BMCR 2019.12.40

Antiquities and Classical Traditions in Latin America. Bulletin of Latin American Research book series

, , Antiquities and Classical Traditions in Latin America. Bulletin of Latin American Research book series. Hoboken: Sons, 2018. 221. ISBN 9781119559337. $34.95.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The ranks of publications on Classics ~ Latin America (no one preposition can encapsulate the relationalities) have just grown once again thanks to this fascinating new collection edited by Nicola Miller and Andrew Laird. In 2006, in what was then one of the first Anglophone studies of its kind, Laird called out the degree to which evidence from the Latin American context has traditionally met with blithe ‘indifference’ from ‘classicists who deem such material irrelevant to the business of interpreting … the literary, historical and other legacies of Greece and Rome’, resulting in ‘the consistent omission of Latin America from histories of the classical tradition’.1 Ten years later, a two-day conference on ‘Classical Traditions in Latin American History’—the event from which this volume arises2—was held in London in May 2016 at the Warburg Institute, “home” of the classical tradition itself. This and other recent ventures are a testament to the increased activity and growing traction which—amid the shifting profile of, and pressure on, the field of Classics as a whole—the subject is now beginning to gain.3 Even so, this collection too both opens and closes by sounding the itself by now traditional note of lament at the fact that there is overall still so ‘little systematic study of the significance of the classical traditions’ of Latin America (p. 7) and that the region remains only ‘rarely associated with Greco-Roman antiquity’ (p. 196). One looks forward to the day when this sort of claim-staking and scene-setting are no longer necessary: to the day when it is as obvious why Latin America comes under the purview of classical studies as Sicily or Britain—or North America.

Volumes like this will help us to get there. There is currently no other collection quite like it, certainly not in the Anglophone world. 4 Divided into twelve chapters, bookended by a preface and introduction (the former by Laird and Miller, the latter by Laird alone) and an itself ‘muscular’ Envoi from Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra at the end (cf. p. 200), the pieces showcase the vibrancy and diversity of the classical tradition in Latin America across a range of cultural production contexts, authored by scholars likewise drawn from across the academic spectrum—from doctoral students to luminaries of the field such as those just mentioned. (Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.) Topics range from well-known subjects and figures—usual suspects include Simón Bolívar, Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges—to the distinctly less familiar, while others again (notably Erika Valdivieso in her chapter on El Inca Garcilaso and Eric Cullhed in his on Bolívar et al.) manage to say new things about well- known ones: altogether the volume attests to a redoubtable body of research. Chapters are arranged in chronological order, taking us from some of the earliest encounters between the Greco-Roman and American worlds in the sixteenth century all the way into the twentieth and twenty-first with such titans of contemporary Latin American letters as Gabriel García Márquez (1927- 2014) and Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). Nor is the focus exclusively literary: the pieces by Alejandra Rojas Silva and Byron Hamann in particular offer a compelling diptych on interactions between European and indigenous Meso-American traditions in the visual and material culture of sixteenth-century New Spain (Mexico), while Miller in hers on classical traces in contexts other than the “high cultural” likewise stresses the degree to which Greco-Roman forms were woven into the very fabric of public life across Latin America (p. 145). In geographical terms, the volume also achieves good coverage: though Mexico looms as large as it always does in studies of Latin America ~ Classics—it is the overt subject of no fewer than five of the chapters, with extended cameos in several others—the volume does also feature dedicated pieces on places including Cuba, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, along with more fleeting focus on material from everywhere from Chile to Nicaragua. The only truly glaring omission is Brazil, which commands no dedicated discussion and is confined to a few scattered mentions dotted in the index: while clearly no edited collection can be exhaustive in scope, it does seem an especially large omission for a volume on ‘Antiquities and Classical Traditions in Latin America ’—and could so easily have been parried as an objection (‘…in Spanish America’).

More important than any one local context, however, is the lively network of “classical” activity across the whole region to which the chapters cumulatively attest; indeed, given the high mobility of figures, texts and ideas from first European|American contact onwards, the space in which this story unfolds might be aptly denoted by the portmanteau which contributor Byron Hamann coins: the ‘Mediterratlantic’. Sure enough, a cover-to-cover reading of the collection reveals a fascinating tissue of interactions between and across all the chapters. (A degree of heavier-duty interventionism might at times have drawn these out even more for the benefit of the non-“cover-to-cover” reader: at present, one gets the sense that the editorial touch was overall a little light.)5 Desiree Arbo and Rosa Andújar, for instance, both consider utopian(istic) interpretations of the American context, of two radically contrasting kinds: the former a colonial-era Jesuit meditation on missionarism in Paraguay parsed through the prism of Plato’s Republic, the latter the writings of a post-Independence Caribbean thinker who turned to Greece for his own intensely political vision of Latin America’s future. Andújar’s chapter, on Pedro Henríquez Ureña, also exhibits close connections with Elina Miranda Cancela’s on the role of Greece in the thought of Cuban Independence-era hero José Martí, with a number of similar points made—albeit often interpreted to opposite effect: a prime example of a pair which could perhaps have been brought into closer dialogue. Meanwhile, Valdivieso’s Peruvian-born polyglot El Inca Garcilaso, whose literary-historical projects ranged from Quechua to Italian, is in (as it were) conversation with Laird’s equally multilingual Meso-American writers, whose activities spanned the gamut from Nahuatl to Latin. Garcilaso’s (particular brand of) Neoplatonism also resonates with the (particular brand of) Platonism of the aforementioned Jesuit, while Laird’s Meso-Americans were reading everything from Diogenes Laertius to Isidore of Seville. Natalia Maillard Álvarez duly applies herself to the subject of classical books transmitted from Europe to the Americas; Cañizares-Esguerra then considers the texts by which Ibero-American authors “broadcast” back: the Atlantic is alive with materials criss-crossing to and fro. And Robert T. Conn offers a survey piece which, by dint of sheer range of writers discussed, establishes lines of correspondence both across itself and with the volume as a whole. Indeed, one of the writers he considers, the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó (1871-1917), is easily among the most namechecked in the entire volume, with dedicated discussion of his (proto-)postcolonial epochal essay Ariel (1900) featuring in no fewer than five of the chapters. If one had to choose a single text to represent Latin American classical engagement for the undergraduate Classics curriculum, should this be it?

Rojas and Hamann, meanwhile, present the aforementioned dyad on evolutions in the material-cultural symbolic economies of Mexico—the former a study of a classically-inflected botanical triptych from a sixteenth-century medicinal work, the latter a Greco-Roman apotropaic device working its way into codes of Meso-American visual literacy—while Stuart McManus also offers an interdisciplinary exploration of visual and literary interplay, again from the Mexican context but this time in relation to the theme of rhetorical exemplarity. Conversely, in what I found to be easily one of the most thought-provoking pieces in the collection, Cullhed brings the chapters to a close with his fascinating contribution on unexemplarity. In it, he pulls the rug delightfully from under the reader’s feet, just as one was mentally congratulating the volume on having struck such a good balance between Greece and Rome, by pointing out that the “Ancient” Greco-Roman focus is itself narrow when there is also (among other things) Byzantium. This in turn opens the floodgates to thoughts of what else might all have been included: where, for instance, is discussion of the Egypto- and especially hieroglyphomania that gripped Latin America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? In drawing our attention to Latin American receptions of the Byzantine, Cullhed thus offers his own further tweak of a corrective to this already non-standard narrative.

This brings us to a major consideration, as also to our main quibbles. For a volume on ‘antiquities and classical traditions’, there is remarkably little by way of steer on, or scrutiny of, the remit of the term “classical”—or, for that matter, of “antiquity” itself.6 Though the opening sentence of the preface programmatically declares that ‘[a]ntiquities and classical traditions in Latin America are not confined to those of Greece and Rome’ (p. 7), in practice things do broadly then proceed as if “classical” equated to the “Greco-Roman”7 cultures of the Mediterranean Basin from the era known in Eurocentric periodisations as “antiquity”, even though clearly in the Latin American context neither of these is what one might call self-evident. At best there is a degree of slippage as contributors pirouette around definitions of the classic(al): and so one can make it all the way to Cullhed’s closing contribution on the ‘unclassical’ without having yet understood what “the classical” actually is. Similarly, though the volume is on ‘antiquities’, “antiquity” too could have done with some more obvious theorisation and pluralisation—and relativisation.8 Perhaps this was supposed to go without saying—many of the chapters do deal with co-existences and syncretisms between existing versus incoming cultural practices—but it too could have been more explicitly drawn out. After all, to adapt a phrase from Miller (p. 144), what this is all ultimately about is a tale of Latin American moderns in search of their ancients. The reason that, after 1492, it is by no means obvious who those ‘ancients’ might be is because of the nature of the colonial wound and the rupture which this caused: a tale of dis/continuities. At the same time, the influx of new cultural elements from Europe—a whole new set of “transatlantic antiquities”—resulted in a radical new pluralisation and opening-out of the field: along with the Incan or the “Aztec” or the Taíno (etc.), Roman and Greek—including, as we learn, Byzantine Greek—cultural elements are now irreducibly also in the mix.

Question of plurality bring us to our second point. While the chronological arrangement of chapters works well in many senses, it does also have the defect (or virtue?) of making it only too clear when something receives mention for the first time, flagging up all the pages—years—of preceding silence on the subject. Though we do have chapters on indigenous figures (Laird’s, Valdivieso’s; the artisans presumably involved in Rojas’s and Hamann’s), no Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean figure is mentioned until Miller’s contribution in Chapter 10, by which point we are nearly a hundred and fifty pages into the volume—and over three centuries into European|American|African contact history.9 (The volume does not, I might add, contain discussion of a single non-male thinking or writing subject either.10) Thus, even though Miller’s contribution is then also followed a couple of chapters later by Andújar’s excellent one on Dominican-born Pedro Henríquez Ureña (1884-1946)—including overt reflections on the racism which he experienced in both Argentina and North America—these chapters centring on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries only serve to point up all those people about, and from, whom we have not previously heard. The parallels with the Greek and Roman worlds—slave societies too—and the study thereof will be obvious. For every person who enters or inflects the written record, an untold number of people remain in silence: silenced.

With a volume on a subject itself still so widely written out of the cultural narrative, however, it would be churlish to close on the subject of omissa. Clearly not every project can do everything, and this one already puts pressure on the evidence in a number of very important ways. What it undoubtedly does best is precisely that which—“classical” definition question notwithstanding—it seems to have set out to do: to show that, whatever other elements were in the mix in colonial and postcolonial Latin America, the Romans and the Greeks were there among them, and there to stay—introduced through colonial incursion, and assimilated, appropriated and creatively reckoned with ever after. In response to Cañizares-Esguerra’s (rhetorical) question of ‘Whose classical traditions?’, the answer is plainly: also Latin America’s, among others—and among others’. No-one who reads the volume could fail to be persuaded of this. Sooner than Rodó, then, perhaps it is rather this that should be required reading for the Classics undergraduate. Though published in a Latin American Studies series, it is a recommended acquisition for every Classics library. More to the point, it is no “though” at all.

Table of Contents

Preface / Andrew Laird and Nicola Miller
1. Introduction: Classical Traditions and Controversies in Latin American History / Andrew Laird
2. The Early Circulation of Classical Books in New Spain and Peru / Natalia Maillard Álvarez
3. Gardens of Origin and the Golden Age in the Mexican Libellus de medicinalibus indorum herbis (1552) / Alejandra Rojas Silva
4. Comparison and Seeing in the Mediterratlantic / Byron Ellsworth Hamann
5. The Inca Garcilaso in Dialogue with Neoplatonism / Erika Valdivieso
6. Universal History and New Spain’s Indian Past: Classical Knowledge in Nahua Chronicles / Andrew Laird
7. The Exemplary Power of Antiquity: Humanist Rhetoric and Ceremony in Seventeenth-Century New Spain / Stuart M. McManus
8. Plato and the Guaraní Indians / Desiree Arbo
9. Classicism in Modern Latin America from Simón Bolívar to Roberto Bolaño / Robert T. Conn
10. Classical Motifs in Spanish American Nation-Building: Looking Beyond the Elites / Nicola Miller
11. Greece and José Martí / Elina Miranda Cancela
12. Pedro Henríquez Ureña’s Hellenism and the American Utopia / Rosa Andújar
13. Born with the Wrinkles of Byzantium: Unclassical Traditions in Spanish America, 1815-1925 / Eric Cullhed
14. Envoi : Whose Classical Traditions? / Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra


Excepting problems with Spanish accents, which I make no attempt to list, note the following:

p. 9, n. 3: Silk, Gildenhard and Barrow is 2014, not 2013 (correct on p. 25); p. 10 n.4 and p. 22: ‘Ijsewijn’ > ‘IJsewijn’; p. 13: ‘sixteeenth’ > ‘sixteenth’; p. 14 (and passim): ‘Patria’ should not be capitalised; p. 21 (entry on Buelna Serrano): ‘traductor del De re república’ > ‘…del De re publica’; p. 22: the entries on ‘Habinek’ and ‘Haase’ should be inverted; p. 25: ‘Atlándida’ > ‘Atlántida’ (though N.B. sic in the original); ibid.: ‘posesiones españoles’ > ‘…españolas’; p. 27: insert ‘the’ before ‘Catholic monarchs’ (conversely, the ‘Casa de la Contratación’, p. 29, is more usually the ‘Casa de Contratación’); p. 30: insert line space between the entries on Terence and Virgil; p. 34: Diego de Mexía (Jr.) travelled from Peru to Mexico in 1596, not 1576; p. 35, n.9: ‘terceros’ > ‘tercetos’; p. 38: ‘10 Tulios de Oficis, Amberes, in octavo, a 3 reales’ should be italicised; p. 41 n.1 and pp. 220-1: ‘Velazco’ > ‘Velasco’; p. 47: superfluous ‘a’ in ‘…Quetzalcoatl is described as a “a great craftsman…”’; p. 49: ‘omnis feret omnia tellus’ should be indented; p. 59: close quotation after the word ‘Yucatán’; p. 65: insert ‘a’ before ‘point’ in ‘this is [a] point to which we will return below’; p. 69: insert ‘the’ before ‘viceregal church’; ibid.: ‘Thas’ > ‘This’/‘That’; p. 71: ‘Verlagstanstalt’ (twice) > ‘Verlagsanstalt’; p. 77: delete full-stop after second indented citation (or insert one after the others); p. 81: cross- reference to ‘page 69 above’ > is page 77 meant?; p. 85: ‘…de los Poetas Hispano-Americano’ > ‘…-americanos’; p. 91: ‘visibles y invisibles’: sic ?; ibid.: ‘la ley evangélico’: sic ?; p. 99: ‘Cosimo de Medici’ > ‘Cosimo de’ Medici’; p. 101: standardise listing of works of Domingo Chimalpahin Cuauhtlenahuanitzin; p. 106: Nicolás del Puerto’s oration was in 1666, not 1566; p. 107: spacing of the bottom line is odd; p. 114: ‘Caesar Augustus’ but ‘Augustus Caesar’ on p. 115; p. 116: ‘para que descuellan y se veneran’ > ‘para que descuellen … y se veneren’; p. 120: ‘quiddam simile exstitisse Platonis inventis inter Guaranios Indos’ > ‘…extitisse Platonicis…’; p. 129 (and p. 119): Feile Tomes 2015c [ IJCT 22(3): 383-9] (erratum to 2015b) is missing; p. 130: ‘Josephus Emmanuelis Peramasius’ > ‘Emmanuel’; ibid.: ‘libris tres’ > ‘libri tres’; p. 135: ‘Antonio Caso’ > ‘Alfonso Caso’; p. 156: Rodó is missing from the bibliography; p. 160: insert ‘they’ before ‘offer’ (in indented citation); p. 163: ‘que yo amo más…’ unaccounted for in the translation; p. 165: insert ‘the’ before ‘time’ in ‘…the needs of time’; p. 166: should ‘formula’ be ‘formulae’?; ibid.: the first line of bibliography is widowed at the bottom of the page; p. 172 n.7: ‘perfeccionamento’ > ‘perfeccionamiento’; p. 176: ‘prestige’ (in Spanish indented citation) > ‘prestigio’ (and decapitalise ‘Guerra’?); p. 180 (entry on Van Delden): 7.3 > 7(3); p. 185: ‘…the language that I would sing for you’ > ‘…the language in which…’; p. 188: is Greece really offered as a source of ‘internal’ youth?; p. 191: delete superfluous ‘the’ in ‘…at the heart of the González Prada’s “festering core”…’; p. 195: ‘Tejeras, J. D.’ > ‘Tejera’; p. 221: ‘Villaroel’ > ‘Villarroel’.

The whole collection is also notable for a rather rogue use of commas, either missing or misplaced. More significantly, there are a number of elements I would query in translations from the Latin and Spanish, including a couple of reasonably serious obfuscations of meaning (e.g. ‘…en las representaciones populares que se hace el mexicano del poder viril’ rendered as ‘…in popular representations and turns into the powerful Mexican male’, p. 139, instead of ‘…in the popular representations which Mexicans make of male power’ vel sim.). However, as it is often not made clear (itself a quibble) whether or not translations are contributors’ own, this is not the right place.


1. Andrew Laird, The Epic of America: An Introduction to Rafael Landívar and the Rusticatio Mexicana (London: Duckworth, 2006), 5.

2. As the change in title suggests, the focus on history seems to have melted away somewhat in the transformation to published collection: the volume now reads as a series of case studies in the presence of Greco-Roman elements in a variety of artistic and above all literary media—not that literature is unhistorical, of course.

3. Contrast with his 2006 remarks Laird’s more recent statement that ‘Anglophone scholars have begun to acknowledge the richness and extent of Latin literature from early modern Spanish America and Brazil’ (in ‘Classical letters and millenarian madness in post-conquest Mexico: the Ecstasis of Fray Cristóbal Cabrera (1548)’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 24.1, 78).

4. Though see recently for instance Kathryn Bosher et al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas (Oxford: OUP, 2015), and, forthcoming, Rosa Andújar and Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos, eds., Greeks and Romans on the Latin American Stage (Bloomsbury, 2020) or Matthew Duquès, Maya Feile Tomes and Adam Goldwyn, eds., Brill’s Companion to Classics in the Early Americas (Brill, forthcoming). On Hispanophone examples, see pp. 9-10 n.3.

5. For instance, the tradition of Franciscan education in Mexico, for which Hamann (p. 70) cross-refers to Rojas, is also discussed by several others; the conviction of the C20th Mexican intellectual Alfonso Reyes that ‘for Mexico to be modern, it needed to be able to call itself a home to classical philology’ (Conn, p. 136) could have benefited from interaction with C18th ideas about it being the patriotic duty of young Mexicans to master Latin (Laird, pp. 15-16). There is also quite some variation in chapter length: and while there is no-one from whom I would have wished to hear less, there are several— notably Arbo and Valdivieso—from whom one would welcome more.

6. A few honourable exceptions notwithstanding: see for instance Hamann on the use of ‘Classic’ in periodisations of pre-Hispanic American archaeology (p. 71), and especially Cullhed on the need to ‘circumscribe and, conceivably, to relativise the importance of the classical tradition alongside other pre-modern narratives’ (p. 183).

7. Consider, for instance, Cañizares-Esguerra’s closing statement that the volume has considered ‘…the different ways in which classical traditions endured in a region rarely associated with Greco-Roman antiquity’ (p. 196), seemingly equating the two.

8. On the relativisation of antiquity, see recently Ute Schüren, Daniel Marc Segesser and Thomas Späth, eds., Globalized Antiquity: Uses and Perceptions of the Past in South Asia, Mesoamerica, and Europe (Berlin: Reimer, 2015), especially Späth on ‘Provincializing antiquity? Uses of the past compared’ (pp. 319-37). See also n.6 above. There is also more to be said about Eurocentricity, and indeed the obsession with “remote” antiquity as itself a Eurocentric cultural metric, even in seemingly non-Eurocentric notions like José Martí’s that Latin Americans should trace their origins back to their ‘own Greece’ (quoted Miller, p. 155).

9. An allusion in the preface to the role of Greek tragedy in representing Latin America’s ‘racial conflict’ (p. 7) is made with reference only to the ‘contemporary’, viz. C20th and 21st, context.

10. Compare Andújar on how certain definitions of American utopianism are so narrow as to exclude those ‘elements crucial to Latin America: the indigenous, Afro-Latinos and women’ (p. 178).