BMCR 2002.10.16

Telling Tales on Caesar. Roman Stories from Phaedrus

, , Telling tales on Caesar : Roman stories from Phaedrus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. x, 286 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199240957. $60.00.

The speaking animal of fable is…thus like the figure of an origin of language in the devouring of bodies, and the animal’s discourse is the figure of this devouring…. In the fable, to eat (or to be eaten) figures the radical power of discourse in language: to eat the other is the ‘monstrous’ fiction of the power to speak (to) the other…. Power institutes itself as power only through and in the representation of language.1

Seen in these terms, Phaedrian fables are meat and drink to H[enderson], who has made his career reading under the skin of ancient texts, tracing the violent networks of (primarily imperial) power. H takes us in detail through eight selected fables from this Tiberian ‘mock-empire of narratives’ (p2), ending with a chapter (‘Kings of Fable and Fables of Kings’) that looks more cursorily at five others, culminating with the very first poem in Phaedrus’ collection—the only one that H does not quote in Latin and translate. His characteristically witty readings are layered here: first a text plus translation, which carefully brings out Phaedrus’ colloquial and easy-going iambics; then an overview of the poem; finally, a closer read via running commentary. At the end of all of it are detailed notes and bibliography, the former discussing inter alia textual problems, the history of scholarship on Phaedrus, literary imitatio, and the topoi of fable; the latter ranging through anthropology, modern critical theory, ‘traditional’ philology, Renaissance scholarship, and more.2

Typical of H is the tailoring of his form to suit the ancient content: this, like Phaedrus’, is a book with a moral, announced promythically at the start: ‘the challenge represented by the study of Antiquity has two sides—to key in Classics with our contemporary intellectual environment, and vice versa; but also to learn from our predecessors, whose work is not just (staggeringly) prodigious in bulk, but regularly tuned in to sharp and serious critical debate…. When anyone dips into Classics, they are connecting with the original worldwide web of applied thinking’ (p7). The layered look in the volume highlights that process of connection with the past: in fact H’s sequence of exegetical modes comes close to the ‘standard’ look of a learned commentary, though the moving of the most technical material into the footnotes makes the reader more conscious (perhaps) of the process of digging down into the philological roots beneath the literary florilegium.

These are clearly texts that ought to be read: amusing, delicate, allusive, and above all contemporary, they are far from the dread Roman-copies-of-a-Greek-original that one (I) might have thought. Instead, they offer a fresh insight into the early Principate, both from below (‘Phaedrus’ was a freedman…looking up from underneath, like all proper satirists) and from above (he clearly knows the right people…or he knows all about them). The Latin is eminently readable for undergraduates (and others), and in several cases ties in neatly with other contemporary (or nearly so) events, such as the fable of ‘ Tiberius Caesar and the Flunkey’ (2.5, H’s chapter 1), which would bear reading along with Tacitus’ narrative of Haterius and Tiberius’ guards ( Annales 1.13), or with the story of Tiberius and the ancient equivalent of the man in the white suit, the inventor of unbreakable glass (Pliny, NH 36.195, Petron. Sat. 51), or indeed, with that of Tiberius and the man with the big fish (Suet. Tib. 60). H provides some visual aids—’to bring out, and keep before you, the bifocal hermeneutics written into any (acidic, non-saccharine) discourse on power’—at the head of each chapter. Though these do serve to remind the reader of the popular and artistic culture available to and illustrating fable both ancient and modern, I felt that he could have done more with them.

H may in fact be too close to his subject: he and Phaedrus go way back together, and the result for the reader is an effect of eavesdropping on a conversation to which one doesn’t have all the keys. Arguments are sometimes not spelled out enough to follow (e.g., the parallels on p87 and pp90-1, which remain inertly juxtaposed); essential background is sometimes not given (e.g., p103, on Roman audiences and drama—hard to understand for anyone who’s not conversant with anecdotes about audience response to telling performances); and shorthand argumentation can lead to apparent errors (e.g., p37, the introduction to 3.10 doesn’t actually specify that this is Roman myth —rather, memoria quod factum est mea sounds like history to me; p38, was Augustus ever a dictator?). H teases us with parallel themes from historiography, indeed seems to have chosen his fables to investigate the interplay between fable and historia, yet suggestive echoes are frequently not followed up: so pp38-9, Livy’s story of Lucretia must be relevant to the particular story told here (though H well points to declamation as a strong intertext); Herodotus, whose methods, particularly of addressing and manipulating his readers, are everywhere relevant, is not indexed and barely mentioned; and anecdotal history, about which H says he is ‘out to make a point’ (p7), is left hanging as a tantalizing comparandum, gestured at in the repeated thematic of ‘telling tales,’ but never really used to make that point—which hence remains, at least to me, mysterious. H well shows Phaedrus’ relationship with the Roman satiric tradition, especially in chapter 3, on his persona and its close links with the Horatian satiric mask; but equally, H stresses the importance of historiographical topoi such as the distinction between truth and falsehood. Disappointing, then, that these important trails are left unexplored.

Secondly, and more importantly, is the question of the order of poems. H has chosen an arrangement, which he describes (but does not give reasons for) in the ‘Introduction.’ His book has a plot, in which we are taken from one poem to the next, building on what we have learned, anticipating what will come next. So far, so good. But H’s order does not correspond with Phaedrus’ own (H’s chapters run: 2.5, 3.10, 3. Prologue [‘Phaedrus’ Tale‘], 5.7, 5.5, App. 10, 5.1, 1.14, and—quickly—4.13, 4.14, 1.31, 1.2, 1.1.) Since H does take such trouble to guide us, I would like some discussion of the ‘original’ order, of what it hides and reveals, how it surprises, or disappoints, the reader. Even more, I’d welcome a comparison of H’s cross-grained readings with the arrangement in the MS text: to what extent are the poems arranged by Phaedrus ? What game of pin the tail on the donkey do they play with us? And why has H chosen to take us through the maze in the way he has?

H is always and everywhere acute, and his close readings do not disappoint. It is good to see these texts elucidated by a learned, ironic, and serious critic. H has laid the groundwork for future work: the t(r)ails he leaves dangling will be fruitful ones for others to explore.


1. L. Marin, Portrait of the King, Basingstoke 1985, 95, quoted by H, p. 183.

2. Missing are F. R. Adrados’ work on fable, most recently his History of the Graeco-Latin fable, Brill 1999, and G.-J. van Dijk, Ainoi, logoi, mythoi: fables in archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greek literature: with a study of the theory and terminology of the genre, Brill 1997; add now N. Holzberg, Die antike Fabel: eine Einführung, Darmstadt 2001, reviewed in BMCR.