Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.08.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.08.22

Koen de Temmerman, Evert van Emde Boas (ed.), Characterization in Ancient Greek Literature. Studies in ancient Greek narrative, 4.   Leiden:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xvi, 705.  ISBN 9789004356306.  €154,00.  

Reviewed by Tyler Smith, University of Ottawa (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is the fourth instalment of Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, a series conceptualized and heretofore edited by Irene de Jong and associates. The first three volumes of SAGN tackled narrators, narratees, and narratives (BMCR 2005.07.48), time (BMCR 2008.07.24), and space (BMCR 2012.09.18). A fifth volume will materialize in due course, edited by de Jong and Mathieu de Bakker, and will take “speech” as its theme. Koen De Temmerman and Evert van Emde Boas are established authorities on characterization in the ancient novels and Euripides’ Electra, respectively, and do an exemplary job of editing the present SAGN volume on characters and characterization.

After the frontmatter and an editors’ introduction, the volume contains 34 chapters and an epilogue. The volume’s spare index points to the volume’s most significant discussions of select topics, narrative techniques, and Greek technical terms. This index may be used productively in tandem with the book’s five-page glossary in the frontmatter, for a sense of the kinds of questions and sorts of narrative devices frequently noticed in the book’s essays. As in earlier SAGN volumes, most chapters treat a single author or corpus, arranged roughly according to genre (see the list of contents below). Some of the chapter placements seem arbitrary, since certain authors (e.g., Plato or Josephus) could be situated under more than one of these headings. Xenophon is given two essays, one by Tim Rood in section 2 focusing on the Anabasis, and one by Luuk Huitink in section 7 dedicated to the Cyropaedia. With one exception (the chapter on Josephus by Jan Willem van Henten and Luuk Huitink), chapters in the body of the book are authored by individual scholars. Many of these experts contributed multiple chapters. In all, the 34 essays are written by the editors and 20 colleagues, most of whom are veteran SAGN contributors and clearly know the drill. One happy result of this assembly is a more uniform chapter format and structured discussion than one sometimes finds in works of similar size and scope. The relative uniformity of the discussions is also much assisted by the terminological apparatus clearly set out in the aforementioned glossary, index, and general introduction.

The editors acknowledge in the preface that, compared with previous books in the series, this volume operates with a somewhat broader definition of what “counts” for narrative, creating scope to include chapters on characterization in such genres as lyric poetry and rhetorical treatises. The editors also note that, compared to previous volumes, the contributions to the present volume are less interested in diachronic developments and more interested in the narratological devices that can be found with variation throughout ancient Greek literary history.

Thematically, while the book is interested in character (defined as “the relatively stable moral, mental, social and personal traits which pertain to an individual”) and characters (“the representation of a human or human-like individual in/by a (literary) text”), its chief interest is characterization (“the ways in which traits (of all kinds) are ascribed to a character in a text,” and “the interpretive processes by which readers of a text form an idea of that character”). Concerning characterization, two sets of questions organize the inquiry, which can roughly be organized around the headings “How?” and “What?” The former set looks at the narrative techniques employed in characterization, the kinds of narrators who do the characterizing, and the various effects produced by different strategies of characterization; the latter looks at what specific characteristics or traits are attributed to characters, and what aspects or connotations evoked by the notion of character are explored through the attribution of specified characteristics.

The introduction places the present undertaking in dialogue with other work on characterization, ancient and modern. It acknowledges perennial theoretical and methodological questions, including the (un)importance of genre, ancient notions of character, the absence in ancient Greek discourse of anything like the modern idea of literary “character,” typification and individuation, fixity and dynamism in character, modern approaches to character, cognitive approaches, and the techniques by which narrators construct characters. The introduction concludes with a brief schema of characterization techniques, divided into three general strategies: Name-giving and antonomasia; Direct Characterization; and Indirect Characterization. This last is the most expansive of the three and includes as sub-strategies Metaphorical Characterization (explicit or implicit comparison and paradigm; intertextual, ‘internarrative’ and intratextual similarities and contrasts) and Metonymical Characterization (by means of the emotions, group-membership, action, speech, focalization, appearance, and setting). These categories could be expanded or contracted, but here they provide an excellent heuristic for the kinds of discussion that unfold in the subsequent chapters. Although the book’s contributors do not reproduce this schema intact as an outline for their individual essays, most explicitly address the characterization techniques from this schema that are most apropos to their subject.

It would appear that the contributors to the volume had access to a draft of the introduction, and to varying degrees used it to organize their own discussions. Thus, for example, in his chapter on Hesiod, Hugo Koning discusses names, then direct characterization, then metaphorical characterization, then metonymical characterization. This last discussion is further organized into sub-sections on group membership, emotions, actions, speech, and setting. Other contributors follow the editors’ schema less closely. A good example is Luke Pitcher’s chapter on Polybius, which catalogues Polybius’s many characterizing techniques but also considers Polybius’ metahistorical remarks about characterization in the enterprise of history-writing. The volume’s contributions vary also in the extent to which they engage with secondary scholarship. This is understandable, since much more has been written about characterization in Homer or the ancient novels, say, than in Lysias or Lucian. Some of the most interesting chapters in this collection take a stand within an existing debate, as when Irene de Jong makes her case that characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey are more individualized and “round” than they were taken to be half a century ago, or seek to advance an ongoing discussion, as when de Jong argues in her chapter on the Homeric Hymns that epiphanies here “present in narrative form the meeting of god and mortals that the hymn itself aspires to” (78). In the final analysis, however, the narratological mandate and the fact that most of the authors considered here made use of many of the same characterization techniques together make the chapters feel more alike than different. Each takes the vision and analytical tools articulated in the introduction and uses them to catalogue and discuss characterization in narratological terms in its particular corpus.

As with its SAGN predecessors, I anticipate that few will read this book from cover to cover. Most readers will be scholars picking it up because they want to better understand characterization in a given text, author, or corpus. Such readers should not skip the general introduction in their haste to read the chapter on their corpus of primary interest. Familiarity with the introduction and glossary are necessary prerequisites for understanding the terminology and goals of each contributor. This reading strategy could be further improved by perusing several chapters alongside that of primary interest, as this will help the researcher appreciate what is distinctive about characterization techniques in relation to his or her chief interest.

One would have liked to see more interaction among the essays. For better or for worse, this volume was not the result of a conference in which contributors had a chance to develop their work in extended dialogue with each other. One would also have liked to see fuller accounts in individual chapters of how the authors conceptualized and approached their tasks, how they selected passages upon which to comment, and how they followed the evidence to macro-level conclusions about the characterization techniques deemed most significant for their given corpora. There is a certain amount of inconsistency from chapter to chapter in terms of whether a given author attempts to survey characterization techniques across a whole corpus or, despairing of how such an attempt would be shallow and inadequate, opts for a different approach, such as building out from a case study, or working with reference to a conglomerate of passages understood in earlier scholarship to be the most important or most illustrative texts for understanding the author’s characterization technique. I sometimes found myself wishing there were a good way to make such discussions more precise and quantifiable without taking away from the valuable, readable qualitative discussions found here.

This book is not and was not intended to be the last word on characterization in ancient Greek literature. Ample room remains for more detailed work on the techniques of characterization in each of the individual texts analyzed here, as well as the many ancient Greek and non-Greek texts not included this volume. Readers should welcome it as a fine example of how narratological work on characterization can enrich and add texture to our interpretation and appreciation of ancient Greek narrative.

Table of Contents

Preface (ix)
Note on Citation and Abbreviations (xi)
Glossary (xii)
Character and Characterization in Ancient Greek Literature: An Introduction / Koen De Temmerman and Evert van Emde Boas (1)

Part 1: Epic and Elegiac Poetry
Homer / Irene de Jong (27)
Hesiod / Hugo Koning (46)
The Homeric Hymns / Irene de Jong (64)
Apollonius of Rhodes / Jacqueline Klooster (80)
Callimachus / Annette Harder (100)
Theocritus / Jacqueline Klooster (116)

Part 2: Historiography
Herodotus / Mathieu de Bakker (135)
Thucydides / Tim Rood (153)
Xenophon / Tim Rood (172)
Polybius / Luke Pitcher (191)
Appian / Luke Pitcher (207)
Cassius Dio / Luke Pitcher (221)
Herodian / Luke Pitcher (236)
Josephus / Jan Willem van Henten and Luuk Huitink (251)
Pausanias / Maria Pretzler (271)

Part 3: Choral Lyric
Pindar and Bacchylides / Bruno Currie (293)

Part 4: Drama
Aeschylus / Evert van Emde Boas (317)
Sophocles / Michael Lloyd (337)
Euripides / Evert van Emde Boas (355)
Aristophanes / Angus Bowie (375)
Menander / Peter Brown (391)

Part 5: Oratory
Lysias / Mathieu de Bakker (409)
Aeschines and Demosthenes / Nancy Worman (428)

Part 6: Philosophy
Plato / Kathryn Morgan (445)

Part 7: Biography
Xenophon / Luuk Huitink (467)
Plutarch / Judith Mossman (486)
Philostratus Kristoffel Demeon (503)

Part 8: Between Philosophy and Rhetoric
Dio Chrysostom / Dimitri Kasprzyk (523)
Lucian / Owen Hodkinson (542)

Part 9: The Novel
Chariton / Koen De Temmerman (561)
Xenophon of Ephesus / Koen De Temmerman (578)
Achilles Tatius / Koen De Temmerman (591)
Longus / J.R. Morgan (608)
Heliodorus / J.R. Morgan (628)

Epilogue / Koen De Temmerman and Evert van Emde Boas (650)
Bibliography (655)
Index (698)
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