David Konstan and Kurt A. Raaflaub (edd.), Epic and History. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pp. xiv + 442. ISBN 978-1-4051-9307-8. US$149.95, UK£85.00, €97.80.
The Montclair Kimberley Academy, New Jersey, USA
The volume under review furnishes the fourth such collection published in the Wiley-Blackwell series 'The Ancient World: Comparative Histories'. The present gathering includes twenty-two papers, first delivered during a workshop at Brown University in December 2006, on various aspects of the complex relationship between 'epic' and 'history' across a wide range of cultures from all corners of the globe. As such, not all of the contributions are likely to pique the interest of Classicists, and so, in the compass of this brief review, I will accordingly devote the majority of my comments to those four pieces which do specifically treat the epics of Greece and Rome. (Those interested can find a full list of authors and titles online at the publisher’s website.)
In their brief introduction to the volume as a whole (pp. 1-6), the editors address the difficulties inherent in any comparative study (including the question of whether a comparison is even valid in the first place). In particular, Konstan and Raaflaub consider the interaction between orality and literacy in the rise of heroic epic, as well as the role which epic plays in the development of historical memory. Having established this hermeneutical framework, they outline the contents of the five sets of questions which the contributors were requested to consider as they composed their individual papers. It is left unclear, however, whether these comparisons were to be within and / or across the various cultures (compare, for example, C. M. Bowra’s Heroic poetry , cited by only one of the contributors). Even more troubling is the absence here of the term 'myth': indeed, by the end of the introduction, the collection appears to have evolved from a study on the problems of 'epic and history' into one on the problems of 'epic and historicity' (p. 5).
The first set of papers (Chapters 2-7) examines epic in the ancient Near East (including texts in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian, and Hebrew) and ancient India (the Mahabharata, in Sanskrit). Michalowski (pp. 7-25) initiates this phase of the investigation with a lucid and insightful overview of the literary and historical context(s) for the Sumerian epics, which recount the lives and deeds of three fictionalized kings of Uruk: Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh; Westenholz (pp. 26-50) continues this analysis of Mesopotamian epic with a similar treatment of the extant compositions about Sargon and Naram-Sin, two early kings of Akkade. Thereafter, Gilan (pp. 51-65) attempts to explain why the Hittites appear to have preferred 'imported heroes in ‘translation’' (p. 57) to local heroes, while Bachvarova (pp. 66-85) builds on her earlier work on the Hurro-Hittite Song of Release with a further investigation into the generic variety inherent in the text, as well as its relationship to the similar generic variety in Homer and Hesiod. Niditch (pp. 86-102) shifts the focus to the Israelite tradition through a study of the 'text, texture, and context' (p. 86) of Judges; Fitzgerald (pp. 103-21) then moves on to ancient India with an intriguing account of the circumstances surrounding the evolution of the Great Bharata.
The second set of papers (Chapters 8-11, on Classical Epic) follows, with two papers on Greek poetry and two on Latin. In a succinct overview of the status quaestionis, Grethlein (pp. 122-44) considers the relationship between the Iliad and history from two different but complementary perspectives. First, he evaluates the epic (according to Droysen’s terminology) both as a Quelle and as überrest. In an assessment of the recent controversy in Germany over the new excavations at Hisarlik, Grethlein explicitly rejects the identification of this site with Troy and emphasizes that 'neither the linguistic nor the archaeological evidence allows us to conclude that the Iliad offers testimony to a historical event' (p. 125). Accordingly, Grethlein views the poem not as a 'source' for historical information, but instead as 'remains' (or, perhaps better, 'evidence'), as a reflection of the world of the early Archaic Age. Thereafter, he offers a new avenue for exploring the relationship between epic and history, through the careful analysis of those elements in the Iliad which are themselves depicted as the 'past' relative to the 'present' time- frame of the poem. (This is an approach which could also profitably be used to study the Mahabharata and Latin historical epic.) Grethlein’s closing sentence best encapsulates the inherent complexity of the issue: 'Epic poetry is a source not only for history, but also for the history of history, revealing a distinct idea of history' (p. 134). Bowie (pp. 145-66) addresses a related idea in his piece, on the role of narrative elegy in the evolution of Greek historiography. In particular, he examines selected works by Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus, Xenophanes, Panyassis, and Simonides of Ceos, as well as Callinus and Archilochus, for evidence of historical material and historical thinking. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, it is perhaps not surprising that Bowie is often compelled to rely on (albeit informed) speculation to support his line of argument.
In the first of the two papers on Latin epic, Goldberg (pp. 167-84) offers a concise overview of the relationship between epic and history in Republican Rome. Using Cicero’s various (as well as varying) treatments of the relationship between the two as a frame, Goldberg develops an original and interesting (although not entirely convincing) thesis about the role(s) which Ennius, Naevius, and Cato played in the rise of epic (and poetry in general) and history during the age of the Punic Wars and about the subsequent predominance of 'the poets’ view of the past' (p. 178). For Goldberg, in short, 'Rome had history and epic and, most influential of all, history through epic.' (p. 178). In the following paper, Marks (pp. 185-211) complements Goldberg’s focus on the Republic with a piece on the Empire and, in particular, the unique mix of epic and history in the Punica. His fundamental point, that literary polemics about the relative value of mythological and historical epic reached a fever pitch during the early Empire, is certainly correct; however, his analysis of the role(s) which Silius and the Punica played in this debate leaves much to be desired. As Marks himself notes (pp. 188f.), Silius writes not about contemporary events but about the 'distant past' of the Second Punic War: as such, the poet collapses the purported boundaries between mythological and historical epic by collapsing the apparent distinction between 'myth' and 'history' in his account of the conflict. Moreover, while Marks nicely highlights the importance of the 'poet-warrior' in the Punica, as well as elsewhere in the tradition, his reading (cf. Casali’s 2006 article in Arethusa) of the 'Callimachean' polemics in 12.390-414 (when Ennius appears in battle on Sardinia) ignores the fact that Host(i)us was the poet of an historical, not a mythological, epic, namely the Bellum Histricum (see the full paragraph on p. 191). Finally, Marks offers an exclusively positive reading of Punica 13-17 which simply ignores such problematic passages as the conclusion of Scipio’s 'choice' between virtus and voluptas (15.121- 128) and which espouses the untenable position that Silius portrays Scipio 'as a kind of ideal king or proto-emperor' (p. 195; but compare, for example, the heated debate between Fabius and Scipio in the Roman Senate in 16.600-700). In short, Marks unfortunately deprives the Punica of much of its inherent ambiguity and complexity, and, in the process, also renders Silius a poet unworthy of comparison with his distinguished forebears in the tradition, Vergil and Lucan.
The remaining papers fall into two sets, medieval (Chapters 12-19) and contemporary (Chapters 20-23) epic. In the first of these groupings, Davidson (pp. 212-22) examines the depictions of Alexander the Great and Dhu’l Qarnayn in Persian literature (but overlooks the likely influence of the Gilgamesh tradition on these depictions); Torres Prieto (pp. 223- 42) explains the inherent difficulties of defining what 'Slavic epic' is, with a particular focus on byliny (Russian oral heroic poems); Russom (pp. 243-61) revisits the work of Tolkien on Christian (specifically, the Old Testament) resonances in Beowulf; Classen (pp. 262-79) explores the interplay between myth and history in the Nibelungenlied; Duggan (pp. 280-92) offers a panoramic view of the prolific genre known as the chanson de geste (for example, the Chanson de Roland) or the cantar de gesta (for example, the Cantar de mio Cid); Bossy (pp. 293-309) undertakes a similar exploration of the interplay between myth and history in the depiction of Roland in both his chanson de geste and various prose chronicles; Vaquero (pp. 310-27) considers the use of feminine lament in the otherwise masculine genre of Spanish medieval epic (but would have benefitted from a comparison of this material with, Andromache, Hecabe, and Helen, for example, at the end of the Iliad, cf. also pp. 225 n. 5 [on p. 237], 267-72, and 305f.); and, finally, Fulk (pp. 328-46) offers a similar panoramic view of the saga literature of Norway and Iceland, as well as of Ireland and Wales. In the second of these groupings, Foley (pp. 347-61) studies the relationship between the Muslim and Christian traditions of South Slavic oral epic; Tedlock (pp. 362-80) details the possible influence of the Carlo Magno (a Spanish play in the Roland tradition) on the Mayan drama known under the two titles of Rabinal Achi and Xajoj Tun; Whitaker (pp. 381-91) outlines the form and function of izibongo (Nguni, i.e., Zulu and Xhosa, praise poetry), with a particular focus on the poems written in honor of Shaka; and Reynolds (pp. 392-410) examines the various oral and textual narratives of the rise and fall of the Banī Hilāl Bedouin tribe in North Africa during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Miller closes the volume with a brief retrospective on the contents of the papers and the major themes of the conference (pp. 411-24). In particular, he highlights the need to dispense with any simple equations between 'epic' and 'fiction' or between 'history' and 'fact'. On the one hand, many of the contributors do succeed in showing how epic blurs the apparent distinction between fact and fiction; on the other, most of them do not succeed in showing how history also blurs this apparent distinction (cf. my earlier comment on 'history' and 'historicity'). Few scholars today would still include themselves in the 'our' of 'our habit of understanding history as the yield of objective, discoverable fact' (p. 347); even fewer would ascribe to such a false dichotomy as that between 'traditional history' and 'factual history' (p. 351); virtually no one would describe this 'traditional history . . . as an unexamined kind of truth, a subjectivity unto itself' (p. 357). In the end, the question is not 'how historical is the history' (p. 212), since this formulation lapses into mere tautology, and there is no distinction to be made between '"the past as such"' and '"the past as it is remembered"' (p. 99), since 'the past as such' never existed, does not currently exist, and never will exist: we only have 'the past as it is remembered'. The construction of space and time in any given example ofepic or history, accordingly, represents the product of nothing more and nothing less than the evanescent prestidigitation of our own individual and collective memories.
Apart from a number of errors and inconsistencies in orthography and the use of diacritics (for example, pp. 42, 48, 73, 186 n. 6 [on p. 206], 229 n. 20 [on p. 238], 246), as well as a passing reference to 'the year zero' (p. 110), the book is well produced and well bound, but exorbitantly priced.