BMCR 2013.01.44

The Classical Tradition

, , , The Classical Tradition. Cambridge, MA; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. xx, 1067. ISBN 9780674035720. $49.95.


It is a truth generally—and regretfully—acknowledged that a book is rarely reviewed both in this publication and the national press: though it does happen. And it has happened to this volume, which has had lengthy coverage both in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal —to say nothing of dozens of other websites and journals devoted to books in the humanities. It has also won several prestigious awards, including a Choice prize for an outstanding academic title in 2011. Such coverage, and such plaudits, are well deserved. The Classical Tradition is nothing short of an authoritative feast for the eyes and the mind, loaded with intricate and insightful information about the myriad ways in which classical Greco-Roman antiquity “in all its dimensions” has been received in later cultures (p.vii).

Although published by Harvard, the book is in layout and format not unlike the Oxford Classical Dictionary, though the initial-decoder List of Contributors is at the back, not the front. This familiar presentation suggests, perhaps, that this volume makes common cause with that venerable (though constantly renewed) staple of classicists’ bookshelves, real and virtual. But The Classical Tradition is not the OCD. Beginning just from the end, a user notes that it has an index—odd, perhaps, in an alphabetical encyclopedic work, but in fact consonant with the editors’ aims (p.viii) of providing neither Lexicon nor Dictionary nor Encyclopedia, but Guide. The Index supplements the alphabetical entry system with a rich addition of cross-references, different ways into the book and its tracks and trails. It effectively adds to the number of subjects covered: should one want to know about the poet Rilke, for example, one will not find him on pp.830-31 lurking in the gutter between “Rhomaioi” and “Roads, Roman” – but there he is on p.1056, with an enticing list of no fewer than 11 entries in which he features. One hopes that someday The Classical Tradition will have an online presence, but in the meantime, the printed book has been thoughtfully equipped with at least one important navigational supplement.

The Classical Tradition differs from the OCD as well in having nearly 200 illustrations, beautifully presented on coated paper. Here, the connection with the text is not as clearly delineated as with Index entries. Hercules, for instance (illustration #69) is printed along with a Piranesi drawing to illustrate “Hadrian’s Villa.” But none of the articles linked to the illustrations—the eponymous one on the villa, and the entries on Hercules himself and on Piranesi—refers in turn to the illustrations. One can, then, read an entry without any knowledge that there is more to it than the printed word. The quality of the reproductions is eye-catchingly good, and the space given to them generous, so perhaps the editors are saying: “Yes, it’s ok to start with the pictures! They will lead you on to the articles.” A puzzling approach, nonetheless. And a pity, as the illustrations are engaging, thought provoking, and often just plain funny. Where else but in a volume on the classical tradition would one find El Greco juxtaposed with Charles Addams (##81 and 83, Laocoon)? (Though the editors missed a trick by not including Chast’s famous cartoon on the dynasty of Pliny the Elder, the Younger, and the Tiny: the first two pictured at ##132-33).

Any review of such a packed and wide-ranging work will inevitably give a picture not of the forest, but of the trees: of which a few here. Digging into any given author’s reception beyond the famous bits usually available will bring a greater perspective: e.g. Ronald T. Ridley’s excellent article on Livy shows us the historian’s fortuna between Petrarch and Niebuhr, rightly insisting on the often neglected fact that Livy was a revolutionary text both in 14th-century Rome and in 18th-century France. Mortimer N.S. Sellers engages refreshingly with the art of that latter period, deeming David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae “just an excuse to paint nudes”, while his Cupid and Psyche shows “two sated teenagers smirking on a divan” (p.825). Caroline Vout on the toga steers an effective line between what the toga has represented (“a culturally transferable symbol of the kind of qualities that had made Rome or, less specifically, classical culture great,” p.938) and how various ages have tried to find out what it actually looked like, taking us right up to toga parties (without, alas, a reference to Senator John Blutarsky—though Delta House is the image chosen to illustrate “Fraternities and Sororities,” illustration #61).

Classical scholars and scholarship figure largely in the entries: Richard Bentley, August Boeckh, Karl Lachmann, both Scaligers—but not Jebb, Porson, Rhenanus, Lipsius (though all but Jebb are in the Index). I like it that selection has resulted in Comic Books (a short but effective survey by Elizabeth Hull that moves beyond Classic Comics to discuss Astérix and Sandman) ending up next to “Commentary” (a long, magisterial, and typically witty treatment by Grafton). Reception governs the choice of illustrative material, as e.g. for “Maison Carrée” and “Magna Graecia”, which are represented, respectively, by an advertising poster for Nîmes from 1930 (#90) and an engraving after an early 18th-century map by Delisle (#89). The articles themselves situate the Maison (in origin an Augustan temple) in the context of its influence on architects who visited it in the 1700s, and Magna Graecia as received by those whose interest was spurred by the excavations at Heraclea and Paestum.

I could go on—but the utility and pleasure of the volume speak for themselves. Reception is one significant way the field of Classics is trending, and it is one area in which classicists can talk, fruitfully and without defensiveness, to other academics, and even to their parents. Go buy it! It’s ok to start with the pictures.