BMCR 2008.03.03

What’s in a Name? The Significance of Proper Names in Classical Latin Literature

, , , What's in a name? : the significance of proper names in classical Latin literature. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2006. ix, 196 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 1905125097. $90.00.

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

This volume’s brief introduction says that “the aim of the international conference on the significance of proper names in Latin literature held at the University of Wales, Gregynog, Powys, in July 2002 was to bring together scholars who had been independently working in the fast-growing area of Latin etymological play and onomastics in order to share ideas, to investigate the validity of diverse approaches and to draw some conclusions as to the current state of research in the field” (p. vii). The conference’s goals seem valid, but the publication of these papers suggest that only modest progress has been made in achieving them. The papers are of varying quality, and show only a small level of interaction between the participants, and I do not see a lot of “conclusions as to the current state of research in the field.” Still, a number of the papers are valuable, and most make one interested to see further work by the scholars on the topic, some of which is soon forthcoming.

The first two papers on Cicero, and one later paper on Martial, are by linguists. Frédérique Biville offers a subtle and convincing analysis of the uses of possessive pronouns with personal names. She shows that meus can serve either to distinguish one man from another (my son named Cicero, as opposed to yours) or can show “familiarity and affectivity.” Tuus can indicate affectivity, but can also be used in a deictic or anaphoric sense (that X whom you mentioned in your last letter). Noster suggests a lesser degree of familiarity and affectivity, and can be used of freedmen or slaves; it can also indicate a member of a faction, or mean “our (modern version of) X”, e.g. hic noster Paris.

That last usage is discussed also by Javier Uría, who notes that most linguists claim that “proper names can have reference but not sense,” since they properly serve to identity their referents (13). But he shows, not too surprisingly but in a careful and convincing way, that Roman names can have connotations, especially through wordplay (Verres, verres = boar; Vatinius, vaticinando, and, in a type of gloss familiar in Greek and Latin poetry, “Lysidicum is explained through iura dissolvere” (23). The paper concludes with discussion, like that of Biville, of calling someone another Spartacus, Hannibal, or even ” Epicurus noster.”

Emma Stafford offers a thorough and professional investigation of the background to Tibullus’ choice of the name Nemesis for his second puella, surveying the evidence for the use of the name prior to Tibullus, as well as literary and even some pictorial evidence for attitudes towards the goddess. But the results are not very surprising, and not much different from what a quick amateur survey would suggest: the name “focuses attention on the theme of reciprocity in love, and Tibullus’ own inability to sustain it” (44).

One of the editors, Joan Booth, discusses three passages: the reference to Romulus as Quirinus in Jupiter’s prophecy at Aen. 1.263-96, the antonomasia Eveni … filia in Prop. 1.2, and the unnamed priestess encountered by Hercules in Prop. 4.9.51-3. In Vergil, Booth suggests that because the whole passage frequently mentions words like regnare, the ancient “fancied derivation of Quirinus from κοίρανος (‘king’)… must surely come to mind.” I am open to suggestions like this, but I prefer to make the poet do some of the work: I do not see anything close to the use of the name Quirinus in line 292 that points to such connotations. To me, this wordplay just does not take place in the text. More persuasive to me is the suggestion that at Prop. 1.2.18, the antonomasia Eveni … filia, referring to Marpessa, exploits the associations of the suppressed name with the brilliance of Parian marble, since Mt. Marpessa is on Paros, and the whole passage stresses brilliance, including the word candore in the next line. The antonomasia or suppression of the name, which forces the reader to supply and think about the name, and the nearby word candore, make this example different from the Quirinus example where I am more skeptical. The third suggestion, that the unnamed alma sacerdos of Prop. 4.9.51 is to be thought of as one of the Parcae, and so named Parca, seems unconvincing on the evidence presented so far, but more discussion is promised.

Such suppression of names involved in wordplay is featured in several of the papers and even in the dusk-jacket blurb, which speaks of how some authors “withheld” names. But the book’s treatment of suppression provides an illustration of how more could have been done to make this a more useful collection of papers. There is no cross-referencing between the papers that mention suppression, such as one would expect to have in papers from a productive conference, and the papers do not even use the same terms for the phenomenon. There is no entry in the index for ‘suppression’, and little reference to earlier scholarship on the topic.

Francis Cairns makes advances on previous discussions of Vergil’s terms for the Tiber, and nicely shows (p. 71) that he “used the forms Tiberinus and Thybris to the virtual exclusion of the everyday name Tiberis because he wanted to exploit on the one hand the archaic, sacral and literary associations of Tiberinus” (which is found in Ennius, Lucilius, and an archaic prayer preserved by Servius) “and on the other the ethnic and historical associations of Thybris” (which brings to mind “Thymbris the river of Troy, Dardanus and his foundation of Trojan θύμβρη, and Theocritus’ Sicilian river” (in Idyll 1.118) (p. 71). Cairns makes no mention of Joseph D. Reed, “The Death of Osiris in Aeneid 12.458,” AJP 119.3 (1998) 399-418, which makes some of his points in discussing the Thymbraeus who kills an Osiris in Aeneid 12, or of Richard Thomas’s suggestion, in his commentary on Geo. 4.323 Thymbraeus Apollo, that Vergil follows a lost Hellenistic source on the death of Troilus. Cairns’ paper also ends with an unattractive suggestion: that because the name Tiberius is said by a couple of very late (fourth/fifth century) sources to mean “born beside the Tiber,” then “Virgil’s concern with the three related names of the Tiber additionally reflects the current prominence of the young Tiberius Claudius Nero.” Even if we had evidence that Romans were referring to this young man by his praenomen in the 20s (Cairns does not even discuss this issue), it would be hard to convince me that the interest of Vergil and his readers in the name was inspired by the princeps’ stepson and not in part by literary concerns, and in part by the big muddy river that ran through their city.

The paper by Helen Peraki-Kyriakidou is full of interesting bits of evidence, and makes some good points, but is rather less successful than one might have hoped. It mainly discusses possible associations of the explicit reference to Pan at Geo. 1.17 and the implicit reference to Aristaeus and/or Triptolemus in 1.18. The paper does not demonstrate to my satisfaction that either the reference in 20 to dique deaeque omnes, or any other aspect of Vergil’s lines, alludes to the association of Pan with τὸ πᾶν“everything” (p. 86). Nor am I impressed by the argument that in 19 when Pan is called Tegeaee, that term suggests Athens because of a tiny detail in a story in Herodotus 6.105, namely that the Athenian Phidippides was near Tegea when Pan appeared to him. And while it is true that Aristaeus is sometimes associated with hunting, it is simply not convincing to say that when he chases Eurydice ( dum te fugeret per flumina praeceps, Geo. 4.457), Vergil “may allude to his characteristic of a hunter” (93).

When we are dealing, as so many of the papers in this book are, with “associations,” it is crucially important to be able to distinguish between vague associations on the one hand, and distinctive, significant associations on the other. In allusion-hunting, as in fishing, it is often best to throw the little ones back.

Stratis Kyriakidis presents material from a forthcoming book on catalogues of proper names in Lucretius, Vergil, and Ovid, and offers much of value on the difference between Ovid and the epic tradition (often Vergil) and also the difference between the Fasti and Metamorphoses. After the paper quotes a couple of lists from Homer, there is no more Greek material; I expect and hope that the book will have more material from Homer, Hesiod, and the Alexandrians. Kyriakidis’ examples are well-argued and interesting, and show Ovid to be doing a number of clever things with lists. After the list of Actaeon’s dogs in Met. 3.206-25, Ovid refers to other dogs, quos referre mora est, thus closing the list with a non-closural and “non-epic” gesture. Kyriakidis also makes nice points regarding Ovidian jokes about praeteritio : at Fasti 4.574 and 5.303-312, Ovid alludes to the praeteritio by using related terms with different literal meanings: no place is “passed by” ( praeteritus) by Ceres; the gods anger exceeds ( praeterit) what is just, and the Senate “passed over” ( praeteriere) Flora for honors she thinks she deserves. Kyriakidis concludes that the catalogues of the Metamorphoses are less traditional than those of the Fasti, but in the catalogues of the Fasti“the poet often returns to more traditional models… because through these models he can oppose the very structure and the essence of the Metamorphoses.”

Three papers deal with names in Martial. The first, by linguist Daniel Vallat, is the longest paper in the collection, and thus can spend more time both on theoretical matters and on specific examples, but is not fully satisfying. A number of examples are either not convincing or not fully convincing. The paper is also learned and well-informed to a certain extent, but could have benefited from more reference to other primary and secondary material. Vallat tries to be careful, offering some examples where wordplay could have been made with names but is not (Euphemus in 4.8, for example, and the Theo- part of the name Theodorus in 5.73). In 9.13, Vallat discusses the glossing of the suppressed name Earinos, “which, because of its short vowels, cannot be inserted into any Latin verse” (p. 126). The discussion is solid, but Vallat does not mention that any of the other papers in the book deal with suppression (which he calls ” in absentia activation” (p. 125) of the meaning of a name, and also does not mention earlier poets’ use of words that do not fit their meters, e.g. Horace Serm. 1.5.87. The nice discussion of the names Mistyllos (a cook, from the Homeric verb μίστυλλον) and Taratalla (from the three words that follow μίστυλλον in the Homeric formula τ’ ἄρα τἆλλα) in 1.50 would have benefited from citation of other examples, like Vergil’s Ucalegon at Aen. 2.312 from Homeric οὐκ ἀλέγων. Many examples do not convince: Hermogenes as the name of a thief in 12.28.1 suggesting Hermes as “titular deity of thieves,” Atestinus in 3.38.5-6 as A-test-inus or “a lawyer without a witness,” and a number of suggestions for the name Aeschylus in the bawdy 9.4. Does spectat Horatius in 4.2 link that name to the verb ὁράω ?

The papers on Martial by Nicholas Holzberg and Robert Maltby, the other editor of the collection, both argue that wordplay with names helps link a handful of Martial’s epigrams into an interactive series. Holzberg begins by drawing a contrast between his approach, which sees sequences of poems written for their place in the published collection, and the theory that the epigrams were real occasional pieces only later gathered into books. The contextualization is useful, but a little overly dramatic (contrast Maltby’s opening sentence, quoted below). Holzberg does argue well and impressively that the extremely obscene 7.67 on the tribade Philaenis, the short 7.68 on whether the addressee’s father-in-law might like lascivos … libellos, 7.69 on the apparent female poets Theophila and Pantaenis, and the two-line 7.70, on Philaenis again, are linked in ways that make it very dangerous to read them in isolation. It is especially unwise, Holzberg shows, to read 69 as a straightforward portrait of an impressive and real female poet: Theophila “ought not to be seen as an accomplished poet and historical personage, but instead as a fictional puella docta” (155). Thus consideration of the four poems as a group, and especially of the names used, “enables us to pick out the internal thematic and textual links,” which both allows us to see the “implicit content” of the poem and also “reveals aspects of a metapoetical discourse.”(156). Instead of Holzberg’s dramatic appeal to the novelty of reading poems in sequence, Maltby, author of the invaluable A Lexicon of Ancient Latin Etymologies (Leeds 1991), begins by noting that “it has long been realized that within individual books of Martial certain epigrams were composed in groups” (p. 159). Maltby’s group is 5.43-50: 43 on Laecania’s white, bought teeth ( dentes), 44 on the parasite Dento, 45 on Bassa who is older than she claims or wants to be, 46 on the kisses ( basia) of a young boy who does not love ( nec ames) the speaker, 47 on the parasite Philo, 48 on his master’s love ( amor) for Encolpos who is growing older, 49 on the deceptive bald-spot of the long-haired Labienus ,which is flanked by capilli / quales vel puerum decere possint, and 50 on the parasite Charopinus, who is upset whenever Martial dines at home ( ceno domi) without inviting him. I have highlighted in this summary, as Maltby does when quoting the whole poems, words and names that he thinks link one poem to the next and to the group: dentes, Dento, Bassa, basia, ames, amor, Encolpos (= “embrace”), etc. I find some of the alleged links only mildly convincing (Maltby himself presents some as being of the “it is possible that” type), though Maltby’s broader comments about how the poems interact are often quite interesting.

The last paper is by Andreas Michalopoulos, author of the impressive Ancient Etymologies in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: A Commented Lexicon (Leeds, 2001), who here turns to the prose of Apuleius, with less impressive results. Almost every conceivable etymological connection of the names Aetolia, Aristomenes, Socrates, and Meroe is said to be alluded to by Apuleius, and few of the suggestions convince. The “men-” portion of the name Aristomenes is said to evoke not only Greek μένος, “strength, courage” but especially Greek μένω, “to stay.” Because e contrario etymologizing can be called into play, we find Apuleius alluding to Aristomenes’ name any time he discusses either staying, or not staying, i.e. running away. The problem here is that there is not much of life that does not involve either staying or not staying, so Michalopoulos makes it almost impossible for Apuleius not to allude to the idea of “staying” when he mentions the name Aristomenes. This cannot work. And how many Greek names have the morpheme -men-?

In sum, the collection is valuable , but less valuable and interesting than I had hoped it would be, though I look forward to seeing further work by all the contributors.1


1. Frédérique Biville. The qualification of personal names by possessive adjectives in Cicero’s letters

2. Javier Uría. Personal names and invective in Cicero

3. Emma Stafford. Tibullus’ Nemesis: divine retribution and the poet

4. Joan Booth. Naming names — or not: some significant choices and suppressions in Latin poetry

5. Francis Cairns The nomenclature of the Tiber in Virgil’s Aeneid

6. Helen Peraki-Kyriakidou, Antonomasia and metonymy in the proem to Virgil’s Georgics

7. Stratis Kyriakidis. From the Metamorphoses to the Fasti : Catalogues of proper names

8. Daniel Vallat. Bi-lingual word-play on personal names in Martial

9. Niklas Holzberg. Onomato-poetics: a linear reading of Martial 7.67-70

10. Robert Maltby. Proper names as linking device in Martial 5.43-8

11. Andreas Michalopoulos. Naming the characters: the cases of Aristomenes, Socrates and Meroe in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses 1.2-19.


1. I thank my student John Henkel for comments on a draft of this review.