Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.45

Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, Rome, l'Arcadie et la mer des Argonautes: essai sur la naissance d'une mythologie des origines en Occident. Mythes, imaginaires, religions.   Villeneuve d'Ascq:  Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2008.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 9782757400340.  €23.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Stephen Harrison, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (Stephen.Harrison@ccc.ox.ac.uk)

Table of Contents

In this book Fabre-Serris argues that Rome in the first century BCE set out two powerful myths of origin: that of Arcadia (detached from its Greek location) as the bucolic origin of poetry and human culture generally and that of the voyage of the Argo as the first crossing of the sea. The two myths are clearly linked by marking the period of the Golden Age and the first moment of decline in human history. She holds that this search for origins links with Roman culture’s general interest in seeking exemplary legitimation from the past and from ancestral custom for current practices, with Rome’s attempt to construct origins in the Greek cultural world, and with a Roman concern about the interrelationship of man and nature.

In its first part Fabre-Serris looks at the presentation of Arcadia in Virgil, arguing rightly that this sets the agenda for later poetic views (Propertius, Tibullus) of the beginning of civilisation in Italy, and at the presentation of early Rome in Ovid’s Fasti in the Arcadian persons of Faunus and Pan. It rightly underlines the rarely-appreciated importance of Lucretius’s account of early man in the generation of Latin images of the pastoral world and pastoral song, though Lucretius never names Arcadia and it might be as well to make more allowances for lost versions of pastoral to add to the Eclogues (what of the Theocritean-style pastoral poems apparently attributed to Messalla at Catalepton 9.17-20 ?). But the key points that Lucretius provides the idea of the residual traces of divine presence in the countryside, the notion of the birth of poetry in a pastoral landscape, and the idea of a song modelled on nature are all well made.

The treatment of Gallus, Virgil and Arcadia follows fairly familiar lines in seeing both erotic passion and metapoetic reflection as key themes of the Eclogues imported from Theocritean pastoral, though again the role of Lucretius in supplying Epicurean opposition to destructive passions is well emphasised. Fabre-Serris follows Ross in reconstructing Gallan elegy as at least partly Arcadian, at times a little speculatively, and not all will agree with her conclusions that a cure is envisaged for Corydon’s hopeless love or that the Gallus of Propertius 1.20 is the poet (apparently a nobilis, if he is the same person as the addressee of 1.5, something hard to square with the solidly equestrian Cornelius Gallus). It is not really clear that the ‘Arcadians’ of Eclogue 7.4 are more than figuratively so in their amoebaean songs, claimed for Arcadia by the Arcadian Polybius (4.20.10). But Fabre-Serris’s suggestion that Lycidas in Theocritus’ Idyll 7 is in some sense Arcadian is certainly worth pondering, as is her argument that Tibullus puts back pastoral elements into elegy as a reaction to the Eclogues as well as to Gallus.

One interesting feature of the book is its interest in bringing together poetry and material culture, especially Pompeian wall-painting (with some nice colour illustrations) and gardens, following the work of Eleanor Windsor Leach. The artificial topiary of Roman gardens and their role as the home of divine images are interestingly linked with the active function of gods in pastoral and the equally self-conscious artificiality of the pastoral literary form; here a further link might also have been made with the Epicurean kepos. The stylised images of nature on wall-painting are rightly compared to the stylised Arcadian environment of pastoral poetry, though the sacro-idyllic element of the wall-paintings could be seen as less important in the literary dimension than Fabre-Serris argues.

One section of the book presents a revised version of a paper from MD 2003 on Ovid’s Met. and pastoral, which rightly emphasises the importance of Arcadia and pastoral elements in the early books of the Met., especially the aetiology of pastoral music in the story of Pan and Syrinx. Lucretius is once more usefully stressed as an important source for the prominence of song in early human history. There are a number of good points made here about Ovidian interest in the genesis and character of bucolic poetry and in the fictionality of art; one could add the point that both Jupiter and Mercury (prominent in Met.1) are born in Arcadia.

Another section presents an interesting study of the literary tradition of the Ovidian story of Polyphemus and Galatea, reminding us that there is a pre-Theocritean source in the dithyrambic poet Philoxenus (4C BCE), and making some nice links with the version of the story in Philostratus’ Imagines. The dual nature of Polyphemus as comic lover and fearful monster is well brought out; one could note that only the former really appears in pastoral, while the Cyclops’ darker tendencies (e.g. anthropophagy) are brought out in his presentation in epic (Aeneid 3 follows Odyssey 9 here). Fabre-Serris rightly argues that in Met..11 Ovid does not advocate pastoral poetry as erotic therapy, thus characterising passion as destructive as in Vergil’s Dido; again one could add that this suits the more ‘serious’ world of epic.

The final third of the book focuses on the Argonautic myth and especially its key narrative in Catullus 64. It argues that Catullus introduces the idea of the Argo as first ship, though it is quite possible that the famous passage of Accius’ Medea or Argonautae cited by Cicero (ND 2.89) about the peasant who has never seen a ship already reflects the idea of the Argo as first ship, which would put this idea back two generations before Catullus. Here Fabre-Serris is aware of potential links of such west-east quest narratives with imperial Roman expansionism in the 1C BCE (and later in Valerius Flaccus), but could make more of this aspect. In particular it is surprising in the treatment here of the theme after Catullus (in Vergil, Propertius and Phaedrus) to see no mention of the Argonautaeof Varro of Atax, which may have been written in the 40s BCE to reflect the Eastern ambitions of Caesar, or possibly in the 30s to reflect those of Antony.

One section plots the reception of Catullus 64 and the Argonautic myth in the choruses of Seneca’s Medea, rightly stressing the link of the Argo to Lucretian ideas of boundary-breaking; it makes some interesting suggestions about the darker side of the myth for individual Argonauts, but could link this better with the darker elements of Catullus’ poem. Fabre-Serris makes an interesting comparison between the rhetoric of proper separation of land and sea in Seneca and the deliberate confusion of the two in the scheme of Nero’s Domus Aurea, another stimulating application of evidence from material culture. The treatment of Valerius Flaccus makes some good points about its relative lack of interest in the Golden Fleece and greater focus on ruling family politics, fitting for the Flavian age, and about its reactions to Seneca’s treatment.

The conclusion briefly introduces some interesting modern receptions of the Argonautic saga, in English (D.H.Lawrence, ‘The Argonauts’ and ‘Middle of The World’) and Italian (Cesare Pavese, ‘Gli Argonauti’), and of the idea of primitive Arcadia in Jean Giono’s writings on Provence and Albert Camus’ on North Africa, both ancient Roman landscapes seen as inhabited by gods, and gestures towards ecocriticism and environmental issues.

This is a suggestive and interesting volume, with a number of provocative and broadly argued ideas and connections; it moves rapidly and loosely over a good deal of literary terrain rather than engaging in deep excavation. Though it is generally lightly annotated, it is laudably aware of some recent developments in scholarship in Latin poetry outside the Francophone world (though it could profitably have engaged with Wiseman’s 2004 The Myths of Rome and its discussion of Roman strategies to create a local mythology). In sum, though its rapid pace and kaleidoscopic vision mean that no issue detains this book for long, all readers of Roman poetry will find in it some new and stimulating ideas.

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