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Mon, 27 Aug 2007 19:07:12 -0500
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Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic: Poetry and its Reception.
By SANDER M. GOLDBERG. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005. Pp. xi + 249. Cloth, $70.00. ISBN 0–521–85461–X.

Order this text for $70.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

Print Version (forthcoming): CJ 103.1: 113–16

The central thesis of this absorbing study of literary reception and 
canon-formation in the late Republic is that “literary history is a story 
to be told, and storytelling is never ideologically neutral” (p. 209). 
Roman intellectuals, that is, had no less partial and tendentious a 
conception of what constituted Latin literature than their modern 
counterparts: Goldberg (G.) sets out both to trace “the process that turned 
poetic texts into cultural capital for Romans to collect and to spend” (p. 
206), and to uncover the motives that shaped late Republican and Augustan 
writers’ construction of their own literary histories.

G.’s approach thus has something in common with the suggestive pages on the 
subject of “do-it-yourself literary tradition” in Stephen Hinds’ Allusion 
and Intertext. [n. 1, below] Like Hinds, G. lays emphasis on the role of 
the reader in determining not only the meaning of literary texts, but what 
qualifies as literature at all. A central and challenging claim here is 
that the Roman literary canon could have ended up looking quite different, 
had scholars of the later Republic privileged, say, historiography or the 
fabula praetexta, rather than the epic of Ennius and Naevius.

Each of the six chapters that comprise the main body of the book is more or 
less self-contained; inevitably, this makes for some repetition, but will 
also aid readers interested in a particular aspect of late Republican 
reception. In Chapter 1, G. considers the centrality of epic in the 
literary scholarship of the late Republic, arguing that the prominence of 
Ennius was not inevitable: far from being continuously popular until put 
into the shade by the publication of the Aeneid, the Annales was 
not—according to G.—an immediate and universal success, and was falling 
into obscurity until “rescued” by the scholarly exegetes C. Octavius 
Lampadio and Q. Vargunteius. (One wonders, however, whether Suetonius—on 
whose testimony G.’s argument is based—can be taken at face value here: the 
picture painted by Suetonius of the critics “saving” the beleaguered author 
has a suspicious flavor of self-promoting rhetoric, perhaps suggestive of 
an uncritical acceptance of the tendentious claims of earlier writers.) G. 
goes on to argue that we should find it surprising that Plautus soon 
appears alongside Ennius in the literary canon: the point is usefully 
illustrated by an excellent discussion of evidence for the (limited) 
circulation and availability of dramatic scripts (pp. 47–50), vividly 
demonstrating the very great difference between this kind of “literature” 
and, for example, epic, which in the Roman world was probably disseminated 
in textual form from the outset.

Returning in Chapter 2 to the theme of performance vs. reception of written 
texts, G. reviews the evidence for dramatic performances in the 1st century 
BC, arguing persuasively that, with the rise of mime as the most popular 
form of stage performance, comedy came to be experienced mainly through 
written texts. The textualization of drama, and its adoption as a subject 
of scholarly commentary, are interestingly related by G. to its canonical 
status and its cultural importance as a “possession” of the highly-educated 
elite, an item of cultural capital which can “serve to define a social 
group through shared knowledge” (p. 97).

In Chapter 3, G. turns from the scholarly study of comedy to the
cultural “work” to which it was put in 1st-century literature. G.’s fine
analyses of passages from Cicero, Lucretius and Catullus offer strong
support for his important claim that comedy loomed much larger in
the cultural formation of the Roman elite than has commonly been
recognized. At the same time, as G. convincingly shows, the cultural
importance of comedy was problematic for a writer like Cicero,
because of its amorality—a genre in which “bad” behavior is rewarded
and strict morality ridiculed had to be handled with care. (Less
persuasive is G.’s claim that Cicero and Lucretius skirt this difficulty
by invoking comic paradigms in a limited and merely superficial
way: his comments to this effect on pp. 95 and 99 tend, arguably, to
underestimate the subtlety of the rhetoric in the passages considered.)

Chapter 4 takes as its point of departure the famous “theatrical” simile of 
Aeneid 4.469–73, arguing that the details of the simile are suggestive of 
Roman rather than Greek tragedy. Roman audiences, G. argues, experienced 
tragedy both in the form of stage performance and in written form; this 
dual reception facilitated the use of tragic allusions, whether to create a 
sense of shared culture or to distance the narrow circle of the educated 
elite from the population at large. The chapter concludes with an excellent 
discussion of the fusion of epic and tragic models in Catullus 64 and 
Aeneid 4; it is a little difficult, though, to put one’s finger on the 
central point of the slightly rambling argument of this chapter as a whole.

With the discussion of Lucilius in Chapter 5, G. is on rather more
well-trodden ground. He makes a good case for the importance of
the satirist’s social status in enabling personal attacks on members of
the elite of a kind nowhere apparent in comedy. Particularly striking
in this connection is the link G. makes between Lucilius’ upper-class
background—which will have freed him from the need to fulfill either
the demands of a specific patron or the expectations of a broader
audience—and the innovative and experimental character of his poetry.

The final chapter moves from the Republic into the Augustan period, with a 
persuasive discussion of the influence exerted on the literary canon by the 
libraries founded by Pollio and Augustus. G. argues that Roman libraries, 
unlike their Hellenistic counterparts, were characterized by selectivity, 
and did not aim at completeness: inclusion in or exclusion from such 
collections could therefore have considerable symbolic significance. As 
throughout the volume, this general argument is supported by compelling 
close-readings of apposite texts—in this case, Horace’s Epistle to 
Augustus, and Ovid Tristia 3.1 and 4.10.

In sum, this is a rich and stimulating book, notable throughout for the 
ease with which G. moves between broad generalizations and detailed 
analyses of specific passages. The author wears his considerable learning 
lightly: while his book is theoretically informed (though, by and large, 
unashamedly historicist in approach), it is highly readable, mercifully 
jargon-free and unencumbered by lengthy footnotes. G. is, in general, 
admirably sceptical in dealing with his ancient sources (the discussion of 
evidence for the so-called carmina convivalia in the Introduction, for 
instance, is a model of scrupulous care, and will offer an interesting 
counter-blast to Thomas Habinek’s recently-published The World of Roman 
Song [n. 2, below]—for which see the reviews by D. Feeney and J. Katz in 
JRS 96 (2006) 240–2, and J. Zetzel in CJ 102 (2006) 88–91). G. is equally 
sensitive to the complexities of interaction between literature and 
criticism. While one may find matters of detail to quibble with, the 
overarching argument is both important and persuasive, and students of 
Republican literature will find the volume equally valuable for its nuanced 
and stimulating readings of late Republican texts and their intertextual 

Trinity College, Dublin

n. 1 Cambridge, 1998.
n. 2 Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

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