BMCR 2005.02.09

Classical Literature: A Concise History

R. B. Rutherford, Classical literature : a concise history. Blackwell introductions to the classical world. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. xiv, 350 pages : maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0631231323 $29.95.

Rutherford’s book is published in the Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World series, whose audience is described on the series list page as “students and scholars alike”, and Rutherford’s Preface indicates he hopes to generate interest in a general reader as well as prove helpful to university students. Taken at its stated point of departure, then, this text does an excellent job of surveying Greek and Roman literature, both for the uninitiated and for those who might seek to fill some gaps in their knowledge.

Rather than a chronological survey, Rutherford follows an unusual, and very effective, genre- or subject-based organization of the material. Because of this organization, each chapter presents a tightly focused examination of generic commonplaces, styles, and innovation and continuity for each genre. Within each chapter, however, a chronological presentation through Greece then Rome dominates, and Rutherford provides frequent cross-references among chapters. The nine chapters after the Introduction are: Epic; Drama; Rhetoric; History, Biography and Fiction; Erotic Literature; Literature and Power; Aspects of Wit; Thinkers; and Believers. The book is fronted with several maps and finished with appendices of a selection of longer passages in translation, a timeline, and lists of Roman emperors and major Greek and Roman gods.

The chapters on Epic and Drama offer fairly predictable coverage; after a brief discussion of the genre of epic, we move into Homer and Hesiod, Virgil’s Aeneid, with brief stops for epyllion, Apollonius, Lucan and Statius. Drama looks at tragedy, comedy, satyr plays, and Roman variations on these themes. Rhetoric discusses both practice and theory, providing brief forays into both epic and drama with an eye to rhetorical practice, alongside discussions of Gorgias, Demosthenes, Cicero, and others. Likewise, the chapter on History focuses on style, as in the use made of dialogue and speeches, tropes, selection of material, point of view. The major authors are Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Rutherford leads the discussion toward romance (“History is the parent of historical romance,” p. 135), finishing the chapter with this narrative form, represented by Longus and Petronius.

Erotic Literature necessarily is treated in a multi-generic approach, including elegy and erotic dialogues as well as other lyrical forms. Literature and Power functions similarly. Here Rutherford looks at “court” poetry, i.e., that linked with politics. His discussion gracefully puts minor genres and writers in the context of the more widely known, and for the Roman period he clarifies the patronage system and the shift in freedom of speech under the Empire. In this chapter especially, the continuity and inheritance from one writer to others is clearly delineated. Aspects of Wit considers parody, epigram, satire, and word-play in general, focusing on authors’ “deliberate pose[s]” (p. 201) and common self-awareness. Because wit so often depends on an educated, cultured audience, Rutherford provides brief discussions of social conventions and cultural biases that the ancient writers take for granted in their audience to round out this chapter.

Like the earlier chapters on Rhetoric and History, the final two on Thinkers and Believers focus on the contributions to literary heritage these writers and forms offer. Plato’s contributions via the dialogue form, rhetorical tradition, and comments on literature; Lucretius’ poetic version of Epicurean ideas; forms of myths; and Christian rhetoric all feature here. Rutherford also places discussions of Virgil’s Georgics, Horace’s Odes and Epistles, and the Homeric hymns in these chapters.

Throughout the book, Rutherford gives voice to competing critical views concerning the literature. While he often openly disagrees with some critics and traditional points of view, he presents both sides. Credit is frequently given to critics whose work has dramatically changed how a text is viewed. Rutherford does not bog down the text with excessive notes but does provide enough direct quotation from the primary texts to illustrate the techniques under discussion; he also lists suggested further reading for each chapter. He (rightly) does not try to give history lessons, though the timeline provides a basic outline. The style is, pleasantly, more lively and engaging than in the standard introductory survey. The only caveat I have is that Rutherford occasionally assumes more general literary knowledge than is the standard among American university students; his casual reference to the Duchess of Malfi, for example, at the end of the Drama chapter would fly miles above the heads of even most honors students. Nonetheless, Rutherford’s book provides an accessible, affordable, and concise introduction to its topic.