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The Long Latin Line

Latin Literature: A History

by Gian Biagio Conte, translated by Joseph B. Solodow, by revised by Don Fowler and Glenn W. Most
Johns Hopkins University Press, 827 pp., $65.00

Histories of literature are a curious form of history. When we consider most histories we have no difficulty distinguishing them from their subject matter. On the one hand there are clothes and shoes and jewelry; on the other, histories of fashion. On the one hand there are armies, equipment, and battles; on the other, histories of warfare. A history of an entire literature is different, for here an extensive book describes and categorizes the contents of other books. Professor Conte, of the University of Pisa, remarks in the introduction to his long Latin Literature: A History that in the case of late and little-read authors “in this field textbooks often take the place of a direct meeting with the texts.” Not only in that case, alas; for many students writing papers, for many teachers and writers in search of a quick recourse, Conte’s history will be a substitute for the texts it describes. It may even, sometimes, be in competition with them for the reader’s attention.

A history of literature that limits itself to the factual is a jejune creation, but any book with such a title must contain “the facts”: an illusory term, when so much darkness and doubt surround even the simplest biographical and chronological points about many Latin authors and publications. Problems of more complex kinds attend any attempt to decide which are the really important connections:which writer’s influence on another is to be seen as decisive, or what is the relation between the creation of a work of literature and events in the political and social history of the time. Conte gives the sort of biographical and historical information that might be expected in a book of this type but with a more sophisticated awareness of the fragility of much of it than one finds in many other text books. He also gives an unfailingly intelligent and interesting account of the works themselves.

In his thoughtful introduction, Conte begins by saying that for previous generations, “the organization of the study of literature” was “inherited from the culture of Romanticism.” Literary history thus “came to concentrate above all on individual works and on the contingent conditions that brought them into being.” Now, by contrast, historicism has yielded to attack from various different quarters, including

…phenomenology, formalism, stylistic criticism, thematic and symbolic criticism, the New Criticism, and also the more recent developments in structuralism and its successors. This new critical approach focuses upon the individual works as manifestations of a specifically literary language:literariness, understood as the feature that is relevant and distinctive of texts, has become the center of attention…every work is formed and finds meaning in relation to other literary works, every text is viewed as conditioned by other texts, through similarity or differentiation. Thus modern literary historical investigation has increasingly directed its attention to intertextuality, to precisely those relations that, like a network of signification, connect one text to another within the body of literature.

Conte’s own work, subtle and influential, has centered on the problems of influence, the relations between works of literature and the genres to which they belong or to which they allude. His important works on Virgil and on genres can now be read in English.1 In this book, however, he does not indulge the theoretical approach currently fashionable among some Latinists, which deplores any reference to authorial intention. That kind of literary theory, interesting sometimes in short and brilliant essays, can be expressed in such recent dicta as the one holding that “the ‘original’ horizon of expectations… should not be privileged” and “just because we’re making it all up doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.” Such an approach is hard to reconcile with anything so serious and demanding as a comprehensive literary history. Thus Conte throughout writes of authorial intentions as if they are knowable, known, and subject to qualitative judgment: Ovid’s “attempt to provide the poem [the Metamorphoses] with a philosophical interpretation does not bear the stamp of true conviction”; “It is probably more in line with Lucretius’s true intentions to suppose that the intended ending of the poem was indeed the plague and nothing else”; “Horace’s relation to Augustus was quite close, one of devoted friendliness but without servility”; “This interpretation presupposes that the praise of Nero [by Lucan]is sincere.” It is indeed refreshing—it seems so strange to have to say it—that in his introduction Conte declares,

Without the tension that drives us to seek an original intention in the literary work, our very relation to these works loses any real interest. I see no other protection from the arbitrary incursions of many modern interpreters, who may be eager readers but whose views are often unconsciously alien to the original historical contexts and cultural codes.

A more magisterial rejection of a currently fashionable view can hardly be imagined.

We live in something of a boom period for histories of Latin literature. The great German reference work, the five-volume history by Martin Schanz and Carl Hosius,2 invaluable for facts, is in process of being replaced:so far one volume of a completely new edition has appeared.3 The eminent German Latinist Michael von Albrecht is about to publish a history, in two volumes, running to some 1,450 pages. In English an obvious comparison is to be made with The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Volume II; Latin Literature, edited by E.J. Kenney and W.V. Clausen.4 Both books are very long:the Cambridge history runs to 992 pages. Both are equipped with bibliographies. How do they differ, and how can one decide between them?

The Cambridge volume is narrower in scope, explicitly disclaiming Christian writings as part of its subject—“writings by Christians on Christian topics for Christian readers will generally not be discussed.” It also limits itself implicitly (for what it means by “literature” is never expressly said)to what might be called belles-lettres, ignoring such texts as writings by legal commentators, grammarians, and geographers. Conte takes the Christians seriously and gives roughly the same space to Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine as he does to late pagans such as Ausonius and Claudian; and he carries his history, in outline, down to the age of Charlemagne. He also discusses legal texts, grammarians and scholiasts, and virtually everybody else. On both counts I think he is right. The Roman legal system was one of the most characteristic expressions of the Roman mind, and surely it should not be passed over in silence. It is frustrating not to be told, in the Cambridge History, about the ancient scholars whose names and works are often mentioned by poets and historians; and the decision to cut out the Christians meant, in the words of a reviewer of the Cambridge History,5 that “the result is to exclude from the history some of the most significant writings of their day, while space is found for versifiers of the utmost triviality.”

Conte makes two more claims. He wants to treat the “literary success” of each author’s work—and he takes its influence, its progeny in later times, to be “part of the text’s existence.” This means that the reader finds a summary account, contributed by Glenn W. Most, an American scholar who is now a professor at Innsbrück in Austria, of the success, influence, and descendants of the great Latin writers in later literature. Space is cruelly short for these, but it is well used:specialist works are listed which discuss the influence of each major writer, and a short account of each tradition is given. It is interesting to see how different Latin writers became popular and influential at different periods of European history: Ovid in the high Middle Ages and in the sixteenth century; Lucretius in the seventeenth; Sallust in the middle ages and Renaissance, but overshadowed by the darker and more powerful Tacitus after about 1530. It is a pity Conte does not refer to the remarkable book by M. von Albrecht, Rom:Spiegel Europas,6 which has interesting discussions of the history and the reasons for the vogue at particular periods of particular Latin authors. Mention of the same scholar’s two anthologies, Masters of Roman Prose and Römische Poesie7 would also have strengthened the comparative weakness of Conte’s bibliography when it comes to detailed critical and stylistic studies.

Conte also gives more emphasis than is usual in a textbook to the importance of literary genres. The audience for classical literature had a far clearer set of expectations of the generic character of a work than a modern audience. The genres derive from Greece and were originally connected with set events and ceremonies in personal and religious life:hymns to gods, elegies for the dead, epithalamiums at weddings, and so on. With the passage of time and the development of society the genres became increasingly available for purely literary purposes. By his specific use of them a writer located his work:he would show to what degree he was working within the tradition and in what ways he was claiming originality. This was still more the case in Rome, where most of the genres never really had a basis in the practice of religious cults, and where high literature was altogether a creation on the model of Greek.

Finally, of course, Conte has the advantage that his book is the production of a single mind, while its Cambridge rival is the work of many scholars. It is not hard to see that he is more interested in some of his Latin authors than others (who wouldn’t be?), but his book is not marked by the sometimes abrupt changes of tone and scope of its competitor. His mastery of the vast range of literature that he covers is remarkable. He starts with the first discernible beginnings of Roman poetry and a perceptive and interesting treatment of the carmen, the most primitive Latin literary form we know of. It is something between prose and verse, characterized by short clauses parallel with each other and full of all kinds of alliteration, assonance, and verbal echo. Laws, curses, prayers, epitaphs, are among the many kinds of speech that may take this form. By comparison with the earliest compositions that we find in Greek literature—highly polished and ambitious poems in elaborate metrical patterns—the carmen is essentially a primitive form. Even when the Romans succeeded, with enormous effort, in mastering and domesticating Greek literary genres and forms, as Conte remarks, “certain cadences or rhythms in Plautus and Ennius, and even in Catullus and Virgil, may still recall the tradition of the carmina.”

The point is well taken, and the reader turns the page in hopes of a few illuminating examples. There are none. Here the Cambridge writers, who quote much more than Conte, are clearly more helpful. He devotes for example ten pages of his book—and his pages are very large ones—to the early comic poet Terence, but fails to provide a single quotation from his work. It is a little frustrating then to be told that “Terence’s style of expression, precisely because he does not aim at making a display of it, is in general the aspect of his work most neglected by critics and readers”—a statement supported only by some general remarks about Terence’s restricted vocabulary and avoidance of coarseness. In discussing early Roman tragedy, the saddest and most complete loss for us, perhaps, in the whole history of Latin literature, Conte quotes only one line from the extant fragments: “A typical example of linguistic experimentation is the Pacuvian fragment Nerei repandirostrum incurvicervicum pecus, a description of dolphins, ‘the herd of Nereus, bent-snouted and curved-neck.”’ That line was quoted in antiquity for its oddity; the fragments of tragedy dealing, for example, with the fall of Troy and the lamentations of the Trojan women would have been more rewarding to show what pathos Roman tragedy was capable of.

  1. 1

    See The Rhetoric of Imitation, translated by C. Segal (Cornell University Press, 1986), and Genres and Readers: Lucretius, Love Elegy, Pliny’s Encyclopedia, translated by Glenn W. Most (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

  2. 2

    Schanz and Hosius, Römische Literaturgeschichte, reprinted edition (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1927).

  3. 3

    Edited by R. Herzog and P. Schmidt (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1989), Vol. 5, 284-374 CE.

  4. 4

    Cambridge University Press, 1982.

  5. 5

    Robin Nisbet in Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 73 (1983), p. 177.

  6. 6

    Heidelberg: Schneider, 1988.

  7. 7

    English translation by Neil Adkin, (Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1989). Heidelberg: Stiehn, 1977.

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