Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.21

Bruno Gentili, Giovanni Cerri, La letteratura di Roma arcaica e l'ellenismo. Con la collaborazione di Salvatore Monda. Biblioteca Aragno.   Torino:  Nino Aragno Editore, 2005.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 88-8419-221-8.  €22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Antonis K. Petrides, The American International School in Cyprus (
Word count: 2222 words

This is an elaborated version of a 1976 original initially intended for Italian High School students, now reworkedwith footnotes and a bibliographical appendixto fit the needs of a more academic, yet still mainly undergraduate, audience. This audience should find the book to be worthy of its established authors: a thorough, carefully written and researched work, which provides well-rounded introductions to everything that matters in Archaic Roman literature (the book stops short of the first century B.C.).

These introductions successfully combine the traditional literary-historical format of providing full background information, including biography, with a more analytical approach focusing on the broader questions involved. Most practical for the non-Hellenist is that every chapter succinctly contextualises the Roman achievement within the Greek framework whence it derived. The result, all in all, is an excellent presentation of the status quaestionis. On and off the authors sprinkle in a few original and insightful remarks, which could take the discussion to the next level. However, their estimation that this is also an 'innovative' book (Premessa, p. ix), although probably accurate in 1976, seems rather optimistic thirty years along the way.

The contents are organised mainly by genre with poetry preceding prose wherever applicable. Within every individual chapter chronological order is maintained. All Latin quotations (and the authors quote amply) are either followed by a straightforward Italian translation or quoted directly in Italian (where a more general and theoretical point is to be made).

Chapter One ("Archaic Roman Literature and the Greek World") examines Roman achievement from the origins to the end of the fourth century B.C., mapping the transition from oral to written literature and unpacking the 'ritual' character of this original literary production ('ritual' in the sense that it revolves around the fundamental functions of social life: religious functions, funerals, wars, triumphs, symposia, agricultural production, etc.). The chapter offers some of the most extensive discussions of such obscure poetry as the Fratres Arvales, the Salii, the tabulae triumphales, Roman sympotic poetry or the laudatio funebris available on the market. It also deals, albeit not to the extent one would hope for, with the all-important issue of theatrical improvisations (the Fabula Atellana, the fescennini and the ludi scaenici). The chapter's largest and concluding section concerns the pontifical annales, the Twelve Tables and, more importantly, archaic Roman inscriptions (mainly elogia, sepulchral inscriptions and others such as the lapis niger).

Chapter Two ("The Romans and Greek Culture") examines the theory and practice of translation in Rome. The term translation is here understood rather loosely, as it involves not only the literal vortere of texts, but also the reception of, say, the Greek alphabet and Greek gods and customs. The chapter sets off with a (very) general archaeological documentation of the contacts between Greeks and Romans as early as the eighth century. It then discusses the origins of the Latin alphabet before focusing on the Libri Sibyllini and the Roman reception of such deities as the Dioscuri, Ceres, Liber and Libera, or Jupiter, Hera and Athena. The authors also examine the legend of pater Aeneas and its Greek baggage. Section Four moves on to a brief low-down on Roman economy and commerce (the chief motivation of cultural exchange), thus contextualising the part treating Etruscan and Hellenistic influences on Roman art. Section 6 unpacks the book trade and sketches that all-important but much derided figure of the Greek slave παιδαγωγός. Unfortunately, the most eagerly awaited section of the chapter, the theoretical one, comes almost as an afterthought at Section 7 and is much shorter and much less substantive than we might expect from all the deluge of modern theoretical approaches to the issue within the purview of such disciplines as cultural and postcolonial studies. A polemical feeling of inferiority on the Roman part is projected as practically the sole motive behind all translation. The notion of mimesis, for all the authors' care to contextualise elsewhere, is not unpacked. The irony and all the dislocations hidden behind Plautus' vortere go unmentioned. Granted, practices of Roman theatrical translation in particular, such as the practice of contaminatio, or the shifts and changes in the approach to Greek culture and thus the theorisation thereof, say in the Circle of Scipiones, will be discussed later. Still, though, the chapter disappoints with its sketchiness.

Chapter Three ("The Theatre") recapitulates some of the authors', mainly Gentili's, previous exciting work, but, though obviously intended as the book's flagship, it is not as successful as others. The chapter, the longest in the book, commences with an elaborate explication of the transpositions that took place in Greek performance from fifth to third century and had a direct effect on the nature of Roman theatre: namely, the fragmentation of performance, an 'anthological culture' as regards theatrical texts and the rise of the actor, actors' companies and solo presentation. All this of course is well known from Gentili's classic, Lo spettacolo nel mondo antico (1977), but it is all welcome again here. The chapter moves on to a brief discussion of contaminatio, which the author explains as partly derivative from this "anthological conception of spectacle" (p.88) and partly the result of native Italian influence. This is an important remark; unfortunately, however, this, plus a few paragraphs in the previous chapter, is as far as the authors will ever go in dealing with a theatrical tradition so widely discussed today (but perhaps not so much in 1976) in reference to Roman playwrights. An issue of balance generally somewhat beleaguers Sections 2 and 3: in Section 2 a single paragraph is dedicated to the Atellana in the face of whole pages for the Salii and the Fratres Arvales. Section 3 deals with the authors' pet subject (solo song, the chorus and recitative), which again amalgamates, in their opinion, Greek and Italian influences. Section 4 is dedicated to the drama with a Roman 'argument', fabula praetexta and fabula togata, mainly the works of Afranius and Atta. Somewhat contentious, or at least open to disagreement, is the claim here, expressed with confidence, that this kind of theatre declined because, despite its intention to render the most vibrant aspects in the life of specific social classes, it failed to do sosince eventually it came too close to the more literary Greek models (p. 94). Section 5 provides some useful background information on the organisation of Roman theatre festivals. The authors' certainty, however, that Roman actors wore masks, although it meets with this reviewer's personal assent, may not be universally shared. So also may be their sticking to conventional explanations of why masks were worn (p. 97). Further discussion in the light of modern scholarship was certainly needed here. From page 100 onwards, the authors analyse individual playwrights beginning with Livius Andronicus and proceeding chronologically. The discussion is uncontroversial and quite informative at most parts. Again, however, when seven pages are devoted to Terence and eight to Plautus, whereas ten are granted to Pacuvius and thirteen to Ennius, with a score of minutiae scrambled in the footnotes, I feel I have to take issue with the balancing of the material. This is indeed odd, since elsewhere the authors display a remarkable sense of proportion.

Chapter Four ("Epic poetry") maps first the evolution in the use of myth as a narrative device from Homer to Callimachus. Special reference is made to historical and mythological epic poetry. The chapter proper begins, naturally, with Livius' translation of the Odyssey, a Greek work chosen apparently because of some traditions linking Odysseus himself or some of his sons to the foundation of Rome (p. 154). Livius' technique of translation is amply illustrated with quotations. Then comes Naevius' Bellum Poenicum, which is juxtaposed to Ennius, Choerilus of Samos and Virgil. Frs. 10, 13, 17 and 22, 27, 34, 35 and 42 receive more extensive individual commentary. Ennius dominates the chapter, as expected, and this section is one of the best in the whole book for its detail and clarity. The "plurality of cultural experiences and theoretical tendencies" at play in Ennius, as well as the " dialectic and sometimes problematic relationship between his poetic program and its actual realisation" (p.187) are well expressed. Ennius' 'debts' (sic) to both Roman and Greek predecessors are summarily laid out. The proem of Book 1 naturally attracts attention, as do frs. 22 and 29 of Book 1 and fr. 5 of Book 15. Ennius' political conformism and tendency towards moral commentary, especially his apparent foreshadowing of the ideal of humanitas, are brought to the forefront. Ennius' technique, especially his play with assonance, alliteration and rhythmical pauses, does not go unnoticed either.

Chapter Five ("Satura and serio-comic literature") asks the question whether the Latin satura actually exists as a genre, only to conclude, in the spirit of Bakhtinian theories, that it actually does not: it is "a poetic manifestation intimately connected with what is defined as carnival folklore of a serio-comic nature" (p. 191). The genre has, we learn, three peculiarities: (a) it refers directly and immediately to the contemporary world without shrinking away from polemics, political commentary, etc; (b) it derives from an anti-conformist frame of mind; (c) it rejects unity of style completely and utterly. This designed heterogeneity of the genre, along with the individual peculiarities of its practitioners, is then lucidly demonstrated with telling examples from the works of Naevius, Ennius, and above all, of course, Lucilius.

Chapter Six ("Norms and Manners of Social Life") deals with the early didactic literature of Rome. By didactic one should not understand moral precepts alone, as the chapter covers a wide range of texts, from the most ancient magical incantamenta, employed, for instance, for the cure of disease, to Ennius' gastronomical epic Hedyphagetica and even Cato's agricultural and other treatises. The common denominator in this expansive body of material is projecting the image of an ideal Roman. In terms of background information provided (Sections 2-6), Roman morality is contrasted to the Greek, and a few words on Rome's educational system are added in. Two sections, centering on the Bacchanalia and the Circle of the Scipiones with their ideal of humanitas, evince the pathology that such literature as Cato's was bent on healing. Section 7 returns to the beginnings, dealing with the Sententiae of Appius Claudius Caecus; the didactic works of Ennius (Epicharmus, Protreptikon, Euhemerus seu Sacra Historia and Hedyphagetica); and the Parerga of Accius. The deservedly more extensive Section 8 gives short shrift to Cato's defence of Rome's conservative aristocracy. This is a nuanced and refined segment, which brings out Cato's numerous ambiguities quite cogently: a joy to read, not least for the genuine passion that permeates its writing!

Chapter Seven ("Historiography") is also quite successful in fully presenting the intersections between Hellenistic Greek and Roman historiography, especially the antagonism between the 'tragic' historiography of Duris, the 'Isocratic' historiography of Timaeus of Tauromenium and the Thucydidean school of Polybius. The Grecophone original historiography of Rome (Fabius Pictor, Cincius Alimentus) is placed against the backdrop of Rome's propagandistic exigencies in the third century B.C., that is, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Greek world. The Isocratic character of this historiography and its connections with the annalistic tradition as well as the historical epic are expounded in Section 3. Section 4 focuses on Cato, Caelius Antipater and Sempronius Asellio, the first Roman historians to write in Latin in a time when propaganda in Greek was eventually redundant. The Isocratic Caelius Antipater is foregrounded as the first Roman historian to have an interest in style. Sempronius Asellio is named as the first to fully implement Polybius' apodictic method.

Chapter Eight ("Grammar, philology, poetics and rhetoric") explains again how the Romans took sides with two opposing Greek camps, this time as regards γραμματική. In the first instance, it was the antagonism between the Alexandrian school, on the one hand, where the γραμματικός was the forerunner of the modern philologist, and the Pergamene school, on the other, where the γραμματικός ceded ground to the κριτικός. In the second instance, it was the contest between anomaly and analogy. One section deals with the problems of Latin orthography. Sections 5 and 6 refer to philological activity in Greece and Rome, concentrating on the work of Octavius Lampadio and Aelius Stilo. Of special interest is Section 7, which talks about the first Roman attempts to write literary history, such as Porcius Licinus' and Volcacius Sedigitus'. These attempts come closer to satura than anything else, not only because they are composed in verse, but because they share the same polemical and normative spirit. The chapter closes with an extensive reference to early Roman rhetoric and poetics.

To conclude, this is a book that hits its target. Some chapters, especially the chapter on Theatre, would definitely benefit from more updating and better balance. What is more, I would be quite happy to do away with the authors' extensive quoting from secondary literature, especially, again, in the early chapters. For instance, and this is not the only example, a quotation from Enrico Montanari, albeit coming from an unpublished article, covers nearly five pages of text (60-62, 63-64). The excerpts are relevant, but they go too far. In a book about archaic Roman literature, all the details of Roman worship of the Dioscuri need not be known. All in all, however, the Italian undergraduate should feel happy to possess a handy reference tool with abundant information, bibliographical support and clear exposition.

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