BMCR 2006.04.19

A Companion to Latin Literature. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World

, A companion to Latin literature. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2005. 1 online resource (xviii, 450 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780470996683 $99.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Do we really need another survey (or some such) of Latin literature after traditional histories such as CHCL 2, Conte, and Von Albrecht, and more unconventional introductions as those of Braund and Taplin?1 Well, as it turns out, we do. This new addition to Blackwell’s ever-growing series very successfully blends the traditional with the unconventional. Not only does it adequately, sometimes superbly, sum up the status quaestionis of many debates in Latin scholarship, the Companion also points to interesting new avenues of research and will prove to be a quarry of dissertation topics for despairing graduate students, something to which this reviewer can testify.

The volume under review shares with CHCL 2 its chronological scope (the beginnings of Latin literature to the end of the second century AD) as opposed to Conte and Von Albrecht, who go down to late antiquity. But unlike in all three of these, individual authors do not merit their own chapter. A drawback of this approach is that important authors like Catullus, Cicero, and Horace get a somewhat scattered treatment in various chapters, though this is remedied by excellent cross-referencing. Instead the book is divided into three parts: I Periods (13-80, five chapters giving historical background to the literature of the early and late republic, the Augustan period, and early and high empire), II Genres (fourteen essays in total, 81-284) and III Themes (nine chapters, 285-405), where we find the usual suspects such as “Sex and Gender” and “Romans and Others”, but also “The Passions”, “Marriage and Family” and “Centre and Periphery”. This part (as is to be expected) closely resembles and complements the books of Braund and Taplin in that it provides a stimulating overview of topics that are currently the subject of vigorous debate among Latin scholars. Someone who wants to own just one good, exciting survey of Latin literature could do worse than purchase this companion. And speaking as a graduate student at an American university I believe that this companion is also ideally suited for preparation for exams, even though this audience is not specifically singled out in the introduction.

Harrison (H.), who contributes three chapters himself, starts off with an introduction in which he gives a justification for the companion and a list of general resources and bibliographies to twenty Latin authors.2 These bibliographies, subdivided into texts, translations, commentaries and studies, mostly contain English items of a recent date. Though one can nitpick about the in- or exclusion of this or that author, there are no major omissions. Books on reception are included for each author as are (reliable) Web resources, one of the first books of this kind, if not the first, to do so. H. regrets not having been able to include more on the Nachleben of individual authors than a list of books (2), and for such material students will still need to turn to Von Albrecht and, to a lesser extent, Conte. H.’s introduction is prefaced by a table of important dates in Latin history and literature to AD 200 (ix-xi), but advanced students and teachers will, I expect, find the more extensive chronological chart in Conte’s book more useful.

Though each chapter is structured in roughly the same way (ending with a section ‘Further reading’), H.’s editing policy seems to have been to give as much freedom as possible to the individual contributors. Rather surprisingly, this has not led to an idiosyncratic, heterogeneous collection of essays. Practically all chapters emphasize how the literary works were received by, and influenced, their contemporary readership. Audience (both contemporary and modern) -oriented remarks abound. For instance, already on the first page of the Companion proper, Sander Goldberg quotes the words uttered by Gaius Gracchus, when he is challenging a Roman crowd in 121 and in doing so reflects his reading of one of Ennius’ tragedies. Goldberg poses the questions ‘How did the script of Ennius’ Medea exul become a school text for Gracchus a generation later and his own text survive to be imitated and quoted in turn …? What awakened Romans to the texts in their midst and the work they could do?’ (16). The question of the power and influence of Latin literature on its audience is one to which most contributors return over and over again, and Goldberg’s last query could stand as a vignette for the Companion as a whole.3

The second part of the companion, “Genres”, betrays some of the ideological biases of the editor and contributors. For instance, epic is divided into “narrative” and “didactic”, not a distinction usually made by the ancients. To her credit Monica Gale discusses this difficulty in the first part of her essay and concludes that didactic can be seen ‘as a subgenre of epic, distinct from but closely related to the main, Homeric, tradition . . .'(102). The term “didactic epic” alone, however, is a highly contentious one.4 But whereas Gale at least remarks on this controversy, Philip Hardie nowhere in his very readable chapter lets on that the term “narrative epic” is modern. This could easily lead to confusion among inexperienced readers. The same holds for the essays on “Lyric and Iambic” (H.) and “Epigram” (Lindsay Watson), though here the choice seems to have been more pragmatic. As H. points out in the opening sentence of his chapter, ‘[t]hese two genres, neither of which survives in profusion, have been placed together here largely because they are both practised by the major Roman poets Catullus and Horace’ (189). And Watson usefully points out that ‘[Catullus] himself never speaks of his ‘epigrams’ (206), then gives modern arguments against labeling him as an epigrammatist, to conclude with ‘the undeniable fact that Martial considers Catullus the greatest of Roman epigrammatists’ (207). So even though most contributors comment on the problems of this categorization into genres, a prefatory chapter on generic divisions (or lack thereof) in antiquity would probably have been useful.

I single out for comment a few representative chapters.

Robert Kaster discusses the passions in a regrettably short essay, though understandably so, since ‘the story of the passions in Roman literature just is the story of Roman literature’ (319). Instead of superficially surveying the whole subject Kaster focuses on three topics. First he discusses the Romans’ concepts of passion, arguing that their intuitions are largely ours. He distinguishes between the cognitive and non-cognitive elements of the passions: they ‘take their start from judgements and evaluations that are forms of reason shaped by culture; and learning to match up reasons and passions so that they fit is part of what we have come to call acculturation’ (320-1). But what follows this process of cognition is the tricky bit, namely feelings, which reason sometimes can curb, at other times cannot. Secondly Kaster deals with the role these concepts played in rhetorical literature, especially emphasizing their power to persuade in the law courts. Finally he treats the passions in imaginative literature. In this last part, Kaster offers very good close readings, starting with the opening lines of the Aeneid, then a fragment of Ovid’s Remedia Amoris and closing with the Aeneid once more. Here the bipartite structure (cognition/feeling) of the passions returns. In his first Vergilian example Kaster examines the ira of Juno in the opening lines (1.7-32), and argues that we, the readers, can understand full well the goddess’ anger, but ‘we are surely not meant to feel it ourselves'(327). Vergil gives a list of causes for the goddess’s anger, the cognitive character of which ‘is emphasized by repeated reference to Juno’s mind’ (326), but no emotional involvement is demanded by Vergil from the readers. But Kaster shows that Vergil is capable of doing just that in the scene of the death of Lausus at the end of book ten (10.821-6). Here his discussion brings out the skilful way in which Vergil manages to draw the reader into the text: first of all Vergil shapes the readers’ judgments by his use of vocabulary, which makes Lausus’ deeds seem noble and his death unfair. Secondly Aeneas himself praises Lausus’ virtue, thereby reinforcing those judgments. And thirdly Vergil makes us, readers, share Aeneas’ emotions at Lausus’ death by making us ‘see only what he sees and, more important, we see it as he sees it’ (329). Kaster forcefully concludes: ‘[n]ot to share this pity would require a detachment so austere as to place the reader outside the community of sentiment that the text works to create’ (329). Kaster succeeded in making this reader reread the work with a whole new appreciation of Vergil’s talent to represent and evoke ‘the passions’ in both the Aeneid‘s characters and its readers.

J.G.F. Powell in “Dialogues and Treatises” points out that in the area of expository prose a lot of work needs to be done, and especially his remark that ‘[t]here have been useful studies of particular aspects of Cicero’s dialogue technique. . .but there may still be a tendency to underestimate the success of his treatment of the genre’ (233) is bound to elicit reactions in this “new era of Cicero”. Powell’s chapter, incidentally, is the only one that breaks the chronological boundary of AD 200 by including a (very short) discussion of some Christian writers, among whom Tertullian, on its last pages (238-9).

But to return to Cicero, almost seventy-five percent of the extant Latin literature of the period 90-40 BC is written by this one man, and D.S. Levene in an eye-opening chapter, “The late republican/triumviral period”, warns against the pitfalls of viewing ‘that time largely through a Ciceronian lens, assessing the literature. . .in terms of the associations, categories and explanations that Cicero all too conveniently supplies for us’ (31). After discussing the temptation for modern scholars to read the political and intellectual (i.e. philosophical and rhetorical) literature of the period in Ciceronian terms, Levene turns to two other writers of the period, Catullus and Lucretius. Using these authors Levene urges caution in constructing a teleological narrative ‘in which the progressive ‘Callimachean’ Catullus is moving towards Virgilian perfection, while his contemporary Lucretius is still, despite his acknowledged brilliance, rooted in some of the roughness of the unsophisticated past’ (41). Levene argues for a more nuanced approach: Lucretius is more Callimachean than is sometimes assumed, and if later poets had adopted his style, Lucretius would have been seen as ‘the upholder of a standard’ instead of ‘a sometimes clumsy archaizer’ (42). Rather philosophically Levene ends his essay with the following words: ‘In literature, as in life, the fact that a particular road is taken, does not show that it was the only one available to take’ ( ibid.). In summarizing I have done great injustice to the richness of this chapter, which truly is a highlight of the volume: lucid and with many aper├žus that can be used with profit at a time that interest in Cicero’s works is on the rise.

Susan Treggiari’s chapter on “Marriage and Family”, on the other hand, is something of a disappointment. Most paragraphs read too much like an entry in an encyclopedia, giving too much factual information and, unlike the other chapters in this third part of the companion, not enough food for thought. The chapter also suffers from an overabundance of references to primary and secondary literature in the body of the text. But as a summary of Roman attitudes towards marriage and family and their practices Treggiari’s essay is useful.

A healthy sense of humor is not lacking in the volume overall. Lindsay Watson applies a light touch in keeping with his subject matter, epigram, and while criticizing a translation of the Priapea states that it ‘has overtones of William McGonagall’ (212). For the uninitiated, McGonagall ‘has been widely hailed as the writer of the worst poetry in the English language‘ [website not available on April 15, 2006 – editor’s note]. Roland Mayer in his overview of the early empire compares the Centumviral Court to the British Chancery Division, ‘concerned with property and wills, and about as exciting’ (60).

One major omission of this companion is a separate chapter on the transmission of Latin literature and the central role of reconstruction and textual criticism (unfortunately, neither Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and scholars nor Reynolds (ed.) Texts and transmission feature in the bibliography).5 I think it is very important to make clear that chance has played a crucial part in what we have left of what the Romans (or the Greeks for that matter) wrote. Apart from the occasional remark (e.g. Roy Gibson on Gallus (160)) not enough emphasis is laid on how different the landscape of Roman literature would have looked, if all or different parts of it had survived. The need for such an overview becomes even more acute after reading Levene’s chapter, as mentioned above. Not including a chapter (of the same lucidity and quality as most of the contributions) that is easily accessible to the lay reader really is a missed chance.

A few quibbles: some abbreviations of editions of fragments are not explained, and there is no complete consistency in editorial conventions.6 A glossary of Greek terms used might have been handy, though the meaning of e.g. kalokagathia (22) and others is usually made clear from the context. Lastly, in my opinion in a companion to Latin literature one of the greatest Latinists, Eduard Norden, cannot be ignored. But as it is, one looks in vain in the general bibliography for his name. Moreover, the excuse that Norden’s books have not been translated into English (why is that?) doesn’t fly: for example, Fraenkel’s Plautinisches im Plautus is found in both the German and updated Italian edition.7

Especially appealing are the palpable joy and excitement that jump off nearly every page. Contrary to Braund’s fear that ‘reading literary history is often a substitution for reading the texts themselves’,8 H.’s companion made this reader at least eager to go back to the texts. I can warmly recommend this book, both to experts who wish to have an up-to-date account of the latest trends in the study of Latin literature and to undergraduate and graduate students who can mine this volume for suitable paper and even dissertation topics. We can hope that an affordable paperback edition will appear soon.


Introduction: Constructing Latin Literature: Stephen Harrison

Part I: Periods

1. The Early Republic: the Beginnings to 90 BC: Sander M. Goldberg

2. The Late Republican/Triumviral period: 90-40 BC: D. S. Levene

3. The Augustan Period: 40 BC-AD 14: Joseph Farrell

4. The Early Empire: AD 14-68: Roland Mayer

5. The High Empire: AD 69-200: Bruce Gibson

Part II: Genres

6. Narrative Epic: Philip Hardie

7. Didactic Epic: Monica Gale

8. Roman Tragedy: Elaine Fantham

9. Comedy, Atellane Farce and Mime: Costas Panayotakis

10. Pastoral: Stephen Heyworth

11. Love Elegy: Roy Gibson

12. Satire: Llewelyn Morgan

13. Lyric and Iambic: Stephen Harrison

14. Epigram: Lindsay C. Watson

15. The Novel: Stephen Harrison

16. Dialogues and Treatises: J. G. F. Powell

17. Historiography and Biography: Christina Shuttleworth Kraus

18. Oratory: D. H. Berry

19. Epistolography: Catherine Edwards

Part III: Themes

20. Decline and Nostalgia: Stephen Harrison

21. Art and Text: Jas’ Elsner

22. The Passions: Robert A. Kaster

23. Sex and Gender: A. M. Keith

24. Friendship and Patronage: David Konstan

25. Romans and Others: Yasmin Syed

26. Marriage and Family: Susan Treggiari

27. Slavery and Class: Thomas Habinek

28. Centre and Periphery: Alessandro Barchiesi.


1. E.J. Kenney and W.V. Clausen (eds.), The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Vol. II: Latin Literature (Cambridge, 1982); Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: a History. Translated by Joseph B. Solodow. Revised by Don Fowler and Glenn W. Most (Baltimore, 1994); Michael von Albrecht, A History of Roman Literature from Livius Andronicus to Boethius with Special Regard to Its Influence on World Literature. Revised by Gareth Schmeling and by the author (Leiden/New York, 1997; Mnemosyne Supplement 165); Susanna Morton Braund, Latin Literature (London/New York, 2002); Oliver Taplin (ed.), Literature in the Roman World: a New Perspective (Oxford, 2000).

2. Apuleius, Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, Livy, Lucan, Martial, Ovid, Petronius, Plautus, Pliny the Younger, Propertius, Sallust, Seneca the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus. Terence, Tibullus, Vergil.

3. Goldberg’s chapter seems to be a prelude to his recently published book Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic (Cambridge 2006).

4. See for instance Katharina Volk’s remarks in her review of Monica Gale’s Lucretius and the Didactic Epic (London, 2001) (BMCR 2002.03.42).

5. L.D. Reynolds (ed.), Texts and Transmission: a Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford, 1983); L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: a Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (Oxford, 1991, 3rd edition).

6. H. states in his introduction that the companion ‘is aimed at university students of Latin literature and their teachers, and at scholarly colleagues in other subjects who need orientation in Latin literature, though I hope that it will also be of use to those studying Latin texts in the last years of school’ (1). What, then, are these students and colleagues to make of references such as ‘ORF 61’ (15) or ‘231-2R’ (16). Warmington, mentioned in full on page 16, gets abbreviated to W a couple of pages later without any explanation. The same thing occurs in Elaine Fantham’s chapter on drama, though here on the same page (118). For seasoned scholars these references are of course crystal clear, but to quote E. J. Kenney’s dictum ‘Allusivity in a work of reference is a mere nuisance’ (BMCR 98.2.04). It would have been a good idea to list Warmington, Malcovati and others in the list of abbreviations of reference works (xvii-xviii). One other minor quibble: Courtney’s Companion to Petronius is misrepresented as a commentary on the entire Satyrica (9), but correctly identified as a guide on 221.

7. Good news: we can now look forward to an English translation by Frances Muecke and Tomas Drevikovsky, Plautine Elements in Plautus, with a new introduction and updated bibliography, projected to be published by OUP in February 2007.

8. Braund (note 1) x.