Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.35
Sebastiana Nervegna, Menander in Antiquity: The Contexts of Reception. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xv, 317. ISBN 9781107004221. $99.00.
Reviewed by Matthew Wright, University of Exeter (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The ‘afterlife’ of Menander, in terms of the poet’s popular and critical reception in the ancient and the modern world, is a subject of considerable scholarly interest. It is also a subject which raises some difficult questions. Why was Menander quite so widely celebrated and admired by Hellenistic and Roman readers? Was his work really so different from, or superior to, that of his contemporaries and rivals? It is hard to establish precisely what qualities of the plays, or what external factors, were responsible for the poet’s unusually high status within antiquity. At any rate, precious few modern readers would name Menander as their favourite playwright, and indeed it is hard not to feel that Menander’s critical reputation would nowadays be greater if all of his plays had remained lost. There is also the question of why Menander’s works should have sunk so completely into obscurity and neglect during the Byzantine period and later, in spite of his earlier popularity, the clarity of his Greek and his suitability for educational use. And – perhaps the most awkward question—how can a satisfying history of the ancient reception of Menander (or any other Greek poet) be written at all? Surely it would require access to all sorts of source material that we simply do not possess?
These questions remain more or less unanswerable, but Nervegna’s impressive new study sets out to establish what can be said with reasonable confidence in spite of the severe shortage of evidence. This book is concerned not just with the afterlife of the plays themselves but also with that of the figure of Menander as a cultural ‘icon’, examining ways in which people in a wide range of historical and geographical settings responded to the author and his work. Nervegna takes as her starting point the famous excerpt from Plutarch’s Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander (Mor. 853-4), in which Plutarch mentions three different contexts for reception: theatres, schoolrooms and symposia. Each of these three contexts, which Nervegna describes as ‘filters’ for sifting the evidence, is examined separately in the book’s three central chapters. Nervegna’s main concern is with the social reception of Menander in particular, and she believes that Menander owed his ‘canonization’ to actors and their repertoires much more than to the activities of scholars and literary critics.
The first chapter (pp. 11-62) serves as a substantial introduction to the subject, discussing (inter alia) Menander’s life and career; his relatively small number of attested prizes in the festivals, a fact which contrasts notably with his enormous posthumous fame (as in the case of many other ‘classic’ authors, including Euripides); the geographical ‘mobility’ of Athenian drama from the fifth century onwards; the problematic use of labels such as ‘old’, ‘middle’ and ‘new’ comedy; the lack of political content in Menander’s plays (though Nervegna argues that many other fourth-century comedians did contain considerably more political, topical or satirical material than normally thought); the links that one can construct between Menander and the Peripatetic school of philosophy; the relative unimportance of Aristophanes of Byzantium, perhaps Menander’s greatest admirer, in the process of canonization (‘one scholar cannot account for creating cultural icons’, p. 56); and the huge importance of Menander as a model for writers of Roman fabulae palliatae. There is a huge amount of material here, presented with economy and lucidity.
Chapter 2 (‘Menander in public theatres’, pp. 63-119) discusses Greek revivals of Menander’s work after the poet’s death (in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods) as well as Roman adaptations by Plautus, Terence and others. Nervegna’s most striking argument in this chapter is that the Roman practice referred to as contaminatiohas its roots in earlier Greek performance conventions: that is, contaminatio represents broadly the same activity as the ‘revision’ or ‘revamping’ of plays for a second performance (diaskeue), widely attested from the fifth century onwards. Such ‘revamping’ will have become much more widespread following the introduction of palaia dramata into the competition at the City Dionysia from 386 B.C. Nervegna also argues that the public or private performance of excerpts or selected highlights from old plays was not common practice, and she believes that surviving papyrus texts of selected excerpts represent school texts rather than actors’ scripts.
Chapter 3 (‘Menander at dinner parties’, pp. 120-200) attempts to trace a series of connections that might be made between Menander and the sort of activities that went on in private houses, including dinners, symposia and small-scale private performances. The chapter takes as its starting point the third-century AD ‘House of Menander’ at Daphne (Antioch) and its mosaics depicting Menander and Glycera; it then proceeds to discuss a large number of other portraits of Menander and other related artworks from comparable domestic settings, providing plenty of high-quality images to illustrate the discussion. It is difficult, Nervegna concludes, to trace specific or direct connections between these artworks and the plays or their performance; rather, the portraits and mosaics are seen as luxurious, fashionable artefacts, which play a part in establishing the cultural identity of elite, Hellenized individuals (‘house-owners had no doubt: Menander and his drama were part of their glorious Greek past’, p. 200). This sort of approach reflects the cultural-sociological (rather than literary-critical) leanings of the book as a whole.
Chapter 4 (‘Menander in schools’, pp. 201-51) examines Menander’s function as part of the literate education of the pepaideumenos, showing that at different periods within antiquity Menander was studied alongside such authors as Homer and Euripides (and accorded roughly equal educational value and prestige). Particular attention is given to the use of decontextualized excerpts, including maxims, and to the tradition that transformed Menander into ‘the gnomic author par excellence’ (p. 205). Nervegna has lots of interesting and illuminating things to say about ancient education and reading practices in general, though in fact there is not a great deal of material here about Menander in particular. Perhaps more might have been said, in this chapter or elsewhere, about the reception of Menander in ancient literary criticism. Mention is made (in passing) of critics such as Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom and Quintilian, but one might have expected more sustained discussion of the ways in which these and other critics read and interpreted Menander. Even though Nervegna has already warned us not to expect detailed discussion of the ancient critics—for ‘this book deals not with the literary but with the social reception of Menander and his plays’ (p. 5) —one is left feeling slightly dissatisfied. (Why not discuss the literary-critical tradition as well, since it constitutes an important ‘context of reception’ and would have added a further level of detail and complexity to an already well-rounded treatment?)
The book concludes with a brief discussion of the survival, transmission and subsequent disappearance of Menander’s texts (pp. 252-60), which also suggests some tentative answers to those unanswerable questions mentioned earlier. There are four useful Appendices, listing (1) Roman fabulae palliatae and their Greek models, where known; (2) paintings and mosaics relating to New Comedy; (3) paintings and mosaics relating to Greek tragedy; (4) papyrus texts of Menander (itemized play by play).
That this book is, ultimately, rather frustrating is not really the author’s fault. It is the direct consequence of the problems of evidence already mentioned. Nervegna manages to squeeze the maximum possible value out of the motley and unsatisfactory scraps that remain; her methods of analysis are highly sophisticated; her approach is plausible and compelling; the questions that she poses are absolutely the right ones. But if only there were some more evidence! As things are, the second part of the book’s title (‘The Contexts of Reception’) turns out to be substantially more important than the first. In essence Nervegna is dealing with a much broader phenomenon than the reception of Menander alone; she is grappling with an enormous range of evidence, relating to many other poets and playwrights besides Menander, and using this evidence to establish a context and framework for the reception of ancient drama in general. Actually the number of pages specifically devoted to Menander is relatively small, especially in the final chapter (as the author sometimes explicitly acknowledges, e.g. p. 259), and in many sections the comedian seems to recede into the background as a rather dim, hazy sort of figure. There is almost as much discussion of other playwrights, including (above all) Euripides. Ultimately, then, this book comes across as a somewhat oblique treatment of its ‘main’ subject. But it is hard to see how Nervegna could have done much more with the material to hand; and if more evidence ever did emerge, it could now easily be slotted into the framework which Nervegna has so meticulously and expertly provided. On the whole, then, this book is a splendid achievement, and an excellent model for ancient reception studies.