Latin Literature: A History 
by Gian Biagio Conte, translated by Joseph Solodow.
Johns Hopkins, 827 pp., £45, June 1994, 0 8018 4638 2
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Latin has always suffered from being in the shadow of its more glamorous Greek cousin. It is rarely allowed to stay up late for Dionysiac frenzies, sympotic sensuality or the frenetic cut and thrust of argument; instead, it has languished in the schoolroom, surrounded in popular mythology by a stuffy atmosphere of grammar, empire and conservative values. At one time its place in the curriculum was secure, but there was always a feeling that Latin literature was only a pale imitation of the original Greek. Over the course of a century, however, classics as a whole has lost ground; the decline of Latin has accelerated rapidly in the last generation, and Greek has disappeared from schools almost completely. Latinists today are grateful for a position even at the margins of education, and are obliged to spend increasing amounts of time justifying their existence and making their subject look more appealing.

One response to this state of affairs is that of the jolly popularisers, with their restagings of Roman banquets and newspaper columns about the Latin derivations of everyday words. Another more academic and sophisticated response uses sexuality, politics and literary theory to entice potential students away from other disciplines, where these approaches have either been expelled or comfortably absorbed. Classics, once the most traditional of subjects, now has a reputation in some universities for being one of the most radical. What the radicals and the popularisers have in common is an understandable lack of confidence about the attractions of classics in its previous dusty, complacent form. The jokey titles of many papers given to classical societies suggest feelings of insecurity, and it is very difficult to teach Latin these days without feeling the urge to pep it ap with jazzy anachronisms.

Latinists currently tend to present ancient Rome in one of two ways. Either they claim that the Romans were just like us really (with their fast food and central heating); or they emphasise the distance between us and them, and offer less direct routes to understanding their culture. Many Latinists are positively drawn to Roman civilisation by its ‘secondary’ nature, its complex remoulding of Greek experience. Now that learning about the Romans is not an automatic part of our education, we have a good opportunity to stand back and appreciate just how different from us they were; we can look at them through anthropologists’ eyes as a collection of diverse peoples with unfamiliar and often unsympathetic attitudes towards such things as their families, their bodies, their gods and their past. If the radicals bring any modern parallels into their interpretations, they do so to be provocative, rather than cosily reassuring.

One trump card played by classicists trying to attract students is that their subject offers a unique opportunity to study a whole civilisation. Literature, once the core of classical studies, is in danger of being squeezed out by history and archaeology, as a new generation of Latin-less undergraduates arrives to take classical civilisation courses. The solution is not easy. Latin is a concentrated language which alters significantly when taught in translation; only those who have learned it can appreciate the extent to which Roman literary culture is shaped by its means of expression into something different from out own.

Yet even those people who still read Latin don’t always flatter themselves that they can thereby get any closer to Rome. It is as hard as ever to answer questions about the place of literature in the ancient world. Who were its intended and actual audiences? How did they experience the texts? Did literary culture exist in the modern sense? The works that survive are enigmatic relics floating in a void, only a tiny fraction of the ideal Roman copyright library. Where there have been recent developments in the subject they have mostly been in the form of new approaches to these texts, rather than new knowledge about them.

Latinists have traditionally been textual rather than literary critics, but the last thirty years have seen more or less frantic attempts to catch up with the rest of the literary world. Few would be naive enough now to read an ancient text only for its surface meaning, or take it as a transparent image of Roman society. Literary appreciation of Latin no longer consists of a pause in one’s textual emendations for a reflective moment of admiration. But the philologists and the mellower New Critics of the Sixties and Seventies now look on with horror at what they see as the desecration of their subject by raw recruits to newer theories – anthropological, feminist, post-structuralist – with their disregard for the aesthetic value of texts and obsession with bodily functions and shifting meanings. The raw recruits would retort that Latinists should wake up to new developments, that they need to reconsider which aspects of the ancient world are worth studying, and that they are still a long way from understanding texts that have been around for two thousand years. More strategically, being open to some kind of cultural or sociological approach is a good way to keep study of the original texts at the centre of classics. It also makes literary criticism more interesting to read.

Sometimes, it has to be admitted, what results is simply perceptive (or not so perceptive) practical criticism with a bit of theoretical window-dressing. As a whole, however, these new approaches have helped to make us more suspicious of what the Romans wrote. They draw attention to the layers of literary posturing that separate us from once familiar authors, to the generic conventions that dictated particular ways of representing the world, and to the ease with which the Romans, being eclectic people, slipped from one genre and personality to another. They also isolate the rhetorical devices that made the written word a weapon in the struggle for power and authority, an alternative to monuments or triumphal processions.

However, some classicists still have a surprising resistance to any kind of reading between the lines. For example, they regard as fanciful the idea that many of the narrative or descriptive ingredients of Latin writing – pipes in pastoral, small feet and silks in love poetry, snakes and poison in iambics, drinking in lyric, unfolding long book-rolls in epic and history – are also signals that the text knows its place in a literary tradition. Even though the notion of decorum (the fit between style and subject) was central to Latin rhetoric, the problem is one of proof. When the original contexts are so remote, we depend on our own rhetorical powers to persuade readers that a particular view of a text is illuminating.

Anyone returning to Latin literature now will discover that the ivy-wreathed busts they remember from their schooldays have undergone a face-lift. So much re-evaluation of authors has taken place, and such a toppling of old hierarchies, that they may be surprised by what they find: a sophisticated Plautus, a refined Ennius, a serious Ovid, a joky Tacitus, an obscene Horace, an ironic Juvenal. Silver Latin is no longer debased and comedy no longer read only for the laughs. Cicero and Livy, less fashionable now than Petronius or Lucan, still have their devotees, but they are likely to be more interested in cultural politics or the ideology of the ruling classes than in prose style or moral edification.

How easy is it, then, to rewrite the history of Latin literature in this period of flux? The Romans themselves are responsible for many of our old assumptions about the development and value of their written works. They had orgasnic and moral models of literary history, based on the successive stages of birth, maturity and decline. According to these schemes, early Roman literature was crude and improvised (for Ovid, Ennius’ Annals were ‘hairy’, like an unpolished book-roll); by the time of Augustus each genre had reached a peak of perfection, comparable with the Greek originals; under the Empire, literature became decadent, divorced from its social context. When political liberty went, oratory lost its function, satire its sting, epic its national role. Later, under the influence of Greek rhetoricians, Roman literature became bookish, nostalgic and sterile. Finally, Rome came full circle and was engulfed by hairy barbarians again.

Some of its distortions may need correcting, yet this picture was a part of the Romans’ culture which they shaped and connived at all along. Plautus played up to his image as a bumbling incompetent; the Neronians – Persius, Petronius and Seneca – flaunted the decadence of their times; the Aeneid was promoted as a classic even before it came out, and Virgil became a school text in his own lifetime. For the individual writer, there were career structures to be observed: Horace’s first poems were his angry young iambics; Lucan was out to shock when he started on epic in his twenties. If we want to uncover poses and to reverse hierarchies, we still have to take account of each author’s sense of protocol, as well as contemporary views of his place in Roman literary history.

The latest attempt at a history of Latin literature is an act of faith which records many recent changes in the subject (even since the Latin volume of the Cambridge History of Classical Literature, published in 1982) and manages to conceal many of the rifts. This is partly a credit to the diplomacy of its author and his international team of collaborators. It may also be significant that Gian Biagio Conte is not English. In Italy, Latin, which is after all a source of national pride, is still part of the school curriculum.

Conte is the adored leader of the fashionable ‘Pisan school’ of Latin literary criticism; the journal he founded in 1978, Materiali e discussioni, has a reputation for radical and subtle readings of the texts. His brand of analysis has been shaped by many literary vogues – Russian formalism, structuralism, reader-response theory and semiotics – but Conte, disarmingly, sees himself as just another philologist, who happens to have taken theory on board. His main interest lies in the area of poetic memory, the subtle science of the relationships between texts. He sees the choice of genre as an ideological as well as a poetic one: each literary framework implied a certain outlook on the world and made specific overtures to the reader, but a writer could question and expand its boundaries by alluding to earlier authors and cross-fertilising Roman and Greek traditions.

In choosing literary history as his own latest genre, Conte is making a positive statement: he is saying that it is possible to give a fixed and monumental form to new interpretations, and that a good way to make a new blueprint acceptable is to impose it on an old one. As Elaine Fantham remarks in her Foreword, it is de rigueur for Italian Latinists to produce histories of Latin literature in their prime (a bit like those Latin poets who embarked on epic only after mastering the minor genres). To paraphrase Conte himself on Virgilian epic, that makes his history a place where international literary-historical codes meet an Italian literary-historical norm.

On the one hand, the book sets out to correct many of the prejudices and assumptions of the past. Its scope is very broad, stretching as far as the Holy Roman Empire, and beyond to the later reception of texts. It offers up-to-date interpretations of canonical authors, but also pays tribute to the solid layer of functional writing that lay beneath the better-known creative surface. It raises from the darkness many lost or forgotten wraiths: the spooky Nigidius Figulus, the bath-loving grammarian Remmius Palaemon, and Licinius Mucianus, with his cabinet of curiosities. It corrects ‘organic’ views of crudity and decadence. It is sceptical about traditional moral or aesthetic hierarchies and the truthfulness of the ancient biographies. It offers a more sophisticated approach to the functions of genre, the changing audience and the flukes of survival, and it is always attuned to the link between writing and ideology.

In his Introduction, Conte is more sanguine than many about our chances of getting closer to Rome. He believes that philology can be harnessed to ‘restore to us the meaning of a distant world’. Even if his interpretations are only ‘approximate’, he can still make a stab at discovering the ‘true intention of the texts’ (some Latinists will crow with triumph on seeing this); and he believes that some modern interpretations are closer to the ‘original codes’ than others. He concludes: ‘We have decisively left behind all fetishes – the timeless value of classical culture, the worth of classical texts for moral training.’

This may look over-optimistic, since modern Latinists have developed plenty of new fetishes to replace the old ones. Conte himself is noticeably drawn to works with soul and immensity (preferably ones with ideological or code-manipulating tendencies as well). When he can’t find any link between text and ideology he is liable to make unexpectedly negative judgments. Very occasionally he just goes through the motions, for example with a ‘trivial’ writer like Martial, who deserves to be read more imaginatively.

Nevertheless, Conte has achieved a monumental feat most scholars would shrink from attempting, especially the more radical. With its rejection of old-style marks out of ten criticism, its relish for forgotten or underrated authors and its tight focus on cultural significance, his history shows the restlessness many late 20th-century Latinists feel with the state of their subject. The book is largely free of Conte’s usual technical jargon, but for all his enthusiasm, he is no populariser. There are surprisingly few quotations (in Latin or English) and the analyses are sometimes too abstract: it is not a substitute for more direct encounters, especially with unusual stylists like Lucan or Tacitus. Yet for the English Latinist, it is a relief to find a book so serenely confident that it is preaching to the converted.

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