BMCR 2015.12.08

The Philosophizing Muse: The Influence of Greek Philosophy on Roman Poetry. Pierides, 3

, , The Philosophizing Muse: The Influence of Greek Philosophy on Roman Poetry. Pierides, 3. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014. xxvii, 354. ISBN 9781443859752. £49.99​.


This collective book surveys the presence and function of philosophy in Roman poetry, finding philosophy in less predictable contexts (before 155 B.C., for instance, or in Valerius Flaccus), or replacing a monolithic view of the philosophical engagement of authors such as Lucretius and Lucan with a more nuanced one. The ten essays, summarized in the Introduction (xi–xxvii), are organised in chronological order, and they cover in a fairly methodical fashion a long stretch of Latin literature, from archaic texts to Flavian epic. The book is completed by a general bibliography (298–330), an Index Locorum (331–50), and a short General Index (351–54).

In terms of overall philosophical influence some points emerge clearly: Empedocles is very influential, especially on late Republican authors; interest in Epicurus is more limited (Lucretius, Horace and, minimally, Vergil)and is primarily mediated by Philodemus; Stoicism, clearly the Hellenistic philosophy most compatible with the Roman Weltanschauung, is a pervasive presence throughout Latin literature.

I will briefly summarise the contents of each chapter, and then focus on some especially significant ones.

Dorota Dutsch (“The Beginnings: Philosophy in Roman Literature Before 155 B.C.” 1–25) gives us a really interesting reading of philosophical elements in Ennius, Plautus, Cato the Elder and Lucilius. These authors were evidently familiar with a number of philosophical schools; they generally mock them for being Greek (hence feeble, chatty, etc.), but this mockery paves the way to the creation of a system of Roman precepts for the good life which are nonetheless rooted in those very same “Greek” principles. Gordon Campbell (“Lucretius, Empedocles, and Cleanthes” 26–60) focuses on Lucretius’ proem, and sees in the representation of Aphrodite the legacy of Empedoclean theories filtered through the allegorical interpretation of the Stoic Cleanthes. Empedocles’ influence on Lucretius’ proem is well-known, but the identification of a master of the Old Stoa as a demiurge between the Presocratic philosopher and the Epicurean poet is a valuable insight. Joseph Farrell (“Philosophy in Vergil” 61–90) offers an overview of all the “philosophical” elements in Vergil’s works, which go back to different schools, from Plato to the Pythagoreans, from Epicurus to the Stoics. He then proceeds to show that, for Vergil, philosophy is not an end in itself, and that Vergil is not interested in consistent or systematic philosophical enquiry but deploys philosophical concepts for specific literary purposes. David Armstrong (“Horace’s Epicurean Voice in the Satires” 91–127) compares Philodemus’ extant fragmentary works (especially On Anger), regarded as examples of Epicurean diatribes, with Horace’s satires, which are also interpreted as a form of diatribe. The significant points of contact between the two authors confirm, in his opinion, the influence of Epicureanism on Horace, which Lejay’s1911 commentary underestimates (see esp. pp. 116–25). Myrto Garani (“The Figure of Numa in Ovid’s Fasti” 128–60) finds in Numa’s character, as it is constructed in the Fasti, the image of poeta/vates, an image deriving from Lucretius and Empedocles. This literary inheritance is still evident in the Pythagorean mask of the last book of the Metamorphoses. Seen in this perspective, Numa acquires a deep political significance, in that he is placed above, and not under, the prince’s power. This paper is a welcome addition to the body of work which stresses political implications of Ovid’s poetry and suggests a more nuanced relationship between him and Augustus. Ilaria Ramelli (“Manilius and Stoicism”, 161–86) confirms the notion of Manilius as a Stoic poet: where other poets mix different positions and theories, he is substantially consistent with Stoic theory in all respects. Claudia Wiener (“‘Stoic Tragedy’: a Contradiction in Terms?” 187–217) deals with the much debated question whether the protagonists of Seneca’s tragedies can be compared to Stoic sages.1They do share some common features—consistency, strength, self-satisfaction—but the behaviour of tragic characters such as Medea or Atreus leads them fatally to isolation from the social context, instead of making them an example to follow. Moreover, Senecan tragedies raise the question of the relationship between determinism and individual responsibility, a question which remains open in the prose works as well and in Stoic theory in general. Francesca D’Alessandro Behr (“Consolation, Rebellion and Philosophy in Lucan’s Bellum Civile Book 8″ 218–44) sees in the last two scenes in which Pompey appears in the Pharsalia, the final meeting with his wife and his death, some analogies between the Roman general and the Stoic sage, both facing their destiny without fear, in a sort of challenge to the gods—a typically Stoic, and especially Senecan, feature. Intertextual relationships with the titanic characterization of Vergil’s Mezentius lend weight to this idea. Shadi Bartsch (“Persius’ Fourth Satire : Socrates and the Failure of Pedagogy” 245–68) compares Persius’ Socrates in the fourth Satire with his characterization in the Alcibiades I and Plato’s Symposium. In Bartsch’s interpretation, the poet, in his attempt to mock the Platonic texts, portrays Socrates as a pervert (261), a sort of prostitute (260), and the figure of the bearded but genitally depilated magister of the first lines would allude to him. On the other side, Socrates’ failure depends on his having lost the erotic influence on his pupils which he had in Plato’s dialogues. The Stoics, with their battle against passion in any form, could not accept a similar way of leading young men to philosophy. Andrew Zissos (“Stoic Thought and Homeric Reminiscence in Valerius Flaccus” 269–97) focuses on some key motives in the Argonautica, such as the representation of Jupiter and of nature, cosmopolitanism and seduction, where Stoic elements are framed by Homeric reminiscences, resulting in a contradictory picture that allows readers to recognize their ancestry but not to regard them as unquestionably Stoic.

Dorota Dutsch’s paper is among the most interesting. She deals with many authors from Ennius to Lucilius, and manages to give a clear, compact and convincing picture of the outcome of the first encounter between Roman culture and Greek philosophy, an encounter which was made possible by authors who were not Roman by birth but often came from Magna Graecia. Greek philosophy was mocked as useless and inferior to Roman values: nevertheless, the Romans themselves, especially figures such as Cato the Elder, redeploy ideas and concepts of Greek philosophy as they create a consistent value system. A comparable phenomenon will occur when Christian philosophers like Augustine take up Stoic ideas or even pagan religious elements, which they officially deplore, and adapt them to their theology. It must be said that in the second century B.C. all of this was made easier by the fact that Romans were indifferent to theoretical issues and focused on ethical ones, thus discounting divisive metaphysical questions on principles and elements in favour of those concerning happiness, good and bad.

Joseph Farrell’s presentation of Vergil offers a fine synthesis, which demolishes the prejudice against Vergil’s Epicureanism and demonstrates both the relevance of philosophical implications in non-philosophical works such as the Eclogues (not only the sixth, but also the third and the ninth, especially in connection with allegory and aesthetics) and their subordination to a literary agenda. In the Georgics, in which “natural philosophy is a fundamental theme” (79), Farrell rightly points out that behind Lucretius’ model there is often Empedocles ( pace Campbell’s paper), and that Servius’ commentary already provides abundant references to a number of different philosophers, from Thales to Plato. Farrell limits the importance of philosophy in the Aeneid, especially in book 6, stressing how philosophical motives are more often revisited topoi rather than intentional allusions to this or that school (81), and that literary models are at any rate far more relevant than philosophical ones. This remark would also fit Valerius Flaccus, in that it would explain the contradictions arising from the combination of Stoic elements and Homeric allusions, as well as Lucan. Lucan, to be sure, is far more engaged with (Stoic) philosophy than Vergil, but Pompey’s death is clearly linked to the literary tradition: as Emanuele Narducci shows in a classic essay, the representation of Pompey’s truncus is indebted to historical sources about Pompey’s death while also recalling Priam in the Aeneid. This is clearly the point at stake in this passage: the heroic acceptance of death, and also a challenging attitude vis à vis the gods, are typical features of many literary heroes well before they characterize the Stoic sage. It is Stoic philosophy that harks back to these literary motives, not the other way round.

This book deals with a really important topic, which lasts as long as Latin literature: it manages to redefine old questions, rewrite old prejudices, offer new interpretations and suggestions, read famous texts under new perspectives. The main lesson we learn is that there are no simple and univocal influences: philosophical considerations are often intertwined, and it is sometimes difficult to identify and understand them, not just because it is difficult to trace their exact source, and to decide whether they are first- or second-hand, but chiefly because they are only a subsidiary element in the authors’ cultural background. The literary tradition retains pride of place.


1. The discussion on this well-studied topic does not take into account some important essays, such as G.G. Biondi, ‘Introduzione’, in Seneca, Medea, Fedra, Milano 1989, 11-69; G. Mazzoli, ‘Il tragico in Seneca’, Lexis 15, 1997, 79-91; ‘La tragedia di Seneca come eidos del nefas, in: Harmonia. Scritti di filologia classica in onore di A. Casanova, Firenze 2012, 513-519; H. M.Hine, ‘ Interpretatio Stoica of Senecan Tragedy’, in: M. Billerbeck, E. A. Schmidt (eds.), Sénèque le tragique, Vandoeuvres-Genève 2004, 173-220. ​