Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.11

Elaine Fantham, Roman Readings: Roman Response to Greek literature from Plautus to Statius and Quintilian. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 277.   Berlin; New York:  De Gruyter, 2011.  Pp. 672.  ISBN 9783110229332.  $180.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Marshall, Trinity College Dublin (


This volume brings together in one place thirty-one of Elaine Fantham’s papers on wide-ranging aspects of Latin literature. The papers have already appeared in journals or edited volumes but by being offered here in collected form they provide the reader with a cross-section of Fantham’s large scholarly output in such diverse areas as comedy, rhetoric, Augustan poetry, Neronian literature and Flavian poetry. As the author herself remarks in the introduction (p. vii), her goal has been to select papers “with some internal coherence”; as the title of the volume would suggest, many of the papers reflect upon Roman engagement with Greek literature and this lends the collection a degree of thematic unity. After a useful introduction which serves to orientate the reader by setting the papers within the wider context of Fantham’s scholarship as a whole (pp. vii-xxvii), the book breaks down into four distinct sections. There is a notable focus on Roman comedy (Part 1) and imperial epic and tragedy (Part 4) which are both allocated 10 papers, making up almost two-thirds of the collection. The remainder of the volume is split between work on rhetoric (Part 2) and Ovid’s Fasti (Part 3) which are both represented by 7 and 4 papers respectively. In addition, the reader is greatly assisted by copious references to papers which are not reprinted here. In what follows, I attempt to offer an overview of the book’s content and scope and the inherent interest of the various papers. Part 1 (“Comedy and Sexuality”, pp. 3-228), by far the longest section of the book, contains papers written over four decades from 1968 to 2004. As Fantham herself notes, one of the interests of this group of papers is to trace “Roman experience of Greek comedy starting around 210 BC” (p. vii). This is a concern reflected, for example, in three early pieces dating from the 1970s: thus paper 3 on Philemon’s Thesauros (and its adaptation in Plautus’ Trinummus focusses on the dramatization of Hellenistic ethics; paper 4 investigates two contrasting pairs of fathers in two Terentian comedies and their relationship to the theme of fatherhood in Menander’s comedy; and paper 5—originally developed for a student audience in the 1970s and published in Phoenix in 1975— explores the status of women in New comedy. Similarly, although later in date, paper 2, the English version of an Italian lecture for the Lectiones Plautinae Sarsinates X (Urbino, 2007), examines “Greek” aspects of Plautus’ Menaechmi (with a particular focus on paratragedy and the theme of madness). Pursuing other interests, several of the papers represented here are also concerned with social context (su ch as papers 8 and 9 on links between education and comedy and the use of comoedi in the teaching of declamation), historical dimensions to comedy (paper 6 on conceptions of stuprum), characterization (thus papers 7a, 7b and 7c take the form of individual studies of meretrices), close readings of individual plays (such as paper 1, the earliest paper, reprinted from CP in 1968, on Act 4 of Plautus’ Menaechmi) or else address wider issues of generic identity (particularly paper 10 on the intersection of comedy and mime).

An interest in the performative aspects of Roman culture naturally led Fantham to pursue interests in rhetoric in parallel to her work on comedy: rhetoric forms the subject matter of the second part of this volume (“Rhetoric and Literary Culture”, pp. 243-343). Papers 11 and 12, two early pieces on Ciceronian rhetorical theory and practice (originally published in CP in 1978) seem to act as first installments of a much more extended study of this topic published almost thirty years later: The World of Cicero’s “De Oratore” (OUP, 2004). Also belonging to this earlier period is paper 17 (first published in LCM in 1981) which ranges beyond Cicero to wider issues of the intellectual culture of the 60s BCE in setting out to reconstruct Nepos’ lost Chronica. Paper 13, first published in an edited collection in 2003, examines perspectives on actors and acting provided by Roman works of rhetorical theory, so linking the thematic concerns of the first two section of the book—comedy and rhetoric. The remaining papers in this section appear to have grown out of the author’s work on Roman Literary Culture from Cicero to Apuleius (first published Baltimore, 1996, and translated into German in 1998). Paper 14 focuses on themes of familial conflict and disowning in the declamatory tradition while paper 15 compares the perspectives of Quintilian and Seneca on the nature and usefulness of declamation. Paper 16 also focuses on Quintilian and explores Stoic conceptions of nature and Roman attitudes to human nature in the context of rhetorical education.

With Part 3 (“Ovid’s Narrative Poem: The Fasti”, pp. 359-453), we move—seemingly abruptly—to Augustan poetry. But, as the author explains (p. xv), an early interest in comedy and sexuality prompted her to investigate a series of erotic narratives embedded within Ovid’s Fasti—an interest in the poem which ultimately led to the publication of her well-known “Green and Yellow” commentary on Fasti 4 (Cambridge, 1998). “Sexual comedy” is the subject matter of paper 18, the first paper reprinted in this section from HSCP 1983. Here Fantham skillfully explores similarities between three Ovidian narratives: Faunus’ assault upon Omphale (Fasti 2.303-356) and two narratives of attempted rape involving Priapus (Fasti 1.393-440 and 6.321-44). Another area of interest represented here is the aesthetics and complex intertextuality of the Fasti: Fantham is concerned not so much with Ovid’s “Augustan Callimacheanism” as with his reactionary response to his Augustan contemporaries. Hence paper 19 investigates Ovid’s response to Aeneid 8 through the figure of Evander who becomes a “counterweight to Aeneas” (p. xvii) as depicted by Virgil. One further strand of Fantham’s work on the poem is the relationship between the Fasti and the contemporary Roman world, particularly Roman religion: paper 20 explores Ovid’s reaction to Virgil’s representation of Ceres and Liber in showing preference for Flora while paper 21 (from 2002 and post-dating the Fasti commentary) continues the focus on religion in a study of the representation of women’s cults in the poem.

The final group of papers in the volume (“Passion and Civil War in Roman Tragedy and Epic: Seneca, Lucan and Statius”, pp. 457-624) moves the focus forward to the Neronian and Flavian periods and a group of rich and allusive texts once relegated to the margins of Latin studies. In terms of Fantham’s book-length publications in these areas best-known are probably the useful commentaries on Seneca’s Troades (Princeton, 1982) and on Lucan 2 (Cambridge, 1992). Interestingly, however, shorter publications in this area reach back earlier than this to the late 1970s—a time when the perceived “mannerism” and stylistic excess of “Silver Latin” authors sometimes served to deflect serious critical attention away from this important body of literature. The opening sequence of papers in this section explicitly addresses the overarching theme of the collection: Roman responses to Greek literature. Paper 22 traces the influence of Euripidean tragedy on Seneca’s Troades while paper 23 (first published in CQ in 1979), placed in pointed juxtaposition to paper 22, in turn tracks the influence of Roman tragedy on Statian epic: here the figure of Thetis in Statius’ Achilleid is seen to reconfigure the character of Andromache as represented in Seneca’s Troades. Paper 24, another of the author’s early publications in this area (from Ramus 1983), returns to Roman tragedy with a meticulous study of Seneca’s Phoenissae which combines formal analysis of the text with close attention to Seneca’s novel representation of the Oedipus myth through the special emphasis laid by the poet on the theme of incest. The four papers which follow on Lucan encapsulate most obviously the themes to which the section title alludes: the representation of the emotions and of civil war in imperial poetry. Here the author reveals an interest in Lucan’s rewriting of the historical tradition (paper 25 on BC 5.237-373), intertextuality within the BC (paper 26 offers a closes reading of two scenes from Book 3 and their connections with Virgil, Aeneid 7 and 8), the role and importance of anger within the poem (paper 27) and the fundamental subject matter of Lucan’s poem examined within the tradition of literary representations of civil war and political and cosmic conflict (paper 28). The final triad of papers in the volume focusses on the two halves of Statius’ oeuvre), both epic (Thebaid and Achilleid) and personal poetry (Silvae). Paper 29 turns to Statius’ Thebaid, and again reveals the author’s interest in the representation of emotions in literature with particular reference to hatred as a driving force of Statius’ narrative and the various layers of causality embedded within the poem. This interest in narrative is also reflected in paper 30 which uncovers the importance of the figure of Amphiaraus within the context of the poem’s complex narrative structure. This group of papers on imperial poetry, and the volume as a whole, is brought to a close with a thought-provoking study which combines both Achilleid and Silvae: as symbol of parent and teacher the figure of Chiron (alluded to in both Statius’ works) bridges the gap between the mythical world of epic and the social world of the Silvae.

Overall, then, this collection is an extremely valuable resource to those interested in both the broad spectrum of Latin literature ranging from comedy to Flavian poetry as well as the nuances and complexities of Greek and Roman intertextual relations. The value of this book lies in its range and richness, but simultaneously it provides the reader with fascinating insights into the genesis and evolution of a remarkable body of scholarship.

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