Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.43

Alessandro Barchiesi, Walter Scheidel (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies. Oxford Handbooks.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 947.  ISBN 9780199211524.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Angela Kühr, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Handbooks are meant to give orientation, and that is what the editors of the volume on Roman studies declare to be their main goal (6). Due to the flourishing handbook and companion literature, however, one risks losing orientation as to which kind handbooks or companions already exist. A comparative approach would be very interesting in order to see how studies of the ancient world are defined, which concepts and approaches are preferred, which institutions are mainly engaged, and who dominates these books meant to define the state of the art.

The handbook reviewed here had to cope with a wide range of topics. How to define Roman studies? This question not only concerns the editors, who use the metaphor of a giant footprint (1) for the impact of Roman civilization on many parts of the ancient and the modern world. This main question is not only exposed by them in the introduction, it is not only illustrated by the foot of Constantine’s colossal statue on the front cover: the question of how to define the specifically Roman character of many phenomena is also discussed throughout the volume. How “Roman” was the Roman world? Depending on their topics, the authors come to different conclusions. They range from reserved statements that e.g. only a small proportion of the cultural products could be called “Roman” in the strict sense of the word (H. Hurst, “Archaeology,” 103) to emphatic pronouncements that e.g. the Roman regulation of time and their calendar are to be called “one of the most distinctive features of their civilization” (D. Feeney, “Time and Calendar,” 882). The line between “Roman” and “Hellenic” culture is especially difficult to draw. The philological definition of Roman studies as focusing on Latin texts seems to be easier at first. But it confronts profound synchronic and diachronic problems of bi- and multi-lingualism, of translation and acculturation between people stemming from different regions of the ancient empire and between later born people communicating with the Roman past.

The editors, representing the disciplines of history and philology respectively, juxtapose scholars of different provenience to make evident how these disciplines fit together, or how they do not. This symbiosis has engendered a wide-ranging volume reflecting this double perspective on the ancient world. If an archaeologist had been part of the editors’ board, archaeology would not have been degraded to the category of “tools” as is rightly bemoaned, and the volume would not mainly concentrate on “human thoughts (...) recorded in writing” (H. Hurst, “Archaeology,” 93). But a handbook cannot cope with everything the Roman world comprised; it has to focus on something, if it wants to be more than a mere collection of essays. This handbook certainly is much more.

The symbiosis between historical and philological approaches is evident on several levels: the editors themselves, the chapters, and the balance of topics discussed. Comprehensive indices by names and subjects help the reader to get oriented as do the “further reading” and “references” sections after every contribution. Apart from the introduction and a chapter on “New Media (and Old),” the 55 contributions are subdivided into five parts. The first one, entitled “Tools,” exposes the fundamental sub-disciplines which enable Roman studies, e.g. “Transmission and Textual Criticism,” “Linguistics,” “Iconography,” “Epigraphy,” and “Papyrology.” The section on theoretical “Approaches” tackles “Style,” “Gender Studies,” “Culture-based approaches,” “Anthropology,” “Roman Identity,” “Performance,” “Psychoanalysis and the Roman Imaginary,” “Art and Representation,” “Reception,” and historical aspects of classical scholarship (“Between Formalism and Historicism”). The third part, discussing literary “Genres,” could be labelled as the genuine philological one while the fourth exposes “History” by concentrating on historical change. After sketching the main periods of Roman history this part focuses on categories like “Power,” “Urbanism,” “Economy and Quality of Life,” “Family and Society,”, “Freedom and Slavery,” “Law,” “Spectacle,” and “Imperial Ecumene and Polyethnicity.” The last part, exposing key elements of cognition, is the most debatable because the “Ideas” range e.g. from “Philosophy” to “Hellenism,” “Religious Pluralism,” and “Architecture.” “Women” are called ideas, as is “Sexuality”. This last classification is legitimate of course, but “Gender Studies” have already figured as an approach in part II; these questions might thus be overrepresented, and one wonders whether men or concepts of virility should not be discussed as an equally important field of Roman ideas.

The handbook offers a balanced ensemble of topics, approaches, and contributors. There are bilingual contributors rooted in several countries with different traditions of scholarship and research. There are bibliographies listing articles in several modern European languages. There are articles which have been translated from other languages into English (W. Eck on “Prosopography,” A. Traina on “Style,” E. La Rocca on “Art and Representation,” F. Dupont on “Theatre”). A. Traina’s contribution on “Style” even is the translation of an already published article in Italian. Barchiesi defends this unusual decision as follows:

This is an abridged version of Traina’s introductory paper (...) in Stolz-Debrunner-Schmidt 1993, repr. 2007 (the Italian original has a rich and useful bibliography and many more references to the work of Friedrich Stolz and of J.M. Tronskij, whose chapter 5, translated into Italian from Tronskij 1953, was included as an appendix); it was written, a first version already in 1968, as a preface to an Italian volume on the history of Latin, which included Italian versions from the German and Russian originals, with updates (...). (...) our choice has more than one justification: the difficulty of finding a suitable contribution on the interface between studies of Latin style and historical linguistics, and on the relationship between literature and language; the importance and breadth of the methodological ideas in such a short space; a homage to a scholar whose inspiring work has been accessible for a long time only to readers with a working knowledge of Italian (203-204).

Barchiesi’s statement demonstrates how the volume’s content converges with its form. How to define Roman studies? The question not only refers to the difficult definition of Romanness in a “globalized” ancient world. It also implies problems of scholarship in a “globalized” modern world. Though many contributions include paragraphs on the history of research on Roman studies, the volume as a whole does not reflect what is best expressed by Barchiesi’s statement as cited above, significantly in a footnote: that our scholarly world depends on the simultaneous presence of different languages and cultures of research, that it depends on translation. By reflecting the impact of Latin and Roman culture we reflect processes of communication, globalization, and perhaps unification. In reading the volume the reviewer wondered what scientific interconnection really means. Do you not think differently when writing Italian, French, and German? Do these companions contribute to a globalized scholarship, or do they define hegemonic views with a trend to canonization? This volume on Roman studies certainly follows a wide and open-minded concept. Far from claiming a totalizing view on the Roman world, it offers in fact what it aims to offer: orientation, but also very much to think about what Roman studies could be, by content and form.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Alessandro Barchiesi & Walter Scheidel

1. New media (and old), James O'Donnell

2. Transmission and textual criticism , Mario De Nonno
3. Iconography, C. Brian Rose
4. Linguistics, Joshua Katz
5. Archaeology, Henry Hurst
6. Epigraphy, John Bodel
7. Papyrology, Roger Bagnall
8. Numismatics, William Metcalf
9. Prosopography, Werner Eck
10. Metre, Llewelyn Morgan
11. Literary theory , Joseph Farrell
12. Translation , Susanna Braund

13. Style, Alfonso Traina
14. Gender studies, Anthony Corbeill
15. Culture-based approaches, Matthew Roller
16. Anthropology, Maurizio Bettini
17. Identity, Emma Dench
18. Performance, Michele Lowrie
19. Psychoanalysis and the Roman imaginary, Ellen Oliensis
20. Art and representation, Eugenio La Rocca
21. Reception Studies, Andrew Laird
22. Historicism and formalism, Stephen Hinds

23. Rhetoric, Andrew Riggsby
24. Historiography and biography, Christina Kraus
25. Epic, Philip Hardie
26. First-person poetry, Kathleen McCarthy
27. Theatre, Florence Dupont
28. Letters, Jennifer Ebbeler
29. Novels, Ellen Finkelpearl
30. Scholarship, Robert Kaster

31. Early Rome, Nicola Terrenato
32. The imperial republic, Harriet Flower
33. The early imperial monarchy, Carlos Norena
34. The late empire, Richard Lim
35. Power, William Harris
36. Urbanism, Nicholas Purcell
37. Economy and quality of life, Walter Scheidel
38. Family and society, Beryl Rawson
39. Freedom and slavery, Keith Bradley
40. Law, Jill Harries
41. Spectacle, Kathleen Coleman
42. Imperial ecumene and polyethnicity, Peter Bang
43. After antiquity, Clifford Ando

44. Philosophy, David Sedley
45. Political theory, Joy Connolly
46. Hellenism, Tim Whitmarsh
47. Religious pluralism, Jorg Rupke
48. Judaism, Seth Schwartz
49. Christianity, Hagith Sivan
50. Sexuality, Rebecca Flemming
51. Women, Kristina Milnor
52. Space and geography, Kai Brodersen
53. Architecture, Edmund Thomas
54. Science, Paul Keyser
55. Time and calendar, Denis Feeney
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