BMCR 2004.03.17

Lectiones vetustatis: Römische Literatur und Geschichte in der lateinischen Literatur der Spätantike. Zetemata Heft 115

, Lectiones vetustatis : römische Literatur und Geschichte in der lateinischen Literatur der Spätantike. Zetemata ; Heft 115. München: Beck, 2003. 311 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 340650311X. EUR 59.90.

Despite the enormous growth of interest in the world of Late Antiquity over the last forty years, critical engagement with the literary culture of the age has not kept pace with developments in other areas. In this respect Eigler’s [E.’s] work marks an important and exciting advance into terra that is still very much incognita.

E.’s book (a revision of his 1994 Habilitationsleistung from the Otto Friedrich University, Bamberg) is about the shifting meaning and place of the Roman past within the consciousness of elite Latin readers in the period of Late Antiquity. It is divided into five parts, through which is traced the gradual transformation and ultimate demise of the traditional literary system, as biblical literature ( lectio divina) rose to a place of dominance over the Classical tradition ( lectiones vetustatis). The introduction and first part (9-76) establish the parameters for the rest of the book. E. considers the ways in which the past ( vetustas/antiquitas/consuetudo) is remembered in late-antique texts and shows how memory of “ancient history” is encoded within a clearly defined literary system. For members of the ruling class in the later Roman Empire, knowledge of the past, through the reading and recall of a shared body of texts, formed an essential part of the way that they communicated and articulated their own identity and authority. This knowledge meant first and foremost knowledge of Roman — primarily Republican — history. Access to such historical material was readily available through a variety of sources, from the potted histories or breviaria of writers such as Eutropius and Festus to the handbook of exempla by Valerius Maximus. This was not, however, the only way that late-antique Romans got their history, as E. ‘s stimulating book reveals. Shifting attention away from epitomes and collections of exempla E. considers how Roman history is embedded within the canonical texts of the Classical tradition and within literary discourse more broadly. The works of Virgil, Sallust and Cicero (to name three prominent canonical authors) were not simply there to be studied and imitated as works of literature; they were important transmitters of the memory of Roman history. For the late-antique commentator Servius (64), it was natural therefore to consider Virgil’s Aeneid not primarily in terms of genre but within a historical frame of reference as the gesta populi Romani that moves from the fall of Troy to the age of Augustus (Serv. Aen. 6. 752). A study of Claudian 8 shows how his ordering of Republican exempla owes a clear debt to two loci historici from Virgil’s Aeneid, the parade of the heroes in Book 6 and the shield of Aeneas in Book 8.

The canon of literary authors that was transmitted through Late Antiquity thus also constituted a canon of historical knowledge. In other words, historical discourses operated within a wider system of literary discourses. In this way, the literary canon helped to generate and define a wider picture of elite education and culture (in E.’s words, a Bildungsbild). The survival of historical memory and elite culture more broadly is thereby bound up with the survival of the canon.

In part two (77-150), E. traces the relationship between literature and history (specifically Classical literature and the memory of Roman history inscribed within it) from the fourth century AD onwards, and considers its position within late-antique culture more broadly. E. shows how a bybliotheca Romana arose through the formation of a canon that came to define ancient Roman history. For late-antique writers Roman history is not a continuum but a period that begins with the sack of Troy and ends with the age of Augustus and the establishment of the principate. Within this period it is the Republic, with its catalogue of moral exemplars, that comes to represent ancient Roman history and history more generally. E. does not challenge this general view of Roman history in Late Antiquity but offers a nuanced assessment of the changes that do take place. E. then moves on to discuss the conflict and coexistence between pagan and Christian culture, as the Bible begins to replaces Classical tradition as the new cultural touchstone.

After the diachronic approach of part two, part three (151-83) presents a synchronic analysis of the presentation and use of historical material in Augustine’s de civitate Dei and in the work of his contemporary Claudian in the early fifth century AD. E. shows how use of historical material in these authors characterizes their diverging relationships with the Classical past. In particular, E. highlights the changing use and meaning of “Roman history” within Augustine’s civ. He argues that after the first ten books of civ., addressed to a pagan/Christian cultured public, Augustine facilitates a movement into a new Christian history that is marked through his use of Livy. As E. argues, late-antique readers did not perceive Livy as belonging to the literary canon (although an exception is made for his preface). As such, his was a text without the deep literary and cultural resonance of “traditional” texts such as Virgil’s Aeneid. For E. it is therefore precisely because of its “desacralized” nature that Livy’s history became such a powerful tool for Augustine to use in his attack on the idealized view of the Roman past, as perpetuated by Virgil and the literary canon.

Discussion of Livy and the process of epitomization that severed literary form from historical content are developed further in part four (184-233). Here E. focuses on the treatment of late-antique historiography and its the relationship with earlier history (with an interesting discussion of Orosius’ Historia adversus paganos). Part five (234-65) deals with the transmission of historical and literary culture within the schoolroom, with a specific focus on the Grammarian as a guardian of culture (building on the important work by Kaster (1988) Guardians of Language). As E. reminds us, the perpetuation of the literary canon is bound up in the cultural preservation of the elite itself. With the Christianization of the elite, the literary canon, and with it traditional notions of the Roman past and its history, slides inexorably from the collective memory.

E.’s book brings into fruitful dialogue a broad range of late-antique literary texts, both pagan and Christian, rarely discussed together. Although he traces clear differences in the meaning of “ancient history” for both pagan and Christian writers, he carefully avoids crude polarization, and shows how differences and divergence arise from a common literary culture. His awareness of the embeddedness of historical material within a wider literary discourse is especially positive. He advances beyond a view of historical knowledge communicated primarily through “sub-literary” texts, and builds well on Averil Cameron’s fundamental Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (1991).

This book has a broad scope, and it would be wrong to criticize it for paths that are not taken. The nuanced account of the meaning of Roman history within the Latin literature of Late Antiquity does, however, naturally invite speculation about responses to Roman history encoded in the literary discourses of the Greek East. To what extent does the notion of Roman history in the Eastern empire complement or contradict the Western construction of Roman history? How, moreover, is explicitly Greek history memorialized within both the Western and Eastern literary traditions? Such questions would seem to be of particular interest given the fact that two of the most important writers of Late Antiquity, Ammianus and Claudian, as E. himself acknowledges, were not native speakers of Latin, but crossed over from East to West. There is clearly more work to be done in this area.

E.’s investigation of the role of history within a literary system opens up an important sphere of engagement not just with the late-antique conception of history but also with the late-antique literary system itself. Many exciting leads remain to be followed up from a literary-critical perspective. Two examples will suffice for now. At the beginning of his introduction (9), E. quotes Ammianus’ description of the prefect Modestus, a man in possession of a subagreste ingenium nullis vetustatis lectionibus expolitum (30.4.2). Although E. does not mention the possibility, it is not unlikely that a reader who had had his own intellect refined through his engagement with the literary culture of the past would spot a reference to an analogous process of refinement in Catullus 1.1-2: novum libellum / arida modo pumice expolitum. Elsewhere (146) E. quotes from a letter written to a certain bishop in which Sidonius Apollinaris describes a sermon into which he added neither pondera historica aut poetica schematave controversalium clausularum ( Epist. 7.9.2). Here it should be considered that the way in which we read and interpret Sidonius’ words are undermined — or at least rendered more playful — by the fact that he employs both a chiasmus and a tricolon in order to report on the schemata that he claims not to have described.

The book has been carefully proofread and well produced, and contains a useful index locorum. The only slip worthy of note occurs on page 147 where the reference to Sidonius Apollinaris should read “7, 9, 5” not “7, 9, 2”.