Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.09

Thomas Baier, Geschichte der römischen Literatur. Beck'sche Reihe 2446.   München:  C. H. Beck, 2010.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 9783406562464.  €8.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jason S. Nethercut, University of Pennsylvania (


In this short book, Baier provides a comprehensive overview of Roman literature from Livius Andronicus through the antiquarian work of Censorinus. Though Baier never explicitly identifies what readership he envisions for his book, he clearly writes with a non-specialist audience in mind. Written as one long essay and organized first by genre, then chronologically, this book admirably achieves its stated goal (on p. 2) of presenting the reader with a concise synopsis of the literature written in Latin between 240 BCE and 240 CE. These chronological parameters are not arbitrary for Baier, who justifies the latter date by citing the increasingly Christian nature of Latin literature after Censorinus. These later texts can no longer be appropriately labeled “Roman”, hence their exclusion from Baier’s history of Roman literature. One can certainly object to his justification here, however: not only are there pagan authors who write after Censorinus, but it is far from clear that confessional issues are a good criterion for determining when antiquity ends. The history of Conte, for instance, focuses more closely on the overlap between pagan and Christian literature in the later periods.1

Baier begins with the programmatic declaration that imitatio and aemulatio are the peculiar traits of Roman literature, positing that the originality of Roman authors lies not in the creation of something new, but in the interpretation of earlier texts in the spirit of rivalry (7-9). Obviously this claim is tendentious; but forcefully articulated statements such as this are found throughout Baier’s book. As a result, the lay reader will come away with an unbalanced picture of Roman literature, without any idea that there are vigorous debates surrounding many of the claims advanced by Baier. In what follows, therefore, I will provide a summary of the contents of Baier’s book, drawing particular attention to the moments where a more complete assessment would have been particularly welcome. Such complaints, however, should not detract from the remarkable achievement of covering so much ground in such a concise way.

Baier tackles epic first (9-27). According to Baier, all three early Roman epicists were keyed into Hellenistic aesthetics, though the reader walks away with no idea that this claim is, in fact, rather controversial.2 Baier also asserts that these early epic poets aimed to transform a genre inherited from the Greeks into a means of glorifying the Roman state. Surely he overstates the situation. Nevertheless, Baier’s pages on early epic are filled with important observations on how Livius, Naevius and Ennius transmute mythological subject matter into a teleological narrative of Roman history. Moving on to the Aeneid, Baier’s discussion focuses largely on Vergil’s imperialistic message, ignoring the fact that many scholars question whether Vergil is so optimistic about the prospects of Roman power. Moreover, Baier suggests that the gods in the Aeneid symbolize the passions, though no mention is made of how the gods’ roles as characters in the plot complicate the narrative dynamics of the epic.3 These reservations aside, Baier provides a remarkably concise analysis of Vergil’s epic, managing in just a few pages to touch upon the major interpretive issues surrounding the poem. Finishing up with the poems of Lucan, Silius, Valerius and Statius, Baier cogently situates these four epics in their cultural context under the Empire and articulates the particular way each of these four poets responded to the shadow cast over the epic genre by Vergil’s Aeneid. At the same time, Baier pays due attention to the relationship between these four epics, as well as to the way the Flavian epicists responded to Lucan’s repudiation of Vergilian epic.

Passing from epic to didactic, Baier’s survey focuses on Lucretius, Vergil’s Georgics, Manilius, Ovid’s Fasti and, surprisingly, Metamorphoses (27-36). Baier sees the De Rerum Natura as an Epicurean poem with Callimachean pretensions, asserting in the course of his discussion that Lucretius announces himself as a neoteric poet. While this picture of Lucretius is controversial,4 Baier effectively discusses the main motivations of the De Rerum Natura. Baier then moves on to the Georgics, which represent, he claims, a formal response to the Lucretian worldview. According to Vergil, humans can affect and temper the difficulties encountered in life by their own actions. The culture that humans bring about in this way serves as an optimistic answer to Lucretian pessimism. After making short work of Manilius, Baier concludes his discussion of Roman didactic with two Ovidian poems that seem out of place generically: the Metamorphoses and the Fasti. Perhaps the Fasti is not as surprising here as the Metamorphoses, but if two Ovidian poems were to be analyzed as didactic works, most specialist readers would probably expect them to be the Ars Amatoria and the Remedia Amoris, both of which Baier includes under Elegy. Baier makes the case, however, that these poems are didactic, inasmuch as both claim to instruct the reader: the Metamorphoses teaches us about human history from the origins of the cosmos to the poet’s own time, while the Fasti provides information about the Roman calendar and the festivals that fill it. Though some will object to this generic categorization, Baier successfully devotes much of his discussion to the ways in which Ovid flaunts the generic hybridity of these two poems.

Baier next surveys Roman dramatic poetry (36-54), offering first a concise and insightful account of pre-literary drama. Baier sees the mime of Magna Graecia as the distant ancestor of Roman drama. His discussion includes focused overviews of the Atellan farce, carmina triumphalia, versus quadratus, Etruscan ludiones and Fescennine verses—all well done—with the pertinent information presented in short order. Baier next foregrounds the aetiological-historical aspects of Republican tragedy; the plays of Livius, Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius, and Varius Rufus are presented as primarily political and panegyric by nature. Seneca’s dramas, on the other hand, are not so much tragic as Stoic didactic set pieces in which the characters operate in a cosmic setting. Here again is a controversial claim, given that the exact relationship between Senecan philosophy and Senecan tragedy is still very much in debate. After an overview of the fabula praetexta that regards the genre as a development of the aetiological character of early Roman tragedy, Baier moves to Roman comedy. This genre, he claims, had two main purposes: first to introduce an unpracticed audience to a literary form that was unfamiliar and second to show those who did know the Greek originals something new and artistic. Baier makes good use of Gellius’ well-known comparison of Caecilius Statius and Menander in this regard (NA 2.23). We also find out that Plautus does not concern himself so much with character development as with wit and situational comedy, while Terence’s plays focus more on the fundamental changes that the characters undergo.

Satire comes next (54-58), divided by Baier into four sub-types: dramatic, literary, aggressive, and Menippean. Livy (7.2) tells us about dramatic satire, a pre-literary form consisting of improvised sketches. Literary verse-satire is represented mainly by Ennius and Pacuvius; this form had moral undertones, but was not aggressive. Third, the aggressive satire of Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal was written in hexameters. Lastly comes the prosimetric Menippean Satire, the main examples of which are Varro’s Menippean Satires, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, and Petronius’ Satyrica. One could object that dividing the genre up into such sub-groupings obscures potentially fundamental literary-historical developments. For instance, Lucilius was not ignorant of Ennian or Pacuvian satire; the place of Lucilius in the development of Roman satire must properly be understood in the context of the satire he was responding to as well as the subsequent responses to his own innovations.

Under the heading of Lyric (59-81), Baier next discusses Elegy, Neoteric Poetry, Alcaic Poetry (Horace’s Epodes, Odes and Carmen Saeculare), Epigram, Bucolic, Fable, and Casual Poetry (Statius’ Silvae). Particularly noteworthy here are Baier’s analyses of the differences between Greek elegy (both Archaic and Hellenistic) and Roman elegy, of Roman elegy’s debts to Roman comedy, and of the aesthetic innovations found in the so-called Neoterics and Statius’ Silvae. Some of these categories may strike the specialist reader as odd. For instance, some will reject the existence of a sub-genre of lyric called neoteric poetry. At the same time, many will be surprised to find that bucolic is a sub-genre of lyric, not epic. On the one hand, Baier follows traditional generic classifications in many instances; it would prove hard to deny, for instance, that Horace’s Odes are lyric poems. On the other hand, the drive to tightly package poets such as Tibullus, Phaedrus, Calpurnius Siculus and Martial under one broad genre of Lyric obscures the diversity found amongst the many works discussed in this section.

Having devoted roughly two-thirds of his book to Roman poetic literature (1-81), Baier concludes with overviews of different prose genres (81-123), beginning with historiography (81-95). Baier suggests that the early annalists were primarily concerned with speaking to contemporary political issues. Republican historiography is handled briefly through the Sullan era, in the course of which Baier justly warns against allowing Cato’s apparent anti-Hellenism to obscure the influence of Greek authors on his own work. Baier draws a particularly important connection between Hellenistic ktisis-literature and the title of Cato’s Origines. Next come the works of Sallust and Livy. We learn that for Sallust historical details and facts are not as important as deeper truths and motives. Livy, Baier claims, indicates that there is an ordained historical plan in the spirit of Stoicism that culminates in Rome’s rise to mastery over the world. This last suggestion, particularly regarding Livy’s Stoic leanings, is certainly open to debate. 5 Baier concludes his survey of historiography with insightful discussions of Pompeius Trogus, Velleius Paterculus, Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus, Suetonius, Florus, and Caesar. He focuses always on the general and provides relatively conventional summaries of the main aims of each of these authors.

In the next section on the Roman novel (96-101), Baier leads the reader through the works of Petronius, Apuleius, and, perhaps surprisingly, Quintus Curtius Rufus. Following the requisite caveat that “novel” is an anachronistic label for these works, Baier offers a useful introduction to the Milesian Tales. He then shows how Petronius’ Satyrica contains at once a satiric portrait of the class system in Rome, elegant literary parodies, and detailed passages of vulgar Latin. A brief summary of the events of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses leads into a broader discussion of Apuleius’ other works and his Neoplatonic beliefs. Indeed, just as Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis is modeled on Plato’s Symposium, Apuleius’ account of Lucius’ spiritual journey is indebted to Plato’s Phaedrus; Baier draws our attention to the fact that the name of Apuleius’ protagonist, Lucius, is a calque of the dialogue’s title, Φαῖδρος. A brief analysis of Curtius Rufus’ narrative technique in the History of Alexander concludes this section.

A brilliant discussion of rhetorical and philosophical literature follows a short section on epistolography (101-119). In perhaps the strongest pages of this book, Baier offers a succinct overview of Cicero’s speeches and rhetorical and philosophical writings. The major events of Cicero’s life are presented in a lucid narrative, as is almost every Ciceronian work (he omits some of the less prominent speeches). In the course of his discussion, Baier makes the powerful claim that the De Oratore is the “Gründungsdokument” of European humanistic thought. This section concludes with pithy analyses of Tacitus’ Dialogus, the works of both Senecas, Quintilian, Fronto, and Aulus Gellius.

Baier ends his book with an overview of what he calls the particularly Roman tradition of writing about antiquarian and technical subjects (119-123). Detailed here are the works of Varro, Vitruvius (presented accurately as more of a theorist of architecture than an architectural historian), Columella, Celsus, Pliny the Elder, and Censorinus.

The book is well produced; the print is readable, the glossary of authors is both clear and useful and I only found one typo (“fffselbst”, 51). The bibliography, though sparse, should be sufficient for the intended audience. Despite my reservations on matters of nuance, Baier deserves to be recognized for the sheer amount of information he is able to include in such a small book.


1.   G.B. Conte, Latin Literature: A History (Baltimore, 1994, 593-677, esp. 608-609).
2.   Inter alios Goldberg rejects the idea that the early Latin epicists have any Callimachean pretensions at all (S.M. Goldberg, Epic in Republican Rome (Oxford, 1995, 89-92).
3.   Nor is mention made of D.C. Feeney's observations on this aspect of the Aeneid in The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford, 1991, 151-155).
4.   The feeling that Lucretius stands in opposition to the refinement of Hellenistic poetry has never been overtly articulated by any scholar, but rather permeates certain discussions of his place in Republican Latin literary history. For example, D.O. Ross, Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry: Gallus, Elegy and Rome (Cambridge, 1975, 25) downplays the obvious and pervasive presence of Lucretius in Silenus’ cosmogony in the 6th Eclogue, claiming “it would have been difficult and odd for Virgil or any poet of his time to write on such a theme without a certain Lucretian flavor”. One finds a similar suspiciousness throughout Richard Thomas’ magisterial commentary on the Georgics (R.F. Thomas, Virgil Georgics. 2 Vol. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics (Cambridge, 1988)); compare, too, P.E. Knox, “Lucretius on the Narrow Road”, in HSCP 99 (1999), 275-287. For advocates of Baier’s view that Lucretius was indeed tuned in to Hellenistic aesthetics, see E.J. Kenney, “Doctus Lucretius”, in Mnemosyne 23 (1970), 366-392 and R.D. Brown, “Lucretius and Callimachus”, in ICS 7 (1982), 77-97.
5.   See the contrasting positions of P.G. Walsh, “Livy and Stoicism”, in AJP 79 (1958), 355-375 and W. Liebeschuetz, “The Religious Position of Livy’s History”, in JRS 57 (1967), 45-55.

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