BMCR 2008.05.33

Literatur im Zeitalter Neros, Klassische Philologie kompakt

, Literatur im Zeitalter Neros. Klassische Philologie kompakt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006. viii, 149 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3534157931 €14.90.

By now BMCR readers will have internalised that we live in the age of the companion. This family of books consists of two species, the more common multi-authored companion (Cambridge/Brill/Blackwell) and the somewhat rarer single authored breed (Duckworth and some might say also Oxford’s Very Short Introductions). Whilst the former often succeeds in providing a multifaceted view on a single author or field, the latter usually has the advantage of full coverage and coherence.

The volume under review is part of a series called ‘classical philology compact’, a brainchild of Germany’s academic publishing society (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft), and is complemented by volumes on Augustan literature by D. Gall (2006) and Augustine by Th. Fuhrer (2004) as well as a number of volumes on ancient history, all of which are aimed at students, teachers and the interested public.1 Reitz’ (R.) contribution on Literature of the Neronian Age is admirable for its clarity and structure as well as its approachability and usefulness and I would not hesitate for a second to put it down as a course book for my own Neronian literature course if only it was available in English.

After a brief introduction in which R. states that the material presented has been tried and tested in her teaching, R. launches into a discussion of why the Neronian Age is perceived as a distinctive era. Looking at the image of Nero in Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio as well as later sources and combining this with a survey of the archaeological and art historical material of the time, R. draws together what information we have from antiquity about Nero and his time. This is followed by an examination and consideration of Nero’s own poetic production. The reader thus arrives at the end of the second chapter well equipped with a cultural foil against which Neronian literature can be read. Here and in what follows R. refreshingly does not shy away from pointing out scholarly disputes and interpretative problems without indoctrinating the reader. We are provided with an objective overview over different interpretations followed by R.’s own suggestions (exemplary at p. 47 f. when interpreting Senecan tragedy). At no point is there any danger that we might fall for a maverick opinion uninformed. All Latin is translated throughout, and literary critical terminology as well as other technical terms are explained in a number of excellent excursus — besides learning a lot about Neronian culture and literature, the reader thus also gains a working knowledge of what a diatribe or recusatio is, and will have read information boxes on the Appendix Virgiliana and Anthologia Palatina. In addition, R. also informs the reader in short sections about the manuscript tradition of the texts she discusses and milestones of their reception. R. thus constantly reaches out to the reader and makes her book ever more accessible.

In chapters three to nine R. discusses authors and genres of the Neronian period, starting off with Seneca’s life and work and his prose oeuvre. Each of Seneca’s ten dialogues is briefly discussed under its own heading with the exception of the consolationes which are treated as a single entity. R. provides a more detailed interpretation of the Consolatio ad Marciam and De ira before moving on to the Naturales quaestiones and the Epistulae morales. Here R. excels in providing a useful account of the development of the epistolary genre together with a detailed interpretation of passages from Ep. 5.51 followed by an account of the the Apocolocyntosis. Information boxes outline the structure of the longer works and throughout R. provides concise summaries of the literary works she discusses, a feature that will be highly appreciated by the student reader. R.’s survey of Seneca’s tragedies combines a very short history of Roman tragedy with an introduction to the metres used and a discussion of Seneca’s style before concluding with a model reading of the Phaedra. Similarly the chapter on Petronius touches on the identity of the author, title and original length, history and generic position of novel and novella and prosimetrum before sketching an interpretative outline which leaves the reader well equipped to deal with such a multi-layered text and its stylistic features. R. offers a similarly balanced account of Lucan’s oeuvre, where she pays close attentions to the testimonies in the different accounts of Lucan’s life to provide a framework in which Lucan’s poetic output might be placed and in which the proem can be read. Sections on Virgil as model and the demonstrative absence of the apparatus deorum are followed by a discussion of Lucan’s style, focussing especially on his use of similes, sententiae and rhetorical color, and illustrated with a wealth of examples. As with all the chapters, R.’s grip on her material and her clear and balanced accounts produce an excellent reading. The chapter on Persius captivates with detailed interpretations of the prologue and satire 3, whilst the following one on bucolic poetry provides a truly excellent explanation of and introduction to the bucolic genre and its development. In addition, it also succeeds in making Calpurnius Siculus’ Bucolica accessible to the reader though a poem by poem interpretation of all seven eclogues before shifting its attention towards the two carmina Einsidlensia. A similar service is done to the works of Columella and Pliny the Elder in a chapter on technical literature and encyclopedia. R.’s interpretations of a chapter in Columella on owning dogs ( De re rust. 7.12) and the poetic battle between cabbage, hail and caterpillar (10.323 ff.) are exemplary and make an effort to bring texts at the outer edges of the curriculum to the attention of the reader. The same can be said of her discussion of Pliny’s chapters on precious stones. A final brief chapter (‘And what else was out there?’) provides background information on literature – often lost or fragmentary – not discussed by Reitz in detail but contemporaneous with the texts she introduces, and thus provides an even wider picture of the Neronian period through looking at rhetoric, philosophy, historiography, epigram and grammarians. A map of Neronian Rome, a usefully structured and annotated bibliography and an index conclude the volume.

R. must be congratulated for her choice to include not only the main and (these days at least) frequently taught authors of the Neronian period but also those which the curriculum tends to neglect. I can only admire R.’s ability to find exactly the right level and hit the right note to make such a difficult, demanding and rich subject as Neronian Literature an exciting read.


1. In the series ‘History compact’ there are volumes on the Etruscans and early Rome, Caesar and Pompey, Politics in Republican Rome, The Roman Republic in the time from the Gracchi to Sulla, Constantine and his time, Augustus, Athens and Sparta, Soldier-Emperors and Rome and Carthage.