Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.06

Sean Alexander Gurd, Work in Progress: Literary Revision as Social Performance in Ancient Rome. American Philological Association. American classical studies, 57.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. 167.  ISBN 9780199837519.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Aaron Pelttari, Cornell University (


Sean Gurd’s work on the social aspects of revision is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on reading, authorship, and textuality in antiquity.1 Gurd sets the practice of literary revision within the political realities of late Republican and early Imperial Rome. Thus, Cicero, Horace, and Pliny the Younger each responded to the society in which they wrote by thinking differently about the process of writing.

Work in Progress is divided into two introductory chapters, three main chapters (on Cicero, Horace, and Pliny), and a succinct conclusion.

In chapter one, Gurd notes that his work is indebted to the genetic criticism that has transformed much of modern literary studies.2 Although only a few archival examples of authorial revision survive from antiquity,3 “authors do write about genesis” and “we can study what they say about [the] process” of writing (4). In discussing revision, these authors “make implicit claims about the relevance of practice,” in terms of both social and textual realities. And insofar as revision was public it turned “textuality into a medium of social exchange” (4). After surveying the composition and revision of literary texts in antiquity, Gurd ends his introduction by considering the relation between revision and the techne of writing. He interestingly suggests that Aristotle, Callimachus, and Quintilian did not leave room for revision in their understanding of composition. Indeed, since the true artist would conceive of the object in mind perfectly the first time, they imagined revision as the result of imperfect planning. Since modern authors tend to equate revision with superior craftsmanship, this is an important distinction between ancient and modern attitudes towards revision (18).

Chapter two is devoted to revision as a habit of mind (habitus) in Isocrates, Plato, and Quintilian. In the Panathenaicus, Isocrates describes his process of revising this speech in conversation with his students. By including these details in the final version of the work, Isocrates reveals that his real goal was to make his students critical and self-conscious moral and political agents. In the framing narrative of the Theaetetus, the character Euclid revises that text under the guidance of Socrates in a process that is strongly reminiscent of Socratic dialectic. Thus Gurd suggests that Plato imagines revision as the textual equivalent of philosophical dialogue. For his part, Quintilian advises students to rewrite their texts because it will prepare them to produce speeches extempore. The mental preparation of a rhetor (cogitatio) is exactly parallel to the revision of a written text. Each of these authors, therefore, portrays revision as a means to achieving a dialogical habit of mind. Rather than a finished text, the real goal of the exercise is a mindset characterized by recursive structures of thought.

In chapter three, Gurd claims that Cicero thought the process of revision “produces and sustains communities” better than completed texts (49). In order to sustain the republican ideal of deliberation and consensus, Cicero turned to corporate revision. As his prime example of Cicero’s openness to incomplete, imperfect texts, Gurd draws a sharp contrast between the analogical, polished style of Caesar and Cicero’s praise, in the Brutus, of the inchoate style of Cato the Elder and Gaius Gracchus. He also offers a deeply ironic reading of the end of the Brutus: Cicero endorses private oratory only because Caesar has made it impossible to write, speak, or collaborate freely. For, just as collaborative revision depends upon the sharing of work in progress, deliberative oratory depends upon an openness to improvement. In his correspondence, Cicero discusses the genesis, dedication, and correction of his works. Therefore we know that he circulated unfinished drafts and still revised even after a work had already been sent out. Especially on the basis of “the increased frequency of references to editorial revision” and “a corresponding increase in actual practice” after 46 BCE (70), Gurd suggests that Cicero’s openness to collaboration is directly related to his desire to recreate republican Rome.

In chapter four, Gurd argues that Horace thought that revision was necessary under the principate in order to avoid censure. While Hellenistic poets admired the polish of a well turned poem, they refer only obliquely to the revisions that must have been a part of their writing. However, in his hexameter poetry, Horace refers often, and explicitly, to the process of writing. Thus, in Epistles 2.2, Horace compares the work of a poet to that of a censor: both exclude undesirable elements. Gurd suggests that this and similar references to revision imagine the poet’s imperfections as comic or shameful (as the object of censorship), because Horace was less optimistic than Cicero about the possibility of free collaboration. Although the question was strictly beyond his brief, this discussion of Horace’s poetics would have been more convincing if Gurd had explained how the poetry of the Odes relates to the descriptions of writing in Horace’s hexameter poetry.

Chapter five discusses Pliny, who revised his work for a public that was not coterminous with the imperial authority. Gurd borrows his idea of publics from Michael Warner, who viewed publics as constituted through such self- reflexively public gestures as letters to the editor and media coverage of the media (105-8). Pliny fits this mold because he talks in his Epistles about the public status of literature at Rome. Pliny sought revisions only from a circle of friends (the genetic public who directly influenced his writing), but he also cared when revising about incorporating into his works the concerns of the broadest possible readership (the general public). This is in contrast to Ovid and Martial, who wrote for a literary public but do not suggest as clearly that their revisions were influenced by this public. By submitting the Panegyricus to a set of readers distinct from the imperial circle, Pliny managed to construct a literary public that could balance the central authority that Gurd argues had dampened Horace’s enthusiasm for revision. Thus in a limited way revision may enable social change.

The conclusion reviews these chapters and notes that letters were often the space in which Roman authors discussed the process of writing. Furthermore, although Romans composed within a circle, this circle included only the elite, and the author always retained responsibility for the work.

Throughout this fascinating study, Gurd plays with revision in two different senses: revision is both an isolatable stage in the process of writing and an aspect of textuality capacious enough to subsume dialogue, active reading, and the authorial persona. Gurd strictly confines himself to cases that include revision in the prior sense, but one might wonder how they relate to broader questions of textuality in the Greco-Roman world. What does the use of revision at Rome have to do with the changing readership of Latin poetry? How, in particular, does this study on revision relate to Mario Citroni’s work on literary communication in ancient Rome?4 Because so few archival instances of authorial revision survive from antiquity, Gurd uses authorial descriptions of revision to rethink its social function. As such, his study often becomes something more or less than genetic research on the archives of authorial revision. Gurd does address, in his introduction, this tension between the representation of revision and its actual practice. But he also gestures throughout his study at the ways in which the social phenomenon of collaborative revision relates to textuality as such. Although he does not resolve these tensions, his work will be fruitful for future studies of both textuality and of social performance in ancient Rome.

In reviewing a book that describes the potential of collaborative scholarship, it seems appropriate to note a few disagreements. The discussion of delay and revision on pp. 42-4 strikes me as somewhat forced: it is surely the break from writing (scribendi mora) and not revision per se that gives the text calor and impetus. Also, while Cicero and Plato do say that states, like paintings, are in constant need of repair, the evidence that Cicero intended the De re publica to be continually revised is quite slight, a single passage in which Atticus criticized Cicero’s logic and his spelling of a single word (54-6). It also seems a bit of a stretch to present metaphrasis (a creative paraphrase) as a form of revision (26-8), although its inclusion among the progymnasmata certainly would have taught students that writing was a recursive process. However, these caveats do not undermine Gurd’s general conclusions. He has shown that revision had political and social importance in the late Republic and early Roman Empire; and, in the process, he has offered a new approach to this period for scholars of authority, textuality, or reception in the Roman world.


1.   See, e.g. William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and the excellent papers in William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker, ed. Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Gurd has already contributed to this body of work, in “Galen on ἔκδοσις,” in Perceptions of the Second Sophistic and its Times: Regards sur la seconde sophistique et son époque, ed. Thomas Schmidt and Pascale Fleury (Toronto, 2011), 169-84, and in “Cicero and Editorial Revision,” Classical Antiquity 26 (2007): 49-80, whose material became most of Chapter 3 of the work under review.
2.   As Gurd explains, criticism concerned with genesis (known variously as critique génétique, Radikalphilologie, and the “new bibliography”) assume that an author’s intention is not always to be found in the final, published version of a work. Analogously, the “genreader” (the term was coined by Jean-Michel Rabaté) is “a reader who habitually reads texts as pluralities, and whose understanding of what they mean is conditioned by a methodical attendance to the circumstances of their genesis” (3).
3.   In a fascinating footnote, Gurd cites the eight literary papyri that do seem to contain authorial revisions; he also includes a selective list of relevant documentary papyri (132-3).
4.   Mario Citroni, Poesia e lettori in Roma antica: forme della comunicazione letteraria (Rome: Editorial Laterza, 1995).

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