Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.45

Marine Bretin-Chabrol, L'arbre et la lignée: métaphores végétales de la filiation et de l'alliance en latin classique. Horos.   Grenoble:  Éditions Jérôme Millon, 2012.  Pp. 466.  ISBN 9782841372850.  €34.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ailsa Hunt, Fitzwilliam College; University of Cambridge (

Bretin-Chabrol opens this book, an offshoot of her doctoral dissertation, by evoking the familiar image of a family tree. Although, as she immediately admits, this image was not formalised iconographically until the Medieval period, it represents a mode of thinking about family lineage which in fact has a far longer history and which made its presence strongly felt in Roman culture. Bretin-Chabrol sets out to show how, and why, Roman thinkers privileged terms and images from the world of arboriculture when imagining their genealogy and familial relationships. This is to be a semantic study conducted within an anthropological framework (p. 14).

Part I (pp. 17-31) is methodological and establishes what Bretin-Chabrol means by referring to these terms and images as ‘métaphores végétales’ (p. 17). Having emphasised the pervasiveness of such metaphors, Bretin-Chabrol worries over the point at which a metaphor becomes ‘lexicalisée’ (p. 21) and thus loses all its impact: ‘comment déterminer si le mot, devenu banal, possède encore pour les locateurs une dimension imagée?’ (p. 17). For Bretin- Chabrol the solution is to be found in the fact that together these images form a system or network (she values Taillardat’s concept of a ‘matrice métaphorique’): it is as a cohesive system that these metaphors ‘traduisent quelque chose de la conception du monde qui a autorisé leur production’ (p. 17).

Part II (pp. 33-231) offers a detailed study of ‘le sens propre’ of the words which will constitute the meat of Bretin- Chabrol’s semantic study (p. 33). This necessary rooting in arboricultural detail, she argues, will allow us to grasp fully the intended effect when Roman authors apply words designating tree parts or arboricultural techniques to familial relationships (p. 33). After introducing her favoured authors for this task, namely Theophrastus, Cato, Varro, Virgil, Columella and Pliny the Elder (chapter 1, pp. 35-46), Bretin-Chabrol comes to the chosen words themselves. This discussion is split into a further two chapters. In chapter 2 she first examines stirps, suboles, pullus, semen and satus (section A, pp. 48-74), before turning to consider how Roman authors might conceptualise trees either as an organic whole or as a complex multi-part organism (section B, pp. 74- 114). Chapter 3 tackles the arboricultural techniques of propagation through layering (section A, pp. 116-143), grafting (section B, pp. 143-190) and the ‘marriage’ of vines to trees (section C, pp. 190-228); the latter section begins with discussion of a debate as to whether the family of words deriving from maritus originated in agricultural or social discourse. Bretin-Chabrol tends to approach her chosen words by means of a short linguistic history, often on the lookout for the most ancient attestation of the word, before analysing the uses of that word with copious examples from various ‘technical’ texts. For the arboriculturally challenged, the discussions in this section are clarified by two useful appendices illustrating different methods of layering and grafting.

Part III (pp. 233-397), entitled ‘dire la filiation en termes végétaux’, constitutes the main argument of the book. It begins with a survey of how Greek literature uses ‘métaphores végétales’ to articulate ideas about family lineage (chapter 1, pp. 235-245); this is to allow us to grasp better the specificity of these metaphors in Latin literature (p. 235). The mammoth chapter 2 (pp. 247-363) is focused around the idea of a stirps and its role in the social construction of family groups, especially Republican gentes, as collective patrilineal entities. Situating her discussion within the context of Roman inheritance laws and the meaning of the word stirps in juridical texts (pp. 247-273), Bretin-Chabrol discusses the importance of stirps as a symbolic tool for the nobilitas and how it facilitates the creation of a convenient fiction, namely that of the family group as a natural and eternal entity (section A, pp. 274-293). Bretin-Chabrol informatively shows how stirps can refer both to the early stages of and duration of a family line, both to individual parts of the tree and the tree as a whole; as such it is a privileged metaphor for thinking about family groups as a collectivity of homogeneous individuals, which looks both to the past and the future of that family group (p. 233 and p. 322). Arboricultural imagery also colours Roman reflection on the process of prolonging a stirps (section B, pp. 294-322) and interestingly can be used to smooth over moments in a family’s history (e.g. that of the Caesars) when the idea of familial continuity is a social construction rather than biological fact (p. 300). Bretin-Chabrol then turns to consider the moral connotations bound up in terms like stirps, propago and suboles (section C, pp. 323-363). She also discusses the image of the familial ‘graft’, a term used of those seen as external to, yet also part of, the family, such as adopted children or usurpers; emphasising the negative connotations of such grafting imagery, she links its use to a Roman fear of change, attributing the success of terms like propago and suboles to their role as ‘véhicules du discours de la ressemblance’ (p. 363). In chapter 3 (pp. 365-397) Bretin-Chabrol considers the rare uses of stirps with relation to female members of a line (pp. 365-385). Finally she turns to cases where arboreal metaphors are used to subvert traditional Roman insistence on the link between social status and a biological relationship to a noble gens (pp. 385-397): Cicero, the novus homo, emphasises his radices rather than his stirps (Sest. 50); Statius praises Melior’s adoption of Glaucias by undermining the value of the natural propago, leaning instead on the image of a successful graft (Silv. 2.1.82-102).

Bretin-Chabrol’s conclusion (pp. 399-407) begins unexpectedly, with a brief critique of Eliade leading into a re- emphasis on the specificity of the roles played by ‘métaphores végétales’ in Latin literature; she also revisits the relationship between Greek and Roman ‘métaphores végétales’ to underline again the significance of the concept of a stirps in Roman culture. Finally she turns to drawing out ways in which her analysis valuably nuances our understanding of élite Roman identity construction. The metaphor of the stirps provided Romans with a model for thinking about their own identity in relation to a linear continuity of ancestors, whilst the more cyclical temporal models provided by arboreal methods of reproduction allowed this linear model to be felt in terms of continual fresh starts (p. 404). Arboreal metaphors also open a window onto ways in which élite Romans manipulated models provided by natura to reinforce traditional Roman social ideals (p. 407).

Bretin-Chabrol has drawn to the fore a relatively overlooked intersection between arboricultural and familial discourse in élite Roman constructions of their position within society; as such the book is a worthy contribution to our knowledge of Roman culture. Its impact will be hindered, however, by its excessive length. The build-up to Bretin-Chabrol’s main argument (which we do not properly reach until p. 256) might leave one disappointed by the conclusions. The exhaustive semantic analysis in part II is not well integrated into the arguments of part III (despite promise of this at p. 33); in particular her discussion of the trope of ‘marrying’ vines to trees (pp. 190-228) does not have an obvious role to play in part III. The desire to be comprehensive in exemplifying her argument also means that Bretin-Chabrol’s analysis of why these ‘métaphores végétales’ mattered to Roman thinkers is almost squeezed out of the book (the intriguing suggestion, for example, that arboricultural metaphors presented familial relationships as something dictated by nature yet also susceptible to human intervention (p. 115) is passed over all too quickly).

Bretin-Chabrol’s book may well have taken its final form by the time Gowers, E. (2011) ‘Trees and Family Trees in the Aeneid’ (Cl.Ant. 30:1, pp. 87-118) appeared. Unfortunately though, Gowers’ article pre-empts Bretin-Chabrol to some degree, offering a detailed reading of the Aeneid which illustrates how arboreal images provide a model for thinking about family lineage. Gowers argues that arboreal images in the Aeneid articulate the unsettling way in which Aeneas eliminates contenders to his position, ‘uprooting’ surviving members of his familial stirps. Her discussion of how grafting imagery comments on the tension in imperial politics between ‘the ideal of natural succession and the pragmatics of adoption’ (p. 114) is of particular pertinence to Bretin-Chabrol’s arguments.

The book has a number of oddities and weaknesses. Bretin-Chabrol insists that the arboricultural terms she is discussing, extracted from sophisticated literary texts, must have been familiar to the average agricultural labourer as well (p. 46 and p. 142); she even imagines Roman masters reading passages of Columella and the like to their workers to secure this (p. 46). Considering that Bretin-Chabrol is analysing how the Roman nobilitas used arboricultural discourse to articulate their ideas about élite familial relationships, it is unclear why it matters to her argument if we understand this discourse also to be a construction of the Roman élite, distanced from the practicalities of life in a Campanian vineyard. Bretin-Chabrol also emphasises that there is something distinctively Roman about the ‘matrice métaphorique’ which she explores, articulating distinctively Roman conceptions of the family (p. 14 and p. 116). This, however, sits uneasily with a heavy and insufficiently justified reliance on the botanical works of Theophrastus and Aristotle in part II. The weight given to particular scholarly debates within the book is also at times baffling: why such concern as to whether agricultural discourse borrowed the word maritus from social discourse or vice versa, considering her emphasis elsewhere on the ‘réversabilité’ of such images (p. 63). Finally, Bretin-Chabrol’s own picture of the Roman culture into which she is embedding her ‘matrice métaphorique’ is rather thinly painted: élite Romans are unquestioningly assumed to be ‘anti change’ (p. 363 and p. 406) and early imperial Rome just as morally debauched as Augustan propaganda would have you believe (p. 219).

I found very few errors in the text. The third chapter of part III is unfortunately titled ‘Chapitre II’ (p. 365). From the semi-significant to the very insignificant, the reference in footnote 494 (p. 221) should be to Colum. Rust. 5, 6, 18.

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