Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.12

Sarah Culpepper Stroup, Catullus, Cicero, and a Society of Patrons: The Generation of the Text.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 308.  ISBN 9780521513906.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher S. van den Berg, Amherst College (


Even if we rarely associate the Pliny the Younger with humor, his letters pass on the entertaining anecdote of Iavolenus Priscus and his friend, the aspiring poet, Passennus Paulus (6.15). At a recitation Paulus announced that Priscus wanted some verses: “Prisce, iubes...”. The addressee unfortunately misunderstood the convention (or understood it too well), cutting Paulus short by disclaiming the request: “Ego vero non iubeo.” Social damage accrues to both men: to Priscus for his failure to play along, to Paulus for not securing someone who would. Anecdotal treasures such as Pliny’s offer a great deal to the alien observer, because so often the essence of manners and conventions emerges as much “in the breach as in the observance.”

As we might expect, literary request and response had a long history at Rome. Sarah Culpepper Stroup’s book tells its story, both the developmental narrative and the cultural workings of dedicated texts. Focusing on the late Republic, Stroup slows down these moments of social interaction, stretching them out, inspecting each possible step or misstep, and thereby illuminating the “socio-practical” contexts of textual reciprocity--dedication and (implicit) exchange. Her fellow-travelers are Catullus and Cicero, though that says too little and too much: she ranges from archaic Greek poetry to authors of the high Empire, while her Cicero is primarily the Cicero of de Oratore and Brutus, with frequent nods to other dialogues (“technica” is her term), letters, and speeches. Along the way, Stroup reminds us how prevalent such conventions are and, like Brian Krostenko’s book of a decade ago (BMCR 2001.09.16), how vexed the traditional separation of prose from poetry can be when examining cultural phenomena and vocabulary at Rome. It should be noted that this book is not a historical survey of Republican patronage and patrons, but of the social and literary practices of two representatives of the “patronal-class” (as Stroup explains in the introduction).

The intricacies of dedication form the basis for conclusions about the textual culture in the 50s and 40s BCE, hence the subtitle, with its dual meanings, “The Generation of the Text.” The main argument, in short, turns on the claim that these two authors self-consciously shaped their literary or political afterlives through the texts they left to posterity. The emphasis follows naturally on the rising interest in literary reception and has long been a problem to those observing or participating in canon formation: where to locate agency in the crafting of an individual’s legacy and post-mortem interpretation. Stroup adds yet another perspective, though for Cicero John Dugan’s 2005 book, including its analysis of Cicero’s longing for “textual fixity,” has taken some, but surely not all, novelty away from the present study (BMCR 2006.09.03).

In addition to an Introduction, Epilogue, and biographical Appendix on the “Society of Patrons,” the book contains three main sections across eight chapters.

Chapters 1-3 address three lexical items, otium, munus, and libellus. Untraditional methods are brought to bear on traditional subject matter. Stroup operates largely through associative procedures that draw on a panoply of cultural evidence. To elucidate the “situational nuance” (112), Stroup often works from the connotations of a term rather than the statistical preponderance of meaning(s) or the close reading of multiple narrative scenarios. The study is alert to the sort of distinction that Kenneth Burke famously made between “poetic” and “semantic” meaning. A word or expression, when read for its “poetic” meaning, not only signifies something but “contains an implicit program of action.”1

A brief survey of statements will demonstrate the upshot. Stroup remarks “that otium signals, in the late Republican textual code, “time to write” (and talk about writing) and that it would have functioned, especially in dedicated texts and texts that concern themselves with the textual community, as a terminological marker directing our “ideal reader” to a text’s underlying point of focus” (46).

In the term munus we see “the ways in which Catullus and Cicero … tapped into the inherent “reciprocality” of the term in order to imbue their dedicated texts - the product of their otium - with a sense of obliged gratitude and expected reciprocation” (66).

The third item, libellus, creates a natural segue into the later chapters, which deal with attempts by members of the “Society of Patrons” to manage their reception in the immediate and distant futures: “What we see at work with libellus in the late Republic, then, is that in addition to the multiple valences of the diminutive of which it partakes, the term marks a text destined, at least potentially, for “publication” outside of the textual society in which it was created. It is, in short, a book made available for public consumption (and so figures frequently in introductory poems, lines, and passages), and the potential dangers implicit in this consumption - most notably, the danger of losing authorial subject status … forces anxious significations over value and ownership. … [W]hen Catullus and Cicero use it of their own texts they encode it with an intimate directive as to how the text should be received, cared for, and circulated further” (108).

It is instructive to compare some alternatives, such as the TLL, which illuminates semantic potential across time, Brian Krostenko’s “pragmatic ... model of semantic change and its relation to social change and ideological construction” (BMCR 2001.10.37), or Robert Kaster’s elucidation of emotional scripts, whereby the close reading of multiple narratives reveals the cognitive processes attached to the affective lexicon (BMCR 2007.04.10). Stroup is most like Krostenko in analyzing diachronic change rather than drawing on the static framework of the mind’s habits that we find in Kaster’s study.

Chapters 4 through 6 assess how Cicero and Catullus transformed traditional venues of public display into textual embodiments of that display. The first details Cicero’s crafting of his readership, while 5 connects the institutions of the convivium and tirocinium fori (“orator’s apprenticeship”) to the remnants of the public world in the texts of Cicero and Catullus. The “textual forum” (as Stroup terms it) “functions as a replication, in written form, of the social power of a public, non-textual original” (115). Chapter 6 argues for an innovative literary practice in the late Republic, in which authors begin “to replicate the authority of the forum in the pages of a non-forensic text” (116).

The last two chapters, on the “materialization of the text,” discuss how textual copies of the real world attempt to “return back” to that world, to regain some effectiveness when traditional opportunities in the Roman forum seem irretrievably lost, especially for Cicero after the rise of Caesar. Chapter 8’s main arguments first appeared in an earlier article.2 The Brutus’s personification of “Eloquentia” as a maiden who left Athens, sullied herself in Eastern exuberance, and then found a home in the fictional forum of Cicero’s oratorical history, reflects Cicero’s efforts to resuscitate the term’s cultural potency: “By the end of Brutus, Cicero has transformed the abstract concept of Republican eloquentia from a poorly defined catchword for rhetorical ability into a vibrantly personified promise of social and literary resurrection for the producers of written eloquentia - in the form of rhetorical, historiographical, and philosophical treatises as well as, of course, poetic ones - themselves” (251).

The range of investigation often takes us to places we otherwise might have avoided. Stroup must be right to link dedication to forerunners in the Hellenistic period. There is also an excellent observation in the connection of the “saepe-motif” (my term) in Roman dialogues to the treatises of Archimedes and to the incipit of Callimachus’s Aetia (182-3). She impresses upon the reader the need to recognize what a vast and sophisticated milieu informed the Roman followers (no surprise to readers of poetry, of course). Considerations like these will help the scholarship to continue to go beyond thinking about Roman dialogues as essentially technical documents with occasional, if effective, rhetorical flair.3

A few demurrals need to be registered. The busy prose makes few concessions to the reader. Furthermore, no discernible logic has dictated which passages of foreign languages warranted rendering into English. This may not trouble the advanced reader, though it is symptomatic of the book’s equally indiscernible audience. What’s more, the lack of translations can occasion confusion, especially given the surprising number of typographical and other errors.4

Stroup cites sufficient evidence to support her thesis about the late Republic’s culture of the text. Its validity rests in some measure on the success of Cicero (and to a lesser extent Catullus) to exert a lasting influence on later authors. Thus, Stroup rightly emphasizes the reception of the Brutus in Tacitus’s Dialogus, while according too much influence to that one forerunner. Only this restricted focus can make Tacitus the fulfillment of the terms Cicero laid out some 150 years earlier. Tacitus acknowledges Cicero’s overweening presence in Rome’s intellectual history by engaging with many of his dialogues and speeches. Yet he is no straightforward partisan of Cicero’s perspectives on either the Republic or oratory. Still, the competing messages of the epigone only partially qualify Stroup’s teleology. Tacitus points up Cicero’s calculated stranglehold on Roman eloquentia as he provides every argument to move beyond it.

In summary, scholars will find much to think about in this book’s examination of the late Republic’s textual culture.


1.   Burke, K. The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1973, p. 143.
2.   Stroup, S. C. “Adulta Virgo: The Personification of Textual Eloquence in Cicero’s Brutus,” MD 50: 115-140.
3.   The connection is reconfirmed by the literary quality of Hellenistic mathematical treatises, an aspect amply demonstrated in Reviel Netz’s recent book: BMCR 2010.03.59.
4.   At 156 n. 31: read “paulo” for “Paulo.” The ablative of “Paulus” preceded by a comparative gives the Latin an entirely different sense—I found myself asking about the identity of this Paulus and why poets were being compared to him, until I recognized the error. I catalogue here the errors or inconsistencies I noticed: 11 n. 25: read “I am” for “am”; 61 n. 56 and bibliography: read “Boyance/” for “Boyance\”; 64: read “vivi” for “vivis”; 69 n. 11: read either “in principal [sic]” or “in principle” for “in principal” (unless the original author meant “in the principal”(?)); 71 n. 19 and 72 n. 24 inconsistently cite Lucilius; 85 n. 69: the citation is given twice; 102 n. 5: read “hoc” for “hc”; 105 n. 16: read “dialogic” for “diologic”; 118 n. 4: read “scaena” for “scene”; 122 n. 11: accent should go over antepenult; 123: read “15” for “ 15” (footnote after the semi-colon); 133: read “47.174” for “20.264” (also, the text is disputed enough perhaps to warrant comment); 149 n. 145: read “Burger” for “Berger”; 155: read “erant” for “errant”; 157 n. 34: do not italicize “9.2”; 166 n. 48: read “Bloomer” for “Boomer”; 171 n. 5: delete “20”(?); 171 n. 6: rough breathing wanting in the relative pronoun; 176 extra space in line 4 of the Greek; 185 n. 36: spacing and accentuation errors in the Greek; 186 n. 40: inconsistent capitalization and missing colon; 189 n. 50: three errors: inconsistent formatting in “to this, cf.”; read “cupio” for “copio”; read “nunc” for “nun”; 194 n. 65: remove italicized Greek (also 263 n. 75 and 277); 202: garbled syntax in the middle paragraph; 229: read “onto” for “on to”; 259 n. 65: read “nostros” for “nostos”; 259 n. 68: read “sero” for “ero”; 260: read “impetu” for “impetus” (the same error is repeated in n. 70 on the same page); 267: read “quae” for “qua”; 289: read “Oratore” for “Orator”. The bibliography incorrectly lists the title of Krostenko’s book. In addition, a number of formatting errors, which I believe must be attributed to the press, have marred the bibliography. Lines have disappeared, taking with them the first entry for some authors. As a result some works appear under the name of an author who alphabetically precedes their rightful author (e.g. missing are the identifying entries for Foucault, Habinek, and Leach, among others).

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