Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History tr. Joseph B. Solodow, rev. Don Fowler and Glenn W. Most. Baltimore & London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. 827. ISBN 0-8018-4638-2. UKú45.00.
University of Tasmania
By any reckoning this is a remarkable book. It is 827 pages in length and covers the history of Latin literature from the beginnings to the fifth century AD. Its only comparable rival in English is the second volume of the Cambridge History of Classical Literature,(1) and that is of course the product of many hands.
It is the book's very remarkableness which makes it a problem for a reviewer. A person with the learning to match Conte's and with sufficient space at his/her disposal could well write a thorough review of the entire work. I have neither. I think it best then to concentrate on Conte's treatment of the poetry of the first centuries BC and AD. This is the area with which I am most familiar and probably the area of greatest interest to Latinists. So this review will be limited to 'Part Two: The Late Republic', 'Part Three: The Age of Augustus' and 'Part Four: The Early Empire'.
For Conte the period of the late republic is 'The Age of Caesar'. From a literary, though not political, point of view this is perhaps a surprising judgement. In fact, however, Conte assigns primacy of place to Catullus and greatest space to Cicero. Conte's discussions are alert to theoretical complexities (he is aware, for example, of the dangers of biographical readings of Catullus and of the risks of posing too sharp a division between the short and larger poems), alive to textual nuance (as in his discussions of Catullus 5 and of the features of Lucretius' style) and of larger issues (see his treatment of the sublime in Lucretius). On the Augustans, Conte has fascinating things to say for, at least from my own perspective, he combines advanced theoretical awareness with interpretations which, in the English-speaking world at least, would have to be rated as fairly conservative. Thus Conte is rightly sceptical of the identification of Tityrus with Virgil in Eclogue1 (p. 267), but views the same poem as containing 'homage to Octavian' (p. 266). The Aeneid, of course, is the field of great controversy in current criticism and here Conte is unambiguously conservative, treating the ancient grammarians' view of the Aeneid's purpose as twofold, 'to imitate Homer and praise Augustus' as a 'reasonable simplification' (p. 276). Thus Conte distinguishes three levels of Homeric transformation; the Aeneid as contamination of the Homeric poems, as continuation and as repetition. It is the latter which is most important and here Conte sees Aeneas in this new Iliad as containing within himself the 'victorious Achilles and especially Odysseus' (p. 277). That Aeneas is the new Achilles seems undeniable -- that he is the new Odysseus in Books 7-12, given the paucity of Odyssean references in the final books of the epic (as can be seen from Knauer's tables), requires more evidence. But despite his adherence to a traditional interpretation of the Aeneid as a whole, Conte's interpretation of the poem's final scene is radical: 'Turnus is a proud hero, but now he is also subiectus. The choice is difficult. Aeneas kills him only because at that crucial moment the sight of Pallas' sword-belt overwhelms him in fit of deadly anger. Thus in the final scene of the story the pious Aeneas resembles the terrifying Achilles who takes his revenge upon Hector. The Iliad, however, ends with a pitying Achilles who finds himself no different from Priam' (p. 284). But where does this leave Anchises' injunction, the basis upon which Rome's empire is to be built: parcere subiectis et debellare superbos (6.853)?
What then of that characteristic Augustan genre, love elegy? Conte begins by noting the distinctively subjective (i.e. autobiographical) character of Roman elegy. On the other hand, Conte is aware of the dangers of autobiographical criticism. He rightly prefers to speak of 'an elegiac world, with conventional roles and behaviours, and of an ethical principal belonging to it, an ideology associated with its founding values' (p. 322 f.). He treats the seruitium amoris as characteristic of the genre. This might well be doubted. It is characteristic of Propertius; whether it is central to Tibullus and Ovid is another question. He notes the opposition between elegiac and traditional values, but then claims that elegy 'in fact reclaims them by transferring them into its own world, and it does this while remaining their prisoner' (p. 323). By this he means that although the focus of elegy is never respectable women, the poet tends to figure his relationship with his mistress as a conjugal one. Conte has little to say about Tibullus. He is clearly one of those who prefer Propertius. Propertian values, the rejection of mos maiorum and of commitment to otium, and love's slavery, Conte links with his choice of the elegiac genre. Conte accepts that Propertius gradually succumbed to imperial pressure, treating 4.6, for example, as 'solemn' (p. 336) where others might see parody or even humour.
To the other great Augustan master, Ovid, Conte seems curiously unsympathetic. Conte acknowledges the innovative nature of Ovid's aesthetic (p. 342), but regards the Amores as banal (p. 343), while his marginal note declares the Heroides monotonous (p. 348). On the other hand, the discussion of the reader's role in the Heroides is superb. When it comes to the Ars Amatoria Conte seems to take Ovid's assertions that his poem is not directed at married women at face value when there is so much evidence to the contrary. As with the Aeneid, Conte views the Metamorphoses as Ovid's way of meeting 'the needs of the nation and Augustus' (p. 351). Thus Conte takes Ovid's 'Aeneid' seriously rather than seeing it, as a device for telling the same kind of story as before while evading the great Augustan myth. In the same way Ovid avoids narrating the great events of Roman history. On the other hand, Conte's treatment of the Fasti is wholly otherwise: 'it is the Romanitas conveyed by the calendar that is attacked and decentralized' (p. 356). Unfortunately Conte has little to say about Tristia and Ex Ponto.
It is a similar story when we move on to the Neronians and Flavians. Conte has little to say on Senecan tragedy and what he says disappoints. Here the approach is reductive, for all the plays are viewed as presenting the defeat of logos and the spread of evil. Conte has virtually nothing to say about individual plays. His views seem unaffected by the recent revival of interest in Senecan tragedy in the English-speaking world. The account of Lucan, is far more stimulating. Conte treats Lucan as an anti-Virgil and his poem as an anti-Aeneid. He views Pharsalia as 'an indignant denunciation of fratricidal war, of the subversion of all moral values, and of the arrival of the kingdom of injustice' (p. 443). His remarks on the characterisation of Caesar and Pompey (especially Pompey, whom he regards as 'a sort of Aeneas whom destiny opposes' [p. 447]) are astute, as are his remarks on Lucan's stylistic excess. In my view (probably a minority one), the main weakness in Conte's discussion of Pharsalia is the fact that he subscribes to the sincerity of Lucan's praise of Nero in Book 1. He defends that position by claiming that (a) there is no sharp division between a 'first' and a 'second' Lucan (p. 445) and that (b) 'in the remainder of the poem Lucan's pessimism grows far more radical and comes closer to a consistent darkness of conception' (p. 445). To me this looks like self-contradiction, but this blemish (and I acknowledge that most will not think it so) in no way diminishes the value of Conte's discussion of Lucan's great poem. Indeed, as with Bramble's contribution to the Cambridge History of Latin Literature, it is a pleasure to read so enthusiastic an account of Pharsalia in a work of this kind. Conte's discussion of the Flavian epic poets is disappointingly brief. Statius' Thebaid, generally acknowledged as the most important, gets two and half pages and that includes nearly a page of summary. Conte suggests that the Thebaid, like the Aeneid, should be divided into Odyssean and Iliadic sections. The parallel misleads in so far as Statius does not explicitly evoke the reader's recollections of Homer as Virgil does. True, Books 7 to 12 are characterised by war, but Books 1 to 6 better illustrate absence of movement and delay (three years actually elapse before the Argives begin to move), rather than wandering. Conte has important things to say about the poem's unity and treatment of the gods, but fails to consider whether Statius' decision to treat the civil war, when Rome had so recently endured yet another outbreak of fratricidal strife, had political implications. He also ignores important parallels between Theseus and the Theban royal family.
What then are we to make of this book and its treatment of what most will regard as the central period of Latin literature? That one person can treat such varied works with an almost unfailing sympathy, with such accuracy and tact, is itself extraordinary. On the other hand, while most will applaud Conte's critical sophistication, some will be disappointed by the conservative nature of many of his interpretations.
(1) E.J. Kenney & W.V. Clausen (edd.), The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Vol. II: Latin Literature (Cambridge 1982).