BMCR 2015.02.46

The Author’s Voice in Classical and Late Antiquity

, , The Author's Voice in Classical and Late Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xvii, 420. ISBN 9780199670567 $185.00.


The relationship between the narrator and his narrative, the role of the author within his own works, and the reader’s perception of his voice, have been a central issue in modern literary criticism. In spite of Roland Barthes’ famous epitaph the author is not dead, but still enjoys good health and, as Irene Peirano puts it (and Tim Whitmarsh polemically remarks), is now a textual category and a hermeneutical tool in the literary discourse.1 This book, a collection of thirteen contributions edited by Anna Marmodoro and Jonathan Hill, attests his vitality and constant centrality, exploring the different facets of the author’s voice in ancient literature, with a snapshot on visual art. The period covered is very wide: it ranges from Homeric epic to Ignatius of Antioch by way of the Roman Republic and the first centuries of the Empire. The authors and the literary genres are numerous: Homer and Virgil, Caesar and Xenophon, Cicero, Horace, and Pliny the Younger; tragedy, historiography, and epistolography.

The volume is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the different manifestations of the author’s voice and falls into three sections: the opening section discusses third-person narratives (Homer’s Iliad, Xenophon’s and Caesar’s works); the middle section investigates the dialogic voice (tragedy, Cicero, Horace); and the final section examines some aspects of first-person narratives (Polybius, Pliny the Younger, Apuleius). The second half of the volume looks at the ways in which the author is perceived to carry authority. In particular these essays consider the image that writers, real or fictional, present of themselves and of their works to later readers. This part takes into consideration the works of Virgil, Greek epistolography, Socrates in the Platonic dialogues and, finally, visual art.

The first two contributions mirror each other to a degree. Barbara Graziosi brings to light the poet’s voice in a poem like the Iliad, which possibly had no individual author and always has been regarded as objective and impersonal, whereas Christopher Pelling demonstrates that the third-person narrative by Caesar is a sort of “falsehood”, being “a first-person-masquerading-as-third-person” (p. 51) and that Xenophon, the third-person narrator in the Anabasis, portrays himself as a prominent, special character. In order to grasp Homer’s voice, Graziosi focuses on the audience’s perception of the poet in the Iliad and not of the Iliad, as she puts it (p. 10). Since the poem represents a verbal act, the poet’s voice is revealed through linguistic features such as second-person addresses, verbal tenses, deictic markers, and different levels of focalization. Moreover, thanks to the particular relationship between the Muses and himself, a relationship established immediately at the beginning of the poem, the poet manages to “be present” in the midst of the events transcending the spacial and temporal distances between the time of the story and the time of the narration.

Christopher Pelling compares two famous third-person narratives, Xenophon’s Anabasis and Caesar’s Commentarii. These works share a particular feature: the author and the main character of the narrative are the same person, and both writers hide behind anonymity (Caesar) or pseudonymity (Xenophon). But there is an important difference. Every reader, ancient or modern, knows that the I-Caesar (the writer) merges with the he-Caesar (the general acting in the narrative); a close analysis of the motive-statements in the Commentarii, that is the way by which Caesar the writer sets out an intention or motive of Caesar the general, shows that the third-person overlaps with the first-person, and increasingly so as the works reach their climax. Thus, we are always reminded that “this is Caesar’s story in every sense, acted out by him, perceived by him, with extra details discovered by him, then finally told by him” (p. 55). On the contrary, Xenophon presents a double attitude: on the one hand he tends to identify with the army, on the other he portrays himself as someone special and makes himself a prominent character.

The second section opens with William Allan and Adrian Kelly’s contribution on Greek tragedy. In spite of the difficulty of finding the author’s voice in this literary genre, dominated mainly by polyphony, this voice can be captured through the stage dialogue between the remote heroic world of the myth and fifth-century Athens. The distance between these two worlds, the mythological and the actual, is called heroic difference by the contributors. According to them, Athenian tragedy was a sort of mass entertainment, something similar to Hollywood cinema, and the tragedians used its inherent polyphony to encourage the audience to think about and appreciate the values of their society. It was a political and democratic form of art, appealing to all the social groups of fifth-century Athens.

The following two chapters discuss the dialogic voice in Cicero’s works and in Horace’s second book of Satires. Sarah Culpepper Stroup takes up a diachronic approach to describe the development of Cicero’s dialogues, in particular De oratore, Brutus, and Laelius. Far from the political involvement, the voice of the author becomes more and more dialogic and the dialogue increasingly theatrical. Stephen Harrison shows that the different characters speaking in the second book of the Satires display various aspects of the poet himself and that their voices share important elements — biographical, philosophical, ethical — with the author.

Some aspects of ancient first-person narratives are investigated in the third section. The massive presence of the authorial persona in Polybius’ Histories is interpreted by Georgina Longley as a form of didacticism. Within a long tradition of self-identification in historiography, Polybius deliberately takes on a teacher-like authorial persona and consciously presents himself both as a narrator and as a guide. Thus he can teach not only history, but also how to read it and how to derive full benefit from his work.

Rhiannon Ash draws attention to Pliny’s letters, in particular to the small group describing Aquilius Regulus. These seven letters can be considered as a sort of invective embedded in the epistolary corpus, allowing the normally benign Pliny to present himself as a neo-Ciceronian writer creating the voice of a new brave orator.

The last chapter of this section criticizes the value of narratological patterns in our approach to ancient texts. Tim Whitmarsh shows that for the ancient reader the narrator-author divide so fundamental in contemporary criticism simply did not exist and cannot be used to interpret such first-person fictional works as Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or Lucian’s True Stories. This kind of narrative may be called “fictional autobiography”, without using modern narratological categories which disregard the literary conventions of the ancient world. So it would be better to consider these narratives as conventional instances “of illusionistic impersonation” (p. 240), where the author creates an illusion of identity with the role he plays.

The second half of the book investigates a very interesting issue: how the author (real or fictitious) succeeds in making himself authoritative and in manipulating the readers’ response to his work. Irene Peirano examines the authenticating force of the signature, in particular in Homer and in Virgil, as it lends credibility, authority and even value to the narrative itself. At the same time, the signature may also be spurious and used as a device to give authenticity to fake texts, as is demonstrated in some of the following chapters. With regard to Virgil, we have two sphragides, one authentic in Georg. 4.559–66 and one spurious, the famous four lines mentioned by Donatus and Servius and supposedly opening the Aeneid. Other tools to convey the presence of the author in the text are self-quotation, self-correction, and self-allusion, as the song of Iopas demonstrates following Callimachus’ practice. Thus, the reader is continually reminded that there is an author and that he is reading an authoritative version.

A.D. Morrison focuses on four fictional collections of letter (those attributed to Plato, Xenophon, Solon, and Euripides), showing the different tools that the fake authors used to give authenticity to these letters, while at times undermining it. He mentions, for example, the formal epistolary opening identifying the writer and the recipient; many private details which, though unattested, appear perfectly plausible; and key events in the lives and careers of the purported authors. By contrast, the apologetic character of many of these letters, especially those in the Platonic corpus and the Seventh Letter in particular, prompts the reader to doubt their real authenticity. Yet their credibility improved with the passing of time; as the letters moved away from their original context, they were progressively believed to be real.

With Michael Erler we enter the field of philosophy. Erler points out the continuity from Plato to late Neoplatonists and philosophers like Iamblichus, Syrian, Hermeias or Proclus. Some elements thought to be typical of these philosopers, such as a modest view of one’s own abilities and the necessity of an external help to achieve knowledge or to save one’s own soul, are already found in Plato. Socrates, often represented as a godsend and a messenger from the realm of gods, is the figure linking their philosophical views: in fact, Socrates is considered an “instructor, who wants to give external assistance to those who seek the truth by/for themselves” (p. 319)

The role of a fake authorship in epistles is discussed again by Mark Edwards. The long recension of letters attributed to Ignatius of Antioch, a spurious canon of thirteen or seventeen letters, must have been written by a later author because many dogmatic propositions and several allusions to ecclesiastical order could only be made after the triumph of Constantine. The forger of the collection creates a sort of archetypical bishop, a personification of the ideal bishop, both on the stylistic and the religious level. In contrast to the short recension idiosyncrasies of style, borrowings from the lexicon of pagan culture, and concepts susceptible of heresy are tempered or purged. Thus the voice of a bishop of the fourth century is conjured to say what was expected of him.

The last chapter could appear odd among essays about the author’s voice, since images seem to have no voice at all. Michael Squire immediately points out the problem and solves it: visual objects have their authors, too, and authorship could affect not only what the viewer sees, but how he responds to it as well. Once again the signature plays an important role. In the late Hellenistic and Roman world, sculptures, paintings, and other artistic objects relating to the great artists of the past had the function of showing the learning and the knowledge of the collectors. Furthermore, the supposed identity of the artist, either inscribed or not, determined the response of the viewer, and of the possible buyer, too! Signatures could obviously be false: a canonical set of celebrated artists seems to have been used for forgeries; nonetheless, the viewer connected these objects with the works of those famous artists and judged them on the basis of this connection. Then Squire focuses on the small Tabulae Iliacae, particularly on the six associated with the same “Theodorean” artist. The term is always inscribed in adjectival form in contravention to the nouns of standard epigraphic formulae; this oddity might mean that the name had a descriptive, maybe prescriptive, function rather than an attributive one. According to Posidippus’ epigrams and Pliny the Elder an artist named Theodorus was overtly associated with miniaturism so that those observing the tablets could discover additional paratextual meaning connecting their very small dimensions with the tiny objects of a celebrated artist of miniatures. As a result, authorship — in the Iliac tablets, and in other texts or visual objects — could be “manipulated to forge certain sorts of interpretive response” (p. 400) and to evoke particular ideas and concepts.

The variety of authors and literary genres treated by the contributors, the learned and clear discussion in each chapter, and the fascinating theme of the book make this volume worth reading. In particular Tim Whitmarsh’s criticisms of our instinctive use of contemporary narrator-author categories to interpret Greek and Latin literature should be contemplated in order to understand and better appraise the ancient reader’s approach to narratives.


1. There are other assumptions about the role of the author; for instance, Antoine Compagnon ( Le Démon de la théorie, 1998) considers him as one of the six literary functions and, more recently, Stefano Ballerio ( Sul conto dell’autore, 2013) proposed a historicist reading of his voice, especially within the novel. ​