Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.31

Jessica Schrader, Gespräche mit Göttern: Die poetologische Funktion kommunikativer Kultbilder bei Horaz, Tibull und Properz. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 58.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017.  Pp. 314.  ISBN 9783515117005.  €54.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Brittney Szempruch, United States Air Force Academy (

When Denis Feeney published Literature and Religion in Rome twenty years ago, he enjoined readers to examine more critically the assumption that mere mention of Roman cult inherently attributed to texts some greater meaning. “Ritual,” as Feeney explained, “is not a self- explanatory system, and it remains a challenge to analyse how Roman writers make the meaning systems of ritual part of the meaning systems of their texts.”1 The two decades since have seen many productive responses to that injunction, including now Jessica Schrader’s Gespräche mit Göttern: Die poetologische Funktion kommunikativer Kultbilder bei Horaz, Tibull und Properz. The book, the author’s revised dissertation, aims to bridge the gap between the insights on cult images gleaned from religious studies and the more obviously literary preoccupations of prior examinations of the poems and poets in question. Although the book’s argument locates itself at the intersection of a number of lively scholarly debates—between text and image, for example, and approaches that range from the archaeological to the narratological—, it makes a focused promise that it can and does keep. The goal of the study as articulated in the first chapter (13) is to move past literary investigations that solely focus on the chosen god and his or her speech (ignoring the materiality of the god’s statue as a cult image) and to demonstrate that speaking cult images in Latin poetry (like their “real” physical counterparts) serve a medial function, acting as an amplifying medium between human and divine and communicating poetological messages between poet and reader.

Gespräche mit Göttern develops over seven chapters and a conclusion, and the introductory first chapter (“Einleitung und Disposition der Arbeit”) and survey-oriented Chapter 2 (“Kultbilder als Medium der Kommunikation im literarischen und religiösen/kultischen Kontext”) offer a theoretical framework for the readings to follow. In adopting Irina Rajewsky’s conception of intermedial reference,2 Schrader distinguishes her work from a purely literary reading by offering moments of orality, textuality, and materiality; the confluence of these three features in each poem is what stages the cult image as a “Bild-Text-Medium” (58). By further embracing the criterion of a statue’s inclusion in ritual activity, Schrader also responds to the immediate conceptual challenge presented by the lack of one unified term for “cult image” in Latin. In thus pursuing a functional rather than formal definition of a cult statue, Schrader determines that there are only three instances in Latin poetry—further limited to only two “lesser” deities, Priapus and Vertumnus—where a cult statue speaks for a sustained period of time.

Chapters 3 through 5 comprise the heart of Schrader’s volume. Each contains an in-depth close reading of one of the speaking cult statues. Chapter 3 deals with Horace, Sat. 1.8 in which Priapus narrates his transformation from a fig branch into a cult image perched alongside the horti Maecenatis, bearing witness to the magic of the witches Canidia and Sagana. Chapter 4 draws similarities between Chapter 3 and Tibullus’ own speaking Priapus (Tib. 1.4), but demonstrates how—in contrast to Sat. 1.8’s spontaneous first-person narration—the Tibullan god is drawn by the elegiac speaker into a conversation on how to win the affections of youths. In the last reading of the trio, Chapter 5, Schrader analyzes the utterances of a speaking Vertumnus cult statue (Prop. 4.2) that offers three possible etymologies for its name.

At stake in each of these readings is the relationship between the cult image and the satiric or elegiac ego, both locally and in the broader sequence of its respective collection. In Sat. 1.8, for example, Schrader demonstrates how Priapus is constructed as an unreliable narrator through a series of ambiguities and contradictions. Not only does Priapus open the poem with the uncertain outcome of his creation, but his traditional sexual function is also ignored throughout the poem—an omission that highlights the deity’s ambivalent gendered nature in a way that material images could not. These ambiguities and oppositions are brought to a climax at the poem’s end with Priapus’ Furz that simultaneously unmasks the witches and the poet behind the cult statue, revealing the poetic program of Sat. 1: ridentem dicere verum.3

After a brief intermediary conclusion in Chapter 6, the final exploratory chapter of the work (Chapter 7, “Kommunikation mit Göttern auf anderen Wegen”) addresses a challenge raised back in the introduction, namely the preponderance of deities in Augustan poetry and how they function as communicative media in relation to the speaking cult images that dominate the study. Here the reader is introduced to a number of comparanda (Mars inermis, Mars Ultor, and Venus in Ovid’s Fasti; Apollo Palatinus and the dedication of his temple in Propertius 2.31 and 4.6) that would seem to be popular-deity counterparts of the earlier chapters’ Priapi and Vertumnus. While the readings of these more overtly politicized Augustan deities often recapitulate now-familiar arguments for the poetic manipulation of gods central to Augustan ideology, Schrader’s work here deftly explains the surprising choice of ‘minor’ gods for the three speaking cult images: gods like Mars, Venus, and Apollo (and their respective imagery) had more clearly defined boundaries between god and poet that precluded the same kind of poetic freedom and explicit communicative potential of minor gods like Priapus and Vertumnus.

These defined imperial associations, however, did not completely eliminate the poet’s ability to use these gods for their own literary projects, and in order to appropriate Apollo, Venus, and Mars poetically, Augustan poets needed to communicate in non-verbal ways. Whereas the three speaking cult images are all located in open spaces that give the poets license to experiment with the statue’s literary functionalization, Schrader argues that in Fast. 5.545-98 and Prop. 2.31 in particular, each poet instead uses the construct of architectural ecphrasis—the visual, in addition to the verbal—to convey an imperial message.

One of Schrader’s most compelling claims in the volume as a whole is for the centrality of Hellenistic epigram and Callimachean innovation to the speaking cult image as Bild-Text-Medium. Chapter 2 introduced the idea that during the Hellenistic period epigrams began to separate from their physical contexts, 4 a model made even more attractive for Augustan poets through Callimachus’ expansion of a statue’s self-awareness beyond the boundaries of epigram in the Aetia and Iambi. The epigrammatic trope of the speaking statue thus paved the way for the intermediality of the later Roman speaking cult statues. Schrader takes up this thread in Chapters 3 and 5 when she argues that the first 16 lines of Sat. 1.8 and the final 6 lines of Prop. 4.2 are epigrammatic and suggest to the reader the visual image of a statue with an inscribed base. The Horatian poem, for example, is an allusion to Callimachus’ sixth, seventh, and ninth Iamboi, and the intertextuality both belies Priapus’ rustic simplicity and contradicts the statue’s initial assertion of identity as an inutile lignum (86-7).

For all its strengths, however, this sporadic treatment of epigram also points to a larger challenge throughout the volume. Although it both gestures toward a broader historical perspective (Augustus’ archaizing tendencies) and engages with a robust bibliography, in choosing individual poems as its organizing principle, Gespräche mit Göttern never fully articulates the extra-poetic ramifications of its argument. To its credit, the book’s many subdivisions and frequent conclusions allow one to move freely through the monograph as suits one’s needs. But for the reader interested in the development of Schrader’s claim, the extreme subdivision of chapters can at times hinder rather than aid logical connections between arguments, highlighting “die Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede in der poetologischen Verwendung der drei Kultbilder als Kommunikationsmedium” (16-17) instead of the bigger picture of how these similarities and differences advance our understanding of the genres so carefully examined.

Like the cult statues it studies, Schrader’s volume itself “shimmers” at times between two different projects. It roundly succeeds when held to the introduction’s argument for the poetic instrumentalization of cult statues in Horace, Tibullus, and Propertius, but given the proliferation of studies on Augustan poetics, Gespräche mit Göttern truly shines in the moments it ventures beyond its own argument toward the outliers of traditional Augustan ideology: ‘minor’ gods and the non-intertextual means by which Augustan poets established themselves as part of a Greco-Roman literary tradition via generic concerns. While this book will be of primary interest to scholars interested in the authors it addresses, it is also an excellent example of the nuance to be found in the collaboration of scholarly approaches. As Feeney suggested, every tangential association with ‘cult’ does not directly translate into import, but Gespräche mit Göttern makes a convincing case for considering more carefully the way “religion” translates and transmutes literary aims.


1.   Feeney, D. (1998) Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 10.
2.   Rajewsky, I. O. (2002) Intermedialität. Tübingen/Basel: Francke Verlag. See also Rajewsky’s 2005 piece in Intermédialités (“Intermediality, Intertextuality, and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality”), which further clarifies that intermedial reference is “a communicative-semiotic concept” that “is by definition just one medium—the referencing medium (as opposed to the medium referred to)—that is materially present. Rather than combining different medial forms of articulation, the given media-product thematizes, evokes, or imitates elements or structures of another, conventionally distinct medium through the use of its own media-specific means” (53).
3.   Priapus similarly reveals in Tibullus 1.4 the program of vana magisteria, while Propertius’ Vertumnus wavers between aetiology and elegy in the manner of the poet’s entire fourth book.
4.   Schrader oversimplifies this development in claiming that “Das Epigramm löst sich somit im Laufe der Zeit von seinem konkreten, haptischen Kontext und wird zum Buchepigramm” (21); cf. Bettenworth, A. (2007) “The Mutual Influence of Inscribed and Literary Epigram,” in: Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram, ed. P. Bing and J. Steffen Bruss, Leiden/Boston: Brill, 69-93.

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