BMCR 2018.11.18

Griechische Literaturgeschichtsschreibung: Traditionen, Probleme und Konzepte

, , Griechische Literaturgeschichtsschreibung: Traditionen, Probleme und Konzepte. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2017. 312. ISBN 9783110468144. €109,95.

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

This modest and charming volume of essays interrogates long-standing presumptions and organising principles in the creation of (mostly Greek) literary histories, both ancient and modern. For the most part, the volume describes historical trends rather than being prescriptive in nature. It provides a series of productive and secure jumping off points from which other scholars might benefit. The tight scope of the volume – more an exercise in nuanced problematising than a collection that seeks to resolve the problems identified – strongly works in its favour. That said, the volume is not without its issues. These I shall return to at the end of the review.

The topic is not new: classicists recent and old have long considered form, function, ideology, periodisation, encyclopaedism, corpus creation and ordering of knowledge in its ancient guise.1 The inclusion of more modern reflections on the subject is where this volume distinguishes itself. As the Foreword clarifies, the roots of the volume lie in the papers four contributors gave at the colloquium celebrating the sixtieth birthday of Bernhard Zimmermann, the editor of three volumes of the well-regarded literary history, the Handbuch der griechischen Literatur der Antike.

The volume is structured in two halves, the first part devoted to modern problems and concepts, the second to traditions in antiquity, with the fourteen contributions, in German or English, split evenly between them. The division is helpful, if artificial: Lämmle’s erudite and millennium-spanning piece on the reception of tragedy is forcibly shunted into the antique second half, despite its title and its post-classical bent. Equally, no eyelid would have been batted had Tilg’s contribution been placed in the second half.

Grethlein’s contribution, ‘Literary History! The Case of Ancient Greek Literature’, effectively acts as the volume’s introduction, admirably summarising the contributions, and stating the volume’s purpose, namely that classicists should reflect on their tools (p. 22). The first part of his contribution gives the necessary amount of history, background and theory to firmly anchor the volume’s purpose, though the sheer density of its learning and reference can be a little daunting. A comprehensive and taut survey of the contributions is provided by Grethlein (pp. 22-27) in the second half of his piece. Given limitations of space, I provide here my general impressions together with a brief examination of a few of the contributions that stood out for me.

I begin first with Grethlein’s framing. Grethlein’s basic contention is that modern literary histories have “emerged under the shadow of Historicism” (p. 11), resulting in comprehensive encyclopaedias or companions that favour an approach focused on “individual authors, genres and epochs” (p. 13).2 He argues that the postmodern critique of Historicism has, ironically, served to highlight the importance of historicity to studies of literature and a return to an appreciation of diachrony is required, with no need to ‘organise’ only by either author or genre. Hose’s Kleine griechische Literaturgeschichte is held up as an example of possible structuring principles, as in its use of “the forms and sites of production and circulation as a grid….it highlights the social and political entanglements of ancient literature” (p. 21). In contrast, de Jong’s Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative are singled out as being limited in their usefulness in their exploration of narratological categories in historical accounts, which for Grethlein requires “a more nuanced approach” (p. 22).3

The fact that Grethlein’s views on the future shape of literary histories are not reflected in the majority of the contributions indicates that he is already ahead of the field and exactly the right scholar to marshal its direction. With that said, more immediately digestible approaches to the volume’s key concepts are found in Rengakos’s essay and in Montanari’s lively, enjoyable and eminently readable contribution. Newcomers to the topic are advised to begin there.

Given the range of topics over such an immense timeframe, individual readers will find themselves first drawn to familiar fields before turning to those contributions that seem less accessible. Broadly speaking therefore, articles that limit their discussion to a set range of texts, and clearly sign-post their arguments prove to be the most effective; few readers will be expert in all spheres covered by the volume. In terms of clarity, Tilg, Montanari, Kim and Lämmle deserve especial mention. Halliwell’s excellent back-to- basics piece on Aristotle would have benefited from a similar approach. A few of the contributions tread on each other’s toes in discussing similar material at length, but it is to be expected that Aristotle’s Poetics casts a shadow over a volume devoted to literary criticism. To re-tread familiar material might usually thought to be irritating, but given the volume covers material over such swathes of time, this point of contact provides a grounding and focus for readers who might otherwise lose themselves.

The range of practices evident in Greek literary histories in antiquity is nicely spotlighted by Kim’s pleasingly revisionist piece on literary history in the imperial period. While we might be accustomed to narratives bewailing the decline of Greek eloquence in both Latin and Greek (Pseudo-Longinus, Cicero’s Brutus, Tacitus’ Dialogus amongst them), Kim’s contrasting of three texts that detail the historical development of rhetoric, rather turns the cliché on its head. Dionysius’ preface to On the Ancient Orators has been repeatedly pored over and deemed an outlier to that pessimistic movement. But, by pairing it with Plutarch’s little-considered-in-this-context On the Oracles of the Pythia, Kim demonstrates that “Dionysius and Plutarch subsume the very qualities associated with decline…into their developmental models” (p. 214). Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists is also offered up as part of the proof.

Tilg’s contribution on understanding the inherent pliability of the Greek novel is commendable for both his clear identification of the issues at hand and for an approach that gels well with the volume’s larger concerns. Though we might be accustomed to thinking of the novel as an established genre, issues arrive when we misapply a post-classical conception of the novel onto a genre that, in antiquity, lacked a name, let alone a literary theory prescribing its form. Chariton and Heliodorus themselves are summoned as witnesses; they appear to have seen their works as theatrical in nature. In turn, this may explain why the term δρᾶμα became attached to them. It did not signify a genre per se, but was a “gattungsmäßiger Ersatz ”, an indication only that these works were comparable to drama (p. 87). Anchoring himself to a sense of generic inclusivity, Tilg rapidly surveys the extant and fragmentary novels, which were not mere romances, nor should the corpus be subdivided into hierarchies of type and form, as has been en vogue of late. Consequently, Tilg opts for a wide-ranging and catholic definition of the novel as a “längere fiktionale Prosaerzählung” (p. 96).

Hose’s short exploratory piece is perhaps the essay in the volume that best promotes further discussion and debate. After tracing the German history of histories and compendia of Greek authors and offering a critique, he posits that future historians should concentrate on what he calls the “enabling interrelations” ( Ermöglichungszusammenhänge) of literature. He names four parameters for consideration, essentially a revised form of discourse analysis for the moment: (a) the substrate of producers and recipients; (b) mediality, especially between written and oral material; (c) institutions that enable the creation of literature and; (d) the effect of mediality and institutions on the development of the formal language of Greek literature, namely genres and their application.

Yet, I suggest, if we are to understand the production of literature in antiquity by such institutionally entrenched perspectives we will of course find ourselves relying on an historical record and on institutions that wittingly or unwittingly marginalise and normalise and so risk defining a classical canon devoid of women and of marginal texts, where early Christian and Jewish authors are once more absent.

Some modest criticism for a modest volume then. For all its vigour and humour, there is something of the closed institution to its composition: an astounding number of professors, no younger voices, a strongly represented Heidelberg contingent, and no apparent endeavour to seek out more voices from women or ethnic minorities. The singling out of de Jong for criticism at the start of the volume thus seems questionable. As the volume seeks to stimulate reflection it might have applied that lesson, however mildly, to itself.

The general verdict though is clear: the volume treads a fine and stimulating line. Some articles deviate from Grethlein’s declared outlook more than might be expected, especially those that look to genre, author and epoch as their primary focus (Rengakos, Kim, Kolfler, Tilg, Lämmle inter alia). But that is to the volume’s good; it is a freedom that proves to be provoking in the best of ways. Furthermore, although the stated focus of the volume is on Greek literary histories, the general principles outlined will be of much interest to Latinists as well, especially Kofler’s contribution on the impact of Greek literary history on Latin love elegy, as well as Kim’s and Whitmarsh’s cross-cultural comparisons.

As for language and copy-editing, the editors have been badly let down. The English editing in the volume is ‘surprisingly inconsistent’. This is particularly noticeable in Rengakos’s article. It comes with several ungrammatical sentences, application of German apostrophe rules to English, basic typographical errors, wayward punctuation, and a general sense that the wrong version of the article was printed by mistake.4 The Stellenregister is helpful, while the Sachregister mixes English and German without establishing a hierarchy of languages. It may therefore be necessary for readers to translate terms themselves and then scan the Sachregister from beginning to end. At this price one might expect better copy-editing.

Table of Contents

Vorwort, 7
I. Moderne Probleme und Konzepte
Jonas Grethlein, Literary History! The Case of Ancient Greek Literature, 11-29
Tim Whitmarsh, Quantum Classics. Literature, Historicism, Untimeliness, Uncertainty, 30-45
Martin Hose, Nekrophilie? Zur Literaturgeschichtsschreibung nach dem „Tod des Autors“, 46-59
Günter Figal, Beteiligter Blick von außen. Die literaturgeschichtliche Bedeutung der Philosophie als Literatur, 60-70
Antonios Rengakos, The Literary Histories of the Hellenistic Age, 71-82
Stefan Tilg, Eine Gattung ohne Namen, Theorie und feste Form. Der griechische Roman als literaturgeschichtliche Herausforderung, 83-101
Wolfgang Kofler, Die römische Liebeselegie als Sklavin der (griechischen) Literaturgeschichte. Überlegungen zur Kontingenz von Gattungszuschreibungen, 102-118
II. Antike Traditionen
Rebecca Lämmle, An Klassikern kranken. Christoph Martin Wieland und die tragische Klassik der Griechen, 121-152
Franco Montanari, The Idea of History of Literature. The Beginnings in Ancient Greek Culture, 153-169
Michael Erler, Literaturgeschichte entsteht aus Literatur. Warum Platon seine Epen verbrannte 170-188
Stephen Halliwell, Was Aristotle a Literary Historian? 189-211
Lawrence Kim, Literary History in Imperial Greece. Dionysius’ On Ancient Orators, Plutarch’s On the Oracles of the Pythia, Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists, 212-247
Richard Hunter, Autobiography as Literary History: Dio Chrysostom, On exile, 248-270
Athanassios Vergados, Der Dichter als Leser und (Fehl-)interpret: Hesiod in den homerischen Scholien, 271-298
Namensregister, 299
Sachregister/Index of Subjects, 304-305
Stellenregister, 306-312


1. The bibliography is extensive, and not restricted to Greek. e.g. D. Feeney, Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature, Harvard 2016; G.O. Hutchinson, Greek to Latin: Frameworks and Contexts for Intertextuality, Oxford 2013; D. Levene, Tacitus’ “Dialogus” as Literary History, TAPhA 134, 157-200, 2004. J. König, A. Oikonomopoulou, G. Woolf, Ancient Libraries, Cambridge 2016 and J. König, & G. Woolf, Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Cambridge 2013 are especially useful for further reflection on these themes.

2. Whitmarsh’s contribution usefully nuances Historicism in relation to the subject at hand. I refrain from commenting on Whitmarsh’s and Hunter’s contributions because of extensive past contact.

3. Grethlein’s review in BMCR 2012.09.18 provides a deeper critique of De Jong’s approach in the third of her Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative.

4. Corrections might begin with: classical vs Classical; imperial vs Imperial; Jauß’ for Jauß’s (p. 16 n.22); Theophrast’s for Theophrastus’ (p. 24); different English titles within the same article for the same Greek work e.g. “On old rhetors” vs. “On the ancient orators”; uneven application of superscript ‘st’, ‘nd’, ‘rd’, ‘th’ for ordinal numbers. The choice to transliterate or quote Greek was not standardised.
Additionally, use of BC/BCE and AD/CE was not standardised. Use of Roman numerals for centuries was not standardised. Long quotations caused issues: no hierarchy for translation and original text was established – sometimes Greek or Latin first, sometimes the translation first. Occasionally long quotations (e.g. p. 255 and p. 257) lacked a full Greek text, although that practice was common elsewhere. Furthermore, italicisation errors in the Stellenregister; on one occasion a stroke is followed by missing English translation in the Sachregister; the Namensregister confuses references to Pseudo-Longinus and Longinus.
Rengakos’s piece had issues with incorrect tense use e.g. “has been invented” for “was invented”. It needed more commas to help with sense; hyphens have been used for full stops; and consistent choices should have been made regarding encycloped- vs encyclopaed-, classical vs Classical, classicism vs Classicism. ‘Callimachus from Cyrene’ is used for ‘Callimachus of Cyrene’ p. 75, Wilamowitz’ for Wilamowitz’s p. 75 and p. 78; ‘on their entirety’ is used for ‘in their entirety’ p. 76; square brackets are missing in a quotation p. 75; the use of brackets causes singular/plural verb confusion p. 78.