Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.12.29

Wolfram Ax (ed.), Lateinische Lehrer Europas: Fünfzehn Portraits von Varro bis Erasmus von Rotterdam.   Köln:  Böhlau Verlag, 2005.  Pp. xvi, 431.  ISBN 3-412-14505-X.  €34.90.  

Reviewed by Mark Vessey, University of British Columbia (
Word count: 2311 words

[Authors and subjects are listed at the end of the review.]

There is a defect in our language where we might otherwise expect to find the Latin equivalent of "Hellenism" in the culturally expansive sense assumed, as early as late antiquity, by the term Hellenismos. Unlike "Hellenism," which the dictionary shows the likes of Grote, Gladstone and Swinburne using complacently for "the national character and speech of the Greeks, Grecian culture" before Matthew Arnold raised the stakes in his chapter on "Hebraism and Hellenism" in Culture and Anarchy (1869), neither "Latinism" nor the more native "Latinity" has yet evolved to mean more in ordinary educated parlance than the virtue -- or, in a case like the poet Milton's, vice -- of Latin(ate) discourse. English lexicographers may find work to do here in future. To the roster of recent scholarship representing "Latinity" as an encompassing and more or less enduring cultural formation1 can now be added this collection of essays assembled by Professor Wolfram Ax with the help of colleagues at the Institut für Altertumskunde and fellow members of the Philosophische Fakultät at the University of Cologne. Conceived by Latinists of the former Roman colonia as a way of presenting "classical, medieval and Neo-Latin as a continuum" (v), the book offers a chronological series of bio-bibliographical essays, to illustrate the unfolding of a western European Latin disciplinary tradition (Lehrtradition) between classical antiquity and early modernity. The result is a work rich in lessons and cues for reflection, even if its ultimate claims, and the uses for which it was designed, remain a little vague.

The Latin masters in this instance are neither great poets nor great philosophers, unless we seriously overrate Boethius. There is no place for Virgil, Horace or Ovid, or even for the "silver" poets honored by Dante and C. S. Lewis (in The Discarded Image [1964]); none, either, for Cicero or the younger Seneca, let alone Apuleius or Augustine. With the odd exception, the praeceptores Europae gathered here are prose-masters, and masters in prose of the least declamatory, most utilitarian sort -- or, still more prosaic, didactic verse. (The oddest figure from the earlier period, Martianus Capella, would perhaps appear less singular if the assembled later company were less mainstream or, to put it bluntly, continental. Irish and other insular-occidental claims for the co-founding of European civilization find no support in these pages.) In a word, these past masters are Fachshriftsteller, writers of technical manuals, exponents of (mainly scholastic) disciplinae, either in single treatises or encyclopaedic sets. Varro is the founder of their school, il terze gran lume romano in Petrarch's book, after Cicero and Virgil, but the first in this one, where he is succinctly presented in a chapter by the editor, with an emphasis on the "encyclopaedic" ensemble of the Antiquitates, De lingua Latina, Hebdomades (image-laden precursor of these purely verbal "portraits"), and Disciplinae. Not surprisingly, given the premise of the volume, Ax is unwilling to concede much to Ilsetraut Hadot's hypothesis of a Middle Platonist (as opposed to Varronian) inspiration for the western canon of the septem artes liberales (18-20). In this he is surely justified, and on a firmer basis than his own exclusive reliance on the testimony of Martianus Capella might suggest.2 There is a lot to be said for giving Varro his due, or would be, if ever we believed we could. Imagine a Latin-European history in which Virgil's literary executors acted as he told them to, Tiro and Atticus lost patience with Cicero, and the Middle Ages knew as much of the polymath of Reate as Augustine did, and the book in hand quickly appears less of a curiosity.

As Varro's lost Disciplinae describes the outer orbit of Lateinische Lehrer Europas (hereafter LLE), his De lingua Latina points to its center. More obviously in English than in German, the majority of these "Latin teachers of Europe" were also teachers of Latin. Of the fifteen counted from Varro to Erasmus, at least eight can be wholly or partly claimed for the first discipline of the trivium, or for rhetoric with a large part of grammar included, while only two profess logic or dialectic (Boethius, Albert the Great) and Boethius alone discourses quadrivially (on music). Vitruvius is sole votary of a muse parted early from her sisters. The elder Pliny stands sentinel for Naturwissenschaft until Albertus Magnus puts Aristotle ahead of Isidore. It is unclear to what extent the huge bias of LLE in favor of Latin-learning as the matrix of Latin learning was calculated and how far, like other effects owned up to in the Introduction, it is merely an index of available local expertise. Before ascribing too much to accidents of place, we may note that the chapters on the two most famous grammarians on the list, Donatus and Priscian, were specially commissioned from French scholars. In any case, the virtual homology of "Latin language" and "Latin culture" is an unspoken postulate of the volume, as if the (or some) culturally normative sense of "Latinity" were both widely understood and constant over time.

Nothing could be less true, of course. As the lexica already warn us, Latinity does not manifest itself historically in the same manner that Hellenism has. Whatever the varieties of Hellenism under, beyond and after the Roman Empire (currently subjects of ever more subtle discrimination), it was a cultural "given" to a degree that Latinity never would be. Even before the Emperor Julian forced the issue by challenging Christian intellectuals to choose between Greekness and a version of godliness, Hellenism was a distinct and recognized cultural option. Critically for the present purpose, it was the norm in relation to which Latin culture was fashioned and repeatedly refashioned. We are used to tracking the Hellenisms, in both narrow and larger senses, of ancient Latin writers, be they pioneers of litterae Latinae across the genres, first articulators of a Latin cultural field (Varro preeminent among them), consolidators (Quintilian), or late exponents of a notionally bilingual culture at its point either of expiry (Martianus Capella, Boethius) or of most privileged longevity (Priscian). The quality of such writers' Hellenism(s) may indeed be the most readily ascertainable feature of something that, as a whole, we find much harder to pin down but are tempted in each case to call their Latinity. What awareness did any of the eponymous pedagogues of LLE possess and convey of a distinctly Latin cultural identity? The question is capital, but dodged. Seductive as the idea of a seamless continuity of Latin-European culture may still be for some academics, it is certain that the persona of a Latin teacher and/or teacher of Latin in late republican or early imperial Rome will have been configured by that individual, and by those around him, quite differently from that of his ostensible counterpart in the later Empire (Donatus), Visigothic Spain (Isidore), Carolingian Francia (e.g. Alcuin, not in LLE) or the fifteenth-century papal curia (Valla). The characterization of the variant, interdependent but also partly independent Latinities represented for successive epochs and widely separated milieux by the authors chaptered in LLE is a task requiring synchronic socio-cultural-linguistic analysis at every stage of the way. Nothing of the sort is attempted here. Instead, each author is reburnished in turn as a sundered link in some great chain of Latin erudition presumed extending down the ages.

In the absence of a compelling rationale for this book as a large-scale unity, readers other than reviewers are most likely to use it as they would any other reference-work on Latin authors. As such, LLE will render valuable services, especially to those prospecting outside their own central field of Latinity. A welcome feature of all articles is the more or less extensive treatment of Nachleben or Wirkungsgeschichte, in most cases backed by a solid bibliography. Since no fixed template has been imposed on contributors, the actual genre and scope of articles vary considerably. Overall coverage is much stronger for classical and later antiquity than it is for the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We are given nine portraits for seven centuries from Varro to Priscian, but only six for the nine hundred years between Isidore and Erasmus. The Carolingian period is a blank apart from the reception-history of earlier writers, already treated in their own chapters. Albert the Great does duty for all the Schoolmen. Medievalists and Neo-Latinists will be rightly unimpressed by the line-up as a whole, if possibly grateful at times for what is on offer from earlier reaches of Latin culture. The following synopsis can neither enter into the detail of individual essays nor pretend to evenness of critical attention. (Such as it may be for earlier and later periods, the reviewer's own competence fades out for the "medieval" centuries.) If there is a single main point to be stressed, it is perhaps that non-reviewers, too, will find it most stimulating to read the chapters of LLE in more or less the order in which they are printed.

After Ax's opening chapter on Varro there are economical and informative pieces on Vitruvius (Henner von Hesberg) and Pliny the Elder (Klaus Sallmann). Unfortunately, the latter misses all scholarship since 1990, which is a particularly severe failing in Pliny's case. The chapter on Quintilian by Thomas Schirren is twice the length of most of the others and worth the extra pages. Not only does Schirren make a rare attempt (for this volume) to describe the socio-cultural operation of an author's work in his own time, he also takes seriously the challenge of explaining what functions were subsequently assigned to it in other settings. Louis Holtz's notice on Donatus conveniently distils a lifetime's research before closing with a claim for its hero as Colossus of Europe that not even the context of LLE can make proportionate. Martianus Capella (Sabine Grebe) and Cassiodorus (Georg Jenal) are both well served; in each case a complex body of scholarship is skilfully surveyed and leading issues deftly marked. Having recently attempted the same task as Professor Jenal on a slightly larger scale, I would recommend his chapter to anyone coming fresh, or back, to the subject. (Were it not for Jenal's Cassiodorus, a reader dependent on LLE for an understanding of the processes by which a "classical" scheme of the liberal arts came to be normative for the Christian cultures of Europe would be entirely nonplussed.)

Boethius is generously granted almost a fifth of the volume, in two articles, the first of which focusses in some detail on the logical works (Axel Bühler and Christoph Kann), the second on the De institutione musica (Dieter Gutknecht). Both pieces, though admirably done, are inevitably somewhat isolated here. To pick up the plot again for logic we would have to run ahead to Albert the Great in the thirteenth century, a true son of the University of Cologne and an influential commentator on Aristotle. Priscian, meanwhile, is expertly handled by Marc Baratin, who, without risking extravagant claims, sketches the rise in this author's western fortunes from the seventh century to the moment, ca. 1200, at which his work provides the main source for the Doctrinale of Alexander of Villedieu, "conceived as a complement to the Ars of Donatus" (270). Having reached this point in LLE, a reader may be inclined to skim the spare but lively piece on the etymological method of Isidore of Seville (Udo Kindermann) and go straight to the chapter on the said Alexander of Villedieu, the jangling hexameters of whose Doctrinale would still be ringing in the ears of European schoolboys in the early sixteenth century, when it received the coup de grace of a tribute in the Epistolae obscurorum virorum (Reinhold F. Glei, here 311). With Renaissance humanism now on the horizon, the same reader can briskly take in Albert the Great's reception of Aristotle as master of non-theological science (Marc-Aeilko Aris), a feat of assimilation which helped topple grammar from its long-held eminence, and follow it up with a well-judged account of the Dictionarius of John of Garland (by Susanne Daub), a work indebted to Isidore among others (339) and one which, countervailingly, kept open a place for other language arts in the shadow of Aristotelian philosophy. This was the horizon, or a wide arc of it, against which Valla mounted his large-scale revision of the artes, inaugurating what Frank Bezner, at the close of a fine article, aptly if untranslatably calls "die Funktionslogik eines 'humanistischen Feldes'" (384).3 It is a pity that the final chapter on Erasmus (Peter Schenk) cannot maintain the momentum belatedly established. There is no epilogue. A basic index of the names of ancient, medieval and early modern authors assists the tracing of genealogies that might otherwise not appear.

As an account of the forces that shaped and reshaped the forms of Latinate learning over a millennium and a half, LLE is never more than incidentally useful. Its title remains a flourish. The reader who pursues the promise of a sequential reading of its contents has to do most of the work for himself. All of which said, there are enough strong articles among these "portraits" to make the volume welcome as a work of reference for fifteen Latin writers who, even when they deserve no better, deserve at least the praise bestowed on Isidore of Seville by Max Manitius: "Er gehört ohne Zweifel nicht zu den bedeutenden, aber zu den wichtigsten Charakteren der Weltliteratur"(cited here 282).


Einleitung (Wolfram Ax)

Varro (Wolfram Ax)

Vitruvius (Henner von Hesberg)

Pliny the Elder (Klaus Sallmann)

Quintilian (Thomas Schirren))

Donatus (Louis Holtz)

Martianus Capella (Sabine Grebe)


1: Life-Work-Logic (Axel Bühler and Christoph Kann)

2: On Music (Dieter Gutknecht)

Cassiodorus (Georg Jenal)

Priscian (Marc Baratin)

Isidore of Seville (Udo Kindermann)

Alexander of Villedieu (Reinhold F. Glei)

Albert the Great (Marc-Aeilko Aris)

John of Garland (Susanne Daub)

Lorenzo Valla (Frank Bezner)

Erasmus of Rotterdam (Peter Schenk)

Index of persons

Notes on contributors.


1.   E.g., W. Martin Bloomer, Latinity and Literary Society at Rome (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1997); Françoise Waquet, Latin or the Empire of the Sign [1998], trans. J. Howe (London: Verso, 2001); Joseph Farrell, Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Ann Moss, Renaissance Truth and the Latin Language Turn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Christopher S. Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin's Legacy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); and the recently announced first volume in a series called Latinitas Perennis, The Continuity of Latin Literature, ed. Wim Verbaal, Yanick Maes and Jan Papy (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
2.   See now Danuta Shanzer, "Augustine's Disciplines: Silent diutius Musae Varronis?," in Karla Pollmann and Mark Vessey, eds., Augustine and the Disciplines: Cassiciacum to "Confessions" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 69-112 for other fifth-century evidence of the continuing currency of Varro's Disciplinae.
3.   For fuller discussion of this restructuring and its immediate sequels, see now Moss (cited n. 1 above).

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