Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.10

Nina Johannsen, Dichter über ihre Gedichte: Die Prosavorreden in den 'Epigrammaton libri' Martials und in den 'Silvae' des Statius. Hypomnemata, 166.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.  Pp. 404.  ISBN 10: 3-525-25265-X.  ISBN 13: 978-3-525-25265-9.  €69.90.  

Reviewed by Farouk F. Grewing, Köln (
Word count: 1864 words

This volume is the revised version of Johannsen's (hereafter: J.) U of Kiel doctoral dissertation of 2005. Revised it certainly is, I assume, in terms of proof-reading, typesetting, etc. (very few typos and other editorial errors), but it most visibly bears the traces typical of a dissertation: minute discussions (consent/refutation) of virtually every opinion ever uttered and/or interpretation ever offered, whether contributing to J.'s argument or not: over-documentation at its best. A German dissertation usually has to be published within two years from the actual exam -- that is, get it out, or get in trouble (and I know perfectly well what this means). This is not to say that J.'s book is not a welcome contribution to the field; on the contrary, it is a useful and thorough study of parts of Martial's and Statius' works that have hitherto received rather little systematic attention: the prose prefaces of the Silvae and of Epigrams 1, 2, 8, 9, and 12. These are exceptional in ancient literature as there is no transmitted evidence of such literary prose prefaces to poetry books before Martial and Statius, and we can only guess what might have prompted the two Flavians to be so seemingly eccentric. J. cannot answer this question. Was it a mere "Modeerscheinung" (cf. 381-382)?

The main scope of the study is to investigate the "paratextual frame" employed in Silvae and Epigrams respectively, but unsurprisingly, there is also a great deal of "intratextual" referentiality dealt with in J.'s analyses (49). I should emphasize that the theoretical foundation expanded at length in chapter 2 (23-57) is very clearly structured and leaves no doubt about J.'s notion of 'paratexts' (esp. 38-45) and 'frames' (45-47), which is as much based on Genette (of course) as on W. Wolf's "Framing Fiction".1 However, recurring only every now and then, these abstract concepts do not really have a substantial bearing on the central parts of the book, the examination of the actual texts, which is traditional rather than excessively theoretical. Genette himself defined paratexts as "zone[s] between text and off-text" and as "a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one's whole reading of the text".2 And indeed, J.'s own reading of the Flavian paratexts quite successfully shows how these prefaces with their creations of an implied reader are meant to manipulate the dialogue between author/text and general (factual) reader and how this textual power relates to the texts' metapoetics. I do believe in such concepts, but am now asking myself (and J.) whether, and to what degree, our reading especially of Martial's Epigrams would be different if the author had not attached paratextual epistulae to five of his Books, or if these epistulae had gone astray in the transmission process. In Statius' case the situation is not quite comparable, because his Books ofSilvae are assemblies of exclusively individualized poems. Genettean theory and the differences between Martial and Statius apart, I am unsure if one should call the prefaces in question "werkexterner Bestandteil" (38).

The core of the book, chapters 3 (Martial) and 4 (Statius), exhibits a very simple structure. Close readings of the prefaces to the relevant Books of Epigrams (58-121) and Silvae (240-301) are followed by sub-chapters on the intratextual relation between the self-referential statements in the prefaces and (similar or different) metapoetical passages to be found in the poems themselves (122-239 and 302-370 respectively). It is no surprise that J. gives more room to Martial than to Statius, as the latter's prefaces are significantly less diverse than Martial's and exhibit a rather repetitive format (salutation, dedication, and paraphrased 'table of contents' of the Book, with brief comments).

In fact, J. manages to circumscribe the default structure of the praefationes to the Silvae within one single page (240). But, to be fair, her meticulous analyses show that there is much more to them than simply this. The most notorious among the prefatory topoi of poets especially of the 'lower genres' is their apologetic, self-deprecating posture, which is as much part of the author-reader relationship as any other metapoetical utterance and which is, in effect, a gambit of the poet's self-consciousness; see, e.g., 243-245 (on 1, epist.), 288 (on 4, epist.), 323-325 and 331-335 (on 'Homer' and 'Virgil' in 1, epist.), 362-363. It should be noted indeed that the Silvae brims with epic elements of various kind and that they can even "become a tool in the reading of epic".3 This is because Statius is an epic poet heart and soul, and J. is of course right in taking the reference to 'Homer's' Batracho(myo)machia and 'Virgil's' Culex in 1, epist. to be a tool to boost Statius' self-esteem as participant in the literary (epic!) tradition. It is a pity that she does not look at Martial's 'Homer' or 'Virgil' and their inverted rôles in the Epigrams; cf. especially 14.183-186 (but J. obviously did not consider the Apophoreta, nor the Xenia).

It goes without saying that Martial's self-conscious Muse is of a totally different spirit: there is no room for any apologetic stance, however cunning, about not writing epic; Martial's rejection of the lofty genres (including tragedy) is straightforward (e.g., at 4.49; 8.3; 9.50; 10.4), any explication of the underlying ploy (J. at 151-158, cf. 101-102) well worn; unnumbered articles could be cited. Also, it has convincingly been argued (especially by R.R. Nauta) that Martial's recusatio is strongly linked to the patronage/panegyric discourse. This issue is vital to the understanding of the prefaces' socio-literary context, but J. touches on it in a merely cursory way; consequently, the reader looks in vain for a discussion of poems related to this discourse.4

A major feature of the Epigrams, expressed unambiguously in the first preface, is lascivia, i.e., the lasciva verborum veritas, id est epigrammaton lingua ('naughty frankness of speech, the language of epigram, that is'), which is generically tied to Martial's poetics, Catullus, Domitius Marsus, Albinovanus Pedo, and Gaetulicus being explicitly named as precursors (67-69, 73-74; cf., e.g., 94, 180, 207-209). Thus, in a short chapter on "Anschluss an eine Gattungstradition" (129-134), J. evaluates the frequency and function of these 'models' within the actual corpus of poems, but she focuses solely on those passages where the poets are expressly mentioned by name; hence, the conclusions J. can draw are meager (134). Nothing new or exciting here. S.N. Byrne's "Martial's Fiction: Domitius Marsus and Maecenas", CQ 54 (2004), 255-265 might have helped to sharpen J.'s picture of Martial's use of 'models' in his construction of literary identity.

A deficit of the same kind is even more keenly felt in J.'s discussion of the impact on the Epigrams of games (ludi scaenici, etc.) and public festivals (Saturnalia and Floralia), a complex issue that cannot possibly be dealt with adequately on merely three pages (148-151) and without taking into consideration at least the milestones of previous scholarship, such as H.S. Versnel's Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion, vol. II (Leiden, etc., 1993), to name but one. This is not to say that J. is not aware of such shortfalls. For example, at the end of her chapter on the generic link between Martial's Epigrams and Roman Satire (140-148), she concedes that this topic can hardly be treated within the scope of her study (148 n. 222); of course, it cannot, and so her insightful discussions (i) of Hor. serm. 1.4 and Mart. 1, epist. (64-67), and (ii) of serm. 2.1 / Pers. 1 and Mart. 2, epist. are rather isolated gems, when compared to most other features of Satire J. dwells on (parcere personis, dicere de vitiis, etc.).

In a sub-chapter devoted to Martial's own attitude towards writing prefaces, that is, to applied paratextuality in general (212-226), J. tries hard to harmonize the paradoxical facts that, on the one hand, Martial's poet-persona repudiates the use of praefationes to poetry collections (3.5), whereas on the other, he employs them himself a couple of times (223, 226). This is obviously true, but J. takes the poet-persona's statements much too seriously and blatantly misses the chance to come to grips with this implicit fictional game in the playful author-reader dialogue.5

The notorious labor-lima motif, exploited with all its facets and transformed into a 'Roman-Callimachean' gambit by the Augustans, is of course something neither Martial nor Statius misses out on, and (sure enough) both dissociate their poetry from it -- for different purposes, though (154-155, 254-255, 264, 309, 313, etc.). As to the Silvae, J. rightly elaborates on Statius' celeritas-motif (316-322), which leaves no room for excruciating poetic labor; cf. J.'s "Programmatik der praelusiones" (307-316, and cf. 244, 294-295, 363-364).

But let me skip further particulars. In principle, the idea of analyzing the prose prefaces of either Martial or Statius in relation to aspects of poetics or metapoetry as they appear in the poems themselves yields some insight into the poets' paratexts, and vice versa. The main issues tackled by J. are summarized at 227-239 (Martial) and 362-370 (Statius), and a final resumé is given at the end, 371-382. Due to the inflexible design of her interpretations (witness the table of contents, 7-9), however, J. missed the chance to weave together her many observations and, at times, original approaches and, thus, to compile a pleasant-to-read, less repetitive book. Most of all, it is a pity that she (or her advisor) did not decide to combine the close readings of the individual prefaces (ch. 3.1, 58ff., ch. 4.1, 240ff.) with the "Systematische Analyse[n] in Relation zu den poetologischen Aussagen der Gedichte" (ch. 3.2, 122ff., ch. 4.2, 302ff.). Hence, there is a lot of repetition, and quite a few issues that belong together are scattered in various places in a rather unwieldy way. Also, due to the complexity of the material, it is perhaps inevitable that J.'s references are not always up-to-date. At the end, there is a bibliography of works cited (383ff.), and two indices, (i) of passages cited and (ii) general (396ff.).

All in all, I have mixed feelings about this book: its actual scope, Martial's and Statius' paratexts, is well-defined; the presentation of the material, however, is far from satisfactory, let alone reader-friendly. What J. has to say about poetics or metapoetry outside the paratexts, ch. 3.2 and 4.2, is often insufficient, inasmuch as all her observations are restricted to the poetics present in the paratexts. Thus, the innocent reader might easily get a somewhat blurred idea of these authors' poetics. Moreover, since J. is ambitious enough to explore every single detail of the prefaces, no matter how (ir)relevant, she discovers a great variety of differences (and, of course, similarities) between paratext and text; hence, she feels compelled to explain these discrepancies for the sake of a coherent overall picture. This attempted exactitude all too often aims to synchronize poetry and poetics, text and paratext, author and persona, etc. One should not try to take every word uttered in poetic texts at face value, nor to 'harmonize' inconsistencies at all costs. Apparent contradiction, paradox, and ambiguity are among the hallmarks of playful poetry as well as of its paratexts.6 Both Epigrams and Silvae are outstanding specimens. Explain everything away, and the poetry disappears. But still, J.'s Dichter über ihre Gedichte is a helpful study I will use often.


1.   W. Wolf, "Framing Fiction. Reflections on a Narratological Concept and an Example: Bradbury, Mensonge", in: W. Grünzweig - A. Solbach (eds), Grenzüberschreitungen: Narratologie im Kontext / Transcending Boundaries: Narratology in Context (Tübingen 1999), 97-124.
2.   I have used the English edition of his Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Cambridge 1997 (orig.: Paris 1987), 2.
3.   See esp. B. Gibson, "The Silvae and Epic", in: R.R. Nauta - H.J. van Dam - J.J.L. Smolenaars (eds), Flavian Poetry, Leiden 2006, 163-183 (quotation at 176).
4.   See R.R. Nauta, Poetry for Patrons: Literary Communication in the Age of Domitian, Leiden 2002, 78-86, and Nauta's "The recusatio in Flavian Poetry", in id. et al. [see n. 3], 21-40, also for the Flavian context of Martial's recusatio. Cf. also S.N. Byrne, "Martial's Fiction: Domitius Marsus and Maecenas", CQ 54 (2004), 255-265.
5.   I do not agree that the key message ("Hauptaussage", 221, cf. 217-219) of. 3.18 is a rejection of prefaces to published works; nor do epigrams 4.41 and 6.41 belong here.
6.   Suffice it to refer to U. Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, MA, 1989), esp. 195-200.

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