BMCR 2020.03.53

Author unknown: the power of anonymity in ancient Rome

Tom Geue, Author unknown: the power of anonymity in ancient Rome. . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. vii, 361 p.. ISBN 9780674988200 $45.00.


This book is an important contribution to the thriving field of authorship studies on ancient literature. It challenges one of the biggest obsessions in historicist scholarship: to connect a given text to the nomen of its author: in the words of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff , “we should not forget that the ancient horror vacui did not easily tolerate anonymous poems” (my translation).[1] Consequently, the identification of a verifiable source for a text was considered among the primary duties of classicists. No wonder that in 1943 Nazi authorities called on the Hellenist Richard Harder, of all the potential experts available, to produce a specific authorial profile concerning provocative flyers that had been distributed anonymously in Munich. His conjectures about the likely perpetrator of such subversive action, however, did not contribute to the eventual arrest of the White Rose resistance group on the campus of Munich University.

The importance of anonymous texts in the development of Latin literature was first underlined by Henri Bardon in his two-volume La littérature latine inconnue (Paris 1952/1956). Bardon described his approach as “cette entreprise étrange, ce dialogue avec le silence” (vol. I p. 14) and concluded that “incomplete knowledge is nevertheless worthier than oblivion” (vol. 1 p. 373, my translation). Geue in his monograph shares Bardon’s admiration for the anonymi who – in contrast to their neglect by classicists – offer their interpreters glimpses of an “irritant mystère” (vol. II p. 317). Whereas Bardon, however, considered anonymity stricto sensu as a secondary phenomenon, Geue in his analysis of Roman literature shows how forms of authorial absence, whether external or internal, affect the meaning of a text.

In his introduction (pp. 1–25), Geue emphasizes that the poverty of authorial and contextual frames enables us to re-read texts as autonomous and “unmastered” (ἀδέσποτα) literary products, the organic anonymity of which serves as one of the main functions of the text. The universalizing force of authorless works, for one, serves as a device of timeless and non-context-bound transcendence; it also crucially affects the recipients’ impression that those words could stem from anyone/everyone. As to the semantics of authorlessness in Latin,[2] the literary discourse prefers formulations such as sine auctore, nullus auctor, auctor incertus that work productively against the background of Roman name economy. Geue differentiates his study on anonymity from approaches that highlight fakery, forgery, or pseudepigraphy. Accordingly, a passage from Quintilian (5.11.41), where popular sayings (vulgo dicta) are considered common property of unknown authorship serves as an intriguing foundation for the analysis of Roman Imperial literature.

The book divides into three parts in eight chapters. The first part (“The Power of the Name”) deals with the political potential of anonymity: chapter 1 (pp. 31–52) sets the stage with Augustus’ authorship of the Res Gestae. Its clandestine, yet ubiquitous first-person agent modestly acts in someone else’s name. The eradication of political opponents’ names paves the way to their damnatio. Τhe latter phenomenon, the suppression and substitution of proper names, which Geue terms antonomasia, could have been treated more extensively. In contrast with Augustan authorship, Suetonius’ Caesars presents anti-Caesarean knowledge spread by the gossipy vox populi. Verses sine auctore gain authoritative truth-value as sayings shared by the Roman masses. The Caesars thus documents the process from the official knowledge of the early lives towards anonymity as an obscure strategy of resistance in the latter ones, in which the principes become dominated by the uncontrollable anonymous.

In the previous chapter, anonymity wins the day against evil emperors. In chapter 2 (pp. 53–79) it enhances the infinite and collateral damage of iambic aggression in Ovid’s Ibis. Here it eliminates the names of the victims by depersonalization, rendering them everyman targets of cacophonous speech. I wondered if the Ibis relies much more on Callimachus than Geue admits – the passage dedicated to the Battiades in vv. 51–54 (p. 65) appears less a condescending mention of the predecessor than a caustic ennoblement of the victim that follows the footprints of its Alexandrian homonym (cf. tuosque in v. 54). In my view, such diachronic multiplicity would have enhanced the argument.

Chapter 3 (pp. 80–114) is dedicated to the play Octavia that belongs to an authoritative everyman/any man. Here the tension of internal and external anonymity in and of a text becomes palpable. The eschewal of proper names heightens the exemplary character of Nero’s denigration as an utterly bad emperor. The Octavia timelessly speaks for the people through the distancing devices of collective choral voices and the periphrastic addresses of replicable dramatis personae. One impressive observation of this lengthy analysis of nominal practices is that, whereas Roman men remain in possession of their own names, women are reduced to nameless roles.

The next chapter (pp. 117–142), inaugurating part 2 “The Universal No-Name,” discusses the Fables of Phaedrus, anonymous in the sense that they appear as creations of a fictional or pseudonymous author. Geue explores the author figure by focusing mainly on the five prologues, in which we spot the vicissitudes of an unlucky poet who is eventually doomed to be a no-name – comprising a biographical framework without any external references. This chapter might have gained further evidence by considering more of the extant scholarship on, above all, Phaedrian poetology.[3]

Of the Laus Pisonis (chapter 5, pp. 143–163), we know neither the anonymous author, nor the addressee, the putative Piso. Alongside his fascinating reading, Geue underlines the experimental character of this multicontextual praise that presents the ideal addressee, Piso, sub specie aeternitatis. By transcending the actual moment of praise to an indefinite Caesarean present, the speaker’s unspecific laus remains obscure; and so does our pluralized patron, one of the noble Pisones, a versatile “man without qualities” who fits the type of any given patron. My favorite passage here are the lines about Piso’s mastery in “The Brigands’ Game” (ludus latrunculorum).[4]

The last chapter of the second part (pp. 164–197) deals with the dislocated and timeless pastoral of Calpurnius Siculus’Eclogues. In this work, singing herdsmen operate in concert rather than in competition by speaking as one voice that announces an ever-new golden age. The pastoral as collaborative, or collective, song, which maximizes authorial distance, celebrates an ultimate authority, the unspecified Caesar, and thus becomes a nameless document of Caesarism rather than concrete praise of Caesar. These poems fashion themselves as “secondary” or “pure” pastoral that deny the historical concreteness found in Virgil’s Eclogues.

In the third and last part, “Whence and When,” Geue leaves his “native mode,” i.e. the close reading of Latin literature verse texts, and turns to the analysis of first century AD prose in two chapters, each comprising one back-to-back pair of texts. One such pair, however, takes up roughly the same space as a single poetic text in the previous parts, which makes the last section look a little disproportionate.

Chapter 7 (pp. 201–234) joins two prosimetric texts, Apocolocyntosis and Satyrica. The former, a “pumpkinification” of Claudius, becomes a literal “proverbialization” of the dead emperor and functions as a collective liberation that reorganizes Roman memory. The ubiquitous proverbs and authorless quotations of this text are the only true sources available; they conform to a logic of aporia that leads to intertextual dead ends: the proverbial consensus omnium weighs more than exact knowledge, until, eventually, the readers acknowledge that Claudius is a proverbial monster. Secondly, Geue discusses the role of (para) textual labelling and inscriptions inside the fragmentary and frameless Satyrica (whose unspecific and “timeless” plural title might itself have deserved a little more attention). It is Trimalchio’s deceptive tituli, such as his laudatory grave inscription or the fake tags on the “good old” Opimian wine, that make the respective objects appear as something they are definitely not. Whereas the text tends to unmask such furor epigraphicus made up of false and empty titles, the hidden author of this work withholds any orienting frame that could stop us from questioning the textual medium’s own truthfulness.

The last chapter (pp. 235–271) focuses on two classics of rhetorical and poetic theory: Tacitus’ Dialogus and, more strictly anonymous, [Longinus’] On the Sublime. Both favor the habitual over the singular one-off event, offering enduring occasions (an oxymoron normalized by the Dialogus) and the everyday conditions of writing under the principate. According to Geue, the Dialogus acts as a sort of belated Ciceronian-style dialogue, recording the words of learned speakers of the period. Although some speeches may appear to be historically rooted, the work portrays the old Republican and the present Imperial periods in the broadest terms, shunning concrete specifications. Similarly, On the Sublime follows an agenda of transcendent classicism and self-sublimization, which removes literary quotations from their original contexts and attaches them to almost ahistorical new ones. The sublime is thus a timeless, reproducible phenomenon. Here, however, I wondered how we can harmonize Geue’s view that the sublime has the author and context “fade into irrelevance” (p. 263) with the radical authorial fetish of [Longinus] concerning those few brilliant “demigod” writers of the past.

Finally, the conclusion (pp. 272–275) explores the advantages of the unknowing as a productive hermeneutical tool when examining ancient literature.

This stimulating book offers valuable insights and ideas. The introduction and the brief connecting pre-chapters help readers to orient themselves. It is mostly free from typographical errors. I have attached a few corrigenda below.[5] Geue’s habitual prose style (including his translations, which are well done – but sometimes say more than the original text)[6], often experimental and sometimes colloquial, is another “native mode” that may hinder “non-natives” from reading through it without some effort: however, they will benefit from cutting their way through the idiomatic thicket. Moreover, this book is an entertaining read from the beginning, delivering as its Monty Pythonesque motto a Roman graffito: “Much was inscribed [here] by many, I alone inscribed nothing.” (p. 1). This swirling treatment of the forces and facets of anonymous authorship in Roman literature will act as a hermeneutical counterbalance to attributionist, historicist and contextualist readings.


[1] Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen 158/8, 1896, 634 n. 1. Cf. Harold Love, Attributing Authorship. An Introduction. Cambridge: CUP, 2002, 45: “Attributionists see the anonymous or pseudonymous work as a vacuum in nature which it is their moral duty to fill with an author.”

[2] On the terminology of unknown authorship in the Greek anthology, cf. Andrew S. F. Gow, The Greek Anthology. Sources and Ascriptions. London: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1958, 20–29.

[3] See especially Ursula Gärtner, “Phaedrus 1974–2015,” Lustrum 57, 2017, 9–89. There could be further elaboration on nomino (4 Prol. 11, p. 132) or Aesopus auctor (1 Prol. 1, pp. 119–120: Aesop the author vs. Phaedrus the non-author?).

[4] LP 1–2 (Unde prius coepti surgat mihi carminis ordo etc.) alludes to rhapsodic practices, cf. Od. 9.14, which might serve the LP poet’s advertising propaganda.

[5] Octavia (play) and Octavia (character) are confused on p. 100 and 105. P. 89 contains the only misprint that I found in the book (“eacop1.118h” instead of “each”). I found very few typos: p. 139 “be are,” 196 “poets one stage,” 122 should read Aesopi ingenium instead of ingenio, 140 “Philetus” instead of “Philetas,” and 235 should read “Hans-Georg Gadamer”.

[6] See, e.g., p. 27 non nominavit (“failed to name”), 89 et genetrix simul (“and a mother to boot”), or handle the tenses freely, cf. 34 (agebam septuagensumum sextum: “I am seventy-five years old”), 126 (vidit: “sees”). I found the rendering of montana iubila into “mountain yodels” brilliant (p. 182).