BMCR 2022.03.03

Ancient Latin poetry books: materiality and context

, Ancient Latin poetry books: materiality and context. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. Pp. 386; 5 p. of plates. ISBN 9780472132393 $80.00.

This book addresses the surviving corpus of secular ancient Latin poetry, whose chronological scope and geographical dispersion contrast with the scarcity of documents and their mostly fragmentary nature: there are thirty-five manuscripts produced between the first and the sixth centuries AD in regions that go from the Levant to the North of Africa and Western Europe. The task poses a significant challenge, which its author meets with a detailed, methodical, and systematic approach. The book aims to examine the formats of these texts in their cultural contexts, with a particular focus upon the graphic representation of meter. This includes not just regular script, but also (whenever they are present) diacritics and the various critical signs developed by Alexandrian scholars. That transfers of Greek literary patterns into Latin included these techniques for the graphic representation of poetry, and that they coincided with the adoption of papyrus in Rome, confirm that material media are frequently inseparable from the exchange of ideas and the appropriation of literary models. The book also looks into relevant sociological aspects that intervened in the material production and formats of these texts, such as the fact that during the early Roman period writing used to be a task conducted by slaves under dictation, which also stresses the predominance of oral composition techniques among these early Latin poets. The need to transfer originally oral poetry into script in fact prompted the creation of the sort of graphic conventions discussed in the book.

The corpus is classified according to different criteria. One of them divides it into two large groups. The first dates from the earliest part of the period under consideration; its texts are for the most part produced in the Eastern Mediterranean and consist of small fragments of papyrus from either scrolls (most of them) or codices, and also from parchment codices (a minority). The other group dates from the second half of the period; its texts are produced mostly in Western Europe (above all in the Italian Peninsula), and they are usually written in parchment codices. These texts tend to be also longer and better preserved, and their provenance, date and history are easier to trace. Taken as a whole, therefore, the book’s primary sources reflect the long history of the transition from papyrus to parchment and from the scroll to the codex. However, the fine-grained and detailed approach of the author to these documents tells us a more nuanced and richer story.

An additional and more detailed classification of the primary sources combines the criteria of metrical form and literary genre. This classification also structures the core of the book. After the introduction, its first three chapters are devoted to hexametric, elegiac, and dramatic poetry, respectively. The use of hexameter spreads over four different genres (epic, pastoral, and didactic poetry, along with satire) and constitutes the lion’s share: it is used in twenty-six of the thirty-five manuscripts that constitute the corpus of the book, with Virgil as their chief author (eighteen) and the Aeneid as the most frequent title (eight). Chapter two is significantly shorter than the other two and reflects the small percentage of remaining fragments of elegiac poetry. Chapter three addresses the heterogeneous metrical variety of drama (both tragedy and comedy)—which means that in contrast with the rhythmic and graphic regularity of the hexameter, the registration of these texts and their rhythms posed more complex challenges for the scribe. The solution came from the appropriation of the conventions used in Greek texts, for which Alexandrian textual scholarship had also created a sophisticated catalogue of critical signs that denoted metrical value, as well as other paralinguistic signs with different editorial functions. These three central chapters share a similar structure: an introduction to the authors and their texts, followed by formal descriptive analyses of codicological and paleographic characteristics, which examine in great detail material textual components such as dimensions and format, layout, script, pricking and ruling, interpunction and punctuation, diacritics, and critical signs. The book therefore provides methodical descriptions of all these material and formal constituents, which are then classified and registered in the form of tables, most of them included in two long appendixes which also propose hypothetical reconstructions of some of the original manuscripts.

Chapter four moves from codicology and paleography on to cultural history and approaches the texts as part of their contexts. It begins with general considerations about literary culture, book production, and circulation, and continues with surveys of the early reception of the authors and texts preserved in the manuscripts. It draws conclusions about aspects such as the cultural symbolic value attached to certain types of script, and the functions of the texts as either tools for classroom use or as luxury artifacts and therefore symbols of social prestige. It also mentions interesting cases of scribal interference, such as the Latin script of a Virgilian manuscript whose design strongly suggests that it was produced by a scribe more familiar with Greek texts. One of these manuscripts, a fragment of Lucan’s Pharsalia, also proves that the pocketbook was not an uncommon format in antiquity. As is to be expected, canonical authors like Virgil and Terence are the most frequent among these few fragmentary remains of ancient poetry manuscripts, precisely because of the hegemonic cultural status they enjoyed during these centuries of Roman imperial domination. But there are also exceptions to this rule, which are among the most interesting and engaging cases in the book.

The Montserrat codex miscellaneus is included in the corpus because one of its texts is an epic in hexameters, the anonymous Alcestis Barcinonensis. This modest and heterogeneous miscellany, with its small format and its rough, low-quality papyrus, contrasts with other luxury items addressed in the book—such as the beautifully illustrated Virgilian codices of the Vatican Library. This unique codex was probably produced in an Egyptian monastery around the fourth century as a gift from one of the members of the community to another. Spelling mistakes in its Latin texts contrast with the scribe’s proficiency in Greek and suggest that its author must have been more knowledgeable in this language than in Latin, as was usually the case in Egypt. Another unique and particularly relevant sample is a fragment from a papyrus roll found in Nubia in the mid-twentieth century with a few lines by the once famous and now mostly lost poet Cornelius Gallus. Dated around the Augustan period, this fragment exemplifies how the poetry of a popular poet who enjoyed the appreciation of his contemporaries Virgil and Ovid could reach a garrison located in one of the furthest confines of the empire. This fragment then stands in significant contrast with another manuscript in a different format produced in a different period, which is also the oldest surviving copy of Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto. All these fruitful contrasts emanate from broken fragments of papyrus scrolls and parchment codices which in many cases record just a few verses and therefore constitute a powerful reminder of how much of the original poetry of this period has vanished for us. This sense of loss is intensified by a fragment from the once-fabulous library at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, with verses from an anonymous poem that has come to be known as the Carmen de bello Actiaco. Unfortunately, and as so frequently happens in this book, the fragmentary evidence leads to hermeneutic dead ends—unless one chooses to engage in merely contextual speculation. The cases presented by these fragments tantalize and certainly goad the curious reader into looking further into them. They emerge as the coordinates for the map of a once rich poetic landscape that can also help readers trace whatever remains of the paths that lead from its roots in the Augustan and Silver Ages of Classical Latin literature towards the eventual decline of pagan secular poetry, around the late sixth century. This is arguably one of the most significant achievements of this book. Its author certainly deserves to be commended for the effort he has made in terms of formal description, quantification, and tabulation of all the data he has collected, and which he has then used to produce reasonably significant results. The book constitutes, in short, not just a detailed compilation and analysis of the existing data and the texts, but also a gateway for further research into these fragments and the literary, cultural, and social contexts in which they were produced. Precisely because of their rich and exceptional value as testimonies of these ages, it is regrettable that the author could not look further into the cultural histories of these fragments and engage in a more complex interpretation of what they represent. For example, the book concludes somewhat bluntly with the opening lines of Ovid’s Tristia, and fails to provide any further comment on a text full of possibilities, for it evinces not just a keen cultural awareness of the material textuality of poetry books, but above all constitutes one of the most remarkable cases of metaliterature in classical poetry. Ovid turned his book into his interlocutor—which evokes Catullus’s mention of his lepidum novum libellum in the opening poem of his collection. In both cases these poets construe their respective books not just as finished literary products, but also as textual material artifacts with symbolic values that end up woven into the virtual inventive texture of the poems they represent. They evoke images of the hosts of libelli like these which must have circulated not just throughout the great urban centers of the empire, with their communities of sophisticated readers, or in luxury villas by the sea, but also in distant outposts situated on the limes of Rome. They prompt questions about their formats, modes of production, frequency of circulation, and even more importantly, about the cultural, political, social, and emotional connotations that they must have carried with them. To ask more from these few remaining fragments is possibly an unfair, impossible demand, and although the bare citation of Ovid towards the end of the book without any further comment may provoke some frustration, it can also be taken as a subtle invitation by the author to look further into the cultural contexts of these material texts and their interpretation. In bearing witness to these surviving fragments, and accounting in such great detail for their material formats and the way in which they registered rhythm and meter, Nocchi Macedo’s book is certainly a valuable contribution to knowledge in the field.