Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.12.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.12.37

Denis Feeney, Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2016.  Pp. xii, 377.  ISBN 9780674055230.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Jackie Elliott, University of Colorado Boulder (


This characteristically elegant and learned book essentially takes what we know about the origins of Roman literature and re-frames it in a larger, comparative context. That larger context illuminates not only how peculiar it is for a literature to have developed at all in the ancient world (either in Greece or at Rome) but especially how peculiar it is that Roman literature, from its origins and successively, presents itself as a continuation and development of Greek literature. (Ovid, Am. 15 and Accius’ Didascalica are Feeney’s opening examples of that representation.) Feeney’s object is “to de-familiarize the terms of comparison and of reference we use in describing the Roman experiment so as to bring the strange developments of the period into perspective” (p. 8). His engaging comparative data and the work he does to breathe life into facts and ideas we have long lived with (e.g. the First Punic War becomes the “Great War” on analogy with the war of 1914-18, explained in n. 2 on pp. 279-80) readily assist him in that aim.

Eight chapters, each with conceptual sub-headings that make reading easy, are framed by an inviting introduction and synthesizing conclusion that emphasizes the pace and dynamism of change at Rome in the period in question: that is, the “crucial century” (p. 6) between 240 and 140 BCE, when the traceable efflorescence of literary activity at Rome originates. While 240 remains a “watershed” (p. 209) because the model for interacting with Hellenising culture changes definitively in that year (a matter tackled head on in Ch. 4), Feeney devotes considerable space to elaborating continuities with what preceded, and thence to the question of what is at stake in focusing on the moment of 240 BCE. The basic terms of the study, including “literature”, “translation”, “historiography” and “mythology”, are similarly made subject to an on-going re-evaluation, that sees in them not self-evident categories but “interactive frames in which Romans, Greeks of different heritages, and many other peoples, encountered and reshaped each other in unprecedented ways” (p. 7). Friedrich Leo is celebrated as the book’s defining predecessor, for his early appreciation that the revitalization of the Ludi Romani at the conclusion of the First Punic War was not a coincidental occurrence but part and parcel of Rome’s consequent renegotiation of her status in the Mediterranean (p. 123); for his recognition that the transference of Greek literary critical practices to Rome was exceptional (p. 162); and above all for his view of translation, free and creative, as the crucial feature of early Roman literature (pp. 14-15, 45, 53, 55, 70-71).1 Indeed, for Feeney, his subject in this book is, throughout and programmatically, the Roman “translation project”. The outmoded term itself becomes the subject of Feeney’s strategy of distancing and de-familiarization and thus has a function different from the language of appropriation and re-use more commonly used to describe the same phenomenon today (explicit on p. 15). In part, then, the term, re-thought, serves as a mechanism for re-evaluating what readers of Roman literature have, by invitation, accepted as a norm; in part, it makes room for the comparative approach by identifying a Roman point of contact with other translation initiatives in the ancient world.

Much of the book is concerned with how the use of language, especially in literary and/or translated form, plays into the complex dynamics of power, as Rome by degrees re-negotiated her role in the Mediterranean in c. 3 and 2 BCE. The first chapter, ‘Translation: languages, scripts, texts’, accordingly draws an extended contrast between Hellenistic Greeks’ relationship to bilingualism, bi-literacy and translation in their period of dominance and the Romans’: the former group have left few surviving traces of any systematic interest in learning the languages of those whom they conquered. At most, and rarely, they motivated others (e.g. Manetho and Berossus) to produce texts in Greek. The Romans, by contrast, systematized both bilingualism and bi-literacy—each even individually rare phenomena in the ancient world—especially through their educational practices. They did so, however, uniquely in the case of Greek. Hand in hand with this goes another anomaly: the fact that what was selected for translation from Greek was literature (Euripides and Menander in Feeney’s examples). The oddness of this choice is only accentuated by the fact that contemporary translation into Latin from languages other than Greek—from Etruscan and Punic—does follow the pattern that one would expect from other instances of early translation (such as the translation of Greek science, mathematics, medicine and philosophy into Arabic in the period 750–1000 CE; or of Arabic and Greek science and philosophy into Latin in the early Mediaeval period): that is, the texts translated are of practical import (manuals on brontoscopy and haruspicy in the Etruscan case, and Mago’s 28-volume handbook on agriculture in the Punic—although our real ignorance of why in fact the Roman Senate commissioned the translation of Mago is later underscored [p. 51]).

In Chapter 2, ‘The Roman translation project’, Feeney places squarely in view Livius’ “domesticating”, Romanizing approach to “translation” and asks what models Livius’ experience may have offered him for such a project. He rejects the practices of official oral interpretation and of chancellery translations of Roman documents, which valued a literal fidelity that poorly represents Livius’ enterprise. Where Livius sought out Roman cultural and Latin syntactical equivalents to replace the Greek originals, removing as best possible those signs that would have marked his text as foreign to his Roman audience, official translations (of Roman decrees, treaties, etc. into Greek) insisted on preserving as many traces as possible of the original language. The Greek audiences of these official translations thus had to endure a Latinized form of their language (including phenomena such as datives absolute in place of properly Greek genitives absolute) that is best read as a gesture of dominance over a now subject people. Moreover (as Chapter 3, ‘The interface between Latin and Greek’, argues), from the perspective of native speakers of Greek, such as Livius and his generation, Grecisms did not yet offer that appeal of the exotic that enthralled later generations of Roman poets whose first language was Latin. For the kind of cultural transformation that marks Livius’ work, Feeney finds the most plausible analogue and training-ground in Livius’ Greek (intra-linguistic) classroom preparation in Tarentum: there, with literary texts including Homer as his subject, Livius would have practised a combination of exegesis and translation into different registers of Greek that represents a more plausible prototype for Livius’ surviving work.

If Chapters 1-3 thus juxtapose Roman literary translation with the description of other ancient translation habits (or the absence thereof), both at Rome and in other ancient societies, Chapter 4, ‘Middle grounds, zones of contact’ and Chapter 5, ‘A stage for imperial power’ tackle the role of the Ludi Romani as an instrument of public policy, and that of stage performances at them, both before and after 240 BCE. Chapter 4 focuses on the question of what was at stake for Rome in definitively appropriating postclassical production of Greek drama, since after all Hellenising dramatic production was rife throughout the central and southern Italian peninsula in the fourth and third centuries, in a variety of hybrid forms. Feeney’s answer, in brief, is the prestige and differentiation that resulted from acquiring a high-status item desired equally by the Romans and by those surrounding them. The chapter also explores what stage performances at the Ludi Romani might have looked like before 240. Such evidence as we have resides in the well-known passage at Livy 7.2; beyond that, exploration necessarily relies on conjecture, retrojection and analogy. Feeney handles this both imaginatively and carefully, adding descriptive and anthropologically convincing detail to our sparse evidence, the limits of which he properly acknowledges. In this chapter too he confronts what changed in the year 240: Greek cultural influence is far from new at this point, but what intervenes is fidelity to specific, classicizing and now canonized (i.e. pointedly not contemporary) Greek texts and the generic conventions governing them—fidelity with specific, localizing forms of infidelity and distancing built in. Chapter 5 continues these themes while emphasizing their international political and ideological dimensions, beginning from an account of the impact of Roman victory over Carthage in 241, in its crucial relationship to the changes at the Ludi Romani that immediately followed.

Chapter 6, ‘A literature in the Latin language’, reviews what marks c. 3-2 Rome as a recognizably literary society, at least from the limited, modern vantage-point that is perhaps all that allows the term “literary” momentary definition and coherence: Rome had “libraries, endowed professorships, a common educational track with a “core” and “periphery” of accomplishments (experience of which was indispensable for anyone with any pretensions to status), copying houses, transmission of authoritative texts together with the scholarship that accompanied them, and empire-wide circulation of texts in a great variety of genres” (p. 154). It is thus Rome’s definitive co-option of a pre-established canon recognized also by others, one that in time acquired the full surrounding social and critical apparatus with which we are familiar, that in Feeney’s view defines what is distinctive about Rome as a literary society in its day. Chapter 7, ‘The impact and reach of the new literature’, complements this by further emphasizing the longevity but especially the mobility of the physical texts produced. These attributes allowed the texts to transcend time and space, as conditioned by initial production and reception. More importantly, they promoted an awareness of that transcendence on the part of author and audience, an awareness that again helps constitute the category of the “literary” (p. 195, citing Lowrie 2009).2 Inferring growing audiences at Rome and beyond, Feeney argues that the new literature also functioned as a means of systematizing and integrating the expanding forms of knowledge coming ever further within range.

Chapter 8, ‘Acts of Comparison’, juxtaposes what happened at Rome from 240 on with other cases: Etruria, Carthage, the Hebrew texts, pre-Demotic Egyptian literature, and the cuneiform texts of Sumeria and Babylon. This allows Feeney again to highlight the isolation of the development of a textual vernacular literature at Rome, one that explicitly modeled itself on a pre-existing canon. Thence the chapter turns to the hotly debated topic of what kind of culture of song, poetry, drama (besides the previously discussed ludi scaenici) and oratory the Romans had in the period from their early acquisition of literacy until 240, to try to identify continuities across that moment. Feeney finds the possibility of such continuity especially in those songs for the gods that have their analogues in Greek cult—songs that professionals such as Simonides, Pindar or, on their model, Livius Andronicus (the latter in 207 with his state- commissioned Carmen to Juno Regina) might transform into the distinctively crafted artifacts that ultimately did not need the cultic context to which they alluded to sustain them.

This is a book that looks to engage non-specialists in Roman literature, as well as to contextualize for specialists their subject-matter within a broad perspective on the ancient world. Cultural historians, for example, and students of antiquity in all their guises, will find much of interest here. To suit this broad audience, the book addresses little of the surviving Latin in question directly, and it can at times feel as though the book operates at some remove from the phenomena it re-contextualizes for us, as is common with comparative studies. Where short passages of Latin surface, the interpretations of them presented will not be new to specialists in the material. Moreover, many of the central notions of this book—for example, the sheer oddity that a literature developed at Rome at all; the crucial role played in that process by the Ludi Romani; the ways in which Livius Andronicus’ play of 240 BCE marked a new beginning but also had a basis in past practice; and the question of how to define central terms, including “literature” itself—will be familiar to students of Roman literature from the work of e.g. Sander Goldberg and Peter Wiseman (present in the endnotes and bibliography but not always foregrounded in the discussion).3 In this synthetic work, extended engagement is understandably not Feeney’s mode, but I was nevertheless surprised not to see more direct involvement with Goldberg 2005, which tackles many of the same problems: it begins precisely as Feeney does by focusing on the oddity that Roman literature developed at all, along with the oddity of the Romans’ own account of it; and Goldberg is likewise occupied throughout with the question of how to define the term “literature”. In contrast to Feeney’s view (see the summaries of Chapters 6 and 7, above), Goldberg’s answer has everything to do with reception by later generations of Roman authors—just as, throughout, he focuses on internal literary historical developments at Rome, where Feeney’s horizons mostly lie further afield. Feeney has not reconciled these perspectives for us. But the powerful work this useful, accessible and engaging study very effectively does is to re-evaluate what defined the Roman “translation project” and its initially isolated and ultimately fertile contribution to intellectual, cultural and literary history. The resulting view from the firmament is a memorable and an enriching one. Although Feeney is careful never to come close to saying so (just as he explicitly disavows value-judgments throughout), it is hard not to read this book as an explanation of why Roman literature—not only its content but its self-expression as continuity and emulation—has so long exercised determinative influence in Europe and beyond. In any case, it is always a pleasure to read so well informed and well written a study.


1.   F. Leo, Plautinische Forschungen zur Kritik und Geschichte der Komödie (Berlin 1895/1912) and Geschichte der römischen Literatur Vol. 1: Die archaische Literature (Berlin 1913).
2.   M. Lowrie, Writing, Performance, and Authority in Augustan Rome (Oxford 2009).
3.   E.g. T. P. Wiseman, Historiography and Imagination (Exeter 1994), Roman Drama and Roman History (Exeter 1998); S. Goldberg, Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic (Cambridge 2005).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010