BMCR 2017.08.30

Valuing Landscape in Classical Antiquity: Natural Environment and Cultural Imagination. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 393

, , Valuing Landscape in Classical Antiquity: Natural Environment and Cultural Imagination. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 393. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. xv, 495. ISBN 9789004319707. $181.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is a collection of essays revised from papers presented at the 2014 Penn-Leiden Colloquium, which focused on examining landscapes of value in the ancient Mediterranean. It is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarly work in Classics on landscape studies, and. Because it collects a variety of focused studies, McInerney’s and Sluiter’s volume is able to incorporate the diversity of both landscape studies and the Classical world itself. While “landscape” may be a necessary and applicable unifying term, it is also unavoidably anachronistic, with no simple analog in Greek or Latin. Landscape studies encompass a wide array of subtopics, including space, place, human memory, geology, geography, topography, cartography, population studies, environment, ecocriticiscm, aesthetics, and more., McInerney and Sluiter define landscape as it applies to their collection as “a creation of human culture” through “the symbolic use of terrain” (1), and cite the work of Denis Cosgrove on landscape and Henri Lefebvre on space. 1 According to their interpretation, landscapes are polyvalent, with meaning varying among different observers and experiences. Landscape is a medium for cultural ideas, and may even be understood as “terrain rendered into text” (15). This approach to landscape in Classical antiquity is suitably nuanced yet broad and provides a fitting introduction to the sixteen individual essays that follow.

Part I, “Mountains,” contains essays that draw on literary sources as well as theories of visualization that seek to understand the context and significance of mountains in ancient thought and experience. Two authors focus on specific peaks: Richard Buxton builds on his previous work on mountains in Greek myth, literature, and thought in a focused approach to Mt. Etna’s simultaneous wild metamorphic nature and its “fluid actuality” as a volcano (43);2 Christina G. Williamson looks at Teuthrania (Kalerga Tepe) as a focal point in the adjacent Pergamene landscape and in local mythography, effectively employing modern theories of viewsheds and foregrounded/backgrounded places. The standout chapter of this section is Jason König’s “Strabo’s Mountains,” in which the author explores the nuances of Strabo’s dichotomy between civilization and wilderness, as well as the integration of mountains into human contexts throughout the Mediterranean world. Equally important is König’s methodological argument, that understanding the significance of landscape in an ancient text benefits from a total and chronological reading of that text, since “successive moments of landscape depiction have a very complex intratextual relation with each other” and “they tell between them a developing story as each text goes on” (47). While studying isolated passages does have value, the ubiquity of landscape to the human experience requires these more universal approaches to textual sources as well.

The next pair of essays concerns “Underground and Underworld.” Julie Baleriaux’s study of mythological and literary treatments of karst geology and subterranean rivers represents Greek sources well, but could have benefitted from more discussion of geology vis-à-vis myth and philosophy. Kathrin Winter uses Senecan drama to study the emotional quality of spatial experience. Winter deftly analyzes a selection of Senecan texts ( Hercules Furens, Thyestes, and Oedipus) to argue that the connection between landscape and emotional experience is “diffuse and ubiquitous” (129-30) rather than originating with either landscape or viewer alone. The effect, she argues, is a “defamiliarization” (135) that destabilizes the assumed definitions of human and non-human, and the expression of “something inherently indescribable” (143). The observation here, that the atmosphere of landscape scenes can have a greater effect on the reader than the mere sum of its words may suggest, has valuable implications for the study of aesthetic experience in ancient literature.

“The Sacred” is the unifying theme of Part III. Margaret M. Miles lays out the different aspects that contributed to and determined a sacred environment, and includes an impressive survey of scholarship. Rianne Hermans contextualizes Roman religious practices in the Alban Hills by examining literary, numismatic, archaeological, and topographical evidence. Betsey A. Robinson frames her discussion of two religious centers in Greece—the Thespian Mouseion/Mt. Helicon and the Delphic sanctuary of Apollo/Mt. Parnassus—in terms of the concept of kharismata, wherein “a dynamic, reciprocal system” (229) emerges in places where divine presence or gifts were thought to exist. The chapter as a whole is framed by a Pauline idea of kharismata transferred to a charisma of place.3 This thought experiment is certainly compelling (and, I think, successful), though integrating this concept of kharismata into the long literary and material history of these two religious centers that predate Paul’s writings could have been more fully addressed in a project of greater scope. In addition to considering the geologically enhanced soundscape and the ongoing seismic change that augmented the exceptional nature of Delphi, she brings into her study both natural and built landscapes, contrasting statues atop pillars with mountain peaks and worked blocks of stone with the native bedrock (242). All three essays in this section address the integration of constructed or cultivated nature as part of the landscape, which, considering the fact that landscape itself is essentially nature as understood and interpreted by humanity, is a fundamental part of the wider study of landscape literature.

Part IV deals with “Battlefields and Memory of War.” The visceral experiences of war and the subsequent sociopolitical effects of battles bring issues of memory and memorial into the landscape more vividly. Elizabeth Minchin notes the “humanization” of landscape in the addition of heroic tumuli to terrain (255), and connects modern archaeological knowledge about the tumuli in the Troad to ancient myth, ritual, belief, and the ongoing tourism of these sites since antiquity (262). Notably, Minchin sets out to identify consistent features in a “landscape of value:” distinctive topography, a humanizing narrative, renown, autopsy, ritual activity, and the transmission of cultural memories (270-271). These features are certainly useful as part of the larger collection of essays concerning value and landscape, and may be informative to landscape studies in general as well. Bettina Reitz-Joosse writes about the human power to restructure space (281), create landscape (287), and construct visions or memories of physical places (288), demonstrating the memorializing power of the town of Nikopolis and literary approaches to Actium in the Augustan era. Annemarie Ambühl also addresses the ability of poetry to reshape a landscape, where the reality of Thessaly percolates through the poetry of Catullus, Vergil, and Lucan to become “a paradigmatic landscape of anti-memory and anti-values” (300). Moreover, Ambühl’s analysis of Lucan’s Thessaly as “an imaginary text-landscape embodying the traumatic heritage of the civil wars in Latin poetry” (315) is a fitting climax to this part of the collection, with its focus on memory’s ability to shape and change landscape and its emphasis on the variable distance between “landscape” and geographical or geological reality.

The title of Part V, “Moving Around,” seems to hint at the variety of topics and geographical locales addressed by its authors; more pointedly, it introduces Danielle L. Kellogg’s analysis of migration patterns in Attica. Kellogg accounts for physical and conceptual (social) landscapes in Attica, but admits the many complicating factors of any study of population or migration, and concludes that Attica was “a more localized climate of microregions—physically, spatially, and socially” (344). Maša Ćulumović explores the importance of place to epinician poetry, laying out a “victory-hometown axis” (350) influenced by geography, metaphors of movement, deictic language, and local landscapes; most interesting in this study is the idea of contrasting deixis ad oculos and deixis am Phantasma, that is, evoking present-visual landscape versus distant-imagined landscape. Lissa Crofton-Sleigh identifies the physical and conceptual “landscapers” in Vergil’s Hercules-Cacus episode: Hercules himself, Evander, and Aeneas, all serve to some degree as agents through which Vergil “imposes a human frame on the natural structure” of the landscape (388), and they enact a process of “constructive deconstruction” (395) that aligns with Augustus’ building program and creates a value-landscape in the heart of Rome. Greta Hawes focuses on Thebes as a “place” maintained through its reputation and memory, and reinforced through physical reconstructions that aligned with the mythographic tradition of Thebes’ heroic past. Most illuminating in Part V is Christoph Pieper’s analysis of Ovid’s exile literature as a way to understand the landscape of Tomis ca. 8-9 CE. Pieper reads Ovid’s portrayal of Tomis as a barbaric backwater against epigraphic, historical, and military evidence for Tomis’ real multiculturalism and probable connections to Rome during Augustus’ military campaigns in the Danube region. He concludes that while “mutual acculturation” (425) likely took place in Tomis, Ovid’s approach to the landscape of Pontus is symbolic of fragmentation.

Ultimately, the study of landscape is concerned with the exploration and analysis of the human experience of and in the world and thus is necessarily diverse and multivalent. McInerney’s and Sluiter’s collection of essays mirrors this plurality of topic and perspective with its multiplicity of topics, perspectives, theoretical approaches, and conclusions. This is both beneficial in the largely excellent collection of chapters that make up the volume, and detrimental, in that the modern metaphorical use of “landscape” (e.g., the landscape of history, the political landscape) at times overshadows the fundamental connection between “landscape” and environment or terrain. The volume includes numerous maps, photographs, and even visualizations of numerical data, all enormously helpful in supporting the arguments of the authors who employ them. Bibliographical information appends each individual contribution. An excellent editorial contribution is the variety of indices: an index of Greek terms, of Latin terms, a general index, and an index locorum. While some contributions to this volume shine more brightly than others, each essay is informative to its own topic and representative of the relevant scholarship. The volume itself is a worthy addition to the growing body of literature dedicated to landscape studies and environmental humanities within Classics.

Authors and Titles

1. Jeremy McInerney and Ineke Sluiter, General Introduction
2. Richard Buxton, Mount Etna in the Greco-Roman imaginaire : Culture and Liquid Fire
3. Jason König, Strabo’s Mountains
4. Christina G. Williamson, Mountain, Myth, and Territory: Teuthrania as Focal Point in the Landscape of Pergamon
5. Julie Baleriaux, Diving Underground: Giving Meaning to Subterranean Rivers
6. Kathrin Winter, Experience and Stimmung : Landscapes of the Underworld in Seneca’s Plays
7. Margaret M. Miles, Birds around the Temple: Constructing a Sacred Environment
8. Rianne Hermans, Juno Sospita and the draco : Myth, Image, and Ritual in the Landscape of the Alban Hills
9. Betsey A. Robinson, Charismatic Landscapes? Scenes from Central Greece under Roman Rule
10. Elizabeth Minchin, Heritage in the Landscape: The ‘Heroic Tumuli’ in the Troad Region
11. Bettina Reitz-Joosse, Land at Peace and Sea at War: Landscape and Memory of Actium in Greek Epigrams and Propertius’ Elegies
12. Annemarie Ambühl, Thessaly as an Intertextual Landscape of Civil War in Latin Poetry
13. Danielle L. Kellogg, Migration and Landscapes of Value in Attica
14. Maša Ćulumović, Songs of Homecoming: Sites of Victories and Celebrations in Pindar’s Victory Odes
15. Lissa Crofton-Sleigh, The Mythical Landscapers of Augustan Rome
16. Christoph Pieper, Polyvalent Tomi: Ovid’s Landscape of Relegation and the Romanization of the Black Sea Region
17. Greta Hawes, Stones, Names, Stories, and Bodies: Pausanias before the Walls of Seven-Gated Thebes


1. Cosgrove, D. 1984. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. London and Sydney.; Lefebvre, H. 1991. The Production of Space (tr. D. Nicholson-Smith). Oxford.

2. Buxton, R. G. A. 1992. “Imaginary Greek mountains,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 112: 1-15.

3. Cf. 1 Cor. 12:8-10.