ElAnt v2n3 - REVIEWS - Roman Epic - A.J. Boyle (ed)

Volume 2, Number 3
October 1994

Roman Epic

edited by A.J. Boyle, 
London, Routledge, 1993.
Reviewed by:

John Bishop,
Professor Emeritus,
Department of Classics & Ancient History,
University of New Engand,
NSW 2351,

This book consists of a Preface and fourteen essays by scholars from the U.S.A., Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Its genesis appears to have been the Pacific Rim Literature Seminar held at the University of Southern California in September, 1991.

A few general remarks first. All Latin quotations are translated, usually by the authors of the various articles. This suggests that the book is aimed at the intelligent general reader and much of it will indeed be found to be of interest and value by this mythical paragon. Nevertheless, such a reader may well be puzzled by some of the terms used. For example, the non-specialist reader may not recognise the meaning of homoioteleuton (p.31). It also seems strange that no Greek font is used, as all quotations are translated, especially as the publishers are well-known for their encouragement of classical scholarship, Andra moi ennepe (p.22) does not look like the opening of the Odyssey and the quotation from Odyssey 8.139-9:

ou gar egoge ti phemi kakoteron allo thalasses andra ge sugkheuai, ei Kai mala Karteros eie.

may not strike only the Greekless reader as gibberish. Especially does sugkhanai seem barbaric (p.25).

The essays do not follow any particular plan or literary theory and this makes a pleasing variety of approaches to the poems under discussion.

The reviewer's task is made more difficult by the fact that the editor himself reviews the various Contributions on pp. 10-14 of his introductory chapter on The Roman Song . This does have problems. For example, Boyle describes W.S. Anderson's essay on the Metamorphoses as 'perceptive', which is exactly the word that I would have chosen. This review of contributors' efforts is bound to exercise some influences on other reviewers, particular as it occurs in the editor's introduction where the aim and purpose of the book is set out.

To the various chapters now. Goldberg writes on Saturnian Epic: Livius and Naevius and makes a convincing job of explaining how the Saturnian metre had sufficient features in common with the dactylic hexameter to make the transition to the new epic metre possible during the course of the second century. Dominik then takes over to deal with Ennius in Ch. III whom he sees as a self- conscious literary artist who is the true creator of the specifically Roman epic tradition. The fourth chapter is contributed by Konstan on Catullus 64 (Peleus and Thetis). He follows A.S. Hollis in seeing the epyllion as a legitimate category, although this particular classification was unknown in classical times. Nevertheless, in spite of a closely argued defence of the poem and a sympathetic understanding and presentation of its themes, the very inclusion of this poem amongst the other epic writers seems to draw attention to the fact that it is foreign to the general scope and purpose of epic. In spite of the poem's influence on Virgil, it seems an interloper in this company.

Next Boyle contributes his own article on The Canonic Text: Virgil's Aeneid. The centrality of the Aeneid is the one constant theme of this varied collection of essays and Boyle does the poem full justice. Boyle's writing on Virgil has not gained universal acceptance. In a sense his writing is far too perceptive and the weight of conservative opinion far too oppressive for his view of the poet to be generally applauded. But his pioneering work on Virgil is now widely appreciated and he has always seemed to me, especially in his treatment of the Aeneid , to be one of Virgil's most astute critics. My only reservation is Boyle's use of terms which to me seems to blur his normal clarity of expression. Perhaps I am alone in finding terms such as 'historical recuperability', 'complex recuperability', 'palimpsestic text' 'intertextuality as code' unhelpful. But this is a small criticism. Boyle has contributed a worthy central chapter to the collection and all Virgilian scholars are in his debt.

The prize for sheer readability must go to W.S. Anderson's article on the Metamorphoses . This is a virtuoso performance in that the reader feels equally at home with it whether he or she is at a desk 'working' on the poems or relaxing in an armchair for a quiet hour of reading. I have already complained of the editor's appropriation of the word 'perceptive' for this essay. Perhaps the word 'enjoyable' may also be applied to it and that is a word not always applicable to the fruits of classical scholarship. In particular, Anderson is excellent on the surprise that would have been felt by Ovid's first audience when the second line of the poem turned out not to be a pentameter. The poem, as Anderson says at his conclusion, 'about changed forms has proved to be a much more searching study of changed humanity'. This is a most sensitive essay that wears its learning lightly and gives genuine pleasure to the reader.

From Ovid to Lucan cannot help but be a violent transition. Ahl sees his work as a 'political act as well as a political poem'. He uses the title Pharsalia for the poem throughout. I had thought that C.E. Haskins in his edition was the last scholar to use the big battle to give its name to the whole Civil War. But apart from that cavil (and that is all it is), this is challenging and stimulating stuff. Ahl presents the poem very much as an historical event in its own right. He is surely right to see the 'rhetorical persona, didactic, satirical, ubiquitous' of the poet as resembling Lucretius rather than Virgil. The writer sees Lucan's poem as being in the mainstream of writing on liberty and even mentions the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as part of this political stream.

The inclusion of Sullivan's article (Ch. VIII) on elegy, epigram and satire, excellent in itself, seems to be only tangentially concerned with the rest of the collection and perhaps it was included because he was the originator of the idea for the compilation (see Preface, p. xi).

I am aware that the next chapter, that on the Thebian of Statius, has received much praise from critics whose reviews of this book I have already seen. To some reviewers, this is the star of the show. This makes it all the more embarrassing for me to have to confess that I find great difficulty in understanding the meaning of the author, John Henderson. Let me give an example.

"Here (i.e. Nemea), the Horatian poet of the Silvae could scarcely forget, the Pharaoh's master-poet had once played off Hercules with Adrastus, Molorhus with Archemorus/Opheltes, to make a victory Elegy fit for his sophisticated Queen - 'Muse': Callimachus' Iudibund Aitia originated the Nemean Games, courtesy of Euripidean Romance, from the incineration of an infant and the invention of mouse-trap technology in a hovel, via the lesson of humble theoxeny, to put theban Hercules' immortalizing Labour of andreia , his strong arm strangling of the Nemean Lion, truly in the shade" (p.183). I find this style of writing very hard to figure out. The fault must be mine, for henderson has a fine reputation, but I can only report what I feel. Others have clearly gained much from this chapter.

The essay on the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus has joint authorship (Malamud and McGuire) and deals at length with the Hylas episode, and the reader is left wanting more on the rest of the poem.

Marcus Wilson, writing on Silius Italicus, has cast off the jaundiced view of the poem adopted by most English speaking scholars and written a fine essay on the primacy of poetic invention over history. He is most perceptive in drawing a distinction between this poem and Lucan's, though both appear to be historical in nature. This essay is an excellent piece of rehabilitation of an author more derided than read.

Peter Connor's essay on Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae is intersting in that he does not adopt the attitude of most contributors which is that of advocate for the defence of their particular author. More than most contributors, he is refreshingly frank about his poet's shortcomings, although Claudian is by no means the most incompetient poet discussed.

It would be an impertinence on my part to make any comment on Ward's Medieval Epic or Hardie's Renaissance epic beyond saying that they make a most welcome (and, regrettably, unusual) contribution to the continuity of the epic story into modern Europe. One comment that Hardie makes in discussing Petrach is something we should all remember. Hardie points out (p. 296) that Petrarch had Virgil, Horace, Livy, Cicero so 'fixed in his marrow' that their words are apt to emerge from his subconscious as his own, ' alieva mistaken for propria '. Many ancient authors were inclined to commit these unconscious purloinings of their predecessors' work and the habit is not unknown today. Not all imitatio is conscious.

All in all, this is a valuable collection of papers on an aspect of classical literature that is enjoying a welcome renewal of scholarly attention.

John Bishop

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 3 - October 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606