Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.72

Thorsten Fögen, Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung: zur Struktur und Charakteristik römischer Fachtexte der frühen Kaiserzeit. Zetemata 134.   München:  C. H. Beck, 2009.  Pp. ix, 340.  ISBN 9783406592591.  €78.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Nicolas Wiater, Bonn University / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (

[All translations of quotations from Fögen's book are mine.]

The aim of Thorsten Fögen's study is to explore the self-presentation of Roman authors of technical literature (I am aware that this is a somewhat unsatisfactory translation of the German "Fachtexte") and its interrelation with "the discourse of knowledge and power" (p. 5).1 The (undoubtedly correct) assumption underlying this book is that works of technical literature do not simply provide "objective" and "neutral" discussions of a given topic. Rather, the authors' statements, their selection of material, and their different "strategies" in presenting it are inextricably bound up with other social-cultural discourses: knowledge is not acquired, processed, and passed on in a void but interacts with the social context in which this process is taking place. Technical literature has "political-ideological implications" (p. 8).

Fögen has divided his discussion into two major parts. The first part (pp. 9-104) starts with a general discussion of definitions of "technical literature" and "technical language" ("Fachtexte und Fachsprachen") both in modern linguistic scholarship and ancient texts (pp. 9-25). This is followed by a "synoptic discussion" of ancient testimonies on the characteristics of technical literature and their specific idiom ("Fachtexten und Fachsprachen," p. 6; pp. 26-66) and a chapter on "The Transformation of Greek Knowledge by Roman Authors of Technical Literature" (pp. 67-105).

In this part, Fögen demonstrates that ancient authors were well aware of the fact that technical language was distinguished from other forms of communication by certain characteristics, in particular by specialized vocabulary (statements of authors on morphological and syntactical aspects of their language being much less common) (pp. 26-65). He also refutes the assumption that ancient writers did not reflect upon the difficulties involved in translating Greek technical terms into Latin, although such reflections were not always systematic: there was not one "standard method for the Latinization of the Greek sources" (p. 71).

In the second part (106-295), Fögen then discusses in detail the "Authorial Self-presentation and Communication of Knowledge" ("Selbstdarstellung des Autors und Kommunikation von Wissen") in the works of four major Roman technical writers, namely Vitruvius's De architectura (pp. 106-151), Columella's De re rustica (pp. 152-200), Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia (pp. 201-264), and Frontinus's De aquaeductu urbis Romae (pp. 265-289). The main questions guiding Fögen's discussion of these works are, apart from the authors' "rhetorical strategies" (p. 7) of self-presentation vis-à-vis their recipients, how they sought to distinguish themselves from their predecessors; how they sought to invest their point of view with authority; and how they defined the relationship of past and present, of "tradition and innovation" (p. 7). The study ends with brief concluding remarks (pp. 290-295).

This second part of Fögen's book contains a wealth of interesting and important observations which it is impossible to enumerate in detail here. Among these, I found particularly fascinating the importance of Cicero's orator perfectus to both Vitruvius's conception of the ideal architect (p. 113; cf. p. 141) and Columella's self-image of the doctus agricola, a notion highly interesting in itself (p. 164; see below); the fact that all authors present themselves not only as authorities in their field of knowledge but also as paradigms of moral conduct, thus investing their works (and the knowledge they impart) with a key role in stopping and reversing an (alleged) decline of Roman character (Columella: pp. 189-196; Pliny: pp. 262-263; Frontinus: p. 286) or, in the case of Vitruvius, in the restoration of the "Golden Age" under Augustus (p. 148); the way in which all of them, except for Columella, associated their works with the political agenda of the Roman emperor (Vitruvius: p. 148; Pliny: 264; Frontinus: pp. 278-285); and their differentiated stance towards both Greek and Roman predecessors and authorities.

Throughout the book, I was very much impressed by Fögen's profound knowledge of ancient literature and linguistic theory. However, there are some aspects of the study which I found somewhat problematic and which should be mentioned in a review. In retrospect, I found the terms in which Fögen describes the aims and methods of his book to be somewhat misleading. The reference to knowledge and power (p. 5) and the repeated emphasis on the fact that technical and scientific literature do not originate in a cultural void but always have to be read against their social-cultural context (e.g., pp. 8, 104) evoke the often complementary approaches of Foucault's theory of discourse and the sociology of knowledge, both of which explore the ways in which the production and dissemination of knowledge interacts with other elements of a larger discursive network. Such an approach requires that texts are not studied on their own but alongside texts of various other genres in order to detect, in Foucault's words, "regularities in their simultaneity, assignable positions in a common space, a reciprocal functioning, linked and hierarchized transformations."2

In less technical terms, a sociology-of-knowledge approach aims to discover which role is assigned to the same field of knowledge (for example, agriculture) in different social and cultural contexts (e.g., poetry, imperial ideology, religion, etc.) at a given period.3 Agriculture in technical literature is one, albeit important, aspect of this discursive system. Yet, exploring the role of (knowledge of) agriculture as a constituent of Roman culture and society in the first century CE, i.e. as a cultural-social factor rather than a subject of learning, it would be necessary to read the notion of agriculture offered by Columella against the way in which agriculture is contextualized in other contemporary works and to discuss how the image(s) of agriculture in these works relate(s) to such "classic" (and equally ideological) treatments of the same topic in Virgil's Georgics.

Fögen's approach, by contrast, is predominantly linguistic. "Fachtexte" and "Fachsprachen" are discussed in chapter 2 not as social phenomena but only in terms of linguistic criteria of their definition. This is particularly evident from the discussion in chapter 3, "The Transformation of Greek Knowledge." This title led me to expect a discussion of the different ways in which Roman authors sought to integrate Greek knowledge into a new, Roman framework of culture and learning: can we discern any development in the way Roman authors deal with such a transfer of knowledge from Greek to Latin culture as compared to, for example, Cicero's paradigmatic struggle to define "the Roman" within and against the overwhelming influence of "the Greek" and Horace's awareness of the issues of domination and inferiority involved in Graeco-Roman interaction as it is playfully expressed in his Graecia capta? I was rather surprised to find that the discussion itself is concerned exclusively with statements of Roman authors on the difficulty of finding adequate Latin translations for Greek terms (the "Fachwortschatz" of Latin technical treatises, p. 102). By "transformation," it turns out, Fögen actually means "translation" in the narrow linguistic sense of the word.

Such a narrow focus is especially unfortunate regarding the question of Romanness and its relation to Greek culture and learning which, as becomes evident repeatedly throughout Fögen's discussion, deeply concerned each of the authors. Fögen's discussion of Columella's De re rustica is a case in point. Fögen makes two both compelling and important observations. First, Columella portrays himself as a doctus agricola who is not only an expert in his own field of knowledge but also well-versed in many other fields of knowledge (p. 181); this, Fögen states, allows us to conclude that Columella was addressing "members of the elite who need to have a solid education in order to be able to appreciate Columella's literary agenda" (p. 181). Second, Columella, in stark contrast to Varro, does not distinguish in principle between Latin and Greek sources, let alone condemn Greek knowledge as one of the reasons for the decline of Roman agriculture, as Varro had done (Varro, De re rust. 3.3.7, cited on p. 177 n. 80); this observation is part of Fögen's discussion of "Columella's treatment of his sources" (p. 171).

One wonders whether it would not have been fruitful to connect these two individual observations. For Varro was not only important as a source of knowledge on agriculture but was also a venerated paradigm of Romanness. Columella's notion of the doctus agricola offered his readers a conception of Romanness which allowed them to combine an archetypal, genuinely Roman activity, agriculture, with the advantages of Greek learning. They could thus circumvent Varro's verdict on the exclusiveness of Greek education and Roman identity and preserve their self-image as sophisticated Roman aristocrats, a central element of which were Greek knowledge and education. This observation could then have been embedded in the larger discursive context of Romanness, Greekness, and their relation to each other which had been a vital topic for both Roman and Greek intellectuals for centuries.4 Cicero in particular, for example, to whose notion of the perfectus orator Columella's notion of the universally educated, yet profoundly Roman agricola invariably alludes (p. 164), had been deeply concerned with the question of the constituents of "being Roman" that distinguished Romans from other peoples, and, above all, from the Greeks (see only, e.g., Tusc. Disp. 1.1--2).

This also sheds some new light on "The moral dimension of De re rustica" (pp. 189--196, the quote on p. 189) which Fögen describes as having a "strange flavour to it" and therefore dismisses as a "traditional element" which Columella felt compelled to induce by the fact that Varro had done the same. But elsewhere, as Fögen himself has made clear, Columella has no problem at all with diverging from this authoritative figure of the past. Rather than as a clumsy attempt at traditionalization, it makes much more sense to read this "moral dimension" as part of Columella's attempt to offer his readers a new concept of Romanness which combines traditional (Roman) and "modern" (Greek) elements, including a less paranoid attitude towards the cultural influence of the Greeks as a potential thread to Romanness.

There is thus a surprising discrepancy between Fögen's repeated emphasis that technical literature does not originate in a cultural void and that this cultural context is crucial to our understanding of these works (see above), and the fact that he basically discusses the technical texts as self-contained entities in isolation from both their literary and cultural context and each other. As a result, the question of "knowledge and power", one of the central concerns of Fögen's study, is treated only under the aspect of how each individual author claims that his work is related to the political agenda of the emperor. This is important, but it is only one side of the story which would have to be embedded within a larger social-cultural context. As a result, the book often reads like a collection of isolated authorial statements and it is left to the reader to compare how the same topics are addressed differently by the individual authors, how this relates to their cultural and social environments, and whether they allow us to discern a development of, for example, Roman attitudes towards Romanness and its relation to Greek culture and learning.

To sum up, Fögen's book is important because it furthers our knowledge of a still undervalued genre of ancient literature through numerous highly valuable observations and novel insights. To me at least, however, there seemed to be a noticeable discrepancy between the aims of the study and what it actually achieves. Anyone interested in these technical texts from a more linguistic point of view will most certainly find it a goldmine of information. By contrast, readers interested in the sociology of knowledge and the discourse of knowledge and power in the ancient world (and I count myself among them) can only hope that Fögen's book will stimulate such an enquiry—it most definitely has the merit of making such an approach possible in the first place.


1.   The book thus belongs in the larger context of an increasing interest in ancient technical writing as literature and cultural artifacts. See e.g., Markus Asper, Griechische Wissenschaftstexte. Formen, Funktionen, Differenzierungsgeschichten. Stuttgart 2010; Christopher Gill, Tim Whitmarsh, John Wilkins (eds.), Galen and the World of Knowledge. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge 2009; Liba Chaia Taub, Aude Doody (eds.), Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing. Trier 2009.
2.   Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. The Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London 2002, 41.
3.   G. Karl Galinsky's Augustan Culture. An Interpretive Introduction. Princeton, NJ 1996 is an example of such a discursive approach to Augustan culture.
4.   See, e.g., Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution. Cambridge 2008; Id., To Be Roman, Go Greek: Thoughts on the Hellenization of Rome. In: Michael Austin/ J. Harries/ C. Smith (eds.), Modus Operandi. Essays in Honour of G. Rickman. BICS Suppl. 71. London 1998: 79-91; Greg Woolf (1994), Becoming Roman, Staying Greek: Culture, Identity and the Civilizing Process in the Roman East. PCPS 40, 1990, 116-143.

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