Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.02

Scott McGill, Plagiarism in Latin Literature.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 241.  ISBN 9781107019379.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by J. Mira Seo, Yale-NUS College, Singapore (


[The author apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

Was there a consistent and diachronically stable concept of plagiarism in Roman literary cultures from Terence to Macrobius as McGill’s title would seem to suggest?1 This admirably comprehensive study opens with a measured introduction that situates the concept historically within Roman discourses of literary imitation, and theoretically in reference to contemporary literary and legal definitions.2 McGill is lucid and methodical in outlining the problems of Roman critical terminology (pp. 8-9), where the line between imitatio and furtum is notoriously subjective. The comparative perspective is equally productive, where his rejection of commercial copyright as a necessary precondition for the concept of plagiarism yields this important clarification: “It also obscures the fundamentally aesthetic and moral character of plagiarism, which is not bound to the capitalist marketplace and the way that plagiarists are understood to steal intangible authorial credit and, with it, the esteem that may or may not yield monetary rewards.” (p. 11). As McGill identifies here, what makes plagiarism so difficult to pin down, in antiquity and today, is precisely the intangible nature of the crime—both its objects and its damages—and consequently the necessary dependence on metaphorical tropes and language like “stealing”, surripere, and “illegal enslavement”, plagium.3

McGill targets this elusive subject by analyzing the “sociorhetorical functions” of plagiarism in an impressive range of literary genres over time (p. 28). Rather than mining these diverse sources to derive a simplistic, essentialized definition of plagiarism in Roman antiquity, McGill attentively explores the situational motives and assumptions embedded in their accounts: “A major purpose of this book is to explore that pragmatic variety and to show how accusations and denials of plagiarism, with their emphases on authorial credit and value, were used very differently across time and genre in Latin literature. The charges and defenses said specific things about specific authors and texts and also did things that were particular to the social and rhetorical contexts in which they arose.” (p. 29). From the Ciceronian example that opens the book (Att. 2.1.1), McGill illustrates his approach with case studies, and his careful close readings present concise but illuminating literary histories that themselves build on layers of scholarly stratigraphy. The structure of the argument also effectively communicates McGill’s emphasis on sociorhetorical function rather than diachronic literary history: by dividing the book into “Part I: Accusations” (chapters 2-3) and “Part II: Denials” (chapters 4-6), McGill features the antagonistic perspectives inherent to plagiarism allegations. Despite the obvious forensic implications of pitting accusers against defendants in cases where audiences are constructed as literary judges, however, McGill only implicitly suggests the dominant metaphor of the courtroom that seems to underpin the Romans’ distinctively legalistic discourse of plagiarism.4

Readers of many disciplines will benefit from the individual case studies on subjects as diverse as the prefaces in scholarly treatises (chapter 2 on Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder), Martial (truly inescapable on this topic, chapter 3), Roman comedy (Terence’s prologues in chapter 4), declamation (Seneca the Elder, chapter 5), and Vergilian scholarship in antiquity (Macrobius and the tradition of the vitae Vergilianae, chapter 6). The analytic focus on plagiarism as an agonistic discourse provides a unifying way of reading these varied texts as “scripts” with rhetorically intelligible strategies; without recourse to biographical or intentionalist claims, McGill shrewdly sketches out the common stakes of authorial value and rivalry that persist through Roman literary discourse over time. I was impressed by and learned a great deal from the scope and lucidity of McGill’s study, but my own sense as a specialist in Flavian poetry is that some infant extremities may be left shivering in the shallow bathwater that he leaves for poetic texts.

I see two kinds of limitations inherent in McGill’s functionalist readings of Roman poetry: on the one hand, rhetorical functionalism might be too blunt a hermeneutic instrument for poetry where metaphors and imagery develop and communicate on multiple registers. If Martial’s many charges of plagiarism in book 1 of the Epigrams can be functionally reduced to assertions of authorial value in a “generically determined drive to entertain” (p. 110), then the HOW of Martial’s distinctive poetics of plagiarism are basically irrelevant.5 In sum, like other first person accusers of plagiarism, Martial features plagiarism in his programmatic first book to assert a new poet’s arrival on the scene; that he is an epigrammatist tells us all we need to know about his poetic agenda. These foregone conclusions come as a disappointing anticlimax to the sensitive readings McGill pursues throughout the chapter. Similar reservations apply in the chapter on Terence’s prologues that refute charges of literary theft and even fraud. While McGill is assiduous in citing scholarship on literary historical claims, his functionalist lens tends to marginalize poetic or thematic interpretations of Terence’s use of plagiarism.6

On the other hand, the nimble discussion of Terence’s Eunuchus prologue and his rival Luscius Lanuvinus’ dramatic accusation to the aediles reveals another potential blind spot (pp. 117-129). McGill (p. 126) notes the uniqueness of the scenario, “For the only time in extant Latin literature, an act of plagiarism is consequently seen to bring direct financial gain.” This glimpse into the economic and legal conditions of Republican dramatic productions bears further reassessment with Terence’s other statements on plagiarism and his own personal finances as a professional poet. By focusing so exclusively on Terence’s rhetorical aim in the prologues—namely, to win over the audience by denigrating malignant poetic rivals—McGill perhaps overlooks an opportunity to augment his analyses of symbolic authorial value with further investigation of what else these allegations of plagiarism might reveal in the context of Terence’s larger discourse of money.7

These possibly idiosyncratic reservations may be read as testaments to McGill’s stimulating and provocative study. Wide ranging yet disciplined and accessible, McGill’s position will inevitably shape all future discussion of the topic. Production quality is high, with few errors and none of significance. There is only one inexplicable shortcoming in this significant scholarly contribution: an index locorum would have benefited readers enormously.


1.   In his discussion of ancient Greek scholarship on κλοπή McGill appropriately acknowledges his title’s echo of Stemplinger’s 1912 monograph Das Plagiat in der griechischen Literatur (p.6 n.15).
2.   McGill’s introduction well addresses the historical contingencies of copyright law and conventions of scholarly citation with an extensive bibliography that ventures further afield than most classical scholarship into contemporary legal journals and works on Early Modern publishing.
3.   Martial 1.52 is the only classical usage of plagiarius (a person who fraudulently sells a free person into slavery) to mean literary plagiarist; McGill addresses the legal context of the plagiarius at p.9 n.28.
4.   Irene Peirano has recently explicated the significant intersection between Roman imperial juristic writing and literary criticism in a convincing discussion that overlaps (with acknowledgement) some of the same examples as McGill’s chapter 5. Peirano, I. (2013) “Non subripiendi causa sed palam mutuandi: Intertextuality and Literary Deviancy between Law, Rhetoric, and Literature in Roman Imperial Culture.” AJP 134.1: 83-100.
5.   Full disclosure: I appreciated McGill’s generous acknowledgement of my own work on Martial’s poetics of plagiarism, and here I elaborate on his own observation that we “understand the evidence differently” (p.77 n.21 and passim).
6.   McGill p.129 n.59 in my opinion underappreciates Gowers, E. (2004) “The Plot Thickens: Hidden Outlines in Terence’s Prologues.” Ramus 33: 150-66. McGill’s citations of the authoritative Sharrock (2009) are also indicative of his disinclination for poetic interpretation; though he is unfailingly gracious (p.117 n.8), the points of agreement he highlights tend to be literary-historical rather than analytic.
7.   Essential reading on this topic is Holt Parker’s still thrilling tour de force on Terence’s professional success: Parker, H. (1996) “Plautus vs. Terence: Audience and Popularity Re-Examined.” AJP 117.4: 585-617.

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