BMCR 2007.04.21

Ulisse nella cultura romana

, Ulisse nella cultura romana. Lingue e letterature. Firenze: Le Monnier università, 2006. xi, 134 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8800860737. €11.50 (pb).

1 Responses

In the present volume, the late Alessandro Perutelli (P.) has directed his considerable knowledge of Latin literature to examining the Roman use of Ulysses. The result is essentially a series of short essays on a wide range of authors and genres, from Livius Andronicus to Claudian, arranged chronologically and often sharing little connection save the focus on Ulysses (chapter titles are listed below). Except for his brief treatment of Catullus and some remarks on Ulysses as a model for Vergil’s Aeneas in terms of grief and hardship (32-35), P. limits himself almost exclusively to explicit references to Ulysses. He also avoids any examination of Ulysses in Christian authors, considering this a separate topic (x).

To some extent, English-speakers will evaluate this work in relation to W.B. Stanford’s The Ulysses Theme, still the best basic introduction in English to Ulysses and his various appearances from Homer through Kazantzakis.1 Accordingly, I will use Stanford’s book as a comparandum throughout to highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of P.’s approach.

Some of P.’s strongest chapters involve authors who make obvious use of Ulysses, such as Vergil, Propertius and Ovid. The treatment of Propertius is especially welcome because of Stanford’s dismissal of Ulysses’ appearance in his poetry.2 Though he sees Propertius as maintaining a traditional view of Ulysses, P. shows how in 1.15 the poet focuses not on the relationship of Ulysses and Penelope, but on that of Ulysses and Calypso (53). Unfortunately, P. does not seem to see anything exceptional about Propertius’ use of Ulysses. And yet Propertius’ attention to Ulysses as an unfaithful lover who leaves women behind (he even pairs him with Jason in this poem) is an innovation, or at least a manifestation of Ulysses’ character underrepresented in the Roman tradition that P. explores. Propertius may have been influenced in this regard by the second tale in Parthenius’ Erotica Pathemata, which tells of Ulysses’ love affair with Polymele, the daughter of Aeolus. He leaves her, and she’s heartbroken; she then marries her brother. The manchette to this tale cites Philitas, another author who influenced Propertius. Propertius’ developments are relevant not only in their own right, but also for their influence on Ovid (as at Ars Amatoria, 2.125ff., where Calypso tries to detain Ulysses; P. discusses this passage in a different light at 59-61).

As one might expect, Ovid receives considerable attention because of the number of references he makes to Ulysses, which span the whole of his poetic career. P. convincingly demonstrates the ways in which Ovid’s Ulysses matches Ovid himself, from the doctus lover of his earlier amatory poetry to the suffering exile of the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. To an extent, the treatment of Ovid’s Ulysses exemplifies what P. sees as Ulysses’ attraction for the Romans, namely the ease with which authors could self-identify with him as a human who experienced the highs and lows of fortune. P.’s treatment of the Aeneid demonstrates another reason why this figure more than others might have excited Roman authors: the tension existing already in the Greek tradition between an admirable and villainous Ulysses. Here, in his discussion of Ulysses as a figure in the poem who is simultaneously a model for Aeneas, P. approaches a deeper understanding of Ulysses as something other than a specific figure from myth who performed a set of specific deeds.

P. is perhaps at his best, however, in treating non-narrative works, such as those by Cicero, Quintilian and others (in part building on some of his earlier research).3 These chapters are especially enlightening because it is all too easy to focus on works explicitly dealing with myth when examining the use of mythical figures. To his credit, P. devotes a good deal of this volume to the use of Ulysses in rhetoric and philosophy, two areas represented by Cicero, and it is in these chapters that P. seems to come closest to the billing of the title, with its focus on “Roman culture.” In these chapters, P. cogently demonstrates that Ulysses was not only an exemplum for the Stoics, but also that he came to be a key figure in rhetorical theory, with his function changing accordingly as rhetoric shifted from its position in late Republican Rome to its new position under the high Empire.

Most of the book, however, lacks any true focus on culture, and, if it had not already been used, Ulisse nella letteratura latina might have been a more accurate title.4 While some sections, like Chapter 8, which covers the sculptural program at Sperlonga and its possible connection with Tiberius, reach toward a broader notion of culture, this is a book primarily dedicated to a reading of Roman elite literature, and only that written in Latin. Furthermore, P. does not distinguish between Roman authors from Italy, like Vergil and Ovid, and Roman authors from Africa, like Fronto and Apuleius. Is these authors’ use of Ulysses something that binds them together in Romanness, or does Ulysses appeal to people in different parts of the Empire in different ways?

Without getting into the argument of what constitutes “culture” or even what qualifies as “Roman” as opposed to “Greek” as opposed to “Greco-Roman,” it is worth noting that P. nowhere directly addresses Ulysses’ connections with the Italian landscape or with the foundation of Rome itself as part of the story of Ulysses in Roman culture. He does indirectly discuss Ulysses’ connection with Baiae when that location prompts musings by Marcus Aurelius on Ulysses in a letter to Fronto (van den Hout 6), but the location itself receives little attention (110-13). The connection of events from Ulysses’ homeward voyage and specific places in Italy must be a part of Roman culture and the general Roman consciousness, but P. makes no use, e.g., of Strabo, who discusses such places and their connection with Ulysses.5 It is worth asking what Romans thought when they saw Mons Circaeus: did they think at all of Ulysses?

More surprising is the lack of discussion of the problematic fragment of Hellanicus of Lesbos saying that Aeneas founded Rome with Ulysses. While this fragment is the subject of much controversy, any connection of Ulysses with early Rome would seem relevant to the topic at hand, especially because this connection is not limited to obscure references and lost works, but also appears in authors like Plutarch (an author with no place in this volume, in contrast to the key role in the reception of Ulysses Stanford sees him playing) and possibly Lycophron (who alludes to some sort of partnership between Aeneas and Ulysses at 1242-5).6 The absence of any treatment of Dionysius of Halicarnassus here is indicative of problematic trends in scholarship on Augustan literature more generally: a Greek author in Rome shortly after Actium and writing the early history of Rome must have a place in any discussion of the Augustan view of early Rome.

Similarly, despite his attention to authors such as Fronto (whom Stanford does not address), P. neglects more obvious choices like the so-called anti-Homerists (to whom Stanford addresses an entire chapter).7 Of these, Dictys Cretensis would most seem to fit his criteria, since the text as it is preserved is (and may only ever have been) in Latin, and falls well within his chosen time period. In terms of charting the influence of the tragic figure of Ulysses, which P. (and others) sees as the source for the negative portrait of the hero as shown in the Aeneid, Dictys’ text marks a key later phase, as does Philostratus’ Heroicus. The latter, like later Greek authors generally, has no place in P.’s discussion; only earlier Greek authors like Homer and Euripides appear occasionally, and then only to provide a background for the Latin author at hand.

Beyond the scope of what we know from literature, there is nothing here about the artistic record, save for a brief discussion of the sculptures at Sperlonga, in which P. rightly cautions against accepting without question Andreae’s ideas about the sculptural program of the grotto as a celebration of Ulysses’ virtus commissioned by Tiberius (75).8 While P. focuses on the group showing Ulysses’ attempt to take the Palladium from Diomedes as most problematic in such a reconstruction, he does not take the next step and consider Ulysses’ possible link with such a key holy symbol in Rome, an object that Augustus himself considered of major importance.9 Ovid puts his finger right on this difficult issue when he says of the Palladium that:

seu gener Adrasti, seu furtis aptus Ulixes,
seu fuit Aeneas, eripuisse ferunt;
auctor in incerto, res est Romana: tuetur
Vesta, quod assiduo lumine cuncta videt.

(Ovid, Fasti 6.433-36)

Again, we have a vague testament that Ulysses may have had something to do with early Rome, but one wouldn’t know of this connection this from P.’s discussion. P. does mention at the beginning of the book the desire to link Rome with Greek myth (ix-x), but only briefly applies this idea in his discussion of Livius Andronicus and nowhere else.

In general, P. does not define how it is that we can understand the position of a mythological figure within a culture, though he tacitly comes down in favor of focusing on elite literature. A reader wanting to know about the wall paintings at Pompeii depicting Ulysses, the types of scenes, relative popularity, etc. will be frustrated. And, I ask, might not even the coins minted by Sextus Pompey showing Scylla on the obverse be part of the story of Ulysses in Roman culture? What does it mean that Sextus advertises his connection with Sicily by using one of Ulysses’ famed adversaries?10

Finally, in accordance with its apparent format as a series of short essays, this book offers little guidance to the reader in terms of secondary literature. P. provides a short general bibliography and then bibliographic notes at the end of each chapter, but these are mostly limited to the editions and commentaries used. At times P. expressly addresses the work of specific scholars, but as a rule he does not make clear what is new about his approach and what has long been accepted, in part because there are no footnotes. While many readers will be excited about the ideas here, there is little guidance as to where they should turn next (except to the texts themselves, which is never a bad thing).

As a series of loosely-connected essays, this book will provide much food for thought for people concerned with one author or another. While there is less synthesis than one might hope for, there are many good thoughts here, and this book should prove a productive place to start thinking not only about Ulysses, but also about how the Romans used Greek mythological figures more generally, or at least in literature. The short chapters are conducive to leisurely perusal, and will invite rereading. The story of Ulysses in Roman culture is incomplete, but P.’s book will aid others in taking the next step and exploring these issues at greater length.

Table of Contents

Premessa (ix-xi)

Capitolo 1. Alla ricerca di un modello etico e culturale: Ulisse nell’età arcaica (1-10)

Capitolo 2. Le prime parodie (11-16)

Capitolo 3. Cicerone: il culto di un idolo (17-29)

Capitolo 4. Ulisse triste, Ulisse crudele: da Catullo a Virgilio (30-42)

Capitolo 5. Le variazioni e gli scherzi di Orazio (43-51)

Capitolo 6. La freddezza di Properzio il passionale (52-56)

Capitolo 7. Ulisse nella poesia di Ovidio: dal maestro d’amore al compagno di sofferenza (57-72)

Capitolo 8. Ulisse, i mostri e gli imperatori di Roma (73-78)

Capitolo 9. Seneca moralista e un difficile personaggio tragico (79-88)

Capitolo 10. Archetipo e parodie: il romanzo (89-104)

Capitolo 11. Ulisse a Sciro e il sorriso di Stazio (98-104)

Capitolo 12. Quintiliano, Frontone e altri: la nuova celebrazione della retorica (105-118)

Capitolo 13. Futilità e panegiristica: l’ultima poesia (119-124)

Epilogo (125-126)

Indice dei nomi propri (127-132)

Indice dei passi citati (133-134).

[For a response to this review by Sergio Audano et al., please see BMCR 2007.04.65.]


1. W.B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme. A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1963).

2. Stanford claims (138 n. 2): “The references to Ulysses in Propertius, Tibullus, and Martial are conventional. Catullus does not mention Ulysses directly; but some of his phrases suggest overtones from the Odyssey.” P. discusses Catullus and Martial, but likewise pays little attention to Tibullus.

3. He notes that his chapter on Cicero is a reworked version of “Ulisse in Cicerone” in E. Narducci, ed., Eloquenza e astuzie della persusione in Cicerone (Firenze, 2005) 5-22.

4. M. Martorana, Ulisse nella letteratura Latina (Palermo-Roma, 1926).

5. For example, Strabo (5.4.8) mentions a temple of Athena on Cape Sirenussae built by Ulysses and discusses Mons Circaeus at some length (5.3.6). On these and other references to Ulysses in Italy, see E.D. Phillips, “Odysseus in Italy,” JHS 73 (1953) 53-67 (P. does not cite this still-useful article).

6. Dionysius of Halicarnassus ( Roman Antiquities 1.72.2-5) preserves this fragment of Hellanicus (FGrH 1 F 84) and others similarly relevant, such as Damastes Sigeus (FGrH 5 F 3), which also says Odysseus came with Aeneas to found Rome, and Xenagoras (FGrH 240 F 29), which names Rhomus, eponymous founder of Rome, as son of Odysseus and Circe. P. also does not include the reference to Latinus as a son of Circe and Odysseus at Hesiod, Theogony 1011-16, or Plutarch’s mention of a Trojan woman named Rhome who marries Latinus, son of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, and has a child named Romulus ( Romulus, 2.3). On this Hellanicus fragment, see F. Solmsen, “Aeneas Founded Rome with Odysseus.” HSCP 90 (1986) 93-110. On the importance of Plutarch in the reception of Ulysses, see Stanford 157-58.

7. Stanford, Chapter XII is “Ulysses and the Discrediting of Homer.” P. could have said much more about the connection between Ulysses’ reputation and the reception of Homer.

8. Andreae has addressed the connection of Ulysses and Sperlonga in numerous publications; P. deals specifically with B. Andreae, L’immagine di Ulisse. Mito e archeologia (Torino, 1986). P.’s discussion here could be much fuller, and it is clear that he is not aware of much of the recent work done on the grotto, such as that in N. de Grummond and B. Ridgway, edd. From Pergamon to Sperlonga: Sculpture and Context (Berkeley, 2000). See J. Elsner’s review at BMCR 2001.08.14.

9. For Augustus and the Palladium, see P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor, 1988) pp. 208-9.

10. On Sextus Pompey’s use of Scylla, see A. Powell, “‘An Island amid the Flame’: The Strategy and Imagery of Sextus Pompeius” pp. 121-23 (with plates 11, 13b and 14) in A. Powell and K. Welch, edd. Sextus Pompeius (London, 2002).