BMCR 1994.10.22

1994.10.22, Molyneux (ed.), Literary Responses to Civil Discord

, , Literary responses to civil discord. Nottingham classical literature studies ; v. 1, 1992. Nottingham: University of Nottingham, 1993. vii, 76 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9780904857061. $9.95 (paperback).

Reviewing the papers contained in this volume, the proceedings of a seminar from May 1992, ought, to a degree, to be a superfluous exercise, for each essay is accompanied by responses that should critically appraise the paper in far greater detail than can be done in a short review of the whole volume. Yet, when one actually comes to read the responses there is a feeling (perhaps in some cases unjustified) that the responses never interact with the whole of the relevant paper beyond a general remark about how thought-provoking the previous paper has been, and tend instead to launch themselves at one or two specific points. It seems that the responses rather fall between two stools, being too long for a simple appraisal of the paper, and yet at the same time too short to function as a detailed critique. This leads one to question the overall approach of the exercise. Rather than have the paper and response, might not the time given over to response be better employed providing more space for the original paper? For the impression the reader is left with is that the papers themselves suffer, sometimes very badly, from a severe restriction of space.

The most successful paper is that of Sommerstein, “Sleeping Safe in Our Beds: Stasis, Assassination and the Oresteia” (pp. 1-17). It is most successful because it takes a relatively small topic, the idea that the murder of Ephialtes informs certain parts of the Oresteia. Nonetheless, much credit should be given to Sommerstein for managing to be informative both about the Oresteia and the political background to Aeschylean tragedy and about Athenian politics of the 460s. It is not too surprising, therefore, that this paper provokes Easterling into giving the most and successful response (pp. 19-24), though at the end of the day one feels that Sommerstein’s points about the importance of sleeping and the night in the Choephori have won the argument, rather than Easterling’s attempts to rebut some (but by no means all) of his arguments.

Lintott’s paper, “Civil Strife and Human Nature in Thucydides” (pp. 25-32), tackles an interesting subject. Though Winton in his response asserts that “[t]he focus of Lintott’s paper is … the excursus on stasis at iii.82-3″ (p. 35), in the event that passage serves more as a means of leading into Lintott’s main theme, which as the paper develops reveals itself to be more about Thucydides’ views on inter- and intra- polis morality, the interconnection between the two and how they were transformed by the Peloponnesian War than on stasis per se (some of the same ground has recently been covered from a slightly different direction by G. A. Sheets 1). Lintott touches upon many important points of Thucydides’ work, including the Mytilene debate and the debate after the fall of Plataea. In this latter context it is valuable to read what Lintott has to say in conjunction with recent treatments of the same passage by Badian 2 and Sheets; yet when this comparison is made, it provides one with a prime illustration of the space problem in the volume as a whole. Lintott’s eight pages are simply not enough to be able to do more than scratch the surface of such a broad subject, and the Plataean debate gets no more than a page or so of that space, compared to the greater detail of Badian (who has considerably more space available) and Sheets (who has a more proscribed topic). This is a pity, as there is in Lintott’s piece the beginnings of a valuable study of an important aspect of Thucydides’ work, and it provokes an interesting response by Winton (pp. 33-35) that ends up taking issue with Lintott’s assertion that Thucydides was wrong to see stasis as a natural part of human life.

Kahn’s paper, “Conflict and Solidarity in Menander’s Dyskolos” (pp. 37-52), is explicit about its limited scope. Whilst it would be interesting, Kahn says (p. 38), to give a treatment of all the characters in the play, for reasons of space he has confined himself to an examination of the character Sostratos (one feels that a subtitle to this effect might be valuable). Of course, an examination of a single character cannot help but also touch upon the other characters in the play, and the reader does find out something about Kahn’s views of the portrayal of, in particular, Knemon and Gorgias. Kahn ends with a brief discussion of if and how Menander’s text relates to social divisions in the Greek world. Arnott’s reply (pp. 53-55) is similarly restricted in scope, concentrating on a few points where he feels Kahn has underplayed Menander’s text.

Perhaps the most disappointing paper is that by Hardie, “Tales of unity and division in imperial Latin epic” (pp. 57-71). The disappointment emerges principally from the fact that this paper, of all those contained in this volume, seems least to relate to the overall title of the symposium. Though Hardie claims that his theme is “the narrative reflexes in imperial Latin epic of … Roman anxiety about the roots of their social and political identity” (p. 57), much of the paper seems to touch on such a theme in only the most roundabout way, being more a portrayal (and certainly an effective one) of the interplay of single and multiple motifs in Roman epic. It is not at all clear, to this reader at any rate, how the enumeration of twos and twins in Virgil and Statius illustrate Hardie’s professed theme, except perhaps as an echo of the foundation myth of Romulus and Remus. Only when he is discussing Silius Italicus’Punica do Hardie’s points come into clearer focus and start to tell the reader something about the interaction of literature and civic discourse. Fowler’s response (pp. 73-76) likewise dwells more on the implications of Hardie’s piece for Latin literary criticism (on which matter Fowler is reservedly enthusiastic) than on the symposium’s theme.

As already stated, many of the criticisms of the individual papers in this volume arise from the lack of space. One can understand that in the context of a one-day seminar time is of the essence, but it is a pity that more expansion of papers was not carried out before publication; Lintott in particular could profitably have doubled the length of his paper (and it would still have been shorter than either Sommerstein’s or Hardie’s).

The volume is relatively cheap, at least by the standards of academic publishing, and an excellent job has been performed in proofreading and typesetting the manuscript. One hopes that Nottingham’s example will inspire other departments to divert a small part of their budgets into producing their own publications. In this particular case, however, one is unsure what the market for the volume will be, outside of people who attended the seminar concerned, and one wonders whether this particular set of papers might not have sat better individually in journals. But is perhaps best to end on a less discouraging note. Though this collection of papers is something of a disappointment, volume two will present the papers of the 1993 Seminar, where the theme of the papers was the interaction of the Greek world with the barbarian east, as reflected in Greek literature. From personal attendance of that seminar, I know that the papers formed a far more coherent whole, and that publication is to be eagerly anticipated.

  • [1] George A. Sheets, “Conceptualising International Law in Thucydides”, AJP 115 (1994), pp. 51-73. [2] E. Badian, From Plataea to Potidaea (Baltimore, 1993), pp. 109-116.