Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.23

Ralph M. Rosen, Ineke Sluiter, City, Countryside, and the Spatial Organization of Value in Classical Antiquity. Mnemosyne Supplements 279.   Leiden:  Brill, 2006.  Pp. x, 390.  ISBN 90-04-15043-9.  €129.00.  



Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (rscodel@umich.edu)
Word count: 1609 words

Table of Contents

Not that many volumes of conference papers make the reader wish she had been at the conference, but this one does. The individual papers really gain from being set in relation to each other, and the book is worth reading through in order. Several of the articles have responded to other entries, and one--Rosen's--was not given at the original conference, but is the product of further thought about the issues raised by the paper preceding it. One imagines that the discussions were really valuable.

The organizers' goal was to complicate the simple oppositions between city and country that we too easily read into classical texts: either country innocent and good, city corrupt and bad, or country wild and uncivilized, city ordered and civilized. The volume completely succeeds on this score. Indeed, my main criticism is that sometimes these distinctions creep back in as the contributors try to dismantle other interpretive oversimplifications.

Bintliff's paper reminds us how abnormal a polis Athens was. In most city-states, people lived in the "city" (often no larger than a modern village), and went out to their farmland, so that the city-country divide is mainly temporal--areas of an individual's activity, not the spaces of different people. This interestingly looks forward to a point made in Merli's paper on Martial, that elite Romans could see the country as an appropriate place to which to retire after a career in Rome, or as a place to vacation. You did not always belong to one or the other all the time.

McInerney looks at how sacred land at the margins of the city-state provides a way of organizing the wild areas of the border. Here the significant division is not between city and country, but between land that is settled and land that is used only seasonally or occasionally. Polinskaya engages in very convincing polemic against attempts to understand sacred landscapes as if city and rural sanctuaries always had the same meanings. She argues that each set of holy places in each polis needs to be understood in its own terms.

Murnaghan discusses why texts talk about farming, examining the Odyssey, the Works and Days, Theognis 1197-1202, and Xenophon's Oeconomicus. She sees knowledge of farming as a source of authority and a guarantee of truth. I strongly disagree with some of the assumptions of the paper: I do not think poets need to be outsiders "because outsiders have a distinctive ability to describe a culture to itself"--that's what the Muses are for--and I firmly believe that there was a person named Hesiod who farmed in Ascra and whose father came from Aeolic Cumae. But this is a rich and thoughtful discussion of how farming works in Greek moral discourse. Its treatment of Xenophon's Oecononicus is especially interesting. Murnaghan rightly stresses the extraordinary transparency of agriculture in this treatise. All you have to do is look at the land and use common sense, and you will know how to farm it.

A. Bowie looks at cities and their defenses in Herodotus, showing that Herodotus has little confidence in the physical city. Carter looks at the sites of "trouble" in tragedy, arguing that bad things happen inside the house, or outside the city, but not in public space, "round here." In tragedy, the city is essentially stable. I think Carter is a little glib in dismissing Troy as "not Greek" and Oechalia as "a fictional city" (did Euripides' audience think it had never existed?), but the basic point seems mostly right and deserves some further probing. Kosak looks at the wall in Aristophanes' Birds, a wall that defines the city as a city (she shows how important the wall is ideologically even if real cities did not always have one) and yet seems irrelevant.

Perhaps the crown of the volume is Cullyer's contribution, "Agroikia and Pleasure in Aristotle." The central question in this complex essay is that Aristotle describes the agroikos as insensitive to the pleasures of taste and touch and as incapable of appreciating humor or contributing to witty conversation. Yet we typically think of the Greek stereotypical rustic as lecherous and fond of food and drink, and much given to crude humor. Also, Aristotle elsewhere says that people are universally too sensitive to bodily pleasure. Cullyer connects these issues with the place of farmers and others in various passages in the Politics, and consider also comic texts and Aristotle. I am not sure that I am completely convinced by Cullyer's solution to these problems, which gives Aristotle a consistent view of the rustic as "non-appetitive and non-disruptive." But the essay is thought-provoking and a great pleasure to read. Rosen's paper is directly inspired by it. After all, obscene humor is frequently, in both Greek and Latin, described as beginning in rural festivals and is felt to be rustic. So how can we reconcile this genealogy of vulgar joking with the humorlessness of the Aristotelian agroikos, and where does the bomolochos, the characteristically urban type who will do anything for a cheap laugh, fit in? He argues that Aristotle's term agroikia considers rustics only from an urban perspective, so that Aristotle is not denying that country people have their own form of humor; bomolochia is basically what happens when rural humor becomes urbanized. Oddly, Rosen does not mention iambos, which is surely an important part of this discussion.

Spencer's paper on Horace's Odes and the garden was, for me, the least satisfying in the book--not because it isn't intelligent, but because it is so much inside particular recent lines of discussion that I found it extremely difficult to follow--if you haven't read the same recent books and articles the author has, you are pretty much out of luck, unless you are smarter than I am. Spencer seems to be arguing that Horace wants, or at least pretends to want, the countryside to be a utopian space in which Horace can escape not just Rome, but imperial issues, corruption and luxury, and can think freely and critically, but that partly because the Sabine farm is a gift from Maecenas, he cannot actually be free there. "In Horace, we might suggest, rather than titillating the city with in-built bucolic, we find a version of nature so compromised by urban(e) semiotics (and even reception) that it has entirely lost its distancing power" (p. 250).

Sternberg argues that the city of Carthage in the Aeneid is a sort of externalization of Dido's inner state. Skoie argues that the contrast between city and country in the Eclogues has been overstated. Again, I wonder about the assumption that the elegant neoteric style is inherently urban because some of its characteristics are allied with urbanitas. The editors in the introduction comment in passing that "the villa was a suitable locus for philosophical speech (the city in the countryside)..." (p. 7). But why is the villa automatically the city in the countryside? Couldn't the deconstruction go a little deeper? If elite Romans see the country not just as a place where rustics live, but as a place where they themselves go for legitimate recreation and in retirement, and if they believe that rural settings are conducive to philosophy or some kinds of poetic composition, elegance is not entirely urban, but may actually depend on the movement from city to country and back again. So in Spencer's paper and Skoie's, I wonder whether an overschematic dichotomy is created and then overturned. I'm not sure that Horace ever had a project of complete independence from Rome or Augustus. Skoie looks at sacro-idyllic landscape paintings, which show shrines in a rural landscape with animals, shepherds, and worshippers (p. 314). It is indeed good to imagine the poems' being performed in rooms with landscape paintings. To say that such landscapes are "somewhere between civilization and wilderness" is fine, but this formulation slips into the idea that the architectural features bring the city into the country. But there were shrines in the country, and the country can be "civilized."

Merli argues against any straightforward biographical reading of Martial's attitudes to Rome and the countryside. Martial, following the practice of the elite, associates Rome with officia and not-Rome with otium, but Rome is also the place where he has constant stimulation and appreciative critics, while Bibilis is full of provincialism and envy. Martial evokes both laudes ruris and Ovid's exile poetry. Finally, Gray looks at second century CE Attic gravestones and kioniskoi that show the dead as bearded and holding agricultural tools. She considers whether this iconography inks the dead with local hero-cults, and considers the nexus of rusticity, piety, and purity in Philostratus. Three examples of the rustic image have been found in Arcadia, near Herodes' estate, though they were probably made in Attica. Some of those commemorated on these monuments are identified as Milesians, which further complicates the interpretation of these images. If in this period the rustic is the pure carrier of the tradition of an independent and glorious Athens, it is remarkable that Milesians characterize themselves this way. I wonder if a study of Alciphron's rustics would be helpful.

Of course, there are authors and topics the reader misses. It is mostly poetry and archaeology, with Xenophon, Herodotus, and Aristotle the only prose authors to get any real attention. The jump from Aristotle to Augustan poetry is rather a shock, with Hellenistic and Roman Republican literature entirely missing. I wonder if Polybius might have been interesting, or Terence. But no one conference volume can do everything. This one achieves an impressive balance of coherence with variety, and it should make anyone who reads it carefully read other texts and look at other images with fresh attention.

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