Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.12

Robert Germany, Mimetic Contagion: Art and Artifice in Terence's 'Eunuch'. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. vi, 198.  ISBN 9780198738732.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Goran Vidović, University of Belgrade (


In his revised and expanded 2008 Chicago dissertation, Robert Germany studies Terence with an unprecedented combination of focus and breadth. At the center of the inquiry is the (in)famous scene in Terence’s Eunuch where Chaerea describes sexually assaulting Pamphila in his eunuch disguise, having seen a painting of Jupiter and Danaë. Germany introduces the concept of “mimetic contagion as an organizing motif of that play” and interprets it against the “conceit that life may be drawn into imitation of art” (6) in various media throughout antiquity, returning to the emblematic scene as a case study always from different angles.

In the Introduction, after an annotated play summary and chapter outline, Germany addresses several concepts relevant for this play-within-a-play scene. He rightly argues that Terentian metatheatricality is far more subtle and thematically meaningful than Plautus’ and discusses ekphrasis (a “recapitulative response to an artwork… in imitation of the original,” 25), enargeia, and phantasia, which generate visual experience verbally. From ancient sources (Quintilian, Ps.-Longinus, and Stoics, among others) and modern theories, ekphrasis emerges as physically affecting the speaker and then overcoming the listener “as if by contagion” (21), resulting in a complex “hall of mirrors effect” (23).

Chapter One is devoted to proving that Chaerea did not plan the rape. Germany opposes both earlier critics dismissive of the gravity of the offence and later assessments of the painting as a lame excuse, and focuses on literary analysis; for example, Chaerea is slow to understand Parmeno’s proposal of intruding disguised as a eunuch, and Parmeno is not actually advising assault. After a survey of modern attitudes to rape, Germany approaches rape in the Eunuch “not as a real crime requiring evaluation of mens rea, whether by ancient standards or our own, but as an eccentric instantiation of a literary topos;” comic rape was highly conventionalized and thus “denatured as a brutal crime and refashioned as a semiotic token, part of the sign system of New Comedy” (45, 42). He insightfully suggests that the painting is “responsible” for the rape just like nocturnal festivals and perpetrators’ inebriation, the two standard rape conventions curiously absent in the Eunuch. Lastly, St Augustine’s reading of the scene warns that “for a soul already enfeebled by sin, a well-placed work of art can provide a strong or even irresistible incitement to imitation” (48).

Illustrating the idea that the “stream of agency may be reversed, that life may be induced to imitate art” (49), Chapter Two examines cultic and erotic artifacts “that in one way or another work by recreating themselves in the behaviour of the notional viewer” (60), and posits that an image embedded on another artifact opens the door “for a vertiginous expansion of the image and of mimesis itself, as the mise en abîme becomes an emblem for the porous boundary between art and life (49-50). The “two-way street” mimesis is anthropologically explored in phenomena such as sympathetic magic, voodoo dolls, visual auto-suggestive therapy, oscilla, Medusa. Textual sources include erotic manuals, Ovid (esp. the collocation of theatrical performance and didactic erotic painting in the Tristia), and Propertius’ nostalgic moralism about corrupting erotic images, leading to analyses of Pompeian frescoes and an erotic mirror engraving. The chapter ends with a stimulating reading of the canopy depicting Ares and Aphrodite in Xenophon’s Ephesiaca as thematically programmatic.

Chapter Three turns to philosophers’ suspicions about lifelike art and their interest in its educational value. In Aristotle’s Politics 8 the eye changes during watching so “seeing is thus becoming and the very act of perception is a partial corruption of the boundary between subject and object” (76-7). Despite the lack of universal definition of mimesis, Germany follows Halliwell’s bipartite division of mimesis as world-reflecting and world-creating and labels them “mimesis1” and “mimesis2,” respectively (the latter being “production of an autonomous artistic creation … virtually… rendered as ‘fiction’,” 79). Mimetic contagion fundamentally links and distinguishes between them. Even when an artwork is the model and the viewer is the copy, it is mimesis1, but also mimesis2, since the artwork exceeds its frame: drawn in imitation, the viewer now participates in its fictional world (79). Plato, Germany argues, is concerned about the danger of precisely this reversibility, whereby art infectiously replicates itself in unknowing or unwilling viewers. In the Republic, the issue is specifically mimesis (showing) as opposed to diegesis (telling), because it exceeds and outlasts the performance; it first turns the performers into what they imitate and then spreads onto the audience (84). The response to the Republic’s view of mimesis is the cosmogonic mimetic contagion in Timaeus and Critias. The Demiurge perfectly imitates the ideal world and inspires other deities and humans to continue the imitiation: “It is mimetic contagion all the way down… central to the operation of the world as we know it” (89, 91).

To demonstrate that Terence’s audience would have been sensitive to the painting’s potential, Chapter Four contextualizes the phenomenon in contemporary Rome and in the palliata. While imagines maiorum are pedagogical ethical exempla, the recurrent moralistic topos is of luxurious artistic representation of gods, culturally alien to the allegedly originally aniconic Roman religion. Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch essentially agree that “the Greek art introduced into Rome after the sack of Syracuse had a debilitating effect on the character of the Romans by teaching them to stare at art and, more subtly, by pulling them into ethical affinity with the art’s original owners and with the art itself” (100). In Roman comedy, paintings can replace and moreover surpass real life; graphicus and cognates in effect mean “perfection.” Accordingly, the Eunuch painting aggressively takes control over Chaerea, whose disguise is almost to become reality. For his transgression, he is first symbolically emasculated, being at the mercy of the meretrix Thais, and then nearly literally so, joke-threatened with castration. Thais, self-aware of her role, likewise ends up stuck in character. As Phaedria ultimately agrees “to pimp her out part-time to Thraso… she becomes the thing she has pretended to be…The artifice of her deception passes outside its intended boundary and stops being make-believe, like the painted rape that steps out of its own frame to become real in the lives of the boy and girl who gaze up at it.” (119)

With an eye to Plautus’ pseudo-improvisational stage business, Chapter Five advances the claim that the Eunuch rape description is a deliberate generic rupture evoking a scene from mime, as part of Terence’s agenda of artistic self-definition. In exploring the ancient dichotomy of highbrow drama and lowbrow folk entertainment, Germany persuasively argues that although mime was vastly heterogeneous, “the Romans themselves evidently regarded the (perhaps artificially) consolidated category of mime as a stable Other for the polished world of scripted comedy and tragedy” (126). This vulgar threat to genteel performance is Terence’s favorite prologue topic, and Terence, “precisely because he stays so much closer [than Plautus] to the tone of his comparatively reserved Greek models, can count on the unexpected inclusion of an alien element from the world of mime to be felt as an irruption into his play” (126). Not only was obscenity typical of mime but the Eunuch rape is “framed as an imitation of an artwork embedded in a theatricalized play-within-the-play” (131). Germany’s attractive interpretation of Chaerea as a mimus secundus who mindlessly apes painted Jupiter “the archimimus” is nicely paralleled by a comic actor in phallic costume imitating Heracles’ statue on the Santia vase (144). A sophisticated reading of the “hall of mirrors” effect in a mime’s epitaph in Latin Anthology is followed by discussion of unstable boundaries between reality and representation in the mimic show in Xenophon’s Symposium.

Based on “Eunuch’s playful awareness of its own hybridity” (167), the last chapter short-circuits the theme of corrupting imitation with Terentian contaminatio. After an informed and informative doxography on the old chestnut, Germany adopts the TLL definition “mix badly/spoil by mixing,” and lucidly analyzes the only attestation of contaminatio outside Terence’s prologues. When Chaerea anticipates his post-rape euphoria will be “contaminated” (Eu. 552), he changes the verb but practically quotes a line from a comparable situation in Terence’s Andria (959) which Donatus, to exemplify contaminatio, claims is taken wholesale from Menander’s Eunouchos. Chaerea is instantly approached by Antipho, the character not from Menander’s Eunouchos but invented by Terence (again according to Donatus). Thus, the “contaminated” verse is “mixed back into the Eunuch with situational traces of the Andria still on it” (169). Finally, the soldier Thraso and parasite Gnatho, the two characters Terence is reportedly accused of “stealing” from earlier Latin adaptations, are shown to be outsiders in the Eunuch, both as rowdy foils to Terence’s sedate aesthetics and literally foreigners in the dramatic location, Athens, but “[b]y the end of the play, they have successfully moved in and implicated themselves in the lives of the other characters” (169). The self-titled parasite-philosopher Gnatho (perhaps additionally recalling contemporary legislation against these “deleterious educators,” 171) proclaims that his art of flattery compels those who see him (videt, 260) to emulate him, a passage Donatus glosses with “…malos ex bonis contagione fieri.” In summary, this “tale of moral infection” is that “the end of the play can only integrate [these intruders] by ethically denaturing everyone else” (176).

The book ends with a brief Epilogue on an amusing passage in Lucian’s How to Write History, where a performance of Euripides’ Andromeda is described as a disease hypnotizing the dimwitted Abderites into reverberating its verses. Moreover, the relevant passage features Echo, the paratragic potential of which Aristophanes exploited in the Thesmophoriazusae.

Germany pursues his attractive thesis intelligently, confidently, and vigorously. Understandably, in bulldozing toward his ambitious goal some wrinkles remain. For instance, while the role of the painting is unquestionable, I am not sure if Chaerea’s cursory mention of it, two lines total, really counts as ekphrasis. I also wonder about downplaying Chaerea’s insistence to “get” the girl (potior, 320, 363, 614) on the grounds that the verb need not mean sexual possession (38-9); surely, it suffices that it can. Moreover, in citing “I don’t care, so long as I get her” (mea nil refert dum potiar modo, 320), Germany omits the previous line, which contains the subject and explains that Chaerea does not care how: by any means, it turns out, including violence (vel vi, 319); in other words, perhaps the assault on Pamphila was not completely unexpected— though Germany makes a valid point that the exact circumstances are designed to be unpredictable.

Individual reservations aside, Germany’s overall case is very compelling, so much so that there might be more to support it. Very much in line with his argument of successive imitation is, I suggest, Terence’s emphatic prologue claim of designing the two “mimetically contagious” characters straight from Menander and independently of earlier adapters, Plautus and Naevius, which would amount to unconscious imitation on his own part. Symptomatically, Gnatho’s art of flattery which impresses his prospective emulators is itself nothing but pure imitative repetition—negat quis: nego; ait: aio (252)—perhaps winking at Plautus’ parasite Peniculus: id aio atque id nego (Pl. Men. 162).

This impeccably produced book is unpretentiously erudite; as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its (very many, ancient and modern) parts, impressively documented and arranged: literary-philological analysis and performance criticism, art-historical and anthropological inquiry, sociocultural and intellectual history. Germany regularly deploys critical theory pedagogically judiciously, painlessly introducing uninitiated readers to Benjamin, Foucault, Frazer, Gell, and Irigaray, to name some. Ultimately, Germany’s sophisticated and dense analysis, masterfully delivered in clear, serene prose is a pleasure to read. All along, the book is very polemical—indeed fundamentally polemical—though about as honestly and pertinently as polemics can be.

Sadly, just as this monograph appeared for review, tragic news arrived of Robert Germany’s sudden passing. Somewhat like the legendary Terence who died in his prime, Germany will be greatly missed by the classics community. This book, a giant step forward in Terentian scholarship, is in every respect his worthy legacy.

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