Detail of a Roman wall-painting from Pompeii.
Most surveys of ancient literature are based on the principle of utility, not pleasure. Designed as reference books that students will consult for an explanation of the epic cycle, say, or the historical sources of Ammianus Marcellinus, these surveys discourage even the professional scholar from absorbing their contents from start to finish. Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds (henceforth LGRW), a series of essays edited by Oliver Taplin, diverges from this utilitarian model. Although rigorous and packed with information, these essays have been written to draw the reader in, and anyone with an interest in classical culture will want to read this book from cover to cover.
Although not nearly as encyclopedic as the standard Cambridge History of Classical Literature, LGRW offers a comprehensive view of literature and its development in the ancient western world. Covering a time span of over a thousand years, from Homer to the early Christian men of letters, the book discusses at varying length every major contributor to the classical tradition, and many of the less significant ones as well. Every genre receives its fair share of attention¨epic and lyric poetry, drama, oratory, historiography, philosophy¨and the influence of one age on its succeeding generations is diligently chronicled. When we read, for example, of Virgil's ambition to write an epic poem in celebration of Rome (and Caesar Augustus), we understand the magnitude of this undertaking, how it requires him to assimilate Homer, the Greek tragedians, Ennius, the neoterics, and other influences. To write/compose in the ancient world involved defining one's relationship with one's literary forbears, and LGRW conveys the complexities that this task involved.
It is one thing to offer a comprehensive account of our ancient literary heritage, quite another to construct a unifying framework for this history. Exactly how does Taplin prevent his twelve contributors from flying off in twelve directions and causing the project to break apart? The solution is brilliantly straightforward: each essay focuses on the primary audience of this literature. The basic assumption of LGRW is that it is worthwhile inquiring who these various works of literature were intended for, and why these people were willing to devote time and energy to the consumption of these texts.
Palace of Knossos, 1700-1300 B.C.E. The city of Knossos is mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey. The city was located on Crete, one of the Aegean islands. This is a view of the north entrance
Clearly some type of symbiosis exists between author and audience. On the one hand the author reflects contemporary tastes and issues, igniting his audience with his interpretation of events and occasionally causing them to re-evaluate their cultural and political assumptions; on the other, the audience provides the author with the context, means and, most important, appetite for his creative efforts. This exchange between the two parties implies, however, that our appreciation of Greco-Roman literature (or any other body of literature for that matter) does not end when we recognize an author's genius, but must extend to an awareness of the audience as well.
An investigation of the audience, in the case of certain genres of Greek literature at least, uncovers populations that are almost as remarkable as the authors who composed for them. Consider Homer's listeners. It has often been assumed that this audience was an aristocratic one, but Taplin argues convincingly, from the poems' internal evidence, that Homer's poetry would have been performed before a wide cross-section of Greek society at panhellenic festivals. We must understand that Homer was an oral poet and that his art form was intricate and highly artificial. We must also appreciate that the recitation of the Iliad in its entirety would have taken approximately twenty-two hours. It would appear the audience that was willing to accept the epic poet on these terms must have possessed a developed aesthetic sense of its own.
The same can be argued of Greek tragedy. In his excellent essay on classical drama, Peter Wilson demonstrates how the performance of both tragedy and comedy are intimately connected with Athenian public life. The most prestigious occasion for tragedy, the great Dionysia, involved a huge public procession, a costly sacrifice of some two hundred bulls, the allies' payment of their tribute to the Athenian treasury, and finally the dramatic competition itself, four days of performances that lured a significant part of the city's population to the theatre from sunrise to sunset. Thousands of citizens would have involved themselves in these extravaganzas, not just as eager spectators, but also as active participants. The population's capacity to hang upon the choral lyrics of an Aeschylus, to be shaken to their core by the tales of Oedipus and other heroes, to respond with heightened sensitivity to an actor's delivery of his lines, tempts one to conclude that the great dramatic classics are, to a very great degree, collaborations between playwright and public.
The Greeks of the classical period, the Athenians in particular, were generally addicted to the spoken word. Like the epic poet and dramatist, the logopoios (the early historiographer) composed his works for public recital, and it is likely that Herodotus, the so-called father of history, followed this practice, possibly performing before large crowds at Olympia and Athens. In her essay on philosophy, Andrea Nightingale argues that the early Greek philosophers, in their desire to be designated sophoi (wise men), competed with the likes of Homer and Hesiod, and broadcasted their discoveries as widely as possible. Solon, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles and even the mysterious Heraclitus composed their works for public, rather than private, consumption. Although it is difficult to gauge how wide an audience these early philosophers managed to attract, certainly they influenced a later school of thinkers, the notorious sophists, whose words reached the ears of vast members of the public. Needless to say the orators, too, Lysias, Aischines, Demosthenes and others, intoxicated spectators with their careful rhetoric. Indeed, the comic poet Aristophanes regularly mocked the Athenian public for its endless fascination with a well-turned phrase. Can any wordsmith ask for a more devoted audience than this?
The Greek political landscape, and in consequence the literary culture, changed radically with the appearance of Alexander and his Macedonian successors. As Greek colonies took root in Egypt and large parts of Asia, barbarian (non-Greek) populations were exposed to the fruits of their colonizer's genius. Mime and drama¨both the classics and the New Greek Comedy¨managed to attract large audiences throughout the Hellenized world. At the same time there emerged an extreme awareness of, and respect for, the treasures of the past, and libraries were constructed for the collection and preservation of texts. Such institutions¨notably the Library at Alexandria¨very quickly became centers of literary activity and gave rise to the scholar poet, figures like Kallimachos and Apollonius of Rhodes. These writers not only edited and criticized the works of earlier generations, but wrote erudite compositions of their own, ones that were primarily aimed at an audience that could understand their intricacies and intellectualism. It was in this climate, therefore, that education and literacy became important factors in the consumption of literature. Although a work could still come to the public's attention, through the schoolroom or recitation at a festival, many influential writings became the domain of the educated classes.
This pattern continued into the Roman era. Having subdued the Hellenistic world by force of arms, the Romans were conquered in turn by the sophisticated culture and literature of the Greeks. The hardnosed Roman nobleman who pursued success relentlessly in the political and military arenas was suddenly eager to acquaint himself with these literary offerings and to contribute compositions of his own to the tradition. To be sure, the Roman public was by no means immune to the charms of mime and drama¨Plautus' translations of the New Greek Comedy struck a powerful chord with his contemporaries, and by Augustus' time theatrical games were staged no less than forty-three days each year. It was the patrician and equestrian classes, however, who studied the Greek historical, scientific, philosophical and poetic texts and worked very hard to produce Latin variants of these masterpieces.
Palace of Knossos, stairwell, part of the Grand Staircase
Consider Lucretius' On the Nature of Things. Composed with a view to convert its readers to the philosophy of Epicurus, the poem was addressed to one Gaius Memmius, a senior statesman of the first century BCE and a character who represented Lucretius' general audience. Catullus, too, a contemporary of Lucretius, was one of the so-called neoterics (new poets), a movement that embraced the literary objectives of the Alexandrian school, with special attention paid to Kallimachos' works. Despite his fascination with the daily rhythms of urban Rome, Catullus wrote for a lettered audience, one that could savour his erudition and literary polish. The orator Cicero, it is true, would have reached a wide audience with his forensic speeches, but his philosophical writings would have been aimed at his senatorial peers.
This division between lettered and unlettered audiences persisted, indeed widened, with the collapse of the republic. Despite Augustus' preservation of the older norms of government, the rewards of public life lost much of their appeal, and aristocrats pursued an alternate form of prestige in the world of letters. The patron became a central pillar of the literary establishment, offering financial support and, just as important, protection in a world that imposed greater limits on one's freedom of speech. Horace, Virgil and Propertius, for example, belonged to the coterie of Augustus' right-hand man Maecenas, and addressed themselves to members of this rarefied world. Admittedly, parts of Virgil's Eclogues were performed in the theatre, but it is doubtful whether much of this allusive poem was accessible to an untutored audience, especially since the act of reading played a fundamental role in the full discovery of its complexities. The Aeneid, too, became an instant classic and was often used as a classroom text. And Horace was commissioned by Augustus to compose a poem that would be publicly recited at his Secular Games. These instances of public exposure, however, and the poems' remarkable impact on subsequent generations, including our own, should not blind us to the fact that they were originally intended for a tiny circle of sophisticates.
Over the next two hundred years¨the age of so-called silver Latin¨one audience member in particular drew more and more of the author's attention: the emperor himself. In response to increasingly autocratic regimes, and the emperor's ability to destroy unfriendly critics, authors were cautious when expressing themselves, to the point that their choice of literary medium was often affected. Ciceronian speeches were out of the question¨not only because the freedom of republican times had vanished, but also because matters of state were increasingly handled through the emperor's private agents¨and orators devoted an increasing proportion of their energies to the theory of rhetoric, not its practical exercise. The panegyric (praise oratory) also gained in popularity. Scholarship, too, although it had long been popular in Rome, exerted an even greater hold over writers of the Imperial age, culminating in Pliny the Elder's Natural History, a massive work containing some twenty thousand facts about the physical world. Technical treatises abounded, on strategy, agriculture, the calendar, the weather, medicine, the Roman water supply. Past literature was studied and evaluated according to its quality and usefulness¨Quintilian's Education of an Orator is an example of one such textbook.
Occasionally critical portraits of a regime emerged. Aware that Nero wasn't particularly fond of his adopted father Claudius, Seneca pilloried the latter in his Apocolocyntosis. Lucan, too, composed a scathing indictment of Julius Caesar (and by extension his descendants) in his Pharsalia, although the poet was formally rebuffed by Nero and eventually forced to take his own life. And under Trajan's comparatively tolerant rule, Tacitus described in his historical works the disastrous policies of the Julio-Claudians and their successors. Down into the early Christian era, however, the emperor remained a dangerous audience, and most authors ventured on their magna opera with a high degree of circumspection.
Because it attempts to describe the entire history of ancient western literature, LGRW requires the full attention of its readers. At the same time a couple of its essays¨notably Leslie Kurke's contribution on the Greek lyric poets¨by necessity must discuss a wide range of authors and end up providing insufficient commentary on each. No doubt the reader will sometimes wish to consult the very reference books whose encyclopedic model Taplin and his colleagues have consciously eschewed. These deficiencies are very minor ones, however. LGRW achieves its stated goal and leaves us in possession of a solid overview of the Greco-Roman literary tradition, having introduced us not only to the authors themselves but, just as important, to the audiences whose souls these texts were intended to uplift. ˛
Nick Maes, PhD (University of Toronto, Classics) Toronto-based academic and free-lanced writer.