J. H. D. Scourfield (ed.), Texts and Culture in Late Antiquity: Inheritance, Authority, and Change. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2007. Pp. xii + 346. ISBN 978-1-905125-17-3. UK£60.00.
Humboldt-Universität, Berlin, Germany
Late antiquity is by definition the field of ancient studies that is most deeply and intrinsically subject to historical distortions. The impossibility, I would say, of referring to this age without recurring to a more or less negative term (for example, 'late') is representative of how this basic distortion has ended up shaping and unconsciously framing the study of late antiquity. Every discussion, review, or book devoted to late antique texts unavoidably starts with the same refrain -- that this was not an age of decline and fall but rather of change and growth. This point needs especially to be made when texts are at the center of the investigation, since, while the study of late antique history has achieved recognition as a prominent field in historical research over the last decades, late antique literature still suffers from a classicist prejudice. There is an intrinsic difficulty in approaching these texts and above all in appreciating their aesthetic, which appears so strange and elusive, both to scholars of the classical world and to modern general readers, who are as a rule largely or entirely ignorant of late antique literature. Connected with this point are institutional problems; within the academic system, especially in Anglo-Saxon universities, late antique texts, if not completely marginalized and left out of syllabi and reading lists, are scarcely discussed in the classroom.
Among the numerous books which have appeared over the past few years, the volume under review (based on a conference held at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, in September 2000) represents one of the best attempts to re- orient the discussion to certain problematic points, at the same time offering an assessment of some approaches to late antique textuality. The volume consists of an introduction by the editor J.H.D. Scourfield and twelve other contributions. The texts discussed all come from the Roman Empire during the period between the middle of the third and the middle of the fifth centuries. The majority of the studies presented in this volume are devoted to Latin authors and texts: Nonius Marcellus (Chahoud), Claudian (Wheeler), Juvencus and Sedulius (Green), Proba (McGill), Jerome (Mohr), and John Cassian (Goodrich), while a smaller group deals with Greek, in particular philosophical, texts -- Nonnus and Eudocia (Whitby), Plotinus (Smith), Stobaeus (Dillon), Proclus (van den Berg) --, and finally two chapters treat more general issues, namely a new geographical Christian worldview (Humphries) and the concept of providence within pagan and Christian tradition (Louth). Since it would be impossible in this review to discuss all the contributions as fully as they deserve, I will here focus on the volume’s overall approach, focusing on the editor’s introduction and a number of points raised in some of the other chapters.
As usual in collective volumes, the introduction gives a sense not only of the results achieved by the book as a whole, but also of the editor’s aspirations, even if they were not consistently realized in the final product (I say this not as a specific criticism, but as a general remark on collective works -- the problem is only very rarely avoided). In 'Textual Inheritances and Textual Relations in Late Antiquity' (pp. 1-32), Scourfield comments on the negative qualities of the description 'late' itself, and sketches out some alternative historiographical paradigms that might possibly be applied to the study of this difficult period: collapse and conflict, growth, transformation. In particular Scourfield makes clear how difficult it is, in the case of late antique literary production, to avoid the traditional 'appeal to canons of quality that are always contestable' (p. 2). Interpreters should instead make a non-evaluative effort to understand late antique texts and contexts; the point is well illustrated by the case of the centones -- poems which are often seen as merely 'derivative' and as such considered lacking and thus left aside, instead of being appreciated for their extraordinary creativity.
This fundamental point leads me to two other considerations. Firstly, while reading and interpreting late antique texts we should, to the greatest extent possible, avoid the unquestioning use of the interpretive tools and aesthetic categories which we normally apply to 'classical' texts. In this regard we might wonder to what extent being a classicist helps or impedes the discussion of late antique texts, since classicists arguably tend to look for aspects they already take for granted and with which they are familiar. Interpreters of the cento or of late Latin epic poetry, for example, very much insist on Vergil’s influence on these texts, rather than shedding light on the sorts of cultural and aesthetic paradigms which lie behind the obvious fact of Vergil’s dominating presence in late antique literature. To transfer this question to the Middle Ages, the influence of Vergil on Dante has of course been carefully investigated, but does not represent so much of a leitmotiv of Dante studies as does for the study of late antique literature. So when Scourfield writes: 'Together the texts reflect an intellectual world constantly exploring its relation to the past, a past that is neither simple nor single, but of unusual importance in a tradition-valuing society coming to terms with major change and seeking to redefine itself in the process' (p. 4), I wonder whether this insistence on the past as such, commonly shared within late ancient studies, has not been influenced by the very fact that those who study this epoch are generally classicists. A more general question could be asked: Does late antique literature share 'classical' conceptions of textuality at all? And, even more importantly, how different are our own modern categories and expectations from those of late antiquity? Is there perhaps an ontological difficulty for us as we attempt to understand late antique textuality independently from its classical past? The second point that I would like to make is connected with the general status of classics as a discipline. Within this field -- notwithstanding the massive influence of new historicism -- the general tendency is to study any text with constant (if not always explicit) attention to its aesthetic value, as if texts that we might consider aesthetically insufficiently successful do not deserve literary evaluation but are to be used, if at all, as sources for cultural history. Although the latter point may seem rather distant from the topic of our volume, it is interesting to notice how vital the late antique perspective can be for the whole field of classics.
Finally, while insisting on the contiguity rather than the conflict between classical pagan culture and Christianity, Scourfield reminds the readers that both are products of the same world and that what happened in this period has to be 'described in terms of negotiation, accommodation, adaptation, transformation' (p. 4). Given the special role of the inheritance of the past, he also identifies three main strands of textual production: the reception of the classical tradition in new poetic or philosophical texts written entirely within that tradition; Christian scriptural exegesis, within which classical pagan culture plays a much smaller role than in other literary forms; and 'the most experimental strand, in which new texts seek ( . . . ) to accommodate both inheritances and both pasts, biblical and classical' (p. 5). Although the second strand, which includes patristic commentary, represents a particularly original and rich field which needs to be explored precisely from a literary perspective, in this volume these texts have been left aside, probably because it is highly unusual for classical scholars to engage in a literary and textual investigation of works normally treated as sources for theology and religious studies.
Although the volume contains chapters on a range of topics, it coherently follows a number of thematic lines. The most important is the construction of textual authority in both pagan and Christian contexts. As Scourfield puts it: 'The nature of the authority possessed by the received texts, ( . . . ) the uses to which that authority is put by the receiving texts, and the impact upon that authority of the reception itself, form a set of interrelated questions' (p. 7). Roughly speaking, one could re-adjust the table of contents around a different criterion, such as the kind of authority thematized within the texts discussed. For instance, the chapters on pagan and Christian geography by Humphries, on Nonius Marcellus by Chahoud, on John Stobaeus by Dillon, and of Proclus by van der Berg, could be put together in a section devoted to the kind of authority typical of a 'commentary', more abstract and generalized than the authority of the Virgilian text present in the chapters on Proba by McGill (pp. 173-94) and on Claudian by Wheeler (pp. 97-134), or of Homer and Plato in the chapters on Nonnus and Eudocia by Whitby (pp. 195-232) and on Plotinus by Smith (pp. 233-46). More generally, it might have been interesting to organize the contributions in sections. Any collection of papers is of course intrinsically limited and cannot discuss all possible topics, and it would be foolish to criticize such a book because it does not contain what any given reader would like to have seen. Nonetheless, it might have been useful to clearly point out some of the new genres and texts, shedding light on their original textual characteristics. An obvious example is offered by those kinds of text which nowadays are given the label ‘literature of knowledge’: encyclopaedic works and technical writings of any kind would have represented a good complement to the range of topics present in this volume. And although the commentary as such is discussed in this volume frequently indeed, a specifically literary discussion of the nature and novelty of this genre is missing.
On a few occasions Scourfield emphasizes the importance of the cento as a literary form characteristic of the late antique literary sensibility. McGill’s chapter, arguably one of the best in the book, shows with great clarity how variously Proba’s cento has been read and interpreted already in her own time; she has been seen either as limiting herself by drawing out Christian themes already present in the Virgilian text, or as radically changing the model by imposing a Christian meaning which was not at all present in Virgil himself. In both cases the reader can appreciate the versatility of this genre and its cultural value. Perhaps we could even go further and affirm that the cento represents a sort of metaphor for late antique literary tastes and tendencies, since it shows in an exemplary way the simultaneous presence of the utmost reverence for the literary tradition (by entirely adopting a pre-existing text) and the most irreverent attitude possible (by radically changing the meaning of the original text). Late antique textuality is intrinsically made up of such tensions. It is always worth keeping in mind that late antique texts tend to emphasize form rather than content -- a point that continues to represent a major obstacle to our appreciation of the literature of this other antiquity.