicero is referring to 'comedies and mimes' in that letter with his language of reliquos ludos, id ... leporis, and hilaritatem in Cicero represents the great bulk of our evidence, but he is not normative: as G. well points out in another context later in the book, 'Cicero's sense of decorum naturally turns his thoughts to tragedy' (130).

The next step is to argue that allusions in late Republican literature to comedy are not to performance, but to books. G. emerges as a modern Horace, privileging reading over performance. His treatment of Cicero's Pro Caelio in particular verges on the paradoxical, as he argues that Cicero's prosopopoeia and allusions to comedy are not really engaging with the stage shows his audience are missing out on thanks to their jury service during the Megalensia. It is always good to have orthodoxies questioned, but the current scholarly orthodoxy on this speech--that Cicero lays on a menu of tragedy, comedy and mime to rival the real shows taking place a couple of hundred yards away--looks pretty unscathed after G.'s treatment.4 Indeed, the whole story behind the case is the plot of a palliata, with the gullible young man, the scheming meretrix, the ineffectual old father, the gifts and broken promises. To G., it is very important that Cicero is alluding to texts his listeners have read rather than evoking performances they have seen, and he downplays accordingly the scenic resonance of some of Cicero's terminology (93 n.16). In the face of the current vogue for automatically privileging performance over reading, it is salutary to see someone making the other case, but it is always important to know what is at stake for both ancient and modern authors in making the case one way or the other: as G. well puts it (128), there is a qualitative difference in appealing to the shared experience of performance or to the more differentiated experience of books, so the agenda of any author in privileging one mode or the other is always important. At the end of his discussion of Cicero, it becomes clear that what matters for G. is that Cicero should be seen as activating 'what Pierre Bourdieu has so famously called "academic capital," that store of knowledge and experience with which educated Romans distinguished themselves from their less-privileged countrymen' (96). Referring to texts in the curriculum will discharge this function in a way that appealing to theatrical performance will not.

Similar issues present themselves in the discussion of Catullus, where G. concludes his analysis of Poem 8 by saying that Catullus' 'comic recollection...draws less on stage memory than on reading, in particular on the kind of reading that was done in boyhood and on the kind of contribution that such early experience makes to literate adult discourse' (103). After a fine discussion of Catullus' nuanced use of comedy, it emerges that G. wishes to downplay the performance dimension altogether (explicitly as a source for Catullan influence and allusion, but implicitly for the whole period) because 'the assumption that comedy was experienced primarily as a performed art and looked to a popular rather than cultured aesthetic--the niche into which Horace tried all too successfully to confine it--has diminished sensitivity to the range of cultural and poetic influences discussed here' (113). Basically, G. sees the same Catullan doctrina at work in allusion to comedy as in allusion to other genres, and he therefore wishes to present comedy as part of a textual literary procedure. I began to wonder if the alternatives were not being presented too starkly, for it would be possible to make a case for the power of comedy in Catullus and other Republican authors without this apparatus. After all, in articles which G. cites and rightly praises, McKeown and Fantham have shown how important mime was to late Republican and Augustan literature, and no one, least of all G., is concerned to deny that mime was experienced by poets and their audience primarily as a stage medium.5

It is striking that G. is much more open to the reception of tragedy as a performance medium: 'Roman audiences eventually saw enough tragedy to develop a vivid memory of its diction, its mannerisms, and its type scenes' (123: this is of course what most scholars would want to say about comedy in the Pro Caelio). Further, G. does not present the performance versus textual reception of tragedy in quite the same 'either/or' way as he presents the reception of comedy, for he speaks of the 'dual experience of tragedy' (127), and 'the dual nature of tragedy's reception at Rome' (138). With tragedy as with comedy, he often downplays the performance dimension in accordance with his argument for 'literature' as a stock of cultural capital used to distinguish the educated from the less privileged (125-6), yet the more mobile possibilities he allows for tragedy could be fruitfully followed up for comedy as well. Some texts and genres will have more of a pull to one kind of allusion rather than the other, with Cicero's performance genre of oratory more open to activating images of stage performance than his philosophical treatises or than Catullus' poetry. Further, any text could be activating both kinds of allusion at once, provided we interpret allusion broadly as applying to the idea of performance as much as to what any particular person may have seen on a particular afternoon. If a modern author refers to Hamlet or Lear, clearly the allusion is profoundly textual, to a canonical text at the heart of the curriculum; yet the allusion is always theatrical in a sense, in that allusion to the idea of the theatricality of the text may always be there, activating not a specific performance but the idea of performance.

In general, the atmosphere of G.'s book--inquisitive, zestful, enthusiastic--is rather at odds with the template he is applying.6 His idea of what literature is for keeps coming into collision with his evocation of what literature is like. He claims, for example, that Roman literature served the needs of a fairly unified group: 'The interpretive community, to use Stanley Fish's term, that defined the Roman literature discussed here was the Romans' own community, and it was a fairly coherent, homogenous group that left clear marks in the record' (208-9). G.'s adopted model obliges him to say this, but his own pages are filled with vivid vignettes of scholars and authors fighting with each other, laying into their predecessors and contemporaries, promoting one genre at the expense of another. This rough-and-tumble world is closer to the energy and creativity of the Roman Republic than the hierarchies of the theorists of the modern nation state.


1.   Robert A. Kaster, Suetonius De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus (Oxford, 1995), xlv, 43, 45.
2.   R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford, 1968), 159-62, with 190-2 on Aristophanes of Byzantium and Menander.
3.   D.R. Shackleton Bailey, Cicero: Epistulae ad Familiares, Vol. I (Cambridge, 1977), 325. Cf. G.'s contention that Suetonius' mention of Augustus' fondness for comoedia vetus refers to old Attic comedy, rather than to the palliata (57 n.18); contrast C.O. Brink, Horace on Poetry: Epistles Book II (Cambridge, 1982), 563 n.1: 'This is still occasionally misunderstood as a reference to old Attic comedy.'
4.   K.A. Geffcken, Comedy in the Pro Caelio, Mnemosyne Supplement 30 (Leiden, 1973); T.P. Wiseman, Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal (Cambridge, 1985), Chapter III.
5.   J.C. McKeown, 'Augustan elegy and mime', PCPhS 25 (1979), 71-84; E. Fantham, 'Mime: the missing link in Roman literary history', CW 82 (1989), 153-63.
6.   His heart, for example, does not seem to be in his quotation of the stunningly banal remarks of Terry Eagleton, according to whom 'Shakespeare was not great literature lying conveniently to hand, which the literary institution happily discovered: he is great literature because the institution constitutes him as such' (Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolois, 1983), 202, quoted 42 n.55).

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