BMCR 2004.04.16

Reception Studies. Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics, No. 33

, , Reception studies. Greece & Rome. New surveys in the classics, no. 33. Oxford: Published for the Classical Association by Oxford University Press, 2003. v, 128 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0198528213 $13.95 (pb).

This volume in the Greece and Rome survey series outlines a subject that has become increasingly influential in classical studies in recent years. The author (H.) is a well-known scholar in this field, and her introductory book is timely and welcome.

Classics, classical philology, or classical studies — this area of scholarship is by nature inter- or multidisciplinary, to put it in current terminology. Long before comparative literature became a standard academic field, for instance, classicists had been applying some of its concepts and principles. Their ultimate predecessors had been scholars active in antiquity, especially in Hellenistic Alexandria. Modern work on the classical tradition has deepened our understanding of the unbroken influence of antiquity, chiefly in literature and the visual arts. With the incorporation of sophisticated modern theories such as hermeneutics and those associated with names like Jauss and Iser, current reception studies proceed even further; they include ever “broader cultural frameworks,” as H. puts it in her Preface (iii). As a result, a survey of this new-but-old and highly complex field of scholarship will have to be both broad and systematic. Scholars and teachers as well as advanced students looking for initial orientation will want to turn to H.’s book.

H. outlines the variety of classical reception studies in six chapters, selecting specific areas of inquiry as representative. Chapter 1 traces developments “From the Classical Tradition to Reception Studies” (1-11) and rightly emphasizes that previous research in the classical tradition tended to regard the transmission of ancient works in a past-to-present chronology; hence the frequent occurrences of the term “legacy,” often employed with politically conservative overtones.1 Going beyond this, reception studies consider “the two-way relationship between the source text or culture and the new work and receiving culture” (4). They “yield insights into the receiving society” and “focus critical attention back towards the ancient source and sometimes frame new questions or retrieve aspects of the source which have been marginalized or forgotten” (4). The importance and appeal of modern reception studies resides in this duality. H. also provides a brief definition of reception (5), an outline of its major intellectual impulses (5-7), and a list of terms in general use (9-10). Greater care could have gone into making this latter clearer to newcomers. (And as ugly a term as “foreignization” should have been avoided altogether.)

Chapter 2 outlines “Reception within Antiquity” (12-31). This is an area often overlooked today, and H. is right to treat it prominently here. Ancient receptions set the paradigm both for creative-artistic engagements with earlier classical works and for scholarly analyses of them. For this reason it is regrettable that H. does not mention Rudolf Pfeiffer’s standard modern account of classical scholarship in antiquity.2 She addresses three aspects of ancient reception. The chapter’s first section examines cultural paradigms and analogues, refigurations, and “cultural contests.” The second reviews the “routes and tools” of ancient reception particularly in regard to the transmission and translation of texts. The third surveys the meanings of exemplum, imitatio, aemulatio, mimesis, and paideia as “cultural forces.” H.’s examples illustrate both the wide range of reception studies and the danger inherent in such inquiry. Appropriately, her examples seek to demonstrate connections within, between, and across ancient cultures, but they are dealt with too briefly fully to convince readers. The first, on only one page (13), is a case in point. H. discusses the “image of the bow as an instrument of moral and religious retribution” and adduces an Egyptian inscription, Psalm 21, and Odyssey 21. But the first passage she quotes makes no reference to morals or religion, the second does so only in general terms (“they intended evil”), and the third, the one most likely to be of interest to her readers, is summarized in one sentence. Her claim that Odysseus’ bow “has a religious genealogy” is an overstatement; the weapon’s history as given at Od. 21.11-41 does not mention anything of the sort. Her conclusion that “the poetic development of the Odyssey resonates with analogues from other cultural contexts” is true enough, but her discussion does not make that case. H. is on firmer ground when next she turns to the “refiguration” of Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra (14) — not surprisingly, since theater and drama are her chief area of interest and expertise. The concluding paragraph of this chapter’s first section (“Cultural Contests,” 15) discusses “contexts” and “framework” more than contests (mentioned only in its last line: “contested receptions”) and may cause readers to wonder if “Cultural Contexts” might not have been a more appropriate heading (cf. page 12). One may also wonder why the military meaning of vertere (“to rout”) appears in a list of Latin terms for translation in section two. Such lack of focus is in greater evidence in section three. H. begins her discussion of exemplum by calling it “a Roman concept” (23); more accurately, it is the Romans’ term for a concept extending much further back, as H.’s readers have already learned from her book. When she refers to the “status [of paideia ] as the locus of Greek cultural identity” (29) one may ask if this, as much else in the book, could not have been put more clearly and simply. (What is status as locus?) More importantly, H., who elevates paideia above the other four terms she has discussed by according it a separate subsection, does not mention Werner Jaeger’s work on paideia, which is itself an example of a reception study, if of a more traditional kind.3

In the following chapters H. outlines large areas of reception studies, with examples less randomly chosen than some preceding ones. Chapter 3 (“Challenging Stereotypes — the Contexts of Reception,” 32-50) is on Roman, Chapter 4 (“Staging Reception,” 51-70) on Greek themes. In both, H. deals with the “intermingling” of ancient and receiving traditions, especially in connection with cultural and political history and political ideology and propaganda. With this, she intends to refute political claims, usually advanced by conservatives or those even further on the right, that classical antiquity presents an ideal to be emulated. Some justifications of power by ruling elites in Europe were at least in part based on ancient precedents or traditions, with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany cases in point. H. duly discusses both.

The first of H.’s three case studies in Chapter 3 is Philip Massinger’s 1626 play The Roman Actor. She surveys its cultural and political background, its themes, and, more briefly, its performance history. The allusions to Fascism in a 2002 revival of the play continue a stage tradition begun by Orson Welles’s Caesar, a 1937 adaptation of Shakespeare which H. does not mention in this context. Spartacus, her second example, will be of greater interest to her readers. H. refers to several plays and novels about Spartacus — but not to the ballet by Aram Khachaturian or the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James Leslie Mitchell) — and turns mainly to representations of Spartacus in modern popular culture, with emphasis on the Stanley Kubrick-Kirk Douglas film of 1960 (not “1980” as at 37; correctly at 39). H. refers to the film’s source, the 1951 novel by Howard Fast, and to the political climate in the U.S. during the 1950s, but she weakens her argument when she passes over the involvement of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter who received credit under his real name on Douglas’s insistence. With this, Spartacus broke the Hollywood blacklist.4 H.’s description of the film’s final scene with Spartacus on the cross is somewhat misleading (42): it is not “lit as for a biblical scene” as much as so staged or composed. (The lighting is unremarkable.) And there is no “subsequent voice-over” predicting the end of “the pagan tyranny of Rome.” Rather, these words are part of the voice-over heard as the film’s prologue. Spartacus provides H. with a convenient transition to her third example, the “appropriation of Rome by Fascist and Nazi ideology.” This complex topic is necessarily dealt with briefly, but H. refers to a number of important points and, as she does throughout, provides references to further recent scholarship (in English only — a defensible editorial decision for an introductory volume but a regrettable one in the case of such an important international topic). A few errors need pointing out. Carmine Gallone, the director of the state-financed film spectacle Scipione l’Africano, whose titular hero is patterned on Mussolini, inexplicably becomes “Carmine Gallforie” (46). H.’s observation that the Carthaginians in this film are “black and Semitic in appearance” (46) is at best an overstatement, contradicted by the most important Carthaginian, Hannibal, who is played by a white Italian. The satiric German magazine Simplicissimus was published in Munich, not in “Monaco” (47), which is the Italian name of Munich.5 The phrase “Hitler’s volume Table Talk” (48 and note 38) may mislead some into believing this to be a book authored by Hitler when it is what the title indicates: an edited collection of conversations as remembered and recorded by those present.

The next chapter addresses aspects of theatrical performances of ancient drama on the modern stage and the relations between texts and performances. H. deals with the topic briefly but comprehensively: diachronic and synchronic performance practices; stagings in original language and in translation; tragedy and comedy; dance, opera, and “physical theatre.” Among the productions she discusses, those that explicitly comment on contemporary events or politics will be of special interest to readers, e.g. different performances of Greek tragedy in South Africa under and after apartheid.6 H.’s overall conclusion in this chapter, that “a new kind of philology, a philology of reception, is being developed” (70), is apt, but it applies to all other aspects of reception she addresses and might have been placed more emphatically in her Preface to signal the thrust of her book from the very beginning.7

Chapter 5, on “Film and Poetry” (71-97), may at first strike readers as surprising in the juxtaposition of apparently disparate topics, but H. makes a good case for considering them side by side. (Tony Harrison’s “film poems” provide a convenient and convincing justification.) The section on film depends heavily on previous work, especially that of Maria Wyke (also a main source for H.’s third chapter) and Kenneth MacKinnon. H. has little to say herself on this topic, and some of her observations indicate that she is a novice to it, although she emphasizes the importance of cinema for reception studies and for classics in general (85). Her descriptions of Pasolini’s Edipo re and Medea (82) are imprecise: the “mythological figures” in the former are not “first shown…in primitive landscapes” (but in twentieth-century Italy), those in the latter are not brought to “modern urban landscapes” (but to an environment of Italian Renaissance architecture). And it is meaningless to speak of Pasolini’s “enigmatic discontinuity in camerawork” (78). The title of Amy Greenfield’s film is Antigone: Rites of Passion (not Rites for the Dead, 82). A 1967 film of Oedipus the King by Oswald Derke (81) is listed in none of the standard printed or electronic sources. (Has H. actually seen it?) When, in this section, H. enters on a page-and-a-half digression (79-80) on stage plays, readers can tell where her heart lies. She is much better in the section on poetry. Given the vast extent of receptions of ancient poetry, H. is here tackling a daunting topic. She confines herself chiefly to discussions of epic (Homer, Virgil), with additional brief examinations of Virgil’s Eclogues, Horace’s Odes, and poems on myth. To her list (85) of ancient poets anthologized in the Penguin Classics series The Poets in Translation she could have added Catullus and Juvenal. She writes about receptions as “new works” (Gavin Douglas, Chapman, Dryden, Pope, Walcott), about the reception of paradigms (“tales told and retold through individual works or successive texts,” 90), and about “shifting values” to be found in “free translations and adaptations and in new poems” (93), particularly in contexts of war (World War I, Christopher Logue’s “accounts” of the Iliad, Harrison’s Prometheus). At least a mention of Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad or The Poem of Force” would have been welcome.8

Chapter 6, somewhat clumsily entitled “(Re)Evaluations — (why) do Reception Studies matter?” (98-113), attempts a summary and general justification. Here as throughout, H. proceeds via concrete examples and theoretical abstraction. She turns first to instances in which stage productions or adaptations of Sophocles’ plays influenced modern politics: Antigone in South Africa under apartheid, in Ghana, and in the context of Scottish Devolution; Philoctetes, in Seamus Heaney’s version The Cure at Troy, in regard to Ireland, especially the 1989 Good Friday Agreement. She then outlines some of the major “cultural processes” at work in reception: traditions of the transmission of texts, interactions of such traditions, and “processes of cultural and political interventions.” Emphasis is almost exclusively on stage productions and adaptations of classical drama. But her overall conclusions (112) are unsurprising: “‘faithfulness’ to a unified interpretation of an ancient text is no longer a defining criterion”; “reception studies have shown that classical texts, images and ideas are culturally active presences.” Her prediction (“The growth of reception studies in recent years contains an explicit claim that classical culture will continue to be a significant strand in cultural history,” 113) is safe to make. H.s book thus ends rather unexcitingly. A bibliography (114-122) collects the works she had cited in her footnotes, including useful URLs for access to specialized recent work, but it exhibits numerous instances of inconsistency of citation and occasionally refers to outdated editions of scholarly works. A supplementary bibliography on standard scholarly resources (123-128) closes the volume. Regrettably, there is no index.

H. is a scholar clearly committed to her subject, but she could have made her readers’ encounter with her book more pleasing. Inconsistencies and typographical errors, even “Forward” (118) for “Foreword,” occur with some frequency. H. is fond of run-on sentences and exhibits a somewhat idiosyncratic use of the comma, so the book would have profited from one more round of editing. Much of H.’s theorizing is indebted to academic jargon or expressed at so high a level of abstraction as to become imprecise, even close to meaningless. Cumulatively, readers may feel that they are dealing with arguments presented with conviction but also with insufficient clarity, as if they were looking at an image that is slightly blurred.

I close this review with three longer quotations from a well-known scholar and critic whose perspective on modern scholarship in connection with the survival of literature and culture is quite different from H.’s but serves to bring hers into clearer focus. Although written over three decades ago and not primarily concerned with classics or the classical tradition, the opinions about reception studies ( avant la lettre) there advanced are still important to think about, even for those whose political, pedagogical, or cultural views make complete or even partial agreement impossible. In Bluebeard’s Castle, George Steiner’s assessment of the state of modern culture, begins as follows:

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures. It tests its sense of identity, of regress or new achievement, against that past. The echoes by which a society seeks to determine the reach, the logic and authority of its own voice, come from the rear. Evidently, the mechanisms at work are complex and rooted in diffuse but vital needs of continuity. A society requires antecedents.

All this classicists can readily accept. When he discusses the end of “classic literacy,” Steiner has English, not classical, literature and culture in mind, but his words may be applied to our field as well:

By that I mean something perfectly concrete. The major part of Western literature, which has been for two thousand years and more so deliberately interactive, the work echoing, mirroring, alluding to, previous works in the tradition, is now passing quickly out of reach. Like far galaxies bending over the horizon of invisibility, the bulk of English poetry…is now modulating from active presence into the inertness of scholarly conservation. Based, as it firmly is, on a deep, many-branched anatomy of classical and scriptural reference, expressed in a syntax and vocabulary of heightened tenor, the unbroken arc of English poetry, of reciprocal discourse…is fading rapidly from the reach of natural reading. A central pulse in awareness, in the language, is becoming archival.

From this derives Steiner’s conclusion, rather pessimistic but still worth pondering by all of us:

Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist. There it leads a kind of bizarre pseudo-life, proliferating its own inert environment of criticism…, of editorial and textual exegesis, of Narcissistic polemic. Never has there been a more hectic prodigality of specialized erudition, in literary studies, in musicology, in art history, in criticism and that most Byzantine of genres, the criticism and theory of criticism. Never have the meta-languages of the custodians flourished more, or with more arrogant jargon, around the silence of live meaning.9

H.’s book exemplifies some of Steiner’s critical points. But it also shows a perspective more heartening than his by demonstrating that the live meaning of antiquity is still to be found in some areas of our popular culture and in the literary and artistic endeavors of our time. It is, of course, up to us to decide what kind of custodian of antiquity, what kind of receiver, and what kind of student of reception we want to be.


1. Cf. the brief definition of “legacy” as “the repertoire of [a culture’s] identifying recognitions” given by George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1971; rpt. 1974), 52. This both illustrates and broadens H.’s point.

2. Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship from the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

3. Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, 3 vols.; tr. Gilbert Highet (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1939; second ed. rpt. 1986).

4. Valuable information about the history of the film’s production is available in detail online, a link to three essays by Duncan L. Cooper. H. might also have referred to Alison Futrell, “Seeing Red: Spartacus as Domestic Economist,” in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, ed. Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire, Jr. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 77-118. This book, surprisingly unmentioned by H., could have been useful for her chapter.

5. German is not H.’s strong suit. She invents “Nachlebung” (2) for “Nachleben” and turns “Antike” into “Antiker” (49). Less egregious spelling errors appear at 47, 121, and 127. Five minutes with a German speaker would have cleared all this up.

6. In general, Rush Rehm, Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy and the Modern World (London: Duckworth, 2003), is worth consulting in this context as well.

7. Two quibbles: If Bill Dunlop’s Klytemnestra’s Bairns is, as he himself makes clear, an “adaptation” (63 note 28) deriving, as H. knows, from other translations and not from the Greek original, H. should not call it “a translation” (63). Regarding modern performances of Aristophanes, a reference to Gonda Van Steen, Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), would have been apppropriate.

8. Simone Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force: A Critical Edition, ed. James P. Holoka (New York: Lang, 2003), is the most accessible reissue of Weil’s essay.

9. Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 13, 78, and 83.