Michael von Albrecht is one of the Nestors of German comparative literature, specializing in the Nachleben of Latin authors. His ambitious studies of Roman prose and poetry and his two-volume history of Roman literature (1994, with an English translation in 1997) have been translated into Italian, English and Spanish. In many ways the three books under review serve as an extended set of textbooks for a very ambitious university introduction to literature in Latin, with detailed readings and interpretations. In three handsomely produced paperbacks, Albrecht now offers a variety of studies on Caesar, Cicero and Latin prose; on Horace, Vergil and their epigones; and finally “from Lucretius and Catullus to Ovid.” The titles of these volumes may give the impression that this is a new study of the Great Names of Roman literature, but that is not the case: most of these essays have been published before.
The first volume on Latin prose opens with a longish general introduction about the influence of Latin literature and of the classical tradition in general, which von Albrecht sees as the “school of Europe.” This is a masterful survey in which all the important aspects of that tradition are sketched, with particular reference to Rome’s decisive influence on legal thinking (and individual human rights), to the link between literary and scientific study and to the role of philosophy and religion. In each of these cases, von Albrecht needs no more than twenty pages to give his readers a first insight into the major issues that can be quite detailed at times. What is refreshing, in terms of the deep influence of the classical tradition on contemporary European (and, he adds, global) culture, is von Albrecht’s stress on the continuity of the later Christian writers’ thinking with that of their pagan colleagues, if only because it is only as part of their texts that we now still have a good sense of Varro’s Antiquitates rerum antiquarum, with quotations embedded in Augustine’s Civitas Dei.
The volume then divides into three major parts. The first part mostly deals with Cicero, although Caesar plays a role in the first few chapters; the second focuses on the three great history writers, Sallust, Livy and Tacitus; the third introduces some later writers: Seneca and Jerome, Symmachus and Augustine. In each of these chapters, von Albrecht follows the same order: after an introduction to the writer or to the specific work that will be discussed, the author and the work are systematically discussed in shorter sections. These different aspects of this author or work are sometimes illustrated by short passages from the work which are given in German and in the original.
In the first volume the result of this is that we have excellent introductions to the most important works of these writers, which manage to combine the broad outlines and a discussion of the detail of representative passages In the case of Caesar and Cicero, Albrecht understandably focuses on politics and rhetoric, but in the last two chapters he discusses quite specific issues: the function of the excursus on literature in Pro Archia and the coherence of philosophy in Cicero’s later work (“o vitae philosophia dux”), ending with a last section on the later reception of Cicero’s ideas about the music of the spheres.
The second part opens with a chapter on Sallust and with a quotation from the Histories of a speech by Marcius Philippus that receives a fairly detailed commentary. Von Albrecht makes an elegant link between rhetoric and history, showing that Sallust was not just a great historian, but also a skilled rhetorician. The next chapter tackles Livy, with a detailed reading of the Prooemium which demonstrates the representation of the system of Roman values, both literary and social. After a longer quotation from the story of Aeneas, in which the importance of peace and friendship is stressed, von Albrecht discusses Vergil’s portrait of the ancestor of the Romans, with which Livy’s Aeneas shares only the role of fatum. In a concluding section Albrecht then concludes that Livy’s successful reduction of Roman legend and history to what was relevant to the Augustan periodenabled later writers to do the same, and can be usefully compared to Ovid’s transformation of Greek mythology into what he calls “a specifically Roman treasure of images and examples”.
The next chapter discusses an ostensibly moralising passage from Livy’s Book V in which von Albrecht finds both the basis for overcoming a determinist type of historical image and a sort of early version of international law with the influence of the phrase “sunt et belli sicut pacis iura” and Hugo Grotius’s explicit reference to the phrase in his De iure belli ac pacis, even in the title of the book. In the final two chapters von Albrecht then quotes the description of the death of Tiberius in the Annals by Tacitus, showing the role of dissimulatio in the portrait of the emperor. In the more general concluding chapter (translated from an original contribution in Latin) he tries to define Tacitus’s historical writings and to correct some common misunderstandings about the historian: 1. Tacitus does not write from a city-centered perspective, he was aware of the importance of the provinces (“lange vor Mommsen,” writes Albrecht); 2. His concept of virtus is not revisionist but takes into account the changing times; and 3. He is aware of the link between the morality of the ruler and the situation of the Empire.
The third part of the first volume discusses the Spätantike, starting with two chapters on Seneca. In the first Albrecht links the discussion of Caesar’s clementia to the Stoic philosopher’s advice to Emperor Nero: first he concentrates on the rhetorical power of the text and then he focuses on the way the civic value of amor civium is established; on intertextual references to Latin literature; and finally on the relationship between ethics and style. In the second Seneca chapter he quotes and discusses a famous section of the author’s De brevitate vitae in a more technical philological manner: he looks at the semantic fields of the vocabulary, the philosophical redefinitions of some of the words, the use of imagery and finally the lack of apparent links between sentences (Caligula called Seneca’s language “sand without lime”). All of this leads to the conclusion that Seneca played an important role in the birth of modern prose, when authors learned from Seneca how they could free themselves from a (misunderstood) Ciceronian language.
The volume ends with a discussion of three Christian writers: a section from a letter by Jerome about the widow Paula to her daughter. Albrecht discusses the stylistic devices and the dramatic technique, in order to arrive at the new kind of text: Jerome is using the form of the classical letter to invent a new genre, that of a specifically Christian biography. It is through Jerome’s thoroughly classical background (Ciceronianus es, non Christianus) that he was able to become “one of the most influential cultural mediators of all time”.
From Symmachus we read a section of the famous third relatio in which the author tries to convince the emperor to reinstate the pagan altar. Von Albrecht first studies the rhetorical devices used by the prefect in his fight against Ambrose, especially the personification of Roma, and then he moves to the masterly fashion in which the bishop of Milan successfully countered these arguments. Von Albrecht concludes that Symmachus’s call for tolerance “was not heard then and until the present day, it has lost nothing of its poignancy.” Augustine gets the last word (as he did for most of the next millennium) with a rather untypically technical and detailed discussion of the saint’s understanding of music in his Confessiones.
In the second volume of the series we move to Horace and Virgil. After a brief introduction, the first Horace chapter opens conventionally with a section on the author’s “life and works” in order to focus on the Satires, with a brief discussion of each of them in turn and to have a look at the inner coherence of both books. Much more than any of the chapters in the first volume, this is a straightforward and comprehensive introduction to the Satires, which is what this piece originally was.
The next chapter zooms in on Horace’s letter to Albius, which it reads in terms of its metrical technique: “The following text considers itself as a contribution to a ‘hermeneutic metrics’”. And that is exactly what the reader gets. We then move to the so-called Roman odes in book III. This chapter answers four questions: who is being addressed, what is the meaning of the famous odi profanum vulgus; what is the role of the Muses and, finally, are these odes more than political propaganda? In the final Horace chapter von Albrecht returns to one of his favorite topics: the relationship of music and poetry and the question whether the Odes were supposed to be recited or sung, with a closer reading of the very relevant Carm IV:11.
In the next larger section, Virgil receives the same treatment: first “Leben und Werk,” then context (genres, sources, precursors), a long section on literary technique, Virgil’s philosophical background (God, man, history) and finally the poet’s own ideas about poetry. The second Virgil chapter then reads in detail the first 33 lines of the Aeneid to conclude that in this introduction the poet presents the reader with a bold new conception of traditional stories.
The third chapter focuses on the characters (Aeneas, Dido and Turnus) and how Virgil’s characterization often works by means of reversals and mirrorings, while the fourth in this section looks at selected passages in the Aeneid. In the next chapter von Albrecht rather suddenly moves back to Ennius (after deploring the lack of serious study of that author’s style) and more particularly to a comparison with a horse in a fragment from the Annals, which is compared to similar passages in Homer, Virgil and Apollonius of Rhodes in order to arrive at a better understanding of the Latin archaic style, which disagrees with Ovid’s Ennius ingenio maximus, arte rudis. In the final two chapters von Albrecht then studies Virgil’s narrative technique in terms of his use of verb tenses on the one hand and on the other the poet’s understanding of history and its effect on the passage in book VI where Aeneas meets his future descendants.
The final section in this volume (“Nach Vergil”) looks at a number of later Latin poets, inevitably comparing these authors with the great precursors. He begins with Lucan and what he calls the “epic tradition” and compares his work to that of the major Greek and Latin writers. In the next chapter, von Albrecht tries to find a place between Virgil and Ovid for Valerius Flaccus, by contrasting his treatment of the story of Io with that in the Metamorphoses and the Aeneid. The next chapter is an introduction to the work of Silius Italicus, not very originally placing him between tradition and originality and in another chapter Albrecht then offers us a “morphological style comparison” by reading the section on Claudia Quinta in that author against Ovid’s version of the story in the fourth book of Fasti. In the final chapter we move on to Claudian and an intertextual cluster in a passage of thirty verses from De raptu Proserpinae.
The third and final volume is devoted to “poets who have found different ways to free themselves of conventions” (9) and it opens with an introduction in which the different themes of this volume are briefly touched upon and that ends with a general statement about the three volumes in which the author stresses the connections between the prose writers and the poets discussed in different volumes, thematically and formally.
The first two chapters discuss Lucretius, first in terms of the role of the concepts of terror and pavor, which, according to von Albrecht, were omnipresent in the late Republic and which he reads as important in the role of the myth of Iphigenia in De rerum naturae. The author looks closely at the functioning of the different terms denoting fear in Lucretius’ work in order to widen the perspective in the final pages of the essay to include the later poets. In the next chapter the poet’s Nachleben is discussed, unfortunately not going beyond Einstein’s preface to Diels’s translation.
The second and longest part on “Catullus and the elegists” opens with an introductory chapter on the poet, not about his life and work this time, but his Nachleben; this is followed by an essay on the poet’s treatment of nature and landscape and a comparison with Horace. We then move to Propertius as an “Augustan” poet and a chapter in which his work and life is compared to the career of Tibullus. The next chapter is again comparative, looking at Tibullus in contrast to Ovid, and von Albrecht then zooms out in order first to discuss the notion of populus and then the image of the beloved person in the work of the Augustan elegists.
The final part is given over to Ovid, who, with Virgil, is an important presence in the other books. We open with a general introduction that focuses on Amores and continue with an essay on Ovid’s use of everyday speech in that work. The next three chapters have a similar set-up, with a more general introduction on Heroides (with a focus on the specific role of Greek and Roman elements) followed by close readings of the Briseis letter and of the Paris and Helen correspondence, in Ovid and in his medieval follower Baldric of Dol. The penultimate chapter zooms out again: Ovid is used as an example to discuss the relationship between poet and reader in antiquity and in the final chapter von Albrecht offers a close reading of Ovid’s letter to Perilla in the Tristia which closes with a comparison with Horace’s letter to Albius.
The analysis in these pieces is always literary and the emphasis often on style, but historical and linguistic issues play a role too. Nowhere in these three volumes can we say what more than a century ago, the Dutch philologist C.M. Francken wrote, in a pithy sentence quoted here: Natura fecit poetam, philologia hodierna dissolvit. Although these essays were originally written for different contexts and sometimes in other languages, the overall style of the books is uniform: direct and to the point, with the occasional happy flourish, like the description of Silius Italicus as an “Erzvergilianer,” a hapax legomenon, if Google can be trusted; but also with the occasional stumble: surely, not even poets can gauge the atmosphere of an era with seismographical precision.
Professor von Albrecht has found a convenient way to publish many of his essays in a form that is useful, both to advanced students of Latin literature and to general readers, who might be interested both in the individual essays and in the breadth and coverage of these wonderful companion pieces to his standard history of Latin literature.