Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.48

Basil Dufallo, The Captor's Image: Greek Culture in Roman Ecphrasis. Classical culture and society.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 279.  ISBN 9780199735877.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Jas’ Elsner, Corpus Christi College, Oxford; University of Chicago (


In this latest addition to the burgeoning literature on ecphrasis in antiquity, Basil Dufallo—focusing almost entirely on Latin literature—offers a series of savvy readings that collectively reveal what he calls the ‘ambivalent receptivity’ (p. 1) of Greek culture in the ecphrastic writings of the Roman world. His scope is broad—moving from the uses of the description of art in the earliest surviving Roman writing to Apuleius. Dufallo’s command of the material—the literature itself, its long and complex series of bibliographies in many languages, the theoretical frames in which ecphrasis has been received over the years—is impressive. Although this is a self-consciously literary project, Dufallo laces his discussions with some visual comparanda and is certainly clued up on some of the range of artistic parallels.

After an introduction that briefly positions the book within the field, he Dufallo offers us seven substantive chapters and an epilogue. Chapter 1 takes us from the Gigantomachy ecphrasis of Naevius’ Bellum Punicum (though, frankly, I am not convinced that enough survives to make a fair assessment in his case) to strong readings of Plautus and Terence (notably ecphrases in Menaechmi and Eunuchus). Chapter 2, building on an earlier published article, turns to Catullus 64, with an emphasis on inconsistent narratorship and a case to place Peleus’ palace in the context of second-style Campanian villa painting (something perhaps not wholly persuasive). Chapter 3 explores the challenge of rustic art, making an interesting juxtaposition of Vergil’s beechwood cups in Eclogue 3 and the Priapus statue of Horace’s Satire 1.8 (unfortunately written before the arrival of Emily Gowers’ excellent new commentary 1). This discussion both addresses issues of pastoral, which are key to the reception of Hellenistic ecphrasis, and takes them into the much more explicitly Roman genre of satire and its play with Callimachean forms. The excellent chapter 4 explicitly confronts the divine—and as Dufallo rightly says, ‘ecphrasis of religious images has been a problem for ecphrastic theory at least since Lessing’ (p. 108). The focus is on temples, rather than statues, at the opening of Georgics 3.13-36 and in the temple of Phoebus at Propertius 2.31. My one hesitancy here is Dufallo’s keenness to read these complexes in relation to Augustus’ Palatine temple of Apollo; he is of course right that the context of this monument is significant, but it is surely reductive to tie a fictional and hence deliberately open ecphrastic account too narrowly to a specific monument, known to us only through fragmentary archaeology and much speculation. Chapter 5 explores heroic objects in the Aeneid and Metamorphoses. Chapter 6 is a witty account of sex, satire and the hybrid self in Petronian ecphrasis—moving the volume’s range of discussion into prose. Chapter 7 focuses on the specific complexities of panegyric and patronage in Statius and Martial, ‘a feature of Roman ecphrasis unfamiliar enough to go almost completely unrecognized in modern theory’ (p. 207). This may be true of post-ancient theory but it is fundamental to the culture of pre-Roman ecphrastic epigram, notably for example to the newly discovered works of Posidippus. The book ends with a relatively brief epilogue on Apuleius and Philostratus.

Oddly, as I shall discuss below, the range of what is in the volume raises numerous questions about what has been excluded—since the selection of texts is not obviously determined by Dufallo’s thesis or opening propositions and might therefore be deemed whimsical. One disappointment is the lack of discussion of the kinds of objects described —which are in fact strikingly diverse—Catullus’ coverlet, Vergil’s wooden cups in Eclogue 3, the statue of Priapus, paintings in Terence, temples, shields, the equestrian bronze of Domitian and so on. This may be an art historian’s gripe, but despite Dufallo’s use of relevant images for social contextualization, there is no discussion of the potentially different kinds of poetics in play in describing different kinds of works of art (whether fictive or ‘real’). Since this issue is specifically thematized in the Aeneid which does discuss two shields in its numerous ecphrases, but otherwise offers a deliberate variation of objects (temple images, a cloak, the doors at Cumae, Latinus’ statues, the baldric of Pallas), the question of Latinity’s fascination with a poetics of textualizing the material is an interesting one, motivated—it seems to me—from within the culture and relevant to the book’s concern with the Romanness of ecphrasis.

Since the interventions of Ruth Webb (looking, it is true, at the Greek side of the spectrum and especially at the rhetorical corpus), we have been forcefully reminded that ecphrasis in antiquity meant vivid description in general and not only or even specifically the description of art.2 Dufallo, however, takes the word in the sense of literary accounts of works of art, and does not—it seems to me—sufficiently justify his appropriation of a series of mid- to late-twentieth-century theoretical assumptions against the clear ancient meanings. The very hypervisuality identified by Philip Hardie in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and by Tim Whitmarsh in Heliodorus (of whom Whitmarsh uses the elegant term ‘ecphrastic contagion’) in fact speaks to the rhetorical permeability of vivid visualization across all kinds of descriptive writing beyond works of art.3 What works of art distinctively offer within ecphrasis—and why there is a strong case, pace Webb, for isolating the ecphrasis of art as a sub-genre in its own right—is self-referential potential for using the descriptions of art as a commentary on the artistry of a text through the trope of mise-en- abyme.4 That feature of description—the staging of a described object which can stand meta-poetically for the text itself, and the staging of a series of responses and viewings of the object which can stand for ways readers might respond to the author’s own writing in the text wherein the described object features—is, one presumes, what drives the particular quality and frequency of the trope of stand-out purple passages which celebrate works of art, especially in epic and ‘epyllion’.

For this reason, I find Dufallo’s definition of ecphrasis at the opening of the book distinctly puzzling. His argument is for ecphrasis as ‘competition between cultures—Greek and Roman, literary and visual’. (p. 3). ‘Polemical[ly]’ (his word, p. 2) he rejects the mise-en-abyme position that treats ‘ecphrasis primarily as a way in which authors can write about writing without appearing to do so’ (pp. 2-3). What Dufallo calls ‘the standard view’ (p. 3, p. 9, p. 36) in which ecphrasis has a ‘programmatic role… [as] a symbol or stand-in for the written text’ (p. 36) is precisely that which justifies his own chosen focus on descriptions of works of art, as opposed to other kinds of descriptions such as battles or landscapes. And so it is very odd that he rejects it—indeed, the rejection is really of a ‘straw man’, since in specific cases (e.g. the ecphrastic temple of Georgics 3) he accepts that an ecphrasis can be ‘undeniably a symbol for a poem’ (p. 116). Indeed, the view he rejects is hardly in conflict with the model of ecphrasis as agonistic paragone in the fight between word and image, which he wants to espouse. However, within the paragone model he affirms (which is a very old one in the study of ecphrasis, going back to the Renaissance at least5), the implicit claim that competition between Greece and Rome can be married easily with the competition between literary and visual, needs significantly more discussion and argument than it gets here: at any rate, I do not see the point as obvious or unchallengeable.

Now the choice to do ecphrasis in Latin, excluding—well, the range of exclusions are interesting and need much more discussion than they get —is bold. It presupposes the assumption (about which I am at best agnostic if not skeptical, and which I am not persuaded has been proved here) that there is a Roman ecphrastic tradition clearly and categorically distinct from the Greek. That very assumption is complicated by the fact that Dufallo needs his Latin tradition to be dependent on the Greek canon (since for him Roman ecphrasis is both a form of ‘dominance over Greece’ and a construction of ‘Roman identity as Greek, ambiguously and with varying purposes’, p.2). The fact that he ends with an epilogue on a Greek text of the Roman imperial period—Philostratus’ Imagines—is, one might suppose, a kind of admission that the lines cannot be drawn so definitively. It is telling that he calls Philostratus’ scintillating text ‘in some way a Roman phenomenon itself, though never mentioning Rome or the Romans, … [a] version of the receptivity to Greek culture that informs the Latin texts studied in this book’ (248). Among the oddities that follow this chosen emphasis on Latin is the focus on novels (Petronius, Apuleius) in the absence of the Greek novel and on shorter poems in Flavian Rome (Statius and Martial) in the absence of the rich world of imperial-period Greek epigram, much of it ecphrastic. These absences are different from the exclusion of a deep discussion of the classic instances of ecphrasis in Greek models (like Homer, tragedy, even Hellenistic poetry), which had come to be canonical in Rome; and I think they need justifying. It may indeed be that Longus or Achilles Tatius, let alone Lucian, offer different kinds of reception of the Greek canon from what is done in Latin, but we need to be shown that this is the case and how it is so. Dufallo never even raises the point. But in fact the anxiety of influence (yes, Bloom is in his bibliography) presses as hard on the Greek side of the inheritance of antiquity as on the Roman, and to miss the chance of assessing the comparison between them is to miss the opportunity to give culturally substantive and propositional force to his arguments.

In effect, Roman ecphrasis in Dufallo’s theoretical model is really a form of cultural reception (ideologically and politically inflected, to be sure, in line with the arguments of Dufallo’s favourite modern theorist, W.J.T. Mitchell) that is typical of the so-called Second Sophistic. Indeed, the book’s discussions are largely situated in the time-frame of the Second Sophistic, from say the mid 50s BC to 250 AD. But Dufallo discusses this fundamental thematic of cultural reception through the description of art, with hardly a nod to any of the Greek literature produced by, or the copious recent scholarship produced on, the Second Sophistic as a cultural phenomenon of Roman imperial times. Is this exclusion about keeping prose out of the book (with the exception of Roman fiction)? That too is odd, because even if one were to exclude the Greeks (as I would not), the richness of the ecphrastic gestures in such as Vitruvius, the older and younger Seneca, the older and younger Pliny, not to speak of the orators, let alone epistolary writing (John Henderson has written a whole book on ecphrasis in Pliny’s letters6), offers a vast range of contemporary comparanda and situating parallels to the poetry and prose fiction on which Dufallo has focused. One might argue that such parallels are no less fictional, vivid or rhetorically-charged than the ecphrases of Vergil or Ovid. Nor are they less germane to the question of integrating or responding to Greek culture in Rome.

And why does Dufallo’s Latin literary interrogation end with Apuleius? The late-antique tradition in Latin and Greek is extremely rich in its ecphrastic gestures—from Tryphiodorus and Nonnus on the Greek epic side to Ausonius’ epigrams in Latin, with their self-conscious play on Greek sources, or the poems of Prudentius or the letters of Sidonius.7 That late tradition, written in knowledge of and as a commentary on the Republican, Augustan, Julio Claudian and Flavian materials which form the bulk of Dufallo’s book, is no less complicit in the complex of competition of contemporaneity with the past, of Latin with Greek culture, than are the texts he discusses. If his book were really led by the theoretical substance of ‘a fascination with Greek culture’ (p. 3), ‘paradigms of inheritance, transformation, shared purpose and play’ (p. 4), ‘cultural hybridity’ (p. 13), then it would actually demand the inclusion of the late-antique material as offering a fundamental vantage point from which to view the developing culture’s concerns with the same tropes, at a point of transition all the more powerful because its Christianity both marks the difference from the past and demands an antiquarian revaluation of the past.

The strangest exclusion of all, however, is that of the rhetorical tradition. Ecphrasis is an ancient rhetorical term—one for which there is a specific set of technical definitions in the school books (the Progymnasmata) and a long series of show-piece exercises by the likes of Libanius and indeed Philostratus in his Imagines. It is inconceivable that the poetry and fictional texts chosen by Dufallo for his account were not the result of long and sophisticated rhetorical training, perhaps for some of his authors in Greek as well as in Latin. Our finest range of epideictic ecphrases are, it must be admitted, on the Greek literary side of Imperial culture—in the works of Lucian and Philostratus. But that should surely not exclude some level of grounding of Dufallo’s discussion in the range of numerous references to visual and material culture, especially for self-reflexive parallels with the way oratory works, that pepper the likes of Cicero and Quintilian, and that fill the various suasoriae and controversiae of the Latin educational tradition.

It is peculiar to review a book by focusing so much on what it does not do. Yet it matters here because Dufallo’s stated aims demand a much deeper and broader account than his rather easy, though often illuminating, canter through an anthology of texts that have been largely well-discussed in the last generation.


1.   E. Gowers (ed.), Horace. Satires Book , Cambridge, 2012.
2.   R. Webb, ‘ < EkphrasisI Ancient and Modern: The Invention of a Genre’, Word and Image 15 (1999) 7-18; R. Webb, Ekphrasis, imagination and persuasion in ancient rhetorical theory and practice Aldershot, 2009, 1-11 and 61-86.
3.   P. Hardie, Ovid’s Poetics of Illusion, Cambridge, 2002, 173-8; T. Whitmarsh, ‘Written on the Body: Ecphrasis, Perception and Deception in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica’, Ramus 31 (2002) 111-25, esp. 111-2 for the concept.
4.   For the concept of mise-en-abyme see L. Dällenbach, The Mirror in the Text, Cambridge, 1989. For ecphrasis in this context, see e.g. J. Elsner, ‘The Genres of Ekphrasis’ Ramus 31 (2002) 1-18, esp. 3-9.
5.   For some discussion, see L. Barkan, Unearthing the Past, New Haven, 1999, 5-7; on antiquity, see e.g. A. Becker, ‘Contest or Concert? A Speculative Essay on Ecphrasis and the Rivalry between the Arts’ Classical and Modern Literature 23 (2003) 1-14
6.   J. Henderson, Pliny's Statue: The Letters, Self-Portraiture and Classical Art, Exeter, 2002
7.   For some discussions see M. Roberts, The Jeweled Style, Ithaca, 1989; C. Kaesser, ‘The Body is Not Painted On: Ekphrasis and Exegesis in Prudentius’ Peristephanon 9’ Ramus 31 (2002)158-74; L. Miguelez, Cavero, Poems in Context: Greek Poetry in the Egyptian Thebaid 200-600 AD, Berlin, 2008, 283-309; J. Hernandex Lobato, Vel Apolline Muto: Estética y poética de la Antiguëdad tardía, Bern, 2012, 257-317. ​

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