Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.32

Enrica Sciarrino, Cato the Censor and the Beginnings of Latin prose: From Poetic Translation to Elite Transcription.   Columbus:  Ohio State University Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 239.  ISBN 9780814211656.  $44.95.  

Reviewed by Ian Goh, King’s College London (

[The reviewer apologises profusely for the delay in producing this review.]

This book advertises itself as a much-needed study of early Latin prose, so often avoided by students of Roman literature because of the cruel uncertainties and difficulties that fragmentary texts present. Sciarrino does not shy away from speculation, and is alert to nuance in her interpretations of some vexed critical issues: banquet theory, the so- called Scipionic circle, the designation carmen, the performativity of Latin texts. (Full disclosure: I attended the conference on this last subject referred to in the acknowledgements, met Sciarrino there and have corresponded with her since). It is salutary indeed to see an argument about fragmentary works that dares to offer more than close readings, and incorporates a wide variety of historiographical and archaeological evidence alongside stylistic criticism. The thesis, as I see it, is essentially that prose was invented – or, more precisely, honed – as a Latin genre by Cato the Elder in a bid to capture the authority of ritually charged practices,1 but the book’s topic covers, as it is surely right to do, more than just the authorial utterances or comportment of that homo novus. Still, those were (for this reader) the less familiar fragments covered here, as a larger than expected number of passages that the book treats stem from already well-known poetic sources, mostly epic and comedy. The volume thus inclines toward inclusivity of opposed scholarly approaches, although Myles McDonnell’s more credulous take on Roman resistance to aesthetic influx from Greece is not represented.2

Sciarrino sets out the methodological stall with aplomb. Chapter 1 (‘Situating the Beginnings of Latin Prose’) starts with subjectivity, broadly defined but eventually resting in the body and its writing agency. Observations on different scholars’ formalist and historicist readings of Roman literature from the Anglo-American and Italian traditions lead Sciarrino to argue that the supposedly primitive carmen was more complex than we usually assume. Sciarrino outlines that she will treat prose in its context of ritualised practices, where social agents strove for mastery and uniqueness. Following a literature review notably generous to Habinek, Gruen and Goldberg, Sciarrino introduces the concept of the ‘scenario’ to remove the opposition of ‘oral’ against ‘literary’, replacing it with schemes linked to locations, reactivated and manipulated using ‘different combinations of formulaic elements’ (31-2). I have my doubts about the utility of this, but appreciate Sciarrino’s assiduous search for theoretical underpinnings for the endeavour.

The cleverly titled second chapter (‘Under the Roman Sun’, not the Tuscan one) begins with ‘contact zones’ and moves to implicate Roman authors possessed of ‘migratory subjectivity’ in a flow of resources, a diaspora that results from colonisation. Livy’s infamous satura passage is marshalled in the service of a discussion of cultural appropriation, before a prolonged stopover in which Plautine metatheatre forms the centrepiece of a discussion of translational expertise. In this way, Sciarrino heeds the wise warning of Adams 2005,3 that students of Latin prose should not disregard the plays of Plautus just because they are written in metre. The argument then doubles back to Livius Andronicus, on his own and at the hands of Horace, and his art of reinterpretation. Given the sophistication of his work that Sciarrino identifies, it should perhaps come as no surprise that his name, Andronicus, mirrors the Greek first word of the Odyssey he translated, ἄνδρα.4

Chapter 3 (‘Conflicting Scenarios: Traffic in Others and Others’ Things’, perhaps with an understated allusion to Kurke 1991),5 returns to the ‘scenario’, framing the discussion with the homosocial bonds of élites with their ‘Others’, in particular the friendships of Scipio Aemilianus, first with Polybius, and at the end with Terence. Again the body is centre-stage. In between we have a compendium of rivalries and issues of patronage: Naevius and the Metelli, Ennius and Naevius, Ennius’ ‘Good Companion’ fragment, Cato and the possible practitioners of carmina convivalia, combating luxury with sumptuary laws. This seemed to me the most conventional part of the book.

Chapters 4 (‘Inventing Latin Prose: Cato the Censor and the Formation of a New Aristocracy’) and 5 (‘Power Differentials in Writing: Texts and Authority’), though, are truly innovative, impressive in their intelligence and the grace with which the difficulties identified by the pioneering editors of Cato’s works (the oratory in particular) are handled. The argument encompasses in short order: ancestral masks, exemplarity, close linguistic analysis of techniques such as parallelism, carmen-style in Catonian oratory, metrical analysis that belies the status of prose as verba soluta, and an extended reading of the didactic project of De Agricultura and Ad Filium in terms of formalism and self-fashioning. Cicero’s literary history in Brutus is duly rewritten, and Cato’s own rewriting processes are analysed via the tabulae of the De Sumptu Suo and the Second Preface of the Origines, with a historical underpinning in pictorial representations of the censorial ceremony. Via an excursus on the so-called ‘trials’ of the Scipios and Africanus’ destruction of his accounting-book, which can be related to ‘giving an account’ (redditio rationis), we return to the notion of bodily authorial empowerment through transcription. The final stages of the argument rest on the censorship’s opportunities for a mutual appreciation society in which ‘the verb laudare summons an assessment process’ (198). The conclusion is brief, as each of the chapters has been relatively stand-alone, and theoretical assays are repeatedly re-clarified.

In what follows, I identify four areas for further deliberation. My intent is avowedly not to disagree with readings proposed in the book. First, ground left uncovered: I would have liked to see a greater integration of archaic Latin prose. The Twelve Tables and Ennius’ translation of Euhemerus deserved, I felt, more time. Of course, this desire feels like carping in view of Sciarrino’s disarming disclaimer: ‘What follows in no way pretends to be an exhaustive account of early poetic and prosaic forms’ (37). However, an area which may have deserved at least some attention, in the context of the stated concentration on self-aware transcription at the fluid boundary of prose and verse, is prosimetrum and its use in literary criticism.6 Secondly, the putative ‘invention of Greek prose’, work on which Sciarrino late in this book acknowledges passing over, as ‘their potent explanatory power would have led me to make extensive analogies and therefore to clutter my view of the object of my inquiry’ (207), might also not have been quite so absent. While I agree that fifth-century Athens does not securely map onto Rome, I think that more about Polybius with or without Scipio, for instance, or the banishment of philosophers from Rome, might have been germane to the book’s thesis.

Yet, in contrast to the restrictions mentioned above, the book’s temporal focus seemed somewhat diffuse. Already it is necessary to have recourse to far later excerptors (Pliny the Elder, Gellius, Plutarch), the sources for several quotations, with their particular myopia; I was not convinced that the section on the attacks on Terence as erotic plaything of the good and great, chronologically later than much of the other original Republican material, warranted inclusion. Part of this grousing perhaps stemmed from the fact that the careful set-up of the first three chapters meant that the argument was rather leisurely, taking a while to reach the Catonian meat and potatoes that the title promised. Lastly, the texts and authors that appear in the course of this book seem to accrue a monolithic self-importance and a po-faced practicality, even Plautus. The production of literature seems to be inherently serious business, and accordingly I missed discussion of more playful genres (epigram is accorded merely a footnote in the discussion of Roman saturnians, 75-6 n.129) or the near-mythical weirdness of what was undoubtedly an experimental age in which Ennius could say he, as Homer, was once a peacock (memini me fiere pavom, Ann. 11 Skutsch).

But I am glad to welcome this warm and sympathetic re-imagining of the production contexts available to the early Roman elite. In bringing territory still unfamiliar to many students of the classics into the mainstream, this book is a valuable and important spur to further work. I only detected a few errors (e.g. ‘Saurbaum’ for Suerbaum, 24; ‘usurprising’, 72; ‘Quinitilian’, 107) and a probably inadvertent overuse (in line with the book’s theorising approach) of the word ‘intervention’.


1.   As such, this book complements recent articles by John Briscoe: ‘The Language and Style of the Fragmentary Republican Historians’, in T. Reinhardt, M. Lapidge and J. N. Adams (eds.), Aspects of the Language of Latin Prose (Oxford, 2005), 53-72, at 58-60; ‘The Fragments of Cato’s Origines’, in E. Dickey and A. Chahoud, Colloquial and Literary Latin (Cambridge, 2010), 154-60. The works mentioned in these footnotes are not in the book’s bibliography.
2.   M. McDonnell, ‘Roman Aesthetics and the Spoils of Syracuse’, in S. Dillon and K. E. Welch (eds.), Representations of War in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, 2006), 79-105; id., Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic (Cambridge, 2006).
3.   J. N. Adams, ‘The Bellum Africum’, in T. Reinhardt, M. Lapidge and J. N. Adams (eds.), Aspects of the Language of Latin Prose (Oxford, 2005), 73-96, at 73-4.
4.   An observation I recall being made by Emily Gowers at a talk by Denis Feeney at Cambridge in May 2010.
5.   L. Kurke, The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy (Ithaca, NY, 1991).
6.   See e.g. J. P. Schwindt, Prolegomena zu einer ‘Phänomenologie’ der römischen Literaturgeschichtsschreibung: Von den Anfängen bis Quintilian (Göttingen, 2000).

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