Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.38

Marietta Horster, Christiane Reitz (ed.), Condensing texts - condensed texts. Palingenesia, Bd 98.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010.  Pp. x, 764.  ISBN 9783515093958.  €99.00.  

Reviewed by Katerina Oikonomopoulou, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (

Table of Contents

The reviewer would like to apologise for the late publication of this review.

This ambitious and wide-ranging volume is concerned with the processes and techniques of condensing knowledge and texts in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, as well as with their products, the ‘condensed texts’ themselves. ‘Condensing’ and ‘condensed’ are in fact used as umbrella terms for a wide spectrum of closely overlapping textual and intellectual processes, such as epitomising, abbreviating, compressing, paraphrasing, anthologizing, excerpting, and fragmenting (all featured across the various contributions). This terminological variety underscores just how difficult it is to conceptualise these operations in a clear-cut fashion, let alone introduce fine genre distinctions for texts that perform one or several of them. The volume’s editors and contributors are well aware of this difficulty: accordingly, a major aim of the publication is to introduce new theoretical approaches, capable of addressing questions of genre and function in a nuanced fashion.

The volume’s first part (pp. 3-131) discusses ‘Literary and textual theory of abridged and condensed texts’. A short introduction by the two co-editors outlines the main methodological issues involved in treating such a diffuse topic: a major desideratum, as they rightly stress, is to probe into the sociology of condensing texts, with a view to illuminating the role this activity played in broader processes and traditions of knowledge systematization and transmission. Secondly, they enquire, somewhat hesitantly, after the viability of making genre distinctions within the larger category of ‘condensed texts’. Whereas antiquity furnishes abundant terminology for different types of such writing (such as epitome, periocha, encheiridion, p. 8), these labels are far from clearly demarcating independent genres: only a careful consideration of content, readership and function/application (the ‘pragmatic context’, as the editors call it, p. 9) can guarantee an understanding of what the different types of texts that result from processes of abridgement and condensation are ‘for’.

Hose’s contribution follows, which investigates, and fails to find, evidence for the concept of suddenness (‘das Plötzliche’) as a metaphor for poetological compression prior to the Hellenistic era. Dubischar’s article introduces the notion of the ‘auxiliary text’, which views the function of condensation in terms of its role in ensuring the continuing readability of a ‘primary corpus’ (i.e. the text/corpus of texts being condensed, adapting Foucault’s notion of the ‘texte premier’, p. 41). After seeking evidence of such an auxiliary function in the prefaces of ancient anthologies or epitomes, such as Galen’s synopsis of his treatise on pulses (pp. 44-52), Dubischar defines in more detail his notion of the auxiliary by using Paul Grice’s theory of conversational implicatures and Niklas Luhmann’s principle of complexity reduction in communication. This is neatly followed up by Mülke’s discussion of the ambivalent stance of ancient literary sources in relation to epitomes: even though ancient authors such as Galen and Iamblichus are often suspicious of epitomisation, due to the fact it that it could potentially lead to the distortion or falsification of the original, and hence de-stabilise an author’s control over his own text (pp. 71-74), on the whole epitomes and auto-epitomes were thought to increase the outreach of a literary work (pp. 74-76). This fact, as Mansfeld’s contribution goes on to show, played an instrumental role to the transmission of key aspects of antiquity’s intellectual tradition: the case of Hellenistic philosophy, transmitted mostly through the indirect tradition, illustrates the power of key genres such as doxography and biography as capacious media of knowledge preservation.

Next in line are three studies on texts that fragment knowledge for the purposes of linguistic analysis. Swiggers and Vouters offer an excellent informative piece on ancient grammatical doxographies, which tabulates the extant writings and their main common features (historiographical approach to knowledge, lack of chronology, and emphasis on the division of the parts of speech, also called meronomy). Matthaios, next, discusses the complex paths of knowledge transmission that led to the creation of late antique and Byzantine lexica, focusing attention on two of their key operations: the transformation of source material (in the sense of a creative adaptation of sources, to suit the lexicographer’s interests, knowledge, and cultural realities) and/or its appropriation (in the sense of an assimilation, or creative synthesis, of previous lexicographical sources, an operation especially visible in the Suda lexicon, pp. 197-201). Luhtala, finally, focuses on the genre of the Schulgrammatik, as represented especially by Aelius Donatus’ Ars maior and Ars minor (4th century CE). Her discussion addresses the structural and methodological aspects of the two works, both crucial in establishing grammar’s status as a discipline in late antiquity.

The longest section of the volume concerns the role abbreviation played in the transmission of ancient literary texts. Mossman explores the function and uses of the narrative hypotheseis that survive for Euripides’ plays: as she shows, the connections with the world of education, especially rhetorical training, are overwhelming, suggesting the hypotheseis were not merely accompaniments to the originals, but had an autonomous raison d’être of their own as texts. Her conclusions are complemented by Von Möllendorf’s, who lays emphasis on the communicative strategies employed by verse hypotheseis on Aristophanes; as he argues, these draw a picture of these writings as ‘Waschzettel’ (blurbs), which enticed the reader to engage with the Aristophanic originals (p. 278). Reitz, next, focuses on techniques of paraphrasing, summary and abridgement in Homeric criticism (scholia, hypotheseis, and other critical works of compilatory character) in terms of their connection to ancient rhetorical education. Whitmarsh, in his study of the Greek novels, rejects the theory that they were epitomized. Further, challenging traditional notions of ‘the epitome’ as a work that is secondary, and necessary inferior, to the original, he finds that Selden’s theory of ‘fluid text networks’ (p. 312-313) is better able to account for the realities of transmission for the novelistic literature of Graeco-Roman antiquity. This tallies with the ancient novels’ own metanarrative awareness of a wider culture of epitomisation. König’s article traces the discursive, moral, socio- cultural and aesthetic connotations of brevity in ancient sympotic literature, taking Plutarch’s Sympotic Questions as its case in point. As he shows, conversational procedure and citational praxis are in remarkable allegiance within the work, both valorising conciseness in social and intellectual exchange. Plutarch is the topic of Beck’s contribution as well, which re-opens the question of the role collections of hypomnemata (and collections of apophthegmata in particular) played in the composition of the Plutarchan corpus, and discusses their educational import. Dyck’s short piece that follows discusses some evidence for Cicero’s abridgement of his speeches prior to publication. Formisano and Sogno, finally, argue that the Latin cento stands as ‘an extreme version of the epitome’ (p. 380), and offer a set of fruitful methodological reflections, inspired by post- modern theories on textuality, on the cento as a genre that dislocates and recontextualises meaning (pp. 380-385).

The next section is entitled ‘Fragments of History’. Schepens and Schorn offer a stimulating piece that centrally locates late Hellenistic genres such as paradoxography and biography in a broader intellectual endeavour to condense historiographical knowledge. Bleckmann tracks the double epitomizing process (‘doppelte Reduktion’, p. 449) that underpins the relationship between Diodorus’ Historical Library and the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia. Chaplin offers a nuanced analysis of the epitomes of Livy’s historiographical work (the so-called Periochae), teasing out their author’s Republican affiliations and general intellectual profile. In a similar vein, Yardley studies the style and intellectual foci of Justin’s epitome of Pompeius Trogus with a view to contextualizing the work and appraising its author’s intellectual agenda. Inglebert, finally, examines Lactantius’ Epitome divinarum institutionum as a work that offers a creative (rather than mechanical) abridgement of its source-text (Lactantius’ Divinae Institutiones), in a way that reflects the author’s intellectual evolution on key theological issues (p. 497 ff.).

Two extensive articles cover the topic of condensation in scientific writing. Van der Eijk offers comparative close readings from three medical compilations of late antiquity (written by Oribasius, Aetius of Amida and Paul of Aegina, respectively) on the topics of dietetics (meat consumption, in specific) and exercise. In both cases, the three compilers-epitomators rely on the same Galenic sources, but, as the article demonstrates, their different educational agendas and envisaged readers dictate different strategies of abridgement, selection and presentation. Hellmann, next, discusses the transmission history, formal aspects and selection principles of Aristophanes of Byzantium’s epitome of Aristotle’s zoological works (extant through a Byzantine manuscript compilation), and Nicolaus’ of Damascus epitome of Aristotle’s lost work on plants (surviving in the Arabic tradition). As Hellman shows, the two works played a vital role to the dissemination of Aristotelian biology in subsequent centuries, as their contents were widely consulted by later authors.

The final part of the volume is entitled ‘Virtual libraries’, and the three contributions that comprise it discuss Stobaeus’ Anthologion and Photius’ Bibliotheca as capacious works of condensation par excellence. Bowie and Piccione offer rich discussions of Stobaeus’ use of sources and compilatory techniques, meticulously charting often very complex traditions of textual and intellectual transmission on which the text draws in order to build its kaleidoscope of excerpts. Schamp, whose contribution closes the volume, conducts a broad- ranging survey of the contents and sources of Photius’ masterly Bibliotheca, perhaps the most important encyclopaedic work of the Greek world. As he argues, the Bibliotheca’s rich thematic universe and wealth of quotations, which span virtually every major genre of Greek literature, are aimed as a full educational package that condenses a broad spectrum of pagan as well as Christian knowledge.

Although the volume’s contributions discuss a wide range of textual forms connected with the communication of knowledge in abbreviated or summary form (grammatical handbooks, hypotheseis, historical or scientific epitomes and lexica, doxographies, anthologies and miscellanies), this does not amount to a systematic presentation of the different genres of knowledge condensation (with the exception, perhaps, of epitomes, which do emerge as a distinct genre of writing exclusively devoted to condensation). Instead, the volume’s section divisions broadly chart different fields of ancient writing (grammar and literary criticism, historiography, science) whose subject matter was amenable to reconfiguration in abbreviated, or condensed form. This allows for a focus on functional aspects, rather than formal features, and is what ultimately grants the volume coherence: the contributions’ shared aim is to contextualize texts that condense knowledge, and, thus, to offer an informed as well as sophisticated appraisal of their complexity, socio-cultural aims, and relationship to their sources (or prototypes). This is achieved through different methods of analysis, which range from close readings and a comparative examination of themes across texts, to fresh theoretical perspectives and cultural-historical evaluations. The combined effect is to make a clear case that it is no longer viable for scholarship to dismiss without second thought texts of this type as second-rate literature: we have instead to account for the prolific circulation of such forms of writing throughout antiquity, as well as to comprehend their agendas, literary texture, and role as media of knowledge communication. Through the volume’s contributions we learn that not only is it rewarding to approach and interpret such texts as literature in their own right, it also promises to transform our view of key processes and media of knowledge transmission in antiquity.

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