Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 3.
T. Hägg and P. Rousseau (edd.), Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity: The Transformation of the Classical Heritage XXXI. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2000. Pp. 288, incl. indices. ISBN 0-520-22388-8. US$50.00, UK£30.00.
André F. Basson
Brock University (Canada)
University at Buffalo, State University of New York
In the area of literary genres, Late Antiquity was an exceptionally creative and vigorous period in Greek and Latin literature. It saw the revival of a number of genres that dated back to the classical antiquity and later became the focus of renewed interest during the Alexandrian period.
The book is the product of an international conference held in Norway in August, 1996, at the Centre for the Study of European Civilization, at the University of Bergen. The wider aim of the conference, as stated in the preface (p. ix) was to 'focus on the role played by literature and, in particular, by Greek biographical and panegyrical works, in the transition to a Christian Hellenic culture in late antiquity.'
In the introduction (pp. 1-28), the editors raise the thorny issue of the distinction between biography and panegyric, claiming from the outset that one can hardly speak of two different genres. What they propose, for the purpose of the book, is 'just to call them two sets of texts, one overtly panegyrical in form, the other biographical' (p. 28). Frankly, it is difficult to see how this approach can cast new light on the problem. Furthermore, as has been amply demonstrated in recent genre theory, the use of terms such as 'form' and 'content', without further qualification, is simply too general to do justice to the great variety of features of the literary text. What then are the formal characteristics of biography and panegyric respectively? Nowhere in the introduction are they clearly identified. Statements such as 'It is arguable that biography -- to use the modern term rather than the ancient bios -- is the broader concept, which includes panegyric as one of its possible forms' (p. 2), may be of value to the literary historian, but hardly advance our knowledge of biography and panegyric qua literary genres. Occasion as a possible point of distinction between the two genres is mentioned (p. 2) only in passing ('The point is not that panegyrics were necessarily performances, but that they pretended to be') and qualifying biography as 'a typically bookish product' is equally unhelpful.
Perhaps more worthy of note is the distinction made by Hägg and Rousseau in regard to the role of the author/speaker: in the panegyric, the speaker's fame and reputation are as much on the foreground as his subject's; in the biography, on the other hand, the author is almost invisible. A further distinction between the two genres concerns the level of truthfulness. Hägg and Rousseau claim (p. 5) that panegyric, when it involves a live performance, would adhere closer to the truth than biography, since in the case of the latter, a reading public 'will not be able to detect distortion or exchange criticism to the same extent as a present audience.'
The authors also address the issue of realism in biography and panegyric (pp. 13f.). Essentially, the question they seek to answer, is: how close to reality is the portrayal of the subject in biography and panegyric? The use of vivid detail, the book argues, should not be taken as an indication that it is a real portrait. It merely serves to create the illusion of reality, since the authors usually had a personal agenda. Furthermore, these texts aimed rather to 'modify the attitudes and conducts' (p. 14) and it must therefore be assumed that realism was not the authors' primary concern. However, the question to what extent the facts were manipulated and what the response of the audience (in the case of the panegyric) to this would have been, is left tantalizingly unanswered by the introduction.
The role of the text in the relationship between the audience / readers and the subject is another aspect dealt with in the introduction (pp. 14-16). Hägg and Rousseau point out that in the case of both biography and panegyric the text does more than describe the subject. In fact, it seeks to represent the subject's life in dramatic form, so that narrative becomes drama. They further observe that the full effect of the panegyric was only possible because the orator was speaking in the presence of his audience, and (often) also of his subject. But in the case of biography, where the subject was to a greater degree the creation of the text/author, the focus shifts to the effect the text can produce on the audience.
According to Hägg and Rousseau, in cases where the audience and author are separated from one another in respect of time and space, the text still has the ability to revive the subject's memory, although the effect may be different from the one produced in the original context. Hägg and Rousseau refer to this phenomenon as 'textual mobility' and associate it particularly with ascetic texts. They further claim that temporal distance between author and audience did not diminish but rather increased the dynamics of the text. Thus, the precision of the original portrayal of the subject not only assured it a general relevance to a later audience, but also increased the 'moral improvement' (p. 18) of the latter.
The introduction touches on the issue of audience expectation in biography and panegyric (p. 18). To what extent did audience expectation and authorial intention coincide? How close to reality was the portrayal of the subject? On the one hand, Hägg and Rousseau insist that in order to satisfy his audience's/readers' tastes, the orator's/author's representation of the subject often bore little resemblance to the truth. On the other hand, they point out that there were limits to the degree in which the truth could be manipulated without forfeiting the credence of the audience/readers. There can certainly be no question, Hägg and Rousseau argue, of the text seeking to impose an unfamiliar model of moral perfection on its audience/reader. Instead, the values panegyric and biography normally sought to recommend would have been well within the limits of the audience's/readers' expectations. But the tradition was by no means static, as Hägg and Rousseau hasten to note. Although the use of traditional models may give the impression of 'repetitious conformity', closer analysis often reveals significant shifts of emphasis and meaning.
The model of the holy man dates back to Homer and, for obvious reasons, became particularly attractive to Christian panegyrists and biographers. At the same time, there were also fundamental differences between the classical and Christian conceptions of what constitutes holiness. It could not be otherwise, since the Christian view of the cosmos and of the nature of humanity represented in many respects a radical break with classical antiquity. It is therefore not surprising that, as Hägg and Rousseau observe (p. 22), the panegyrical and biographical texts examined in the book often subverted existing social and political hierarchies. Christianity's unique conception of death also introduced in these texts a stronger emphasis on the deceased subject's role as a model of virtue and source of supernatural patronage.
In her contribution entitled 'Philosophic Lives and the Philosophic Life: Porphyry and Iamblichus' (pp. 29-51), Gillian Clarke finds no clear evidence of any influence of the pagan-conflict of the late third and early fourth centuries in Porphyry's Life of Plotinus or Iamblichus' On the Pythagorean Life. In 'Birth, Death, and Divinity in Porphyry's Life of Plotinus' (pp. 52-71), Mark Edwards argues that this work shows greater affinity with panegyric than with biography, but prefers to be more specific in calling it a gospel (p. 66). He then goes on to suggest that Porphyry may have conceived of this work as a polemic intended to demonstrate his master's superiority to the Jesus of John's Gospel.
Averil Cameron's 'Form and Meaning: The Vita Constantini and the Vita Antonii' (pp. 72-88) examines the similar ways in which these two works seek to 'deconstruct' their classical literary models, and focuses on a number of common themes (simplicity, demons, signs and wonders, teaching and debate, orthodoxy, physical appearance of the hero, the death of the hero, the hero as a model for imitation). The question of their literary form, Cameron argues, cannot be resolved without also considering the didactic and apologetic purpose for which they were written (p. 83). But to what extent can purpose be regarded as a formal generic marker? Once again one misses clarity regarding what constitutes the formal characteristics of a particular literary genre. It has been shown over and over again that a literary text's generic identity is not determined by its absolute conformity to a set of canonized generic characteristics. Departure from these characteristics should therefore be seen not as a sign of generic indeterminacy, as Cameron seems to conclude on p. 86 ('Each partially fits various genres, but not completely; each is a work in its own right'), but as the means by which the texts creates meaning.
In 'Antony as Teacher in the Greek Life' (pp. 88-109), Philip Rousseau aims to arrive at some conclusion regarding the authorship of the Vita Antonii by way of a discussion of the text's portrayal of Antony. If the text attempts to present Antony as an ascetic teacher, Rousseau argues, one can only support Athanasian authorship provided one also assumes that Athanasius was more 'amenable to ascetic teaching' (p. 100) than has generally been believed. The Vita Antonii is also one of the early Christian biographies discussed in Samuel Rubenson's 'Philosophy and Simplicity: The Problem of Classical Education in Early Christian Biography' (pp. 110-39). In it the author traces the development of the topos of the saintly hero's lack of formal education, from the Life of Antony to the Life of Pachomius. With a few exceptions (the Vita Antonii being one of them), all the early Christian biographies examined by the author credit their subject with varying degrees of classical learning. However, if in Jerome's lives of Paul and Hilarion such learning has no impact on the saint's life, two biographies written by Gregory of Nyssa (the Life of Gregory Thaumaturgos and the Life of Moses ) consider a secular education as very useful in the saint's efforts to penetrate deeper into the divine mysteries. In this regard, Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina and the Vita Pachomii stand somewhat apart. In both, the saint has had the privilege of an education, but since it is based exclusively on the Bible there is no sign of the conflict between classical learning and Christian truth.
No less than three contributions deal with Gregory of Nazianzus's funeral oration on Basil the Great. They are by Frederick W. Norris, 'Your Honor, My Reputation: St. Gregory of Nazianzus's Funeral Oration on St. Basil the Great' (pp. 140-59), David Konstan, 'How to Praise a Friend: St. Gregory of Nazianzus's Funeral Oration for St. Basil the Great' (pp. 160-79), and Jostein Børtnes, 'Eros Transformed: Same-Sex Love and Divine Desire. Reflections on the Erotic Vocabulary in St. Gregory of Nazianzus's Speech on St. Basil the Great' (pp. 180-93).
The conception of genre as merely a literary category is also much in evidence in Norris' article. It is therefore not surprising that the author is forced to admit (p. 143) that the work 'has been difficult to categorize in terms of genre because it was written by a master rhetorician.' But why would Gregory choose to depart so substantially from the literary tradition? Norris seems to suggest (p. 145) and then goes on to demonstrate in the rest of his article that it was to reconcile his efforts to enhance his own reputation (the subtext of the oration) with the obvious purpose of the work (or text), which was to honor Basil.
David Konstan's interest is Gregory of Nazianzus' indebtedness to the classical tradition as it is evidenced by his conception of friendship in his oration on Basil. In this respect, Konstan points out, the work stands in sharp contrast to the oration Basil's death elicited from his brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Børtnes' article also deals with the theme of friendship in Gregory of Nazianzus' oration on Basil, but is focused more specifically on the rhetoric of friendship Gregory employs to describe his relationship with Basil. While the language of eros and philia sufficed for the years when they were both students, once Basil rose to prominence in the church, the master-disciple model became more appropriate.
Robert Penella's article, 'The Rhetoric of Praise in the Private Orations of Themistius' (pp. 194-208), seeks to examine the aims of Themistius' encomiastic private Orations 20, 30, and 34. Its argument is that praise is not the only objective. Some of these other objectives that Penella identifies are the orator's desire to promote his own intellectual culture (Oration 20), an attempt to defend his decision to accept public office (Oration 34), and complimenting his father, Eugenius, for choosing to become a farmer or praising the Emperor Theodosius for his commitment to improving agriculture in the Balkans (Oration 30).
Patricia Cox Miller's article, 'Strategies of Representation in Collective Biography: Constructing the Subject as Holy' (pp. 209-54), is a literary study of two collective biographies of Late Antiquity: Eunapius' Vitae philosophorum et sophistarum and the Historia monachorum by an anonymous author. After a brief introduction (pp. 209-14) devoted to some general comments on the religious and emotional aspects of collective biography, the author reviews the main formal principles of organization found in the genre in the imperial period (pp. 214-20). Commenting on the history of the genre in Late Antiquity, the author notes how the preference for 'life' instead of 'lives' in the title of collections (for example, Gregory of Tours' Vita Patrum) is indicative of the shift in emphasis from the individual to the 'ideal of sameness' (p. 221). Cox further examines the various or competing 'models of exemplary human identity or subjectivity' she has identified in both the Vitae philosophorum et sophistarum and the Historia monachorum. Of particular interest to her is the way in which the construction of these identities or subjectivities reflect the ongoing rivalries between Christians and Neo-Platonists. The author focuses on two ways in which this construction takes place: metaphor and narrative. In collective biography, she observes, each story functions as a metaphor of the exemplary subjectivity of the whole collection. In regard to narrative, Cox Miller seeks to demonstrate that in each case the narrative technique is determined by the kind of religiosity underlying the collection.
Through careful analysis of parts of the vocabulary of the Syrian Life of Rabbula, the fifth-century bishop of Edessa, Glen Bowersock in 'The Syriac Life of Rabbula and Syrian Hellenism' (pp. 255-71), the final contribution in the volume, seeks to draw attention to the author's Hellenistic culture.
This volume certainly represents a most welcome contribution to recent scholarship on biography and panegyric in Late Antiquity. Unfortunately, a comprehensive study dealing with the relationship between the two genres still waits to be written.