BMCR 2014.01.32

Generic Interfaces in Latin Literature: Encounters, Interactions and Transformations. Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes, 20

, , , Generic Interfaces in Latin Literature: Encounters, Interactions and Transformations. Trends in Classics - Supplementary Volumes, 20. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013. ix, 478. ISBN 9783110303681 $182.00.


This book presents the proceedings of a conference on the subject of genre in ancient Latin literature held in Thessaloniki in May, 2011. The aim of the conference was to investigate the different aspects of generic mobility considered in current scholarship, such as “pushing beyond the boundaries, impurity, instability, enrichment and genre bending” (1). The introduction by Stephen J. Harrison (who is also the author of an interesting article on Horace’s Odes 2) is followed by twenty-three essays, four of which are part of a section entitled “General” on broader topics; this is the case with the papers by Gregory Hutchinson, Ahuvia Kahane and Therese Fuhrer, while Carole Newland’s is devoted to a narrower subject, the emergence of architectural descriptions within the general (though not generic) framework of ekphrasis. Newland’s main focus is Statius’ Silvae, which gave birth to a new poetic genre combining encomium with elements of private life.1 The other papers consider particular cases of generic interface; the concise, yet very incisive, essay by Frances Muecke on Roman satire, however, might also well belong to the “General” section for its paradigmatic value.

As might be expected, most attention is dedicated to poetry, with fifteen essays divided into three sections based on what Harrison calls “host genre”. The first considers epic and didactic poetry; the second examines pastoral (its distinction from other hexametric poetry is significant: see Hutchinson’s essay below); the third section embraces other poetic genres: satire, elegy, lyric, and comedy (Stavros Frangoulidis’ paper is the only one devoted to the Roman theatre in this volume). The last four essays address prose genres (historiography, epistolography and the novel). The work closes with “Notes on Contributors” and two very useful indexes. In the following, I shall first focus on articles concerned with broader issues of generic definition and then discuss some more specific ones.

Harrison’s introduction provides a brief overview of both ancient theories of genre (Aristotle and Horace, but also Philodemus, with whom the Ars “seems to concur […] in a number of ways”, 3) and modern ones: from the “Darwinian” perspective of Brunetière to Croce’s neo-idealistic opposition to genre, from the attention paid by Russian formalists to the inclusion of non-literary themes within literary genres to R. Nauta, according to whom reception itself establishes and changes the reader’s horizon of expectation (Roy Gibson’s essay provides a clear example of this). Needless to say, much attention is dedicated to classical scholarship, such as Conte’s “deservedly influential” (10) analyses of Latin texts, or some key concepts, such as Kroll’s “ Kreuzung der Gattungen ”, Cairns’ “generic content” and Harrison’s own “generic enrichment”, in which he recognizes some analogies with Cairns’ idea of “inclusion”; the very category of “generic enrichment” is often and profitably applied in this volume.

Hutchinson introduces us to the model of “super-genre”, a larger set of genres that basically share a common meter. He analyses hexameter, elegiacs, lyric, and drama; the latter should indeed be considered a “super-super-genre” including both tragedy and comedy, even if Plautus’ cantica or his hybrid Amphitruo 2 seem to blur the boundaries a little. Hutchinson argues that the model of “super-genres” helps us to investigate generic interactions: for example, oracles and didactic themes in Virgil’s Eclogues 4 and 6 could be explained within the framework of hexametric “super-genre”. However, perhaps Hutchinson’s rejection of “epic” as a definition for this super-genre (20) is not entirely acceptable, since Horace himself ( Sat. 1,10,43ff.) uses epos to refer to the forte epos of his friend Varius as well as to the molle atque facetum of Virgil’s Eclogues. This paper certainly does not lack ideas; one might object, however, that there may also be interactions between different “super-genres”; moreover, the metrical criterion excludes prose genres from the study. In point of fact, such an approach is likely to focus almost exclusively on convergences between genres (a characteristic shared by other articles in this volume), while the meaning of these interactions lies more frequently in the differences (at times in the oppositions) between the literary types that authors call into play.

Kahane emphasizes the potential of deviation and discontinuity since his essay takes S.J. Gould’s evolutionary model as a starting point, according to which “small-scale changes in morphology can coincide with relatively far-reaching changes to function and meaning” (37), and closes with Freud’s idea of Unbehagen (“discontent” in most English translations), which “characterizes a unique, irreplaceable essence in both persons and works of art” (51). The coexistence of continuity and innovative elements affects literary practice in Rome in relation to its Greek precedents. The topic leads Kahane to an excursus on Latin vertere, which sometimes seems to lack relevant bibliography: it is somewhat surprising not to see S. Mariotti or A. Traina mentioned in the pages (39-45) devoted to the first verse of the Odusia and to ancient Latin translation verbs;3 among these, by the way, we cannot count traducere since it began to mean “to translate” only after a misinterpretation of Gellius 1,18,1 by the Italian humanist Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444).

Fuhrer’s convincing paper concentrates on early Christian literature, especially on works that, unlike letters, philosophical dialogues, etc., show the strongest resistance to inclusion in the classic genre system. Fuhrer divides them into “narrative and poetic forms” (e.g., Prudentius’ poems, acta martyrum, hagiographical literature and hymnology) and “literature with close reference to the text of the Bible”; her interest focuses on the latter group, which includes two masterpieces whose genre is hard to identify, Augustine’s Confessiones and De civitate dei. Their most important characteristic, according to Fuhrer, is sharing a common focus on the Bible; they are, thus, actually “auxiliary texts” (83), hypertexts belonging to a “heteronomous literature” (82); they use classical genres and texts only as a “vehicle to make the Bible readable […]. As a result these works must break the restrictions of the old genre system” (86f.). This is certainly the case with many of the works cited on p. 81; one might point out, however, that the Confessiones do not focus on the Bible per se, but rather on God’s creation, which is investigated by Augustine both as a tale and as a concrete act by which God intervenes in history and converts, in a Plotinian perspective, all creatures; thus, the first chapters of Genesis provide a clear analogy (not simply a theological framework) with Augustine’s individual tale and act of conversion.

Some more particular essays stand out for the originality of the topics considered: Katharina Volk’s paper, for instance, draws our attention to “the most reviled work of ancient literature” (93), Cicero’s De consulatu suo. Volk argues that the poem has unexpected features of novelty, incorporating by means of a sophisticated Kreuzung elements of several literary genres (historical epic and autobiography, but also didactic poetry having a philosophical content, precisely like Lucretius, but before him), and it presents itself as a “peace epic”: this is how Volk interprets cedant arma togae in fr. 6 S. Such an exegesis is persuasive in itself, although it may be going too far to say (109f.) that Virgil’s arma virumque cano antiphrastically hints at Cicero’s verse; the nexus arma virumque has a long generic history, as is argued by A. Bloch. 4 Neither can we say with absolute certainty that Cicero’s poem precedes Catullus 64. Indeed, the two works might be contemporary.5

Robert Cowan investigates the technique of “anti-allusion” (whose aim is to exclude precisely what has been alluded to) used by Lucretius to reject “the explanatory power and relevance of the tragic genre” (116); in 3,72f. the poet evokes Accius’ Atreus only to reject the very existence of the Thyestean feast. Thus, Lucretius does not aim at generic enrichment, but at selecting what can best serve his own poetry. Certainly, anti-allusion is a valid interpretive tool in many Lucretian passages (see the instances analyzed on p. 126ff.); yet one may point out that Lucretius’ rejection of tragedy, together with other poetic genres, concerns far more its mythical contents than the genre itself.

In his perspicacious essay, Kirk Freudenburg investigates Varro’s Menippean satires and Horace’s second book of Sermones, arguing that the authors themselves were far less categorical than grammarians about the boundaries of satirical genre. This view is well supported by an impressive number of convincing interpretations (I am not sure, however, that in Quint. 10,1,95 condidit can allude to Varro’s De re rustica; in this context, condo cannot mean much more than “to establish” a literary genre). Nevertheless, the thoroughness of documentation makes this contribution an enlightening essay on the development of Roman satire.

No less noteworthy is the paper by Evangelos Karakasis, who addresses Calpurnius’ pastoral poetry with a close reading of Eclogue 3. He proves that Calpurnius aimed at inclusion, particularly of elegiac and comic traits, and generic enrichment far more than his model Virgil did (see, in this book, Theodore. Papanghelis, who on p. 214 defines Virgil’s Eclogue 10 as “generically intransigent”, not actually aiming at extending the genre’s boundaries but rather at asserting the irreducible diversity between pastoral and elegy). Karakasis’ essay is outstanding not only in its thoroughness and abundance of examples and bibliography, but also in the attention paid to language and style, a feature rather rare in this book (another exception is Christina Kraus’ paper on historiography): for this very reason, it would have been more profitable if the author had quoted Calpurnius’ text directly rather than summarized it.

Roy Gibson’s essay, too, investigating the generic mobility of ancient letter collections, has a very original perspective. Such mobility was strongly conditioned by the constant re-ordering in early modern editions, since letters were usually arranged according to the chronological order in which they were written. This is how letter collections were converted “into species of history or (auto)biography” (389). Some epistolographers seem to have suggested the re-arrangement of their own letters; Augustine, for instance, as the author of the Confessiones and Retractationes (not Retractiones, as repeatedly misprinted on p. 403), “with his distinctive understanding of personal change and development, virtually writes later editors a license to order his letters chronologically” (403).

This overview shows the numerous aspects taken into consideration in this book. One might observe that its perspective, particularly when pursued, as it is here, according to the pattern of host/guest genres, tends to shift toward a descriptive and exegetical approach that does indeed achieve noteworthy results, yet sometimes makes one forget the “dynamic and creative force” (1) of genre in Latin literature, which was the starting point of the conference. Furthermore, a greater focus on language and style would have been welcome, since these elements represent, no less than content, an essential element in literary genre. However, these slight inherent weaknesses do not obscure the importance of this highly stimulating book, which will certainly be exploited not only by classicists but also by literary theorists.


1. On the title of Statius’ work, see E. Malaspina La formation et l’usage du tître silvae en latin classique, in P. Galand, S. Laigneau (eds.), La silve. Histoire d’une écriture libérée en Europe de l’antiquité au XVIIIe siècle, Turnhout 2013, pp. 17-43.

2. At 59, however, I would prefer the paradosis faciam ut commixta sit tragico comoedia; cf. A. Traina in Comoedia, Padova 2000, 5 th edition, ad l.

3. S. Mariotti, Livio Andronico e la traduzione artistica, Urbino 1985, 2nd edition, and A. Traina, Vortit barbare, Rome 1970; furthermore, “Venutti” (41) and “Vennuti” (54) are misprints for “Venuti”.

4. ‘Arma virumque’ als heroisches Leitmotiv, MH 27, 1970, 206-211.

5. G.G. Biondi, Lucrezio e Catullo. Osservazioni su una vexata quaestio, Paideia 58, 2003, 207-234.