BMCR 2007.07.07

Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies

, Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism. Oxford readings in classical studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xii, 491 pages).. ISBN 9780191514579. $55.00 (pb).

1 Responses

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

This book brings together some of the most important articles on ancient literary criticism. The aim of the volume is “to make more widely available some standard scholarship on canonical texts or major themes of ancient theory and criticism” (p. 10). Andrew Laird has succeeded in selecting a canon that gives an instructive and stimulating overview of the history of ancient criticism. However, apart from Laird’s introduction, all essays collected in this anthology are reprints of influential articles and chapters, which can easily be found in major journals or volumes (the exception being an English translation of Jacob Bernays’ article “Aristotle on the Effect of Tragedy” [1857], with a new introduction by Jonathan Barnes).1 Therefore, the value of these Oxford Readings should be sought in the extent to which various papers have been updated and integrated into a coherent volume. In this respect, the book is not entirely satisfactory, because it fails to inform the reader how these specialised studies relate to each other and, more generally, to current scholarship on ancient criticism.

Since the articles included in this volume have proven their merit, this review will not discuss the argument of each of them. Instead, it will focus on the choices made by the editor, who is responsible for both the selection of the articles and the coherence of the collection. Of course, no selection of papers for such a volume is likely to please everybody. Laird states (p. 21) that his choices can be defended on two grounds. On the one hand, the articles had to be “accessible and stimulating”. On the other hand, the collection focuses on those ancient texts that exerted influence on later tradition: it “aims to foreground authors like Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, who essentially affected the course of modern and early modern criticism”. The unfortunate consequence of the latter principle is that Laird’s collection covers only a part of the many texts that were translated in Russell and Winterbottom’s Ancient Literary Criticism (Oxford 1972), to which Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism claims to be a companion. In fact, Laird’s book does not offer much background to the relatively extensive translations of Aristophanes, Demetrius, Cicero, Quintilian and Pliny that were included in the anthology edited by Russell and Winterbottom.

There are roughly two ways in which one can approach ancient literary critics. Some scholars, who adopt a purely historical method, attempt to reconstruct ancient theories by analysing primary texts and their historical contexts. Other scholars treat ancient critics as their colleagues, investigating Greek and Roman theories in order to demonstrate what we can learn from them.2 In his introduction, Laird rightly observes that there is a certain tension between those two approaches. This tension becomes apparent in the divergent attentions of two groups of scholars. Classicists, on the one hand, increasingly focus on less well-known critics, whose writings they analyse in order to reconstruct ancient theory for its own sake: thus, among the theories that have received much attention from specialists in recent years are those of Philodemus, the Alexandrian scholars and the Stoic philosophers, whose influence on the later literary tradition in the West is relatively limited. Scholars of modern literature, on the other hand, are more and more interested in the direct influence of ancient literary criticism on modern ideas.

Laird’s concern for the latter type of readers (one of his selection criteria is the “pertinence of certain ancient writers for students of modern literature and poetics”, p. 9) has resulted in a collection that includes articles about the most influential thinkers and writers, while omitting a separate treatment of e.g. Demetrius’ On Style. It may be true that Demetrius’ impact on modern theory is limited. However, arguably the earliest systematic work on literary theory after Aristotle, the treatise On Style would certainly deserve its place in this collection, especially since it exemplifies so many traditional characteristics of ancient literary criticism. Laird tells us that no accessible treatment of Demetrius “could easily be incorporated” (p. 12). In my view, inclusion of introductory essays on Demetrius by Grube or Innes might have been helpful.3

In some instances, it seems that Laird’s choices are not entirely consistent with his selection criteria. For example, given the influence of Quintilian in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (think of Erasmus, Pope and Blair), it is not clear to me why Laird, despite his focus on influential critics, did not select any separate essay on the history of literature in the tenth book of the Institutio oratoria. Further, Richardson’s article on “Homeric Professors in the Age of the Sophists” is a learned and important paper, but it only deals with “shadowy figures” (p. 80) such as Metrodorus and Stesimbrotus, whose impact on later generations was limited. Why is there no discussion of Protagoras, Prodicus or Gorgias, given Laird’s professed concentration on influential thinkers? In order to compensate for the absence of a number of important ancient critics, Laird spends twelve pages of his introduction (pp. 10-21) on a “catalogue of omissions” (p. 21), in which he introduces Gorgias, Isocrates, Aristophanes, Alexandrian poets, Demetrius, Cicero, Quintilian, Lucian and other authors whose writings could have been included in a volume on ancient literary criticism. Although by consequence Laird’s introduction now and then reads as an apology, the list of omissions is indeed a helpful tool, since it provides students with the necessary chronological background (for which purpose the editor has also usefully added a list with the dates of major authors and critics, pp. xi-xii).

Laird has preferred articles that introduce specific primary texts rather than essays that deal with general developments and overviews of certain tendencies (p. 10). A welcome exception is Russell’s “Rhetoric and Criticism”, which provides the reader with a historical overview of rhetoric and a summary of the rhetorical system. This essay is still as lucid and useful as it was when it appeared in 1967, but the lack of references to recent literature is typical of Laird’s book. Russell mentions George Kennedy’s The Art of Persuasion in Greece (London 1963) as a “recent book” (p. 267 n. 2). No reference to Kennedy’s later publications (e.g. A New History of Classical Rhetoric, Princeton 1994, which is also absent from Laird’s “Suggestions for Further Reading”) or other overviews has been added. Russell does refer to recent work on the Rhetores Graeci (p. 272 n. 19), but in his discussion of the history of the theory of styles (p. 276 n. 32), the reader would have benefited from a reference to Doreen Innes, “Theophrastus and the Theory of Style” (1985).4

Leaving aside matters of selection, I will now focus on the coherence of this collection. Unfortunately, the editor has refrained from introducing the articles that he selected. In this respect, his procedure differs from that of other editors of Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: for example, Douglas Cairns ( Oxford Readings in Homer’s Iliad, 2001) and Simon Swain ( Oxford Readings in the Greek Novel, 1999) usefully guide the reader by explaining how the papers in their respective collections are related to each other and to scholarly debates. In contrast, Laird’s introduction, apart from listing the critics who are not represented in the volume, discusses the “value” of ancient criticism. Having stated that much of ancient literary criticism seems to be “misdirected, inadequate, or simply wrong” (p. 24), Laird emphasises that to a large extent modern literary theory (as well as early modern poetics) depends on ancient literary criticism. Thus, when establishing the value of ancient criticism, he focuses on the reception of ancient texts rather than on the Greek and Roman theories themselves. Laird claims that the “presuppositions” of the articles in his collection are “mostly in line with the observations made here” (p. 36). It should be noticed, however, that the book is divided between the two different approaches that I mentioned above. On the one hand there are those articles that study specific texts in a purely historical way, in order to reconstruct certain ancient categories and systems. Thus, in his contribution on Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Schenkeveld attempts to reconstruct the rhetorician’s theory of evaluation, without, of course, suggesting that we should evaluate literature in the same way as Dionysius did. On the other hand, this collection includes some articles that implicitly or explicitly ask what we ourselves can learn from ancient critics. A typical example of the latter category is Richardson’s contribution on the scholia to the Iliad. Richardson draws comparisons with modern approaches to Homer (see e.g. pp. 199-200 on simile and metaphor) and argues that the scholia contain “many useful observations” on sound and rhythm, which are too often ignored in modern accounts (p. 204). A further example of this approach, which focuses on the usefulness of ancient critics, is Fowler’s article on Servius. This paper shows that “the Servian commentaries are always worth consulting on passages in Virgils’ poems”, although Fowler emphasises that there is no intrinsic reason for preferring Servius’ view to that of a modern scholar (p. 419).

The usefulness of ancient criticism for modern research is in fact the subject of the final contribution in the volume, Denis Feeney’s polemical essay “Criticism Ancient and Modern”. The author disagrees with Malcolm Heath, who has famously claimed that ancient literary criticism is the only tool that a modern scholar is allowed to use.5 Feeney argues that, although ancient critics can be useful guides, they will never be our only “interpretative key” (p. 442). By selecting both Feeney’s article and the contribution by Rosenmeyer, who concludes that ancient critics are of little use to modern scholars interested in genre theory, Laird has made his position in the debate very clear. Nevertheless, students might have found it interesting if the views of Heath (and Cairns) had been represented in this collection of essays. In any case, the introduction could have articulated the difference between the assumptions and approaches of these scholars in a more illuminating way.

Although many authors in this volume deal with similar themes, the interesting connections between the various articles often remain implicit. A complete index locorum would have been more useful than the “Index of Principal Passages Cited”, which contains only texts that are quoted literally, and not even all of these texts.6 Further, the coherence of the collection would have profited from a more effective use of cross-references. I will select a few examples to illustrate these points.

To begin with, the theory of styles is a central topic in ancient literary criticism. Accordingly, we find discussions of the three styles in Richardson’s paper on the scholia (p. 192-204) and in Russell’s contribution on rhetoric and criticism (p. 276-278). Further, Laird himself mentions Demetrius’ system of four styles (p. 13). Unfortunately, the editor has refrained from guiding the reader by adding some cross-references between the various treatments of this important subject. The entry “three styles” (in the general index) lacks a reference to Russell’s discussion. My second example concerns allegorical interpretation. Elizabeth Asmis (“Epicurean Poetics”, chapter 10) mentions the allegorist Heraclitus (p. 239-240), but there is no reference to Long’s extensive discussion of Heraclitus in his contribution on “Stoic Readings of Homer” (chapter 9, pp. 215-218). Unfortunately, although the index of principal passages does contain the passages from Heraclitus’ Homeric Problems discussed by Asmis, it omits the passages that are quoted by Long.

A final example that illustrates the occasional lack of coherence in this book concerns Dionysius of Halicarnassus. He is one of the most productive ancient critics, of whom we possess a large number of texts. Schenkeveld’s article on Dionysius deals with the rhetorician’s theory of evaluation only, but some of his views on composition, poetry and other topics are hidden in different chapters of this collection. Since the index of principal passages refers merely to a limited number of texts, it contains, apart from the passages from Dionysius discussed by Schenkeveld, only one further text from Dionysius, namely On Demosthenes 8, cited in Richardson’s paper on the sophists. There are in fact more interesting passages from Dionysius in this collection: I came across On Composition 1 (p. 429), 15-16 (p. 206 n. 71-72), 16 (p. 194 n. 38; p. 207 n. 74), 19 (p. 430-431) and 20 (p. 208 n. 76).7 In other words, readers would presumably have appreciated this collection even more if Laird had done more frequently what he has done in a few instances (e.g. p. 214 n. 6, where chapter 9 by Long refers back to chapter 3 by Richardson; p. 451 n. 46, where chapter 20 by Feeney refers back to chapter 11 by Russell): making clear the interesting connections between different chapters of this volume by adding cross-references and by providing a complete index locorum.

The “Suggestions for Further Reading” (pp. 457-478) add to the utility of this book. In this section, the reader finds information about recent publications on various aspects of literary criticism and on specific ancient authors (including those critics who did not obtain a separate place in the anthology). Nevertheless, one may ask whether these bibliographical suggestions are sufficient to modernise the articles included in the book. Only a small minority of the authors make explicit how they have updated their contributions: Belfiore (“A Theory of Imitation in Plato’s Republic”, 1984) has added “minor stylistic changes” and refers to recent work by Halliwell ( The Aesthetics of Mimesis, Princeton 2002). Halliwell himself (“Plato and Aristotle on the Denial of Tragedy”, 1984) has more rigorously updated his article, adapting both formulations and bibliographical information. The remaining authors do not give us such information, but some (Schenkeveld on Dionysius, Innes on Longinus, Schenkeveld on Plutarch) have added references to recent literature at the end of their contributions. Schenkeveld’s reference to Cynthia Damon’s article, however, fails to inform the reader that she fundamentally disagrees with his approach to Dionysius for the reason that he has not taken into account the relative order of his works.8 More seriously, some articles do not seem to have been updated at all. Thus, Richardson’s article on literary criticism in the scholia to the Iliad makes no mention of Roos Meijering, Literary and Rhetorical Theories in Greek Scholia, Groningen 1987. This important book appeared after Richardson’s paper (1980), but it should at least have been mentioned (it is not even included in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” on Alexandrian Poetics, pp. 464-465). Another omission is Montanari’s important collection of articles on Greek philology in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (1994), which includes an important article by C.J. Classen on “Rhetorik und Literaturkritik”.9

To sum up, Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism is a useful collection of stimulating papers that have proven their value. Specialists will be grateful to Andrew Laird and Oxford University Press for promoting the study of ancient literary criticism with a volume of excellent articles. However, since eighteen of these twenty papers were already available as articles or chapters in well-known journals, companions and monographs, it seems that this collection would have attracted more readers if the editor had made a greater effort to integrate the various contributions into a unified and up-to-date volume.


1. The Value of Ancient Literary Criticism — Andrew Laird

2. Poetic Inspiration in Early Greece — Penelope Murray

3. Homeric Professors in the Age of the Sophists — N.J. Richardson

4. A Theory of Imitation in Plato’s Republic — Elizabeth Belfiore

5. Plato and Aristotle on the Denial of Tragedy — Stephen Halliwell

6. Ethos and Dianoia: “Character” and “Thought” in Aristotle’s Poetics — A.M. Dale

7. Aristotle on the Effect of Tragedy — Jacob Bernays (translated by Jennifer Barnes; introduction by Jonathan Barnes)

8. Literary Criticism in the Exegetical Scholia to the Iliad : A Sketch — N.J. Richardson

9. Stoic Readings of Homer — A.A. Long

10. Epicurean Poetics — Elizabeth Asmis

11. Rhetoric and Criticism — D.A. Russell

12. Theories of Evaluation in the Rhetorical Treatises of Dionysius of Halicarnassus — D.M. Schenkeveld

13. Longinus: Structure and Unity — Doreen C. Innes

14. The Structure of Plutarch’s How to Study Poetry — D.M. Schenkeveld

15. ‘Ars Poetica’ — D.A. Russell

16. Ovid on Reading: Reading Ovid. Reception in Ovid, Tristia 2 — Bruce Gibson

17. Reading and Response in Tacitus’ Dialogus — T.J. Luce

18. The Virgil Commentary of Servius — Don Fowler

19. Ancient Literary Genres: A Mirage? — Thomas G. Rosenmeyer

20. Criticism Ancient and Modern — Denis Feeney.

[For a response to this review by Malcolm Heath, please see BMCR 2007.07.29.]


1. Apart from Bernays’ contribution on Aristotle, there are only two contributions in this collection that might be difficult to find elsewhere: Schenkeveld’s article on Dionysius ( Museum Philologicum Londiniense) and the contribution by Rosenmeyer ( Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature).

2. This difference roughly corresponds to Rorty’s distinction between “historical reconstruction” and “rational reconstruction” in the historiography of philosophy. See Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres”, in Richard Rorty, J.B. Schneewind & Quentin Skinner (eds.), Philosophy in History. Essays on the Historiography of Philosophy, Cambridge 1984, 49-75.

3. G.M.A. Grube, “Demetrius On Style”, in idem, The Greek and Roman Critics, London 1965, 110-121. Innes’ introduction to Demetrius On Style in the Loeb edition (1995), with its analysis of stylistic theory, would (if available) be a readable alternative. One might also think of Doreen C. Innes, “Period and Colon: Theory and Example in Demetrius and Longinus”, in W.W. Fortenbaugh & D.C. Mirhady (eds.), Peripatetic Rhetoric after Aristotle, Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities VI, New Brunswick 1994, 36-53. This admittedly technical article would serve not only as a discussion of the treatise On Style, but also as an analysis of the use of examples in ancient criticism, a subject that plays a minor role in Laird’s volume.

4. Doreen C. Innes, “Theophrastus and the Theory of Style”, in W.W. Fortenbaugh, P.M. Huby & A.A. Long (eds.), Theophrastus of Eresus. On his Life and Work, New Brunswick 1985, 251-267. This article is in fact included among the “Suggestions for Further Reading”.

5. Malcolm Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy, London 1987. Malcolm Heath, Unity in Greek Poetics, Oxford 1989.

6. One wonders what Laird means by “principal”. How have the “principal passages” been selected?

7. In the “Suggestions for Further Reading” on Dionysius, there is confusion between the edition by Usener & Radermacher and the edition with English translation by Usher: for “Usener” (p. 467), read “Usher”. Unfortunately, the reader finds no information about the different titles that refer to Dionysius’ De compositione verborum. Not all students who start to work on literary criticism will understand that “On Literary Composition” (Schenkeveld, p. 288), “On the Arrangement of Words” (Richardson, p. 194), and “De comp. verb.” (Rosenmeyer, p. 430) all refer to the same work.

8. Cynthia Damon, “Aesthetic Response and Technical Analysis in the Rhetorical Works of Dionysius of Halicarnassus”, Museum Helveticum 48 (1991), 33-58.

9. F. Montanari (ed.), La philologie grecque à l’époque hellénistique et romaine (Entretiens Fondations Hardt 40), Genève 1994, with C.J. Classen, “Rhetorik und Literaturkritik” at pp. 307-360.