BMCR 2017.11.13

T. Calpurnius Siculus: A Pastoral Poet in Neronian Rome

, T. Calpurnius Siculus: A Pastoral Poet in Neronian Rome. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. ix, 335. ISBN 9783110468045. $154.00.

Table of Contents

Calpurnius Siculus may be one of the so-called minor Latin poets, but his work has attracted the attention of major scholars (e.g., Boccaccio, Heinsius, Burman) across the centuries. Just in the last one hundred years, no fewer than eight critical editions and commentaries have been published, not counting the four versions published by Giarratano alone (1910, 1924, 1943, 1951). Aside from the question of his separation from Nemesianus, an issue that still arises from time to time despite Haupt’s definitive statement on the matter, most of the attention has been on textual matters, and for good reason. Although Calpurnius Siculus’ collection of bucolic poetry contains only seven poems, the text has examples of nearly every issue and problem a textual critic might hope to encounter. But his poetry also merits attention as literature, as more scholars have been acknowledging in recent decades, and Karakasis’ book does an admirable job of surveying previous scholarship while also making an original and engaging contribution in its own right.

As Karakasis notes in the preface, the main aim of the book is “to offer a systematic reading of Calpurnian poetics from the viewpoint of ‘generic evolution.'” (v) Karakasis keeps that aim in sight at all times. Each section and chapter follows the same format, with a clear introduction, a focused discussion of the poem under consideration, and a clear conclusion. The brief introduction serves nicely not only as an overview of the book, but also as a survey of the main topics in the scholarship on Calpurnius Siculus and bucolic poetry in general. After that, the book is divided into three parts: “The Political Eclogues 1, 4, 7”; “Pastoral, Elegy, Comedy and the Georgics”; and “Challenging the Very Structure of the Singing Match …”. Instead of following the order of the poems as they appear in the collection, Karakasis treats them thematically, which has the nice effect of calling attention not only to the artistry of the individual poems, but also to the artistic quality of the collection’s structure.

Karakasis’ mission is to examine three related subjects: “Calpurnius’ reception of his pastoral models, … his efforts to widen the pastoral canon by incorporating features and topics formally belonging to other literary genres, [and] his desire to spell out his ‘generic transcendence’ of previous pastoral as well as his occasional attempt to perpetuate ‘generic tensions’ already operating in earlier pastoral.” (5) Anyone wishing to know about the first one, the reception of Calpurnius’ pastoral models, will find ample material in Karakasis’ discussion and in his comprehensive citation of sources. The real strength, however, is in Karakasis’ sensitive analysis of and thoughtful commentary on matters of genre. Each section of this book reveals how adeptly Calpurnius introduces elements from other genres into the pastoral landscape. In many cases, this “generic ambivalence” or “generic branching out,” Karakasis argues, is a product of Calpurnius’ life in Nero’s empire, which called for more obvious panegyric of the emperor than Calpurnius’ predecessors felt necessary or prudent. This explains the many elements of epic and elegy, among other genres, that find their way into Calpurnius’ bucolic setting. But often Calpurnius’ creative transcendence of generic boundaries is a natural expansion of the pastoral genre and an expression of literary artistry.

The first chapter, on Calpurnius 1, is a good example of Karakasis’ approach. To call what Karakasis does “close reading” would be an understatement. Rather, Karakasis often descends to a microscopic level as he proceeds from the beginning to the end of the poem, extracting as much meaning and nuance out of the details as possible. For instance, he draws our attention to the species of trees that dot the poem’s locus amoenus and notes that the pine and the beech are symbols associated particularly with Theocritus and Vergil, respectively. He also examines the characters and observes that although Corydon’s name has established bona fides in bucolic poetry, Ornytus’ name is a subtle invocation of epic, having occurred previously not in bucolic poetry, but at Aeneid 11.677–89. This intertextual relationship is buttressed by the description of Ornytus’ tall physique, which he has in common with his counterpart in Vergil’s epic. Ornytus thus embodies the genus grande in this poem, a detail that becomes especially poignant when Corydon asks Ornytus to read the prophecy that they find inscribed high up on the bark of a tree. To sum up, Ornytus, a representative of epic, reads aloud a prophecy of a new golden age that is clearly a panegyric for Nero, all in the bucolic setting of a grotto shaded by trees that represent Calpurnius’ predecessors in pastoral poetry.

Each successive chapter brings fresh observations about the intertextuality of Calpurnius’ poetry and its genre-bending characteristics, with thorough citation and discussion of the relevant scholarship. Indeed, some might say that Karakasis’ engagement with previous scholarship borders on excessive—it is not uncommon for the footnotes to occupy a third or more of the page—but, on the other hand, others will appreciate the fullness of the citations and the bibliography, which itself is an excellent resource for further research.

If the book has a flaw it is that Karakasis shines a light in every grotto, investigates every tree, and scrutinizes every inhabitant of Calpurnius’ bucolic world to find evidence of intertextuality or the transcendence of as many generic boundaries as possible, but he does not devote much space to judging the effect of those features on the poems as poetry. His conclusions about the intertextuality of the poems do not suffer from the defects of some studies of intertextuality. For example, at no point does Karakasis’ identification of an intertextual reference strain credibility by resting on mere verbal similarity without meaningful ties to context or other details. The book leaves no doubt about Calpurnius’ skill and technique. Yet, considering Karakasis’ mastery of the text and bucolic poetry in general, it would have been nice to see more space devoted to an assessment of the quality of Calpurnius’ literary artistry and innovations. With regard to the text, it bears mentioning that Karakasis uses Duff and Duff’s text from the Loeb Classical Library instead of a more standard reference edition such as Giarratano’s, but he does note where he departs from the Loeb text, and his choice of text does not have a negative effect on his argument.

The book itself is sturdy, relatively free from typographical errors, and attractive, with one exception: the typesetter has consistently used a long dash where one normally expects a hyphen, which can lead to misreading.