BMCR 2021.06.40

Scale, space and canon in ancient literary culture

, Scale, space and canon in ancient literary culture. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xiv, 890. ISBN 9781108481472 £44.99.

Reviel Netz brings three distinctive qualifications to this comprehensive history of the development of the Greek literary canon. First, as a brilliant historian of mathematics, he does understand numbers and statistics (much better than Keith Hopkins, whose early and often amateur ventures in the papyrological numbers game Netz frequently corrects, with some generosity and humour).  Second, as a historian of ancient intellectual life, he is extremely well versed in the complications of the survival and interpretation of papyri, from which he draws the bulk of his empirical evidence.  Third, as a Stanford Classicist, he belongs to what we might venture to call a distinctive school within the discipline, one that has used quantitative measures and significant comparativism to make some signal contributions (one might cite the names of Josiah Ober and Walter Scheidel here, as well as the Stanford Literary Lab and its major projects in digital and computational humanities). The book is generous, engaging and very widely learned (I was particularly amused by the various comparanda with Russian literature, notably romantic duelling poets who managed to die well before passing their literary prime).

Netz’s principal contention is that what we think of as the canon of (particularly Athenian) literature was the product of the polis and Athenian democracy—not the politics of the democratic experiment but the agonistic pluralism of intellectual debate that occupied a social space away from the state and its ideologies. This has the entailment that culture, the canon it enshrines and the continuing practice of ‘scientific’ investigation and dialogue were capable of flourishing under varieties of autocracy, throughout the history of the ancient world and into its modern Western receptions.  He argues for the historical formation of an Athenian canon, the establishment of different (‘meta-literary’) canons foregrounding different genres, especially around Alexandria, in the Hellenistic era and the development of a ‘sheer proliferation of variety’ among the Hellenisms of the Roman empire and late Antiquity. He emphasizes the striking paradox that ‘democracy failed politically; but it succeeded culturally’ (804); so that ‘a monarchic Mediterranean [gave] rise to a culture marked by debate and pluralism’ (801). The proposition is arresting, to my mind probably right, but in any case well worth contestation by those who want to argue differently.

His detailed historical argument is that a quantitative grasp of the papyri can reveal far more about the development of canonicity than has been seen before (particularly by those who have emphasized manuscript traditions after late antiquity).  The tables of data that pepper his chapters reveal a canon of genres and authors extant in the papryri that broadly matches the one that we have inherited from Byzantine manuscripts; even when it comes to the most popular single works in the papyri, they are usually ones we have in mss.  Moreover, this literary canon had already been established and remained stable (except for the odd addition of later authors) from the Ptolemaic period (195). One thing his data demonstrates is the association of canonicity with ‘performative genres such as poetry and rhetoric’ (18).  Netz extrapolates extremely interesting conclusions out of the papyrological data, surely to be contested by some in certain cases—in relation to large and small libraries (especially 538-541), in respect to the centrality of education, and in terms of the history and production of Athenian literature (e.g. 195-237).  Certainly, the presentation of somewhat different Greek canons of favoured authors in relation to the needs of small and big libraries (93-5) is extremely suggestive of cultural and pedagogic conditions.

The book’s second part takes on the question of space, namely, urban centres for the production of literary culture—effectively rewriting the histories of philosophy or history or science as a history of competing poleis, and especially of the cultural agon between Athens and Alexandria in the Hellenistic era.  The final section, entitled ‘Scale’, confronts some problems of a quantitative model for culture, with many interesting conclusions about libraries, numbers of authors, issues of genre and the question of social settings. Netz never gives the impression of taking his figures too seriously. Indeed, there is both play and substance in such sentences as ‘it is more likely than not (more than 50 percent probable) that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 authors in antiquity’, which he glosses as meaning ‘it has about 75 percent probability’ (i.e. it is ‘likely’) that ‘there were between 22,500 and 45,000 authors prior to 200 CE’ (621).  Orders of magnitude are what matter. And he always allows for the complexity of variables (bias towards Athenian sources in the Classical period, different patterns of papyrus preservation in different sites, the potential exceptionalism of Egypt within the Greco-Roman world beyond its climatological conditions, the weighting of our papyrological literary evidence so overwhelmingly to one site—Oxyrhynchus—and so forth).  His most substantial conclusion about the proportion of all ancient authors now attested (between 1:5 and 1:9) is that ‘we know of almost everyone worth knowing’ (621-2, author’s italics).  This leads to the entailment (reassuring, but not all readers will agree to it) that ‘for the purposes of studying scale, space and canon, ancient civilization is fundamentally extant’ (624). It is obvious from my selective summary of over 800 pages of detailed and erudite argument that this is a vastly substantive book with many significant hits and insights.

Let me now ask some questions of Netz’s approach.  First, his account is grounded in the empirical evidence of papyri: that is, it pays little attention to the long history of transmission and above all the double-whammy of the shift to the codex and the change to a Christian culture.  If the story of canon formation were purely a diachronic one moving from known material in, say, the fifth century BCE to known material in the third century CE, that would perhaps be sufficient.  But it is also a story of selection, choice and whimsy in later times according to later tastes—especially in Constantinople.  In an exceptionally important paper that Netz does not cite (JHS 132 (2012) 71-85), Anthony Kaldellis makes a very strong case, admittedly limited to the Greek historians, for the survival of the corpus of historiography that we now have being fundamentally dependent on Byzantine tastes—including issues of regime change, Roman history, sacred history and Jewish history as well as excerption—and for its gaps being due to the minimal Byzantine interest in Hellenistic or local histories.  This is not a story necessarily in conflict with that of Netz, but it is one that his end point (at the rise of Christianity and the take-over by the codex) is designed to avoid.  Notably, when he writes ‘perhaps Menander just had worse luck with Byzantine fires’ (69, cf. 770-1), Netz neither attempts to explain (nor can do so within his frame of argument) why so hugely popular an author across putative library-sizes throughout papyrological antiquity (including a lively tradition of reading and imitation in Rome), should be entirely lost to mss transmission. Netz’s late antiquity in particular seems very problematic to me, because it is conceived without deep attention to the multiplicities of Christian ideological investment and the specific niceties of mss transmission.  This renders it much too monolithic: ‘Late antiquity did indeed manage, one way or another, to sew together a single whole out of the huge variety it had available’ (802). Netz is quite wrong about ‘a Christian canon’ and ‘a single Christian-(or Muslim-)Aristotelian-Galenic-Ptolemaic “paradigm”’ (801), let alone about his ‘bizarre’ image (his word, at least) of ‘Confucian-like state ideology’ (803).  It is precisely a focus on manuscript and translation traditions (topics that receive too little treatment here), as well as multiple kinds of Christianities, that is needed to reveal the fascinating range of late antique ‘third sophistics’ with different texts chosen for preservation and translation into variegated Latin, Aramaic/Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic and Arabic transmissions of Hellenism, as well as preservation in Greek. The complex history of the different Christian Hellenisms east and south of Byzantium, and beyond Persia into India and China, is one of the great stories to be written in the next generation.

One disappointment in a book that enjoys the odd comparativist captatio benevolentiae (from the opening on China, at 7, to the ‘customary’ citation of Borges, in this case on twelfth century al-Andalus at 12) is the avoidance of comparison with the one tradition most like the history of Greek canon-preservation and literary tradition, namely Latin.  Of course, here the papyri are negligible and certainly not capable of quantitative information; but that is a mark of empirical limitations, the problems of being tied to one form of evidence above all others (a form capable of Netz’s favoured quantitative analysis), and by no means a fulfilment of the volume’s titular promise to deliver ‘Ancient Literary Culture’ (lest I be accused of nit-picking here, Netz himself has a go at misleading titles at 198).  Likewise, in relation to his big argument about an agonistic ‘democracy’ of culture, which constitutes the distinctive contribution of the Greeks to the formation of the West, one would want some comparanda.  Notably ancient India—as demonstrated by the Ashokan inscriptions on tolerance and respect for others’ views and beliefs—was a culturally and religiously pluralist, indeed agonistic, multi-lingual but interconnected world, with significant artistic and scholarly contributions in a wide range of arenas from drama to grammar, mathematics to astronomy, literature in verse and prose.  Like the Mediterranean, it was mainly ruled by monarchies over the longue durée. What distinguishes the developments of this cultural system from that of the Mediterranean, on the terms Netz chooses to define the special contribution of the Greek canonical tradition? The seeking of acute answers to questions of this kind would distinctively sharpen RN’s fundamental cultural proposition, as well as alleviating the potential charge of Eurocentric exceptionalism.

There is no doubt that Netz has made very significant headway in using quantitative analysis.  But it has real limitations.  Take his sprightly account of a text I know well, the Imagines of Philostratus (138). Netz—presumably not reading these complex ekphraseis with care but using TLG or indices—comments on the ‘surprisingly few explicit allusions to literary works’ and on ‘the authors Philostratus could have named but did not’.  The key word here is ‘explicit’, since Philostratus’ handling of the canon (and by extension that of many other high-level writers of the kind he discusses in his Lives of the Sophists, as well as ones he does not, like Lucian of Samosata) is much more deliberately learned and playful than can be gauged through simple naming. But if he is not explicit, he is certainly specific: Plato—for instance—is named only as the ‘son of Ariston’ (Imagines 1.4.3) and quoted through the use of a verbal allusion to the Republic. That kind of thing may be elliptical (and certainly not easily found in an index or search engine targeting ‘Plato’) but it is utterly typical and a direct form of naming…  Likewise, in riffs on Bacchae and Hippolytus, Euripides is not named but extensively quoted: that is ‘explicit allusion’. It was never necessary to namedrop ‘Homer’ to spark an allusion to epic, especially (though not exclusively) in a Second Sophistic world where literary canons are so much at play. The quantitative approach, however commendable, can never deal with the (meta-)literary intricacies of intertextuality and reference.

In other words, Netz underestimates the extent of textual play and contextual allusion that makes up the rhetorical and literary world of ancient paideia. These observations signal the caution that traditional philological close reading (of the sort Netz is rather good at in his books on ancient mathematics[1]) and its insistence on the particularity of any given author or text should rightly flag against the deployment of big data and sweeping statistics.  Quantity and quality are different ways of looking at the world, and Classical studies is richer for their mutual deployment.  In this case, Netz substantially underestimates the number of direct citations in the Imagines because he chooses the crude criterion of naming an author rather than the endless subtlety of allusion that was typical of the writer he is discussing.  Not that this specific issue makes any difference to his overarching argument.  But how many such specific issues does it take to cause one to worry about the appropriateness of the big data arguments? On a similar line of concern, we must be very careful of figures and their citation, especially in a book where numbers overtly matter.  At 535, comparing estimated survival rates of literary papyri with those of Attic vases and inscriptions, Netz gives a figure of 1:100 for pots (i.e. roughly 1%).  He cites M. Shanks’ Art and the Early Greek State (2004) 44 for the figure, following R.M. Cook. Actually, Shanks says Cook’s estimate was ‘one quarter of 1 per cent’, a percentage that Shanks appears to follow. Ironically, Netz’s 1% figure may well be closer to the most accepted estimate—but that is given by T.B.L. Webster, Potter and Patron in Classical Athens (1972) 3-4, which RN does not mention.  The point here is that the probabilistic nature of the evidence, the game of rough estimates and best guesses to create broad margins of likelihood, is a very different strategy from the precision of philological exactitude. In relation to RN’s comparative data of percentages of survival, the difference between 1% and a quarter thereof may not be very significant.  But how one derives such figures, and their scholarly soundness, does matter to the faith we—the less statistically empowered fellow-travelers in the discipline (that is, Netz’s principal readership)—may be willing to invest in the enterprise.

This volume is an amazing achievement, a commanding synthesis, a vast compendium of pages, an argument that demands to be contested.  Every Classicist should read it.


[1] E.g. R. Netz, Ludic Proof: Greek Mathematics and the Alexandrian Aesthetic, Cambridge, 2009, 160-229.