BMCR 2008.02.51

The Limits of Ancient Biography

, , , The limits of ancient biography. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2006. xx, 447 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 1905125127. $89.00.

[Contents are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is a collection of papers that were delivered at a conference organized by the departments of Classics and of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2001. It represents a contemporary response to the issue of “biography” and “the biographical” in the literature of the ancient world. An earlier generation of scholars had a very different answer to the question implied in the title of this volume. The limits of biography were clear: a book on the topic would have been predictably divided into sections on Plutarch, Suetonius, and Nepos, with sideways glances at Diogenes Laertius, Tacitus’ Agricola, the Historia Augusta, and perhaps one or two other texts. Such a collection, of course, is the influential Latin Biography, edited by T. A. Dorey in 1967.1 The Limits of Ancient Biography has chapters on Tacitus and Plutarch, but Plutarch is the only author treated in both the Dorey volume and this one. Clearly, we have come a long way in our perceptions of what texts are relevant to the understanding of what ancient biography is.

In the introduction, the editors make their purpose explicit: they aim “to examine some of the frontiers of ancient biography—the methodology and themes of works that are themselves on the border with, or sliding towards, other genres, or indeed of canonical biographies in their relationships with neighbouring genres, such as history or letter- and travel-writing. In pursuing this subject we also aimed to introduce some inter-cultural considerations, particularly between the Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman worlds” (xiii). This approach necessarily addresses “Ancient Biography” as a genre and so raises issues of reception. However, if we expect biography to be limited to Dorey’s exemplars, or to traditionally “classical” literature, we will be confronted with much that is unfamiliar. The collection explores the “limits” of biography most noticeably in terms of the literary catchment area for their material: five of the twenty essays deal specifically with biblical texts, and five more with Judeo-Christian literature. For classically trained scholars (i.e. those who think of classical biography to be generally that discussed in the Dorey collection) this choice is unexpected and enlightening. Much of the unfamiliar material is very valuable in expanding and deepening our understanding of ancient biography. One of the editors, Brian McGing, in his contribution, acknowledges (119) that Philo Judaeus’ Moses, his topic, is scarcely a “canonical” biography; nearly the opposite is the case in the rest of this volume, where the unfamiliar is itself privileged, and where so many texts from the fringes of the canon of classical literature are considered. Despite the richness we see in the texts treated, some opportunities were lost: the collection deals with little material from the immediately post-classical period, save the single essay by Swain on the lives of Galen in the medieval Islamic world.2

I am especially impressed by the connections among the series of papers dealing with biblical texts and other works from that period. Burridge’s “Reading the Gospels as biography” is an abbreviated restatement of his argument in What Are the Gospels? (recently reviewed in its second edition here; see James V. Morrison’s comments at BMCR 2005.05.31); Mark Edwards’ article is a direct response to Burridge’s case for considering gospels precisely as biographies of Jesus. Sean Freyne’s piece on Mark’s gospel follows neatly in their footsteps, making important points in connection with genre studies and the gospels. Justin Taylor discusses Acts as a text influenced by biographical conventions in presenting the figures of Peter and Paul.

Less tightly connected to these, but still part of the same discourse, are Brian McGing’s discussion of Philo Judaeus’ Life of Moses, and Andrew Mayes’ essay on the life of David in Old Testament historiography. In his contribution, Mayes points out the polemical nature of early Hebrew “biography” of David. He describes the account of David’s life in 1 Samuel —as an example of “the biographical” rather than as a biography per se—”blatantly ideological” (5). The ideological purpose is to present David as the hero-sage. Even here in a text written before the classical biographies with which we are familiar, and which is from a cultural context outside the traditionally “classical” world, we can observe literary functions in biographical writing that will also appear in classical texts. Mayes’s point about the ideological nature of 1 Samuel is also applicable to biography in its more familiar guise: Greek and Latin literature also will show the rise of a polemical and ideological form of biography. Many of the other texts treated in this volume partake in polemics and carry out ideological functions, and Mayes’s piece is an ideal introduction to them. McGing’s contribution speaks of Philo’s literary adaptation of the biblical source material in writing a Greek biography of Moses. Philo is interested in introducing the Greek speaking audience of the ancient world to the Hebrew bible, and adapts it to a more familiar form. Thus, McGing’s treatment is a literary study of how the genre of the Greek work can describe the expectations of the audience. As in the case of the story of David (which Mayes discusses), the work of Philo intends to present an argument. Taken as a whole, these pieces make a strong case for the inclusion of biblical and related writings in the canon of ancient biography.

Biography is a very slippery genre, and its variety as a genre is apparent in this collection. As the editor, McGing, says in the course of his own contribution, “exact definition of the genre of biography is not a straightforward matter…” (118). All the same, the idea of genre presupposes that there are some qualities that make a piece of writing a biography rather than something else. In this collection, though, many of the authors do not appear to have the same thing in mind when they are discussing biography, and seem to take “biographical” writing so broadly as not to have a specific meaning. It is surely not enough to say that any work in which some events of a person’s life are told is a biography. As a result, there comes to be a certain amount of generic equivocation and special pleading: the contributions of Rogers, Moles, and Mossman, for instance, do not seem directly related to the genre of biography. John Moles discusses Jesus’s teaching as possibly influenced by philosophical Cynicism: he seeks to discover these philosophical relationships, and must, of course, use the Gospels as evidence, but his work does not advance our understanding of those books as biographies. He is not really addressing the form of βίος. Zuleika Rodgers writes about Justus in Josephus’ Autobiography, but except for the fact that her historical source is biographical, she says nothing about the genre as such. She is concerned with Josephus’s position in the politics of the First Century and the Vita as evidence for that. Judith Mossman likewise continues her work on ancient travel writing, and makes the important point that travel reveals character; so does ancient biography as such; therefore, we are meant to perceive that her essay on travel writing addresses biographical concerns as well. This is not an obvious connection to me. I rush to state that all three articles are worth reading as scholarship in their own areas; what I wonder is why they are in a collection that deals so much with the biographical genre.

I have some specific comments on several of the other essays in the book (the articles that I omit are not deliberately passed over in silence as a judgment; in the interest of space I have merely singled out four that are particularly noteworthy; please see the table of contents for a complete listing of contributions in this volume). John Dillon’s “Holy and Not So Holy: On the Interpretation of Late Antique Biography,” is primarily a criticism of the influential book Biography in Late Antiquity: A quest for the Holy Man, by Patricia Cox. Dillon is cautious about accepting Cox’s main point, summarized in her title: “we should not be too quick to assume that we are dealing with the presentation of idealized archetypes, or the manipulation of empty rhetorical conventions” (164). Dillon makes the valuable point that, as Late Antiquity got later still, the distinction between hagiography and biography became so blurred as to be meaningless (incidentally, an argument for the inclusion of hagiography in a collection like this one).

Christopher Pelling’s “Breaking the Bounds: Writing about Caesar,” building on his years of study of Plutarch, is an important study of the transformation of history into biography. Pelling points out the effect of Caesar as a literary subject—writing about him must necessarily break the bounds of traditional biography since he broke so many boundaries in his life. History and biography come to be identical when the subject is a figure such as Caesar. The “generic transgression” in literary terms is a direct result of Caesar’s own transgression of the traditional limits on the life of a Roman public man. As a result, the famous generic statement of the differences between biographical and historical writing in Plutarch’s comparison of Caesar to Alexander the Great is precisely not followed in the βίος to which it refers. The pattern is repeated throughout Imperial literature—we see that Dio, as a particular example, starts changing the focus of his history to be the history of the princeps even in his account of the struggles between political and military leaders in the Late Republic. Biography becomes history and history βίος.

Tim Whitmarsh’s “‘This In-Between Book’: Language, Politics and Genre in the Agricola,” deals with what he characterizes as “this bamboozling text.” Whitmarsh sees the “metageneric” Agricola as emblematic of the syncretic nature of literary genre during Empire. Generic questions are important in this period precisely because they are not capable of final answers. Biography in particular can always turn into something different since its genre is always unstable. The Agricola in particular may be read as a form of resistance to the principate—or may not. It is deliberately written to hide its intent. The work is very difficult to interpret—and perhaps deliberately so, since it is is so intimately connected to the Empire.

Mike Trapp’s contribution, “Biography in Letters; Biography and Letters,” addresses the use of letters both as part of biographical texts during the Empire (as in the case of Suetonian lives of the Caesars) and as a quasi-biographical genre in its own right (the fictional collection of the Letters of Chion of Heraclea). In the case of Cicero’s or Pliny’s letters and the Epistles of Paul, we see that collected letters can give a relatively full view of the events of an individual’s life and generate a response in the reader that is a biographical one: in this regard a collection of letters is of necessity biographical. Alexei V. Zadorojnyi’s “Lord of the Flies: Literacy and Tyranny in Imperial Biography,” gives us a model of the use of historical evidence found in biographical texts—primarily Suetonius and the Historia Augusta. Zadorojnyi focuses on how emperors control their subjects through literacy—a far cry from biography, but a good example of how biographical evidence can be used.

In summary, this collection represents an important contribution to the scholarly discourse on ancient biography. Each of the contributions is worth reading on its own terms, even if as a whole the book is not entirely unified in theme or approach. At its best, however, the book provides a significant new perspective on the biographical genre. The collection brings new texts to our attention, texts to which attention will now have to be paid, and provides some important new perspectives on more familiar texts.

The quality of production is high. I noticed only a few misprints, all insignificant. Readers should be advised that there are some works cited in the notes that have been left unlisted in bibliographies at the end of each article. Scholars should find it easy to track them down.

Table of contents

Brian McGing and Judith Mossman, Introduction

Andrew D. H. Mayes, Biography in the Ancient World: The Story of the Rise of David

Elizabeth Irwin, The Biographies of Poets: The Case of Solon

Richard A. Burridge, Reading the Gospels as Biography

Mark Edwards, Gospel and Genre: Some Reservations

Sean Freyne, Mark’s Gospel and Ancient Biography

Justin Taylor), The Acts of the Apostles as Biography

John Moles, Cynic Influence upon First-Century Judaism and Early Christianity?

Brian McGing, Philo’s Adaptation of the Bible in the Life of Moses

Ewen Bowie, Portrait of the Sophist as a Young Man

John Dillon, Holy and Not So Holy: On the Interpretation of Late Antique Biography

Zuleika Rodgers, Justice for Justus: a Re-Examination of Justus of Tiberias’ Role in Josephus’ Autobiography

Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis, Sacred Writing, Sacred Reading: the Function of Aelius Aristides’ Self-Presentation as Author in the Sacred Tales

Keith Sidwell and Noreen Humble, Dreams of Glory: Lucian as Autobiographer

Jason König, The Cynic and Christian Lives of Lucian’s Peregrinus

Christopher Pelling, Breaking the Bounds: Writing about Caesar

Judith Mossman, Travel Writing, History and Biography

Tim Whitmarsh, ‘This In-Between Book’: Language, Politics and Genre in the Agricola

Mike Trapp, Biography in Letters; Biography and Letters

Alexei V. Zadorojnyi, Tyranny in Imperial Biography

Simon Swain, Beyond the Limits of Greek Biography: Galen from Alexandria to the Arabs.


1. Latin Biography, ed. T.A. Dorey. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967. The Dorey collection, in the Studies in Latin Literature and its Influence series, contains contributions on Nepos, Suetonius, Q. Curtius Rufus and the Historia Augusta, with three of the eight sections devoted to Latin biographies of the High Middle Ages. Plutarch also gets a chapter (in a volume called *Latin* Biography).

2. One opportunity might have come from Ireland, the home of a rich and extensive hagiographical literature from the early middle ages: Hiberno-Latin hagiography is itself closely dependent on ancient biography.