“The History of Literature as Provocation” or “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” or “…to Literary Scholarship”—these are some of the titles that have been prefixed to Hans Robert Jauss’s provocative and now notorious inaugural lecture at the University of Konstanz in 1967.1 His mission was to rescue literature from various methods of study that were blind to the passage of time and to give it a sense of history. This does not mean he wanted to return to antiquarianism and to the notion that we should cast off the pollution of our present in order to go back in purity to the past. On the contrary Jauss wanted literary history to provoke (as he put it in another essay in 1969)

the ability to wrest works of art from the past by means of new interpretations, to translate them into a new present, to make the experiences preserved in past art accessible again; or, in other words, to ask the questions that are posed anew by every generation and to which the art of the past is able to speak, and again to give its answers.

The great virtue of this position is that it reinstates us in the present. In doing so it raises our preoccupations from being merely matters of prejudice and distortion to being the prerequisite for keeping the literature of the past alive. So the history of literature comes to include, even to concentrate on, the history of those who are exposed to it, from the time of creation up till now—and not only readers, but listeners, viewers, performers, adaptors, translators, editors, literary historians. For myself I find this view of the scope of the history of literature exciting and liberating, though I do not believe that it by any means excludes the study of the author’s original communication.

The authors of The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature show no signs of direct influence from this approach through “reception.” Implicitly their objective is to get back to the Greek writers in order to uncover the timeless “facts” about them, not in order to “wrest their works from the past.” Nonetheless they are—fortunately—better attuned to our insecure times than they admit, and they often succeed in making “the experiences preserved in past art accessible again.”

Within its own aims and definitions The Cambridge History is a mighty achievement, bringing together the work of nineteen of the finest scholars in the field to produce a single volume (weighing three and a half pounds). It will surely not be superseded in this century, and probably never will—granted those aims and definitions. Pat Easterling and Bernard Knox must have had a long obstacle race getting the volume together (there is evidence between the lines that some contributions were completed more than ten years before publication). They may well be the only two Hellenists with the patience and amiability to have completed the course. (Readers of The New York Review will be familiar with Knox’s enlivening writing on classical and other subjects.) Their shared introductory essay, “Books and Readers in the Greek World” (Knox covers early antiquity, Easterling the rest), gets the volume off to such a good start that one might wish the two of them had undertaken the entire book and finished ten years sooner. They write with exemplary concision and freshness; and Knox even manages in a few pages to reassess the literacy of sixth-and fifth-century Greece as an important corrective to schematic exaggerations of the “orality” of the age.

He brings to bear, for example, common graffiti, the lavish “labeling” of figures in early vase painting, the huge quantities of archaic poetry that survived to reach the great library at Alexandria (the original Museum—“Temple of the Muses”), and the rise of literary prose, which by the later fifth century was a vehicle for philosophy, history, medicine, political pamphlets, even memoirs. A romantic primitivism has led to the neglect of all this evidence that early Greek civilization, no less than later, was indivisible from writing.

Classical Greek literature starts, for us, abruptly in about 700 BC with a titan, Homer. When the Swiss book collector Martin Bodmer decided to build his library around the five greatest achievements of Western literature he chose Homer, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. It is not easy to challenge him on Homer’s inclusion. In contrast, the other end is impossible to pin down, for although first-rank creative poetry in Greek is virtually over by 200 BC (until the renaissance of the last 150 years), a ragged procession of far from negligible writers of history, essays, intellectual polemic, romance, science, philosophy, and theology trail on for several centuries. The editors have decided to stop at the third century AD, primarily because of the decision to exclude “Christian literature.” While understandable and perhaps inevitable, this leads the reader to a feeling of reading with a patch over one eye in the last part of the volume, where an irresistible cloud, the second in Bodmer’s list of five works, is mushrooming “out of bounds.”


One of the aims of The Cambridge History is to collate the results of modern biographical and bibliographical scholarship on the more than one hundred significant authors included. This is done in an invaluable “Appendix of authors and works” filling over 170 pages. This is not, however, by one of the nineteen eminent contributors (though the influence of some of them may be detected in the relevant entries), but by Mr. Martin Drury, who is otherwise unidentified. Credit is due to Drury for his painstaking, competent, and useful labor.

The task set for the contributors themselves is to survey literary works as literary works, and, beyond describing their outer features, to give an impression of their inner qualities. The editors seem to have imposed minimal regulations; yet, regardless of the variety of manners and methods, there is a consistently high quality (generally far superior to the level of the companion volume on Latin literature which attracted a barrage of sniping from critics when it was published in 1982). I am taking this overall quality for granted while singling out some parts that seem to me even better than most.

I start, however, with a chapter which disappointed me, that on Homer by G.S. Kirk, which is “familiar almost to the point of staleness,” to use Professor Kirk’s own description of the journey to Chryse in Book I, one of the Iliad’s most appealing episodes. He uses the words “heroic” and “monumental,” for example, as though they were clear and pose no problem, because he has written so much on them in earlier works. Even so, “monumental” seems at times to mean nothing more than “very long”; and Kirk’s analysis of the Iliad’s internal construction merely follows the twenty-four-book structure, which was the invention of scholars at the Museum of Alexandria. But, worst, his account sounds as mean and grudging as Homer is large and generous, taking to new lengths the vocabulary of praising with faint damns.

A chain of the phrases he uses to describe the poems should convey the tone: “formless and confused in its total effect…the conventional but not entirely monotonous phrases…a little weakened…a veneer of more highly developed, or at least slicker, language…the usual unemphatic level…slightly outstrip the singer’s complete control…moving a little unsurely…cumulated one upon another almost too casually…to almost irritating extremes.” Anyone deriving an impression of Homer from this chapter would be baffled by Bodmer’s choice. But I have probably overreacted; others will gain more from what is, in large part, a well-informed and level-headed contribution. 2

The treatment of the three great Athenian tragedians of the fifth century by R.P. Winnington-Ingram and the two editors sets the high standards for the volume as a whole. Even better in some respects is the chapter, seventy pages long, on comedy by E.W. Handley. This subtly organized survey, which includes much original scholarship, dispenses assured generalizations while always keeping a grip on comedy’s particularity. Handley brings together the history of “comedy” from the satirical fantasia of Aristophanes in the later fifth century to the domestic and emotional realism of Menander a hundred years later. I have been inclined myself to regard these two kinds of drama as so different that it is verging on misleading to give them both the label “comedy”; but Handley has new perceptions, and sees neglected patterns with a new brightness. He reveals, for example, the way that plays of allegorical-mythical burlesque must have eased this transition (unfortunately we have scarcely any surviving illustration of this “genre”), and the way that Aristophanes’ last plays (produced after 400 BC) attack social and economic targets rather than individual politicians. Handley also has a gift for coining thought-provoking maxims. Comparing Aristophanes’ attitude with the common twentieth-century blend of excitement at technical progress with disappointment at declining standards, he writes “the basic impulse to satirical writing is, after all, one suspects, that of a divided mind.”

Henry R. Immerwahr is lucid and informative on the two great fifth-century founders of History, though his implicit preference is for the ebullience of Herodotus over the grim penetration of Thucydides. He may well be right to credit Herodotus with more sophisticated concepts of causation than are usually admitted, but he begs vital questions in speaking of “the contradiction between scientific and dramatic principles in Thucydides.” Thucydides’ dramatic presentation might well be claimed as a scientific effort to present history in all its dynamic, human complexity. A.A. Long contributes three of the chapters about writers of philosophy. He is perhaps freshest on the pioneers of the sixth and early fifth centuries; but he makes a brave attempt to deal in brief space with the gigantic achievements of Aristotle—taken all in all, perhaps the greatest single Greek mind—paying special attention to the two works that bear most on creative literature, the much-studied Poetics, and the under-studied Rhetoric. Long also covers later philosophy from the founding fathers of the schools (Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, etc.) down to the great rational mystic Plotinus in the third century AD.


George A. Kennedy offers an illuminating account of the orators of fourth-century Athens culminating in what he calls the “forcefulness and variety” of Demosthenes. Kennedy avoids the danger here of a dull catalog. But the prize for giving a fresh and stimulating account of what might seem relatively unpromising material goes to A.W. Bulloch’s eighty-page chapter on “Hellenistic poetry,” which means in effect third-century poetry, mostly emanating from the new intellectual center at Alexandria. With perspective and perception Bulloch gives the cultural background to the strange combination of the traditional and the unpredictable which characterizes this Indian summer. It nourished at least two major poets, Callimachus and Theocritus (and also produced in the Alexandrian Museum the first fruits of the kind of academic scholarship of which The Cambridge History is the latest example).

While the five hundred years from 700 to 200 BC occupy some six hundred pages, the remaining half-millennium is disposed of in less than one hundred pages. Still, G.W. Bowersock and E.L. Bowie make this final lap stylish and lively, and stave off the sense that in the long term this was rather a sad dispersal of the dynamic creativity of the preceding centuries. It is a product of these very virtues that the two contradict each other in a significant evaluation. Bowersock endorses the judgment of Galen (who was a critic as well as a physician) that Aristides was a profound observer of the human combination of indomitable spirit with feeble body, while Lucian was merely a mocker of serious people. Bowie on the other hand brings out the best in Lucian, praising his “modern” combination of “keen questioning, humorous exposure, and vigorous though never vulgar abuse.” Aristides is perhaps also rather modern, the man who makes hypochondria into a whole way of life. With our perspective, this last part of classical Greek literature is by no means moribund. Think of the influence nearer our time of the medicine of Galen, the literary criticism of “Longinus,” the biography and preaching of Plutarch, the pointed essays of Lucian and the rustic tumblings of Longus. With the longer perspective of “reception,” in the Islamic world as well as the Western, this last chapter is not the least.

It will have become apparent that The Cambridge History is not an introduction to Greek literature for those who know little or nothing about it; nor will it make enthusiasts of those who have encountered the subject but have not ears to hear. Its value is for those who are already interested and want to know more; and the editors and contributors have evidently given considerable thought to the level of explication to ensure that too much is not taken for granted.3 Within its own aims and definitions, then, The Cambridge History is excellent. But what about literary history in Jauss’s terms of provocation? How far does it ask new questions or “the questions that are posed anew by every generation”?

I am not saying that it necessarily should have raised the questions that follow. It is long (and bulky) enough as it is; and the editors explain in the preface that much has “had to be treated only incidentally, in order to keep the volume within bounds.” But why these particular “bounds”? Consciously or not, choices have been made, and the concept of “literature” limited. Yet “history of literature” is not a static or self-evident or unprovocative enterprise. For instance, what enabled these people at this time to produce such great literature and so much cultural initiative? How much, for one thing, does their achievement owe to the language? Something about Greek made it a supremely expressive and effective language, in both poetry and prose, for dispute, for arguing about blame and credit, freedom and compulsion, levels of causation. Something made it the first and arguably most effective vehicle for formulating the dichotomies of illusion and reality, the absolute and the relative, ends and means, the explicable and inexplicable. Such issues of literature, in semantic relation to its recipients, lie, however, outside the bounds of this work. So do questions about the use and durability of Greek myths.

We live in an era of nationalism and of huge distances. How important for Greek literature was the interplay between locality and cosmopolitanism, between the homeland of myth and the diaspora of historical reality? And how far did centuries of war among Greeks affect the participants in an accumulating national culture? A rapid sketch of birthplaces may illustrate the point. In the period 700–500 most “makers” of Greek literature and art came, not from the mainland, but from the islands of the eastern Aegean and the coastal towns of Ionia (now Turkey). In the fifth century, however, Athens not only produced its native masters of drama, history, and philosophy, but attracted interesting people from all directions. The leading lights of that fascinating, varied group of intellectuals we know as the Sophists came there from Sicily in the west, the Peloponnese in the south, and Thrace in the north; only one, Socrates, was an Athenian.

When creative poetry revives, the magnetic pole has shifted away from the Aegean to Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile. Callimachus moved there from the Greek city of Cyrene (now in Libya), Theocritus from Sicily. Alexander the Great spread Greek culture far to the east, and the conquering Romans carried it west, though they never abandoned their language for Greek. (Cultured Romans often broke into Greek. Julius Caesar’s last words were not “Et tu, Brute” but “kai su, teknon,” “you too, my son”.) The names in the last part of this volume come not only from all over Greece, Turkey, and Egypt but from what are now Italy, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. We have evidence that Menander’s plays were known in Tunisia, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. It is not clear that matters of terrain, climate, and environment lie outside literary history.

Related to this are questions of how far Greek literature was affected by non-Greek neighbors (whether or not hostile ones). Hesiod, at the time of Homer, evidently came into contact with Anatolian literature; Herodotus came from a half-Greek city; Meleager, who wrote and collected epigrammatic poetry in the first century BC, and who came from Gadara (on the West Bank of the Jordan) makes his own epitaph greet those who pass his tomb:

If you are Syrian “Salaam,”
If Phoenician “Naidos,”
If Greek “Chaire”

This volume overlooks one of the most fascinating cross-cultural phenomena of Greek literature: the Exagoge of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a Jew who probably lived in the second century BC, possibly at Alexandria. In his Exagoge he dramatized the story of the biblical Exodus in the manner of a classical Greek tragedy, making use of the new Alexandrian Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. The Messenger tells of how Pharaoh’s forces were swallowed up by the Red Sea; and Moses holds a stilted dialogue with the burning bush in Euripidean style:

MOSES: Ha! What is this dread
   portent from the bush,
   miraculous and hard for
   man to credit

GOD: Halt, mighty Moses. Come
   not nearer, till
   you have unbound the
   shoes from off your feet

The Exagoge is one of the few clear omissions from The Cambridge History, since Ezekiel can hardly count as “Christian.” Or does he fall outside the “bounds”?4

Another challenge which is virtually sidestepped is the relation of literature to other arts, although John Gould’s fine section on “tragedy in performance” is a partial exception. I have in mind not only sculpture and painting, but architecture, music, dance, ceremonial, even town planning and furniture design. One may question how far interesting connections can be drawn between literature and other aesthetic experiences; some people would question whether there are any. This History does not raise the question, and thus implies a negative answer—which is probably not, indeed I trust it is not, the belief of the contributors.

As provocative, finally, as any of the other ways of looking at literary history are questions of Nachleben, afterlife, influence, imitation, translation, inspiration, rejection, reaction, response, reception. Of course this would need several more volumes to be treated properly. But should there be no room to ask what has been made of, or made out of, classical Greek literature in the postclassical centuries, especially the last two centuries? This is part of its history, and part of the growth which confronts us now. And what is to be made of this literature now? Indeed The Cambridge History willy-nilly becomes a phenomenon—and an important one—in the reception of Greek literature, in its “history.” Implicitly this is recognized by the personal and evaluative character of each chapter; but the only explicit acknowledgment is Mr. Drury’s attempt to keep his bibliographies up to date.

We can no longer sustain the pretense—or ideal?—that we can scrape away the incrustations of the centuries and get back to ancient literature “straight,” “as itself,” to perceive and describe it “without prejudice.” Every question asked by the literary historian, every selection made, every emphasis or omission, is a reflection on our own times, a “prejudice.” But this is nothing to apologize for or to be ashamed of: on the contrary this partiality is only human and is to be met face to face and embraced. When I suggested that this book may prove to be the last such history of Greek literature, I meant that the presumption of timelessness no longer rings true: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of temporality has been bitten. So this is not so much a criticism of this volume as a farewell to innocence: The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature is a fine monument to the end of an era.

This Issue

January 15, 1987