BMCR 2012.04.41

Political Autobiographies and Memoirs in Antiquity: a Brill Companion

, Political Autobiographies and Memoirs in Antiquity: a Brill Companion. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. xi, 461. ISBN 9789004182998 $216.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This is a welcome volume on an important topic. A series of recent works on autobiography has reminded us of the significance of this genre of ancient literature, and has carried the debate forward from Misch and Momigliano.1 This volume is carefully curated to offer an overview of the subject from the Greek period to late antiquity, and is in effect a handbook on the subject, and better than anything else in existence. It is unfortunate that neither the contributors to this volume, or those to another volume on Roman autobiography2 were aware of each others’ projects; but the two volumes serve different functions to a large extent, however, and are complementary.

The volume is not flawless, and perhaps the most difficult issue is the extent to which we are really looking at a single genre. Leaving aside rather tricky issues over reliability and authorship, even the very concept of the apparently self-authored account of an individual’s life is not straightforward. A longer introduction might usefully have addressed for instance issues of titles and nomenclature, and perhaps offered a useful comparative survey of, for instance, first person versus third person narratives. Another issue not fully dealt with here, but which might have enriched the volume, is a more direct engagement with the concept of autopsy, especially as a sort of cross over between history and autobiography. However, these two comments are not so much criticisms as indications of the struggle one faces in trying to constrain autobiography. Once one starts to look, there is far more evidence than one at first realised, and this volume shows that in abundance.

Vivienne Gray begins with a survey of the earliest Greek evidence, astutely identifying the connection with rhetoric of praise and blame. She identifies categories of autobiographical travel literature, memoirs of famous men; defensive autobiographical rhetoric; the unique case of Plato’s seventh and eighth letters; and finally historical memoir and autobiography, with, as one might expect from the author, some good analysis of Xenophon. This chapter well demonstrates the tension between an autobiographical mode and something one might call ‘an autobiography.’ Bearzot and Marasco both consider Hellenistic autobiography. Bearzot looks at accounts that relate to the royal courts, and has a go at differentiating between hypomnemata and other forms of writing. Interestingly, none of the authors adduces Sempronius Asellio’s differentiation between history and what seems to be a sort of diary. She concludes with some royal inscriptions. Marasco covers a similar period but with an interest in non-royal political literature. His last comment, that autobiography at Rome begins amongst those with the strongest knowledge of the Greek world, leads neatly on to Candau on the late Republic. This is a useful overall account, which has the merit of at least asking some questions about Peter’s edition. I would only note that I think it unlikely that the Lutatius of the communes historiae is the same as the author of the autobiography, and second, that I continue to believe that the culmination of these works was most likely related to military triumph, as with an elogium.

Tatum gives a typically insightful reading of Sulla and Cicero in particular. It would have been good to understand a little more about whether the two had much in common; it strikes me that they are in fact very different productions, for different audiences and circumstances. Cicero, I would argue, appears to have been political in a way that Sulla never was. Mayer follows recent reassessments of Caesar’s works, but remains dismissive of the non-Caesarian commentaries; Hirtius is described as a ‘perhaps somewhat unskilled continuator serving the memory of a great man.’ Geiger looks around the edges of Augustus at Agrippa and Messala Corvinus, and the others who looked at Augustus. The essay shades a little into biography, and we await Toher’s commentary on Nicolaus of Damascus. Mayer refers to Ridley’s essay for an account of Augustus’ own lengthy memoirs, but Ridley instead gives a sort of running commentary on the Res Gestae, leaving something of a gap. The last three essays consider the empire. Villalba gives a long account of Josephus, and one which is not entirely clear, though the main argument is that the Vita is a reworking of Book 2 of the Jewish War in self-justification. Westall and Brenk work their way through the second and third century, marking that the genre flourished but was not used for the schools, and therefore was quick to vanish. The last chapter, by Leppin, excludes more or less everything except Libanius, claiming that Augustine and others are spiritual rather than political. This is perhaps the first occasion when the use of that distinction really jars; both the words political and spiritual are more complex than appears here.

All in all this is a helpful compendium, reasonably well written (though some of the English translations are a little opaque). For an up-to-date survey over the whole field, one need look no further; but there are still some large unanswered questions over the unity of the genre, the nature of the autobiographical mode, and the impact of this literature. Hopefully this volume will be the spur to others to look harder for answers to these questions. Finally, it should be said that a good proofreader would have picked up some oddities of languages, which rather mar the volume.

Table of Contents

Vivienne Gray, Classical Greece
Cinzia Bearzot, Royal autobiography in the Hellenistic age
Gabriele Marasco, The Hellenistic age: autobiography and political struggles
J.M. Candau Morón, Republican Rome: autobiography and political struggles
Jeffrey Tatum, The late republic: autobiographies and memoirs in the age of the civil wars
Marc Mayer, Caesar and the Corpus Caesarianum
Joseph Geiger, The Augustan Age
Ronald Thomas Ridley, Augustus: the emperor writes his own account
Pere Villalba i Varneda, The early empire
Richard Westall and Frederick Brenk, The second and third century
Hartmut Leppin, The late empire.


1. G. Misch, Geschichte der Autobiographie ( Leipzig/Berlin 1907 with subsequent editions; translated in English as A History of Autobiography in Antiquity, London 1950); A. Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Cambridge, Mass. 1971); see now B. McGing and J. Mossman (eds) The Limits of Ancient Biography (Classical Press of Wales, 2007); C. Smith and A. Powell (eds) The Lost Memoirs of Augustus and the Development of Roman Autobiography (Classical Press of Wales, 2008), and essays in J. Marincola (ed), A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (Oxford and Malden, Mass. 2007) and A. Feldherr (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and The Oxford History of Historical Writing (Oxford University Press, 2011).

2. The Lost Memoirs of Augustus