BMCR 2006.11.41

Cretan Women. Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Phaedra in Latin Poetry. Oxford Classical Monographs

Rebecca Armstrong, Cretan women : Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Phaedra in Latin poetry. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (ix, 351 pages).. ISBN 9780191515811 $99.00.

Armstrong’s discussion of the myths of these three peccant Cretans as they appear in Latin poetry is divided into two parts. The first part deals with themes (Ethics & Poetics; The Call of the Wild; Vice & Virtue). This is very successful, since the issues raised by the erotic predicaments of the women are surely part of their attraction to the poetic imagination in the first place. As A. herself says on p. 3 n. 11, ‘the myths of the Cretan women … accept paradox and contradiction as integral to any treatment.’ She goes on to demonstrate on pp. 12-16 how particular aspects of their myths appealed to Roman poets, especially ‘the voicing of feminine passion’. On p. 65 she describes how ‘personal and poetic memory intertwine’ in the myth of Phaedra.

The second part engages with the individual texts, which quite properly need to be treated separately from one another; but they are not after all discussed as integrated texts. The focus is largely on the female protagonist, not the whole poem or play of which she is a part. To my mind this fragmentary approach proved less satisfying than the thematic discussion of the first half. I want to make it clear however that the second half is full of valuable observations about the uses to which the mythical characters are put. A.’s discussion of Seneca’s Phaedra for instance emphasizes convincingly the weight of (literary) tradition which over-determines the protagonist’s actions; Seneca, A. reckons, uses Phaedra to question the Stoic doctrine that we are not born with our faults.

To scroll back to some preliminary matter, A. lays her critical cards on the table most engagingly. On pp. 22-8 she outlines the Underpinnings & Assumptions of her discussions: these are Poetic Memory, Ethical Values, Psychological Realism, and Feminism. It is indeed a surprise—a welcome one— to find the second and third of these underpinnings so frankly admitted as part of the discussion. A. is aware that some theorizing can be over cerebral, and that an emotional and moral response to narrative is natural, and should be openly factored in to any reading. As regards feminism, A. promises only a ‘muted’ approach. Are we after all being presented with a pretty traditionalist reading? If only she had added aesthetic qualities, we’d have some account of why we read this stuff in the first place (and keep coming back to it). Regarding this point, it would be a great shame if the second chapter of Richard Jenkyns’s Three Classical Poets (London 1982), which is dedicated to Catullus 64, were forgotten (A. never uses it).

Still in this introductory section, there was one issue raised that on the whole did not strike me as satisfactorily resolved. On pp. 12-13 A. says, ‘In one sense, the answer to the question, “Why do Roman poets write about Cretan women?” is simple: because the Greeks did.’ Such an answer isn’t exactly adventurous, nor is it even all that true. Take Ariadne: A. gets round to acknowledging on pp. 48 and 157 that she is no more than a marginal figure in what is left to us of Greek poetry (we can speculate that she figured more prominently, but the evidence is scanty). This is important, since it is really Catullus who first gave her shape and handed her on to the western literary and musical tradition as the classic abandoned woman, a point not lost on A. (see p. 44). Or consider Phaedra: she is a figure largely ignored before Ovid and Seneca. Why did they choose to take her up, when others hadn’t bothered (apart from fleeting references)? Conversely Pasiphae: she’s never really foregrounded at all by Roman poets, and remains a very marginal figure (as is finally admitted on p. 169; but see p. 175 for an agreeable assessment of Virgil’s treatment of her in Eclogue 6). A. rightly says that the ‘how, where, and why’ these myths are taken up and developed is important, but in the event she offers few reasons why Catullus, for instance, made so much of Ariadne, or why Ovid’s Ariadne is so melodramatic, farcical, and yet pathetic (p. 227), or why Seneca is the first Roman to develop Phaedra dramatically.

Consider Catullus and his contemporaries, who all picked bizarre erotic myths to work up: Calvus chose Io, Cinna Smyrna, and Catullus the transgendered Attis (poem 63). His Ariadne by comparison is a pretty ordinary girl (she’s not a witch like Medea), as is her family: her mother is just a loving mother (64.88, 119), not a lady with a penchant for beef on the hoof. When Ariadne refers to her brother, he is just her brother, not some monster hidden from sight (64.150, 181). Why this emphasis on the ordinary (even if it may be somewhat troubled, according to A. on p. 197, by the reader’s sense of who these characters are)? Doesn’t her ordinariness enhance her pathos?

Why did Seneca devote a tragedy to Phaedra? Well, we can also point to his being the first to adapt Greek scripts based on the myths of Oedipus and of Hercules the Child-Slayer. It surely had something to do with the time he was writing, the audience he was writing for, and the medium (recitation drama some believe). None of these considerations are canvassed by A. I want to stress that I don’t believe the Roman poets were at all influenced by the amount of attention (or lack of it) these women secured from Greeks. The Romans had entirely their own poetic agendas.

Another difficulty for me with the book was its digressive character. Pages 74-80 concentrate much more on Europa than on Pasiphae. Dido is deemed an ‘honorary Cretan woman’ (p. 163, n.115), and there are accounts of Minos and the Minotaur, as well as of other cow-girls (Io, the Proetides). This is all pretty peripheral, and one feels it is there to put flesh on the bones: there just isn’t quite enough Roman poetry devoted to the Cretan trio to make a book.

One feature of the analyses of the myths struck me as dangerous: A. consistently treated the fictional characters as if they were real. For example, on p. 200 she referred to Theseus’ ‘seeming lack of ability to recognize Ariadne’s part in his success’. . . ‘Theseus, it seems, finds his way out of the Labyrinth on his own … or is this just the way he would like us to see it?’ On p. 201 she says of Pasiphae in Catull. 64.118-19 ‘it is implied [she] will be hurt all the more by her [Ariadne’s] departure’. Then on p. 251, ‘one does get the impression that this quiet and timid Ariadne [in Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1] might feel rather overwhelmed by this sudden shift in her luck’. These extrapolations may remind some of Dickens’s Mr Curdle in Nicholas Nickleby. who wrote an essay on the Nurse’s husband in Romeo and Juliet (was he a merry fellow?).

Some technical grumbles to close with: on pp. 8, 35, 83, 109, 123, 143 the Greek quotations have not been well proofed (message to the OUP: if you can’t any longer manage iota subscript print the letter adscript!); p. 84 read ‘Io’ not ‘Ion’ in the quotation from Ovid; p. 99: Her. 4.49-50 is misunderstood; p. 164, n.121: I don’t see the point of regarding the Brutus at Aen. 6.819-23 as a Stoic (he belonged to the Academic sect, if to any); p. 228: in Her. 10.23 ‘locus’ and ‘ipse’ need to be transposed; p. 239, n. 39: ‘adductas’ in 10.104 is misunderstood (see OLD s.v. ‘adduco’ 11d); p. 268: read ‘fassae’ for ‘fasse’ in the quote from Heroides 4. A. has used rather barbarous Latin texts which print ‘Gnos-‘ rather than ‘Cnos-‘. Finally, where did OUP find the weird rho and the circumflex over a breathing in its Greek fount? I suspect the outsourcing of the typesetting to Pondicherry had something to do with it. Anyway, both characters should be retired AT ONCE.