Was it really a translation?

T.P. Wiseman

  • Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature by Denis Feeney
    Harvard, 382 pp, £25.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 05523 0

The beginning of Latin literature was a datable event. At one moment it didn’t exist, and then after the production of a play in Latin by a man called Livius, it did. That at least is what Cicero seems to say two hundred years later, in his dialogue with Brutus of 46 BC on the history of oratory. In order to justify his view that the speeches of the elder Cato, though early, were even so admirable, Cicero pointed out that none of the creative arts reached perfection straightaway:

There must have been poets before Homer, as we can tell from the songs sung at the banquets of the Phaeacians and of the suitors on Ithaca in the Odyssey. And where is our own ancient poetry ‘that once the Fauns and prophets sang’? … The Latin Odyssey is like some archaic sculpture by Daedalus, and Livius’ plays aren’t worth reading twice. This Livius was the first to produce a play – it was in the consulship of Gaius Claudius, Caecus’ son, and Marcus Tuditanus, the year before Ennius was born, in the 514th year from the foundation of the city.

Cicero’s friend Atticus had found out the date only recently, using documentary evidence (‘we find it in ancient records’). His discovery was striking enough for Cicero to mention it again the following year in his Tusculan Disputations when justifying the use of Latin for philosophical argument:

The Greeks used to surpass us in learning and in all types of literature. It was easy to win against no opposition, because while poets were the earliest authors in Greece, and Homer and Hesiod lived before Rome was founded and Archilochus during the reign of Romulus, we Romans were latecomers to poetry. It was in about the 510th year from the foundation of the city that Livius produced a play in the consulship of Gaius Claudius, Caecus’ son, and Marcus Tuditanus, the year before Ennius was born.

The ab urbe condita date is different (the system was not yet standardised), but the consuls’ names alone are enough to date the event firmly in what we call 240 BC. That was the first year of peace after Rome’s 25-year struggle with Carthage, a conflict described by a Greek historian as the longest, most continuous and most extensive war on record. No doubt, at a time of national rejoicing, the annual Roman Games – the Ludi Romani – were more lavish than usual that year. But what was the discovery that Atticus made two centuries later?

According to Denis Feeney’s new book, it was ‘an extraordinary phenomenon’, ‘one of the strangest and most unlikely events in Mediterranean history’, something we shall only be able to understand when he has ‘defamiliarise[d] the terms of comparison’ and ‘denaturalise[d] our assumptions’. The subtitle is deceptively innocuous: Feeney’s chosen term for what happened in 240 BC is ‘the translation project’, a phrase he uses roughly once every five pages. He takes as a given ‘the reform in the year 240 of the great annual festival of the Roman state, the Ludi Romani, to allow for the staging of a Latin play translated from a Greek original’, and he refers frequently to the early Latin dramatists Livius, Naevius, Plautus and Ennius as ‘the poet-translators’ or ‘the translator-poets’.

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