Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.30

Nicolas Lévi, La révélation finale à Rome: Cicéron, Ovide, Apulée. Étude sur le “Songe de Scipion” (De republica, VI), le discours de Pythagore (Métamorphoses, XV) et la théophanie d’Isis (Métamorphoses, XI). Rome et ses renaissances.   Paris:  Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2014.  Pp. 537.  ISBN 9782840509455.  €26.00.  

Reviewed by Adrian Mihai, Université Laval (

This book, developed from a doctoral thesis under the well known Ciceronian scholar Carlos Lévy, aims to establish the motif of the ‘final revelation’ as a transgeneric literary device in Latin literature. This is accomplished by a threefold analysis: the final revelation in book VI of Cicero’s Republic, which has survived only in fragments (p. 59-186), the final book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (p. 189-311), and Apuleius’ final revelation from his Metamorphoses, better known as the Golden Ass (p. 315-454). Its method is that of narrative theory.

In addition to a preface, acknowledgments, a preliminary chapter and three main parts dedicated to each of the three authors, the book ends with a general conclusion, a brief bibliography and 23 pages of indexes (an index locorum and an index nominum et rerum). Each of the three main parts is divided into three chapters, and each chapter into various sections and subsections. These divisions are welcome since they help readers to avoid fatigue in their perusal of such adense academic books.

The thesis of the author is the following: the function of the ‘final revelation’ in Roman literature (at least in the authors under discussion) is twofold: first, to elucidate retrospectively the main plot of the work; secondly, and this feature marks the originality of Roman literature, the author shows that this motif structures the narrative of the work, and is not just an awkward addition unjustified by the preceding action, in fact that it is the driving force of these works.

From the start, the author establishes a typology of various minimal units of a revelatory narration (p. 17-35, especially the table at pages 31-32). These constitutive characteristics are based on the setting, the content and the effect or result of the revelation. The “setting” is determined by the relationship between the human sphere and the supernatural one, the figure of the author of the revelation and the beneficiary of the revelation. The “content” is determined by the apocalyptic utterance, the unveiling of the past and of the secrets of the universe and the exhortation to a particular way of life. Finally, the “effect”, which is not essential to the constitution of the revelatory experience, is determined by its immediacy or its consecutive result. Depending on each of these units, we will find different kinds of literary revelations.

In each of the three works the motif of the final revelation is used differently, since these constitutive units are reassembled or linked in particular configurations, depending on the goal pursued by each author. In Cicero, Scipio’s dream or revelation confirms the political ideas expressed in the previous books but doesn’t provide any new way of life to be followed, since the good political system achievable in this life is the image of the eternal ordering of the universe. Ovid’s open-ended approach instead of providing a final resolving revelation, raises more questions than it solves.

Lastly, Apuleius’ serio-comic romance uses the final revelation found in the Isiac apology as the focal point that illuminates the whole work. The strange adventures of Lucius until his conversion to the cult of Isis in the eleventh and final book is better understood only in light of the final revelation. By contrast with Ovid’s final episode, Apuleius’ ending is definitely closed.

Among the many literary problems treated, particularly illuminating are the discussions on Euripides’ scenic device of the deus ex machina as forerunner to the motif of ‘final revelation’ (p. 36-43). This device, mostly used by the last of the three great tragedians at the end of his plays, functions to show to the audience a deity from above and to close the plot of the play.

Concerning the debate among scholars as to the influence of Pythagoreanism or Neo-Pythagoreanism on Ovid (p. 259-271), the author adopts a modern or median stance between those that believe, like J. Carcopino, that Ovid was a Neo-Pythagorean martyr and, on the other hand, those (like P. DeLacy) that see in Ovid’s use of Pythagorean ideas a rhetorical device.

Another interesting discussion focuses on Apuleius’ notion of the Supreme God, which the author shows has remained unchanged in all of Apuleius’ works, from the Apology to the De Platone (p. 380-399). According to this view, Apuleius has a tendency to approach, even blend together, the ineffable and unknowable Primal God of the Corpus Hermeticum and Plato’s God, as understood by the Middle-Platonists (p. 397).

I have only one mild criticism to make: though the author, in a number of places, discusses the philosophical and religious aspects of the three works, in his explanation of the meaning of the ‘final revelation’ he brushes them aside, and provides a narratological explanation, according to which meaning is a production of the text itself. Yet, these divine interventions in the narrative are meant to be revelations of immortality and as such, they lead the reader beyond the mere enigmas of the literary plots as works of fiction (cf. p. 465). In other words, it is anachronistic to think that the authors with which we are here concerned viewed their literary text as referring only to the world established by the text itself, without any relation to a world beyond it, such as the cosmological theory of their authors, especially in the texts of Cicero and Apuleius. The revelation episodes of these two authors remain difficult to evaluate without a clear understanding of ancient cosmology (such as the order of the planets, the hierarchy of the four elements and the passage of the soul through both of them).

Regardless of all this, Nicolas Lévi has offered us a notable study of three of the greatest Roman writers and their respective magna opera.

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