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.

The paucity of quotation, either in Latin or in English, suggests an uncertainty about his readers. The author seems reluctant to quote the original, as if for fear of losing or antagonizing them; but it is not easy to imagine readers of a history of Latin literature on this large scale who are not prepared to tackle some Latin with English translation. Conte is particularly interested in the poet Lucretius, and he gives a brilliant interpretation of his De Rerum Natura, bringing out the dizzying sublimity of this didactic poem and also the way in which the difficulty of the philosophical message itself becomes a part of its poetical power. But he quotes only eleven lines in Latin from Lucretius’ work, with accompanying English translation. In a treatment of Virgil some thirty pages long and full of intelligent observations, he quotes only two and a half lines of his verse in Latin. The only substantial passage to appear—significantly, it is part of a dialogue with Lucretius, which is thirteen lines long—is quoted only in English.

There is something very strange about this way of dealing with the work of great poets:so much description, précis, historical and social setting, discussion of ideas, even judicious remarks on each poet’s style—and yet so very little in the way of actual examples. The same is true also of the great prose writers. Conte gives a full account of the political career of Cicero, his political beliefs, his works of instruction in the art of oratory, his philosophical writings both political and ethical, and so on. It is thirty-four pages long, and it contains a great deal of instruction. But when we come to Cicero’s supreme literary achievement, the creation of an elaborate periodic style that maintained unrivaled prestige for centuries and was imitated in every European literature, we find one paragraph. It begins as follows:

Cicero’s most notable contribution to the evolution of European prose lay in the creation of a complex and harmonious kind of period, based on perfect balance and responsion among the parts, the model for which…he found in Isocrates and Demosthenes.

After this rather disheartening opening—the name of Isocrates always lowers the temperature—Conte goes on to say that “the Ciceronian period also has in general a rigorous logical structure,” and “a perfect capacity for controlling the syntax makes it possible to organize the long and complex, yet always lucid and coherent, periods in which Cicero’s pages abound.” He adds that this involves “the replacement of parataxis (coordination)by hypotaxis (subordination).” That sort of description only makes sense to you if you already know all about the work in question and don’t need a description. An example of a long Ciceronian sentence, with some analysis of it, would surely have been far more illuminating.

Scholarly discussion and dissent are also handled oddly. Conte is well-read and well-informed; he knows where the scholarly controversies are to be found. But he does not help his reader to find them. Of Catullus’ beloved Lesbia we read that she “was almost certainly the half-sister of the tribune Publius Clodius Pulcher and the wife of Quintus Caecilius Metellus, consul in 60.” “Half-sister” is a slip for “sister”: the pair were accused of incest, and Romans professed themselves to be horrified by their relationship. More important, the phrase “almost certainly” conceals an intense dispute among scholars about this very point, about which we learn nothing.

On the same page we read that

the question of the composition of the Catullan liber is controversial: although some attribute the ordering of the collection to the poet himself, the majority tend to believe, rightly, that this ordering…is rather the work of others, carried out after the poet’s death, when a posthumous edition of his poems was prepared.

I happen to agree with Conte and the majority; but the point is an important one, and it is frustrating for the reader to be told that controversy exists but not where to find it. There are no footnotes. On one level this is a delight: for once, there are no pages that splash soggily through a swamp of learned paraphernalia. But clean-cut good looks, as so often, are not a complete answer to the problems of life; and the combination of no footnotes with bibliographies that do not address particular questions deprives readers of information they should have. If they are intelligent and open-minded enough to be interested in Conte’s subtle accounts of poets like Lucan and Lucretius, they are likely to be interested also in following up some of the arguments for differing views.

Neither Conte nor the Cambridge History attempts, in however summary a form, to characterize and place Latin literature as a whole, relative to others. Conte’s opening pages, with their discussion of the carmina, preliterary forms, and popular poetry, come closest. He also brings out the tendency of Latin writing to greater pathos than Greek. But Imiss in both histories any general, appraising view of their subjects. Latin literature is extraordinary in that it starts with a definite date. Roman scholars tell us that their literature began in 240 BCE, when the Greek Livius Andronicus, brought to Rome as a slave captured in war, put on the first Latin play. Remarkable that there should be one work, with a specific date, that can be called “the first”; remarkable, too, that it was by a foreigner and in a literary form and context translated from another tradition,for Livius’ plays had titles from Greek mythology (“Achilles,” “The Trojan Horse”) and represented a transposition into Latin of an existing Greek dramatic form.

What Livius was doing in the darkness (at least to us) of the third century BCE foreshadowed the whole course of high literature at Rome. Such native forms as there were—we are told almost nothing about them—shriveled up and disappeared, outmoded and eclipsed by the polished literature of Greece. Most ancient peoples, confronted by the formal perfection that is the distinguishing characteristic of Greek art, both in writing and in the visual arts, simply gave up the struggle and became as Greek as they could, writing in the Greek language as well as following the Greek forms. In the early period it looked as if Rome might go the same way, and Roman aristocrats set to work to write the history of Rome in Greek.

But another way prevailed, thanks not to Roman grandees but to immigrants of low status from throughout Italy: Livius from Taranto, Plautus from Umbria, Ennius from modern Apulia. Terence was not even an Italian but from North Africa. These men embarked on the Herculean task of creating in Latin—an undeveloped language, very different from Greek—a literature, in the classic Greek genres, which would be able to look Greek literature in the eye. The task took two hundred years of struggle with recalcitrant meters, alien mythology, defective vocabulary, and the absence of a native grand style, before Cicero and Virgil finally mastered ways of writing in prose and verse that could without absurdity be placed beside Plato and Homer:a classic style, supple without incongruities, rich without ostentation, sonorous without bombast. No contemporary Greek writer was the equal of Cicero and Virgil;but the Greeks had their revenge by refusing to read the works of the great Roman writers.

The story is, among other things, a tragic one. The nation which had conquered Greece and looted its cities sweated to catch up with its cultural dominance. And the quest for classic style meant jettisoning many of the native resources of Italian eloquence. Diminutive forms of noun and adjective, as important in spoken Latin as in modern Italian or South German, were felt to have the wrong tone and were banned from high literature. The extremely common word bellus, “pretty”—originally a diminutive, bonellus, from bonus, “good little”—was banished from serious writing in favor of more pretentious words like pulcher, to which the Romance languages, loyal to the Latin vernacular with bello, beau, belle, and so on, owe nothing but useless derivatives like “pulchritude.”

The Latin language, which had few short syllables and a heavy stress accent like most modern European languages, was squeezed into verse forms invented for Greek, a language with a pitch accent and many short syllables. To achieve facility in such forms took generations. The more native meters went underground and reappeared only in late antiquity. The rumbustious jingles and rhymes and assonances of the primitive Latin carmina were tamed and moderated into the subtler and more complex effects of classical Greek poetry. The Italian gods were drastically reconceived and identified, as well as they could be, with the more vividly imagined and more fully anthropomorphic gods of Greece. The great god Mars, whose functions included agriculture, and whose month (Martius, our March) was originally the first of the year, had to become the equivalent of the Greek Ares, and so dwindled into a bellicose adulterer.

The cost, then, was high. Was it worth it?Should a history of literature ask such a question?Latin literature has a peculiar development. It begins with the importation of Greek forms and material. The rather raw energy of the first great writers, Plautus the comic poet and Ennius the poet of national epic, gave place in time to a self-conscious refinement and artificiality;the longer poems of Catullus, even the Eclogues of Virgil, show this passion for sophistication, both of technique and of emotion. Then this decadence, coming before the classical period, is surprisingly succeeded by a golden age of poetry:the masterpieces of Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Ovid.

Through a series of astonishing tours de force these writers create the standard works in epic, didactic, lyric, and elegiac verse, and they do so in one and a half generations. Then:silence. From the death of Ovid, exiled and disgraced, in 18 CE, virtually nothing, until thirty years later Petronius, Seneca, and his nephew Lucan create a second silver age, quite different from the first—epigrammatic, witty, unexpected, and fond of grand guignol effects and gruesome accounts of death. The great forms practiced by the Augustan poets were used up by them;later lyric and epic are dominated by the influences of Horace and Virgil. And despite the brilliant surface and rhetorical sweep of the works of writers like Seneca and Tacitus, the reader is aware that by some standards—by Greek standards, for instance—they lack intellectual power. Tacitus and his historian predecessor Sallust are brilliant writers, but when they echo and imitate Thucydides we feel the discouraging difference between his analytic originality and their stylistic panache. These successive developments might, perhaps, form part of a history of Latin literature—but neither here nor in the Cambridge History are such matters pursued; nor is the literature of Rome matched against those of other peoples.

Conte disclaims the sort of history of literature that concentrates above all on individual works rather than on “the individual works as manifestations of a specifically literary language” and on the relations between different texts. His text does not live up fully to that manifesto, many works being treated more individually than the reader might expect; but the elaborate bibliographies with which the book is equipped defy it. The bibliographies in the English edition are the responsibility of Don Fowler, of Oxford, chiefly known for his aggressively written book reviews in the semipopular British journal Greece and Rome. They contain useful lists of up-to-date texts of Latin authors, for which many readers will be grateful. They also list a great deal of secondary literature, mostly in English and Italian.

Two things strike the reader about these bibliographies. One is that Fowler conceives them, rather unreflectively, very much with respect to separate Latin authors, and indeed of separate works. This has the unfortunate result that books that mention one particular work in their titles have a much better chance of being included than those that do not. Thus on Ovid’s Metamorphoses we find no fewer than fourteen books listed, of very uneven merit; but Idid not see any mention anywhere of Gordon Williams’s rich and influential Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1968), a book of far greater range and significance than many of them. The reader would not guess that Wilhelm Kroll’s modestly titled Studien zum Verständnis der römischen Literatur (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1924) is one of the most illuminating works ever published on Latin literature—though Conte himself elsewhere praises it highly.8

Not only works dealing with several authors, but also works devoted to stylistic matters are sadly underrepresented:it would have been easy, for instance, to refer to the Italian publication by Aldo Lunelli of translations of three classic studies—two German and one Dutch—of Latin poetical language and style, which is equipped with a fifty-five page bibliography on such questions.9 The great achievement of the Romans in creating a classic style from unpromising beginnings receives step-motherly treatment in the bibliographies.

No less unfortunate is the fact that Fowler is himself deeply committed to the deconstructionist school in the criticism of Latin literature, with something of a Manichaean view of scholarship and scholars. He has said that the disagreements of Latinists on such matters are “war,” and “there ain’t no neutral ground”…”the choice really is as absolute as that:and I know whose side I’m on.” Fowler can be a passionate partisan, as when he says of a work he is reviewing that its tones “are so moderate and sensible they make you want to scream,” or, of a style he dislikes, that it should be “killed off” because it “is like the miasma that seeps up from the Thames on wet November evenings and rots the brains.”10

It is therefore no great surprise that works of a tendency different from that of the compiler are frequently omitted from the bibliography. I saw no mention of Francis Cairns’s influential Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry (Edinburgh University Press, 1972); or of the important series of collections of essays edited by David West and A.J. Woodman, in which poems are often closely interpreted according to their context and intention. Erich Burck’s work on Roman poetry has been done, for this book, in vain. And so on.

This is, of course, a much graver defect than it might have been because the text itself does not refer to scholarly discussions or dissensions. Some views that deserve attention thus disappear without trace; and that, while perhaps not indefensible in a frankly polemical work, can hardly be appropriate in what describes itself as a textbook.

I conclude with an omission that seems to me inexplicable. There is perhaps no work, in English or any other language, that has had as much impact in the past fifty years on the reading of Augustan poetry as Sir Ronald Syme’s masterpiece, The Roman Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1939). That great book, among its other merits, gives an interpretation of Augustus and his poets which is hard-headed and highly political, powerfully argued, and expressed in English prose of extraordinary distinction. Partly, perhaps, because it does not deal with one single work, but more, I think, because of its complete freedom from “theory,” deconstructionist or other, The Roman Revolution is not mentioned in the elaborate and extensive bibliographies of this history of Latin literature. The most influential book, perhaps, on that period in the next generation—Paul Zanker’s The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus11—is also missing. So are the important essays on many aspects of Augustan literature, as well as the history of the period, in Between Republic and Empire:Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Mark Toher.12 Yet many would agree that they have much more to offer than some of the literary monographs so laboriously listed, and that it is a sadly narrow conception of literature which excludes them. Teachers who use this book will be well advised to look beyond its bibliography.

This Issue

October 6, 1994