BMCR 2002.06.26

Von Göttern und Menschen erzählen. Formkonstanzen und Funktionswandel vormoderner Epik. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge (edited by P. Barcelò, P. Riemer, J. Rüpke, and J. Scheid)

, Von Göttern und Menschen erzählen : Formkonstanzen und Funktionswandel vormoderner Epik. Potsdamer altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge ; Bd. 4. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001. 200 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515078517 EUR 44.00/sFr 70.40.

Unlikely bedfellows, Naram-Sin and Tito Strozzi da Ferrara emerge as the true heroes of this wide-ranging and useful collection of essays (based on papers delivered in Potsdam and Tübingen).1 They define two extremes. The inscription (pp. 23-24) of the Mesopotamian king Naram-Sin (circa 2200 BCE) lists the deeds of the ruler and then curses whoever erases the text about a king who had (Ozymandias-style) triumphed over the four quarters of the earth. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”. Then compare (pp. 148-50) the failed attempt by Tito Strozzi from Ferrara (Italy, late XV century) to glorify the local dynasty and especially the duke Borso d’Este in a very complex epic poem, the Borsias, complete with glittering bedcovers decorated with scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses —one striking aspect is that when the poet realized that it was hopeless to try to finish the work while keeping it politically updated in the face of the many political catastrophes, poisonous ambitions. and shifting alliances of contemporary Italy, he crossed over from Virgil and Ovid to Lucan’s opus imperfectum as a main intertext; but the really nice point is that the poem disappeared and collected dust for centuries until P. O. Kristeller found it under the mistaken library entry Borgias. One wonders what Naram-Sin would have made of this accident.

The contributors explore the function of epic poetry within various societies, and tend to privilege the relationship of the genre to political power. Beate Pongratz-Leisten examines Near Eastern texts and documents and focuses on the production of the so-called naru literature, texts related to kings and their achievements. This is a wise choice, since this kind of work is not very prominent in the book most likely to be the first port of call for many classicists and comparatists these days, M. West’s The East Face of Helicon. Her paper also features some impressive quotes from the work by Jan Assmann on the relationship of writing to cultural identity in Egypt, a good ‘further reading’ suggestion for scholars of Graeco-Roman literature who look for comparative input. Ernst A. Schmidt discusses (anti-)Augustanism in the Aeneid, with an emphasis, typical of his recent work, on the importance of different national traditions. (On Virgilian reception, I recommend his ‘Rudolf Borchardts Vergilfeier 1930’, in a journal not often mined by Virgilian critics, Internationale Zeitschrift f. Philosophie 1, 1994, 96-122.) Karla Pollmann offers a competent rehearsal of late-antique trends in the composition of epic and a tentative typology. Heinz Hofmann continues his well-known series of explorations of Neo-Latin and colonization literature with a full survey of Renaissance and XVII century European authors of epic in Latin: the field is so vast and difficult to cover that it is good to have a concise updated account (with a rich bibliography).

The paper by the editor represents a different kind of research: general information is kept to a minimum, no comprehensive coverage is attempted, but the reader is rewarded with a thought-provoking and suggestive proposition. Quite simply, Rüpke argues that XXth century readings of mid-Republican Roman epic are in serious need of revision. His ideas deserve circulation and discussion, so I will summarize the main thrust of the various paragraphs, then add some comments.

1. The Problem. Discussions of the origins of Roman epic do not match the level of sophistication reached by discussions of early Greek epic in the late XXth century. Scholarship on Roman epic still accepts a point of view which is a compromise between Horatian ideas of Graecia capta, and European idealizations of Rome as, so to speak, the original ‘derivative’ culture, the model for appropriation and revival of foreign and past cultures.2 In practice, this approach has a vested interest in translation and transference and an insufficient interest in the social context of mid-Republican Rome, in the local function of the process of translation and transference. It privileges authors over addressees. It also forgets to ask the important question of how two ongoing processes — the spread of writing and the translation/interpretation of Greek models — relate to each other. Is writing indispensable to textual production, to reception, to preservation? Is oral communication important or merely residual? The answers naturally depend on our willingness to study audience and ‘commissioners’, not only producers of texts.

2. The Context. Very briefly (and R. here has the advantage of referring to his own important paper on ‘Spaces of literary communication’ in the Braun-Mutschler 2000 collection, reviewed in this journal (2001.07.04) by I. Gildenhard, who rightly praises the punchline about Roman drama: ‘Politically relevant communication is not what happened between the dramatic script and the audience, but what happened among different social groups in the audience’), there was a boom in communication in late III century Rome, and epic has to be seen in the same context as drama, public display, architecture and oratory.

3. Chronology. We are dealing with three major poets distributed over a span of two to three generations, and social/political change could hardly have been more intense in the period between the First Punic War and the death of Ennius in 169.

4. Friedrich Leo had argued that Livius Andronicus intended his Odyssey both as a school-text and as a book: a poem to be delivered through Vorlesungen, before regular Roman schooling was invented,3 and a breakthrough in a nascent book market. If we consider writing as a compositional technique, not as a mass medium, we can avoid the implausibility of assuming a text being composed for two forthcoming social contexts. But then, after these negative arguments, we have to provide a context for aural performance.

5. The crucial step: the ‘soziale Ort’ of early Roman epic was the Roman equivalent of the symposion: the aristocratic and priestly banquet. Like a contemporary archaeologist, R. wants to find a ritual that can guarantee a circulation of meaning around and among the objects, i.e. the fragments: he claims that the banquet is the only institution that could qualify as a setting. He is clearly, though implicitly, looking for a missing element in a system4 characterised by a booming theatrical performance and the gradual spread of literacy. His research on the social settings of Roman Religion, combined with the analogy of the all-powerful symposion of Greek literary studies since the 70’s, provides the answer.

Now the argument ramifies in three interesting directions.

5.1 Predecessors: if we imagine this kind of performance as a context, we can presume continuity with the much debated carmina convivalia, the Tafellieder: the poems by Livius, Naevius and Ennius revive this tradition through formal and thematic affinity (the use of Saturnians in the first two, and the praise of military action in the last two of the triad).

5.2 Self-reflexivity? Some extant allusions in epic to convivia, symposia, and the like, with their paraphernalia, manners, and customs, can now be interpreted as Selbstthematisierung, and in some cases as in-house jokes.

5.3 Structure of text with regard to occasion: if we accept W. Suerbaum’s calculations for the size of Livian and Naevian entire poems and of Ennian individual books, we end up with just the right amount of verse for one-evening performances (meaning whole poems in the case of Livius and Naevius and individual books in the case of Ennius). If we turn to the individual fragments, how can we resist the idea that a line such as

Tite tute Tati tibi tanta tyranne tulisti

must have been composed for recitation?

It is time for me to stop my resumé and say that I have a legion of objections about points 5.1-3, but I am not willing to march them out of their winter camp right now. The paper has important results if we focus on the approach of sections 1-3 and of points 6 and 7, which are the final ones, and the objections do not weaken the importance of the approach. In fact, 6 and 7 offer enlightening discussions of the social significance and evolution of Roman epic, particularly on issues like religious knowledge, social memory, aristocratic ideology, and systematization of chronology. These pages should be carefully pondered by every reader interested in Republican epic and culture, and their value is by no means diminished if one does not accept the centrality of dinner performance.

But in retrospect, the discussion of Leo’s approach5 in the initial pages is perhaps the crucial aspect of this paper. Leo had in practice founded Latin studies as we know them when he defined Livius Andronicus as the first translator of Western literature. His influential sentence about Andronicus, “He is the beginner of the first derivative literature of our cultural universe” (p. 59) harks back to p. 3 “Roman literature is the first literature dependent on the Greeks, the first secondary, non home-grown literature”, and this in turn presupposes p. 1 “Western civilization depends on Graeco-Roman culture, and so does the spread of Christianity through Roman and German peoples … Roman culture is the spiritual link between the ancient and the modern worlds… The dynamics of civilization was from East to West …”. His approach is still present in today’s Classics, even in a very different handbook of literary history published in spring 2002: ‘(Livius) ist der Begründer der freien literarischen Übersetzung in Rom’ (W. Suerbaum, HLL 1, p. 97).6

R. is right in advocating a change of perspective. It is hard to find a more urgent task for our discipline than asking questions about the way it has been constructed. The approach that R. calls ‘binnenrömisch’, and others may call, I guess, an emic poetics, is particularly important since we are dealing with an age of swift cultural change, when the intentions of authors and reactions of audiences must have been subject to a dynamic revision. Even if I have problems with the ‘convivial performance’ approach, it is more important, I think, to understand what kind of traditional limitations are being addressed through it. Like everybody else, R. knows that the evidence is scanty and deceptive: Suerbaum (HLL 1, p. xviii) quotes Leo saying (about the mysterious Valerius from Valentia) “we glimpsed the multicolored bird in flight, and now one feather is all that remains in our hands” and Cicero (Brut. 197, quoting Crassus) on the silly boy who wanted to build a ship because he had found a thole-pin on the seashore. But the problem here is not just about the evidence, it is about how to use it. One could argue that Latin studies have been focusing on translation and transference, not on appropriation and reuse, because the discipline was trying to (re)establish itself (through many an inferiority complex) as the missing link between German Hellenophilia and European national identities. This is the kind of pull that R. is opposing, with his interest in the strategic value of orality and writing and his use of social sciences and religious history as paradigms. Not without irony, his new attempt begins by claiming that there has been insufficient attention to one context, a Greek (!) context — except that now the important thing is the analogy with the oral poetics of Greek epic not the focus on the Hellenic culture of the Latin poets, the analogy between the symposion and Roman convivium culture not the idea of ‘derivative literature’. The question, of course, remains worth asking: how much ‘involvement, visualization, presence’ (from E. Bakker’s title, CA 12, 1993, 1-29 on Homeric performance) was there in early Roman epic?

As I mentioned, I have objections on the subsidiary points 5.1 — the relationship to the carmina convivalia — and 5.2 — the validity of a self-referential approach to banquet scenes — and 5.3 — the use of Suerbaum’s calculations of the length of poems, particularly as far as Livius Andronicus is concerned. Briefly, 5.1 requires us to trust the testimonies of Cato and Varro about dinner songs, to accept that they all refer to the same kind of practice, roughly the equivalent of epic praise poetry, and to accept that at Brut. 75 Cicero is reporting Cato as saying ‘a practice of song which has continued for many generations down to my own age’ not ‘a practice of song which used to exist many generations ago’ (an interpretation of ‘multis saeclis ante suam aetatem’ still preferred by many), and finally to believe that the relationship of the new epic to the oral carmina convivalia was one of continuity and change rather than antagonism and competition. Every step in this series of arguments is and will remain, I think, debatable and contested. 5.2 offers delightful moments of self-reflexivity, if one imagines representations of and allusions to sympotic and convivial activity in the extant fragments to be inter-discursive with performance settings. Yet, as R. soon admits (p. 50), the argument depends on preliminary acceptance of the convivium approach. If one thinks about parallel claims made about early Greek epic (Demodokos and Phemios in the banquet halls) or about Greek drama (‘choral self-reflexivity’, A. Henrichs), there are significant differences in the way the performance context can be reconstructed independently of arguments from self-reflexivity. If we imagine, by experiment, a convivial performance of Cato’s Origines, in a priestly collegium for example, reactions to the anecdote where Maharbal says to Hannibal (fr. 91 C.-S.) ‘Send the cavalry against Rome, give me five days, and you’ll have dinner cooked on the Capitol’ must have been intense: but it is hard to find supporting evidence for such a performance.

On 5.3, it is questionable whether arguments about length and book-division really prove anything about convivial performance; moreover, Suerbaum’s calculations deserve a second look. They are based on general assumptions about the length of papyrus rolls, on the difficult work done on the Ennius Herculaneum papyrus, and on testimonia and inferences about the absence of book division in Livius and Naevius; an interesting combination, but the hypothesis of a Latin Odyssey of less than 1.850 Saturnians still does not fit easily the surviving fragments. (One further doubt: R. bases his paper on the assumption that the grouping of Livius, Naevius and Ennius is a reliable starting point, but they are also in many ways three very different authors.)

Furthermore, assessing individual fragments as significant only in live performance is a tricky process, especially if it leads to imaginations of a communal and shared — because ‘live’, not bookish — response to the verbal artifact. Not to mention the problem of linking textual features to performative poetics. I can easily imagine different audience responses to the infamous

O Tite tute Tati tibi tanta tyranne tulisti
(Ennius ann. 104 Skutsch)

mentioned by R. as the typical product of aural poetics. Some will have thought that alliteration was part of a tradition of public performance, some will have appreciated it as a Hellenistic joke in re seria (as Sc. Mariotti did), and some listeners who were also readers (for there were readers in Ennius’ generation) will have thought of some kind of Greek model, for example a scenic line in another story of blindness, tyranny, and expiation (Sophocles, OT 371, mentioned by Skutsch ad loc.). This kind of intertextual effect is by no means limited to reading practices or to the reception of poetry in the age of Ennius. When listening to Cato’s speech in Athens (191 BCE: fr. 4 Cugusi-Sblendorio Cugusi), the sentence ‘Antiochus makes war by mail, he fights with reed-pen and ink’ must have had an enhanced effect on people who remembered Demosthenes, Phil. 1, 30 ‘Athenians, you must fight Philippos through action, not through letters and votes’.7 The trouble of course, as R. may argue, is that Latinists sometimes forget the social context while looking for those text-based effects.

One has the impression that Classics in Germany today offers a much wider variety of approaches than in the first post-war generations. For example, this collection shows that there can be some productive disagreement about historical terms of reference; perhaps we need more of it. R. protests against the anachronistic use of ‘national’ as a definition of Republican Roman epic (p. 61); for readers of the entire collection, there is at least an implicit cross-reference to Schmidt’s assertion that Vergil’s poetry is a celebration of the ‘Augustan state’. Schmidt admits that the vision of the Aeneid as a celebration of the new state has something to do with specific German traditions and representations of history, but soon forecloses the discussion and avers that the state is precisely what the Aeneid is about (p. 89). (He soon qualifies his position by saying that the Aeneid is ambivalent about the history that leads to the Augustan state — to which I would object that the notion of ‘state’ is what really needs problematizing.) If I am not mistaken, the use of ‘state’ here is potentially more distorting than the cliché that offends R., national identity, especially since the use of ‘national’, while certainly metaphorical, does not exclude the idea of vested interests and power negotiations. In fact I think that most English-speaking and Italian authors who define early Roman epic as ‘national epic’ have absolutely no intention of occluding the function of special agendas, such as aristocratic control, patronage, material conditions. The collection as a whole shows that, since epic poetry operates within a variety of political and social contexts, our use of terms of reference is a delicate choice, particularly because different local backgrounds and traditions are still suggesting incompatible underpinnings for the political language that we decide to use. For Latinists, in particular, this shows how urgent it is to intensify dialogue with political science.


1. Errata are minor and easy to correct: p. 19 S.M. West should be M.L. West; 56 n. 76 the footnote is lacunose.

2. See also E. Flaig’s paper on the limits of acculturation, in G. Vogt-Spira-B. Rommel, Rezeption und Identität, Stuttgart 1999, 81-112.

3. Leo was in fact aware of the difficulties involved in the Suetonian testimony about Livius and Ennius as grammarians, and his position is more nuanced than it is sometimes assumed; Eduard Fraenkel’s skepticism is excessive according to Sc. Mariotti, Livio Andronico e la traduzione artistica, II ed. Urbino 1986, 17 ; scholars of Republican literature should update the problem through the critical analysis in R. Kaster (not quoted by R.), Suetonius, De grammaticis, Oxford 1995 (note not only his commentary on 1, 1-2, but his p. XLV on Suetonius’ Romanocentric approach).

4. An interesting criticism of the notion of a literary system (System) is offered by Gildenhard in BMCR cit.

5. I quote from F. Leo, Geschichte der römischen Literatur, Darmstadt 1967 (reproducing the edition Berlin 1913).

6. Handbuch der lateinischen Literatur der Antike, hgbb. von R. Herzog-P.L. Schmidt, Erster Band, hgbb. von Werner Suerbaum, München, Beck 2002 (includes full coverage of all topics and texts mentioned in my review).

7. See the commentary in the new comprehensive edition of Cato, P. Cugusi-M.T. Sblendorio Cugusi, Opere di Marco Porcio Catone, Turin, UTET 2001 (2 volumes), at I 259.