Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 15.

Stephen Harrison (ed.), A Companion to Latin Literature. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Pp. xviii + 450, incl. seven black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-631-23529-9. UKĀ£85.00.

Jo-Marie Claassen,
Department of Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch

Blackwell's Companion to Latin Literature is the third installment of its ambitious new series of 'Companions to the Ancient World', and the first falling under the rubric of 'Literature and Culture'. A further sixteen are announced on the fly leaf as being in preparation. At least one more is at the planning stage.

What can another literary 'Companion', or series of 'Companions', offer that is not already available in the Oxford, Cambridge, or Brill series? A glance at the table of contents gives a superficial first answer: this volume aims to cover all bases. Each of the three parts has a different thrust. Part One, 'Periods' (pp. 13-80), reviews Latin literature chronologically, from its beginnings to the end of the second century, in five chapters. Next, fourteen different 'Genres' (pp. 81-284) each with a chapter devoted to it. Last, nine chapters discuss 'Themes' (pp. 285-405), some fairly predictable, such as 'Sex and Gender' (pp. 331-44), 'Friendship and Patronage' (pp. 345-59), 'Marriage and Family' (pp. 372-84), and others less expected, ranging from 'Art and Text' (pp. 300-18, illustrated with seven black-and-white prints), through 'The Passions' (pp. 319-30), to 'Centre and Periphery' (pp. 394-405).

Twenty-six prominent Classicists from Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Italy, and Australia have contributed one or more chapters each to this systematic collection. Suitable cross-referencing links discussion of genres to periods, and of themes to both. The editor has provided a concise introduction, and a chapter each on 'Lyric and Iambic' (pp. 189-200), 'The Novel' (pp. 213-22), and 'Decline and Nostalgia' (pp. 287-99).

Fourteen distinct chapters on 'Genre' may surprise readers conscious of ancient generic divisions.[[1]] The editor has subdivided some forms usually accepted as a single genre into two or more distinct topics, and assigned these to different critics for discussion. So there is a chapter each on 'Narrative Epic' (pp. 83-100) and 'Didactic Epic' (pp. 101-15). The 'lesser' poetic genres are suitably subdivided into 'Pastoral' (pp. 148-58), 'Love Elegy' (pp. 159-73), 'Lyric and Iambic' (pp. 189-200), and 'Epigram' (pp. 201-12). What the ancients would have designated as the prose genre 'rhetoric', has become 'Dialogues and Treatises' (pp. 223-40), 'Historiography and Biography' (pp. 241-56), and 'Oratory' (pp. 257-69). Chapters on 'Satire' (pp. 174-88) and 'Epistolography' (pp. 270-84) refer to both prose and poetry.

Closer scrutiny gives insight into the aims and reach of the book. It can serve as a reference work for experts, offering them the latest interpretative trends, as well as for educated lay persons or researchers from other disciplines who need concise, up-to-date information on different aspects of Latin literature, and interested undergraduates. Essay after essay conveys the excitement of research into the ancient world, showing that nothing is settled, that there are always new questions and new ideas. The essays are lively and provocative, making representative use of source material and enticing readers to enter into the debate themselves.

Authors have clearly had a free hand in their choice of approach, with some guidance from the editor. Stress is laid on the reception of works, also at the time of their production, that is, on what can be deduced about their contemporary readership as well as about reader response. For example, Goldberg examines why particular texts became standard works during the Early Republic, 'What awakened Romans to the texts in their midst and the work they could do?' (p. 16). He acknowledges that 'Traditional literary history . . . has been too reluctant to shift its gaze from the work of authors to that of readers' (ibid.). Questions as to '[w]ho was reading what, when and why are more difficult . . . Traditional histories rarely ask why'. Goldberg argues against the received wisdom that Roman literature began in 240 BC with Livius Andronicus' translations of Greek drama, showing that early Latium then already had 'a rich and complex cultural history' (ibid.). Livius was working within a lively literary tradition. His observation is then tempered by reference to the probable instability of early dramatic texts and the lack of canonical publication of early dramatic material.

As an example of the own voice allowed to each critic I quote Roland Mayer's description of the manner in which authors in the Early Empire worked, on the one hand to avoid literary censure by over-sensitive emperors, and on the other hand to find new topics to pursue in an atmosphere where imperial interests overshadowed all patronage by individuals from the no-longer-ruling elite. The writer of the Laus Pisonis, he says, was 'hard put to it to find anything exciting to say about his honorand (an adept at draughts!)' (p. 64). Mayer comments on Phaedrus: '[H]e is an unique phenomenon in Latin literature, for Phaedrus gives the lower levels of Roman society a voice. But he is no bumpkin: his prologues show considerable literary self-consciousness' (p. 65). Authors employ various modern literary critical terms, but perhaps the most useful to lay readers is J. G. F. Powell's explanation, in his chapter on 'Dialogues and Treatises', that '[i]n modern terms, a sententia is a soundbite, and a divisio a set of bullet points; a color is a line of argument' (p. 236). Certain of our critics show themselves as past masters at self-irony or exaggerated literary consciousness. Elsner, discussing the mutual relationship between art and text, says of his discussion of Vergilian ecphrasis: '[W]hat follows must necessarily be a description of the ancient art of description in the absence of the object described' (p. 313 -- not a bad definition of ecphrasis itself!).

On reader response I quote two examples. Elsner discusses the effect of Vergil's use of ecphrasis (the shields of Aeneas and Turnus) to move a 'materializing of genealogy . . . and an aesthetics of response, to a direct involvement in epic action' (p. 316). That is, Vergil evokes as response from his readers the same sense of immediacy that a viewer would experience when looking at a painting. Robert A Kaster, discussing 'the passions' in a close reading of Aeneid 10.821-26, shows how Vergil's description of the death of Lausus works visually to elicit emotional involvement by the reader in the action as it develops: 'but, because the moment of Lausus' death is presented through Aeneas' eyes . . . we only see what he sees, and, more important, we see it as he sees it' (p. 329).

A chapter on the facts of slavery and class would be appropriate in a series on ancient history or sociology, but Thomas Habinek keeps to the theme of the book, writing on slavery and literature, not only the predictable discussion of slaves in literature, from Plautus' clever slaves to Cicero's letters to Tiro, but also to slaves themselves as purveyors of literature. His essay begins with the startling statement, 'Slaves made Latin literature possible' (p. 385). Slaves not only provided their owners with the otium necessary for the 'production and consumption of literary texts' but also functioned as 'readers, researchers, amanuenses, tutors, librarians, copyists, referees and critics' (p. 385). This topic takes up about a third of the essay. Next he considers 'Slavery and Honour', arguing that 'Roman literature could be implicated in the distribution of power among and between groups ranged across a broad spectrum of (dis)empowerment' (ibid.). To him emphasis on literature as a means of enhancing honour reinforced a system 'that is ultimately dependent on the radical dishonour of the slave'. This concept is then related to its inversion; in the servitium amoris of traditional Roman elegy the lover-poet gains renown by his very debasement. For Habinek, the ability to convey honour was 'literature's most important social role', whereby the polarities of honour and shame and of freedom and slavery were maintained (p. 388).

The final essay touches almost too briefly on the differences between 'Centre and Periphery' in cultural studies. Alessandro Barchiesi argues that while 'the core receives compulsory attention from the periphery, [it] can in its turn afford to ignore the periphery' (p. 394). His discussion begins with the fact that Rome itself was for a long time a 'self-avowed periphery', hanging as it were onto the edges of Greek culture, producing 'typically peripheral, contact zone literature', where imported forms were used for local content. The essay continues with discussion of Italian provincials in Latin literature. One reason for its continued popularity lay in the fact that this literature tells of an ever-widening development of Empire and the 'diverse rhythms of accommodation and assimilation among ethnic groups' (p. 305).

As a case study, Barchiesi cites Apuleius' Golden Ass: Apuleius uses a minor character both to portray life in a provincial town and to stand as model for the ideal reader of the novel. Here Barchiesi finds 'interesting and uncommon testimony' to life in a Roman provincial town. It serves as a forerunner to the modern European novel, 'a genre that takes shape in a rich osmosis from the development of vast nation states', which needed the concepts of centre and periphery to establish an own sense of identity (p. 396). This is only one topic in Barchiesi's wide-ranging essay. Another is the nation state ideology as shaping the modern practice of classical studies, which often operated in reaction against cultural assumptions about the similarities between the Roman Empire and modern aspirant hegemonies.

A third topic is the 'curious fact that no famous author is known to have been born in Rome' (p. 399), leading to discussion of mobility and writing, and authorial self-positioning, both geographically and culturally, within literature. Finally, Barchiesi touches on peripheral readers, and Latin authors' pervasive awareness that a large part of their readership lay beyond the borders of Rome. Such readers may have become more aware of Roman imperialism through reading Latin literature, but they also 'were led to think about the binding links and staggering differences of the Empire', as well as about other readers elsewhere, whom they saw 'refracted in the texts' (p. 404). For Barchiesi, such literary activities 'contributed to the Western tradition of literature as a habitat for the desire and mental experience of being somewhere else' (p. 405).

There are no footnotes or endnotes. Individual authors acknowledge the ideas of others by means of the basic Harvard reference system, eliciting frequent recourse to the extensive, thirty-eight page bibliography at the end of the volume (pp. 406-43). Each chapter ends with suggestions for further reading, with one-line indications of the thrust of works cited. Abbreviations of reference works are listed on pages xvii to xviii. Harrison lists most recent editions and translation of the major authors covered in pages four to twelve of his introduction.

A three-page chronological table (pp. ix-xi) lists important dates in Latin Literature and History. For example, for the Early Republican period '125-100 Lucilius active a satirist' is paralleled by '122-106 War against Jugurtha in North Africa (Rome wins)'. An index (pp. 444-50) lists the ancient authors cited, and other ancients such as emperors, plus one modern author (Mikhail Bahktin), and also certain topics not forming part of chapter headings (for example, 'actors, at Rome'; 'advocates, at Rome'; 'chorus, disappearance of in Roman comedy'; 'Christian writing and culture'; 'metre, issues of'; 'narrative technique'; 'WWW, importance for scholarship'). Cicero dominates the index, as he dominated Latin literature, with almost a column of individual entries, ranging from his humour or dialogue technique to over twenty of his works.

There is little to criticise in this volume. Catherine Edwards could, in the conclusion to her essay on epistolography (p. 282), have included a reference to the verse letters of Ovid: the Heroides and some exilic poems. In the whole volume I found a single typographical error (at for et) in a quotation from Lucan (p. 296), a remarkable record.

In all, this 'Companion' titillates the reader into thinking about Latin literature in excitingly new ways. Most refreshing is perhaps the note on which the collection of potted biographies of the twenty-six authors (pp. xii-xv) ends, describing the Australian Classicist Lindsay C. Watson (University of Sydney): 'He continues to view himself as an active researcher despite a governmental and university diktat that those whose research is not externally funded cannot be so regarded' (p. xv). Long may such defiance flourish!


[[1]] Ancient generic divisions are murky, at best. The most basic division, prose versus poetry, was perhaps their first consideration, but other divisions also obtained. Plato has a tripartite division: mimesis (imitation), narration, and a combined mode (Republic 3.394B and C); Aristotle distinguished only two 'manners' of presentation, narrative and dramatic, as subdivisions of his own tripartite consideration, medium, object and manner (Poetics 2.144a1-18); the Peripatetics considered as narrative whatever was not dramatic; Quintilian's Institutiones 10 focuses on style, with metre the criterion for poetry and manner (high, middle, or low style) distinguishing prose.