BMCR 2004.02.41

Pleiades Setting. Essays for Pat Cronin on his 65th Birthday

, , Pleiades setting : essays for Pat Cronin on his 65th birthday. Cork: Dept. of Ancient Classics, University College Cork, 2002. viii, 145 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 0954396804.

Contents: John Barry, “Stanihurst and the ethnographical tradition”; Margaret Buckley, “Atticus, Man of Letters, Revisited”; Chris Gaynor, “Community and leadership in the writings of Isocrates”; Noreen Humble, “The limits of biography: the case of Xenophon”; Carmel McCallum-Barry, “Ovid at the end of the world”; Keith Sidwell, “Damning with great praise: paradox in Lucian’s Imagines and Pro Imaginibus”; David Woods, “Ammianus and the blood-sucking Saracen.”

This short collection of essays by members of the Department of Ancient Classics at University College Cork (Ireland) is a festschrift in honor of Pat Cronin, a member of the department since 1966. UCC is known particularly for the high quality of its teaching; the college regularly produces more degrees in Latin than other Irish universities. As elsewhere, the position of the Classics in Ireland is consistently and perpetually under attack. David Woods, in his contribution, points out that “the survival of classics at Cork owes much to (Cronin’s) commitment and teaching over his long career here” (127); the editor, Keith Sidwell, honors “his unremitting toil of thirty-five years with no sabbatical leave, many of them spent under conditions of virtual siege, when the Department was ill-resourced and the small band of combatants had to fight for the very survival of the discipline” (vii).

The collection is very much a local product; not only that, it seems designed largely for local consumption. The publisher is listed as the Department itself rather than Cork University Press. All the contributors are current members of the department and the editor is the current professor. The tone of the introductory material suggests in-jokes, or affection: in the List of Contributors (ii), Chris Gaynor is described as “our Greek History supremo,” and the comment is made about David Woods that, “(h)is research output is so large that it has been suggested that he is competing for the entry in the Guinness Book of Records under ‘most articles published before the age of forty.'” All the same, some of the essays, though, deserve to be more widely known.

The contributions vary considerably, inevitably in a collection without a set theme. John Barry’s essay describes Richard Stanihurst’s work De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis (1584). Stanihurst’s work, an ethnographical account of Ireland in the sixteenth century, is situated in the ethnographical and geographical work of the Renaissance; the work is further situated in the ethnographical tradition going back as far as Homer, but especially dependent on the Roman writers. “By a process of imitatio, not only of the vocabulary of his models but also of their methodology, he places the ethnography of Ireland in a tradition that stretches all the way back to Homer” (13).

Noreen Humble’s “The Limits of Biography: the Case of Xenophon” addresses issues of perennial importance to all scholars who have to deal with the interpretation of classical authors. She points out the fact that, in many works of modern scholarship (and ancient scholarship, for that matter), the account of Xenophon’s life is written in such as way as to display the author’s bias regarding Xenophon’s talent as a writer, political views, or supposed lack of philosophical sophistication. “Because there is so little solid evidence to go on, it is easy to manipulate the evidence and make inferences fit a pre-determined attitude” (67). In other words, much of what is presented in scholarship as factual is really of questionable validity, deriving from the scholar’s own biases and opinions about the author’s work — in Xenophon’s case, his presumed intellectual naivete and affection for Spartan life and political institutions. Humble discusses all the pieces of evidence that there are for Xenophon’s life without drawing fixed conclusions based on prior assumptions. She finds that “there is little about Xenophon’s life that can be stated with confidence and even the sketchiest of biographies relies on inferring certain points from his writings using often rather dubious methods, one of which is the imposition of pre-formed scholarly opinions of Xenophon and his works onto the scanty biographical details, which are then manipulated appropriately” (85). On the two particular issues of his philosophical limitations and Spartan connections, a far more nuanced picture emerges of a Xenophon willing to criticize Sparta and a Xenophon whose philosophical and intellectual life was more varied that the pro-Platonists would have it. In short, this is a good discussion of a topic much broader than it seems. All biographical accounts of ancient authors may fall into the same traps; Humble shows us a model of how to deal with the ancient evidence by trying to exclude modern bias.

Carmel McCallum-Barry’s piece discusses Ovid’s exile poetry, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, which she sees as “another poetry, as different from what had gone before as Tomis was from Rome” (88). Ovid’s use of mythological exempla in the exile poetry is notable; while scarcely a new development in Roman poetry, Ovid uses the technique in a new way in the Tristia. While the metre of these poems recalls his earlier work in amatory elegy, the content and especially the mythological exempla situate him, both as poet and as the man, Ovid, in the tradition of epic poetry. “He constructs his exile as a heroic situation by viewing it in mythological terms. Roman love poets before him had made use of myth as a means of lifting their personal life and love affairs in particular, to the elevated plane of a distant heroic world… Ovid likewise, by use of mythological exemplars, marks for our attention the matters which are most important to him as he writes from exile” (94). His account of life in Tomis is not realistic; it owes much to ethnographic and geographical motifs from the common stock of the classical world’s view of northern barbarians. The setting he thus gives to his latest poetry is poetically functional: “(he) is concerned to persuade the reader that his physical surroundings colour and determine the nature of the poetry that he does produce … he uses the landscape of exile as a vast metaphor for his struggle as a poet, for his life in exile and eventual acceptance of the land and people of Tomis in his poetic life” (105).

The editor, Prof. Sidwell, has his own contribution. His discussion of two of Lucian’s dialogues grows out of his work on the new Penguin translation of Lucian. The dialogues in question, the Imagines and Pro Imaginibus, both treat of the concubine of the emperor Verus, Panthea. Previous scholarship (“(b)ibliography on these pieces can scarcely be described as extensive,” 108, fn. 2) has seen these dialogues both as encomiastic. The problem that arises is that elsewhere in the Lucianic corpus the author’s stance is emphatically against such toadyism. Sidwell finds an approach to the problem in the idea of the “performative context” of the literary work: “a writer who wishes to be understood will construct his artifact into a space which exists in the language and culture of his day and it is the combination of that context and the text which produces for that time understanding and meaning” (110). Evidence from Marcus Aurelius and the Historia Augusta suggests that in fact, Verus’ relationship with Panthea, and Panthea herself, were widely criticized. Lucian himself in other places (notably in How to Write History) says that writers should be as free as the early Greek historians to record truth, without including flattery of the rulers. Sidwell thus sees the encomium of Panthea in the two dialogues in question as only apparent; the literary context of the works reveals to the reader that they are meant to be taken satirically.

The final essay in the volume, by David Woods, “Ammianus and the Blood-Sucking Saracen,” deals with an anecdote in Ammianus’ account (31.16.5-6) of the defense of Constantinople against the Goths in A.D. 378. The historian reports that in the course of a fight between the Goths and a troop of Saracens, one of the latter attacked the Goths naked and after killing one of them, sucked the blood out of his throat. This peculiar report is shown to be not credible; Ammianus’ beliefs about the Saracens (= Arabs) informs his account and allow him to portray the man as a cannibal. Several possibilities for the source of Ammianus’ beliefs are suggested, without a definite conclusion. The most likely one, according to Woods, is that the author is reflecting an account in the Chronicon paschale, describing the death of the deacon Cyril in Phoenicia, at which one of the killers opened up the body and devoured Cyril’s liver. Ammianus, then, is associating the barbarism of the one act with the ethnicity of the perpetrators, and tars the Saracens in Constantinople with the same brush. I must say that I am not sure that this is the right approach to the question: it seems to me that cannibalism of organs is not the same thing as blood-sucking. In combination with the nakedness of the man (perhaps ritual nudity?), the blood-sucking suggests to me rather a quasi religious act misunderstood by Ammianus, or indeed an act of battle rage, but in either case without the anti-Christian overtones. However, this is scarcely my area of expertise.