Friday, August 23, 2019


Ellen Muehlberger, Moment of Reckoning: Imagined Death and its Consequences in Late Ancient Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xiii, 245. ISBN 9780190459161. $99.00.

Reviewed by Robin Whelan, University of Liverpool (

Version at BMCR home site


One of the recurring delights of the late Terry Pratchett's much-loved series of fantasy novels is scenes where the Discworld's laconic grim reaper greets the recently deceased to inform them of their passing. My personal favourite is the moment in Maskerade where Death attempts to coax a reluctant swan into playing its part in its own demise.


Death eventually tricks the swan into warbling the first notes of an aria, much to the swan's consternation.

'THANK YOU, said Death. The scythe moved.
A moment later the swan stepped out of its body and ruffled fresh but slightly transparent wings.
"Now what?" it said.

Like Pratchett's darkly funny swan song, Ellen Muehlberger's new book Moment of Reckoning turns on the cultural expectations of how we anticipate our own deaths and what comes after. As Muehlberger notes in her introduction, most scholarship on death in the ancient world and beyond has focused (partly of necessity) on the social and political functions of funerary practices: the acts of mourning and commemoration carried out by those left behind. Moment of Reckoning instead looks at how early Christian authors encouraged their audiences to think about their future passing. In exploring late ancient appeals to the terrifying experience of death as a means of Christian self-discipline, Muehlberger moves back to late antiquity the groundbreaking work of Philipp Ariès and Caroline Walker Bynum on twelfth-century ideas of the Last Judgement. But she does so without making the same claims to capture interior dispositions through textual representations or—most critically—to see in this period the 'invention of the individual'. Instead, Muehlberger traces how the emergence of particular aspects of Christian thought about death help us to understand distinctive ideas of personhood, the afterlife, and religious coercion formed in the late ancient Mediterranean.

Ch. 1 argues that fourth-century Christian writers used political deaths as a means to 'manage the ambiguities of the near past' (32). It analyses depictions of the 'good' deaths of Constantine and his family in Eusebius' Life of Constantine (neatly reframed as a deathbed account (32-41)) and the grotesque ends of Galerius in Lactantius' On the Deaths of the Persecutors (41-52) and Arius in Athanasius' Letter to Sarapion (52-62).1 Muehlberger persuasively argues against the tendency to treat such horrific deaths as a generic trans-historical trope. In these cases, Eusebius, Lactantius and Athanasius worked from the assumption that 'a body in death registers either divine reward or divine punishment' (51). The quality of these deaths shut down alternative interpretations of events by revealing divine truth about support for, or opposition to, Christianity or Nicene (supposed) orthodoxy. Somewhat less persuasive is her suggestion that Constantine's reported final words in the Life have shaped our continued historiographical interpretation of him as a Christian emperor (40-41). (Or at the very least I would have needed more substantial footnoting here to be amenable.)

Ch. 2 explores how late ancient preachers sought to evoke in their audiences the experience of their own deaths. Muehlberger presents close readings of descriptions of the process of death in sermons by Augustine of Hippo, Jacob of Serugh, Ps.-Cyril of Alexandria and Shenoute of Atripe. While Augustine's sermon on Lawrence reframed Jesus' supposed dread of death in the Garden of Gethsemane as a means of comforting humanity (71-79), Jacob, Ps-Cyril and Shenoute walked their listeners through the grim bodily (and extra-bodily) realities of mortality (79-101). Particularly neat here is Muehlberger's connection of Jacob's scene of an unremarkable death to his reflection elsewhere on the need to speak to the 'condition' of ordinary Christians to hold their interest (88). Muehlberger argues that these passages show sermons as an 'experiential' rhetorical form (68) and an 'implicit medium' (75) that invited listeners to round out the scenes evoked with their thoughts and memories. She suggests that this led to a certain atomization of individual church communities in the moment, as preachers got each individual to imagine their own circumstances.2 (And, she could have added, evoked in these deathbed scenes relationships which transcended, and sometimes countervailed, those of a formal Christian community: family members, friends, household dependents, business contacts and so on (86, 90, 96).) Of course, Muehlberger's view of preaching as an 'intimate technology' (79) takes for granted that members of this audience found these scenes plausible enough—or, to be frank, were paying sufficient attention—to be transported. Neither is a given in the light of recent studies of late ancient preaching.3 In that regard, I would be interested to know whether other preachers could get by on appeals to commonsensical understandings of the process of dying (as in these cases), or had explicitly to acknowledge (and tackle) alternative perspectives they presumed were present amongst their audiences..

Ch. 3 sets late ancient sermons on death in the context of the schooling preachers received alongside the other elite men of the Roman Empire. Muehlberger stresses the significance for late ancient people of the thought processes learned through speech-in-character (prosopopoeia), and convincingly argues that the death scenes in ch. 2 bear the imprint of this practice. This chapter is an elegant summary, both of late Roman rhetorical training and of the wider scholarly move to dismantle the artificial barrier between 'Christian' and classical discourse in the study of this period. Given that recent work, I felt that Muehlberger was pushing a little too hard at a door she and others had already opened. Nevertheless, her reflections here should stimulate future work, not least on the potential impact of ventriloquizing tragic heroes and heroines on the ideas of mortality instilled in elite adolescents (pagan and Christian). The new Christian 'postmortal' understanding discussed in ch. 4 may have metabolized this more traditional framework for contemplating death in late antiquity, but Muehlberger's own insistence on the continuing significance of both process and content—and, I would add, the recurring presence of these voices in late ancient poetry—point to other possibilities.

Ch. 4 teases out a strand of late ancient Christian thinking that saw people continue to inhabit 'physical and vulnerable' (179) bodies after death. Christians in late antiquity belatedly fleshed out the experience of life after death and thus opened up a new phase in the course of human life: the 'postmortal'. Muehlberger takes various narratives as indications of theorizing about postmortal existence. She considers, first, reports of Christian 'sightings' of the recently deceased (151- 59), and then the more developed visions of Antony, Pachomius, and Perpetua (159-67).4 Muehlberger argues that the carefully situational punishments presented in the hell of the Vision of Paul—another likely late ancient pseudepigraphic creation—were written to naturalize widespread ideas of a corporeal afterlife as against the non- corporeal soul presented in doctrinal tractates (167-79).

Ch. 5 argues that these new Christian ideas of postmortal judgement of bodies shaped the emergence of religious coercion in late antiquity. Muehlberger here offers an important corrective to recent studies of late ancient religious violence, and particularly the work of Michael Gaddis and Thomas Sizgorich (185-93).5 Both Gaddis and Sizgorich argued that the memory of pre-Constantinian persecution led Christians to their own acts of violence. Drawing on the work of Elizabeth Castelli, Lucy Grig, Candida Moss, and Stephanie Cobb, Muehlberger suggests that this solution merely defers the question of religious coercion, since that memory itself was formed (insofar as we can see it) in the fourth century.6 What follows is a rereading of Augustine's infamous justification of religious coercion. Augustine characterized the errant Donatists as children, the sick, animals and others who could not be trusted to know what was best for them; eternal punishment justified coercion now (194-203). The bishop of Hippo replaced the 'compeller' (Augustine/imperial authorities/Catholic bishops) and 'compelled' (Donatists) with more agreeable surrogates: God and grateful former Donatists post-coercion (204-12). Muehlberger here patiently reveals the logic of an almost ubiquitous procedure in late ancient discourse about salutary correction; the degree to which its articulation required the specific ideas of the postmortal sketched in ch. 4 was less clear to me. The book ends with a short conclusion where Muehlberger returns to the role of ideas of death in the delineation of a sense of the individual and collective, in dialogue with the work of Michel Foucault on pastoral power (217-24).

All in all, Moment of Reckoning is an elegant and accessible book, which looks afresh at a cluster of ideas too easily taken for granted as basic to a Christian worldview. As an aside, it also has some of the most effective use of the first person I have seen in scholarly work. The book (blessedly) wears its research lightly. But in that sense, I might have liked Muehlberger to show more of her working, especially in terms of her choice of individual case studies. Do other histories treat the deaths of political figures in precisely the same way as Eusebius, Lactantius and Athanasius? Do the other sermons on death which Muehlberger consulted (mentioned at 66-67) conjure roughly the same sort of intimate, individual experience as she delineates in ch. 2? Did the ethical surrogacy used by Augustine have an identical impact in other contexts of religious coercion: for example, in cases where the grateful converts were heretics, pagans or Jews? I have little doubt that the answer to all three questions is a yes—but probably not a simple one. That extra degree of density and granularity would be all the more welcome in a work whose central purpose is to eschew teleology and explore the complex outworkings of these ideas across late ancient western Eurasia. But this is perhaps to ask too much of an already rich monograph. Like the late ancient Christian texts it so neatly analyses, Moment of Reckoning will encourage its readers to pay much more attention to expectations of death.


1.   The latter section picks up Muehlberger's article 'The Legend of Arius' Death: Imagination, Space and Filth in Late Ancient Christian Historiography', Past & Present 227.1 (2015): 3-29.
2.   See here recent work on individualism in late ancient religion: Jorg Rupke and Éric Rebillard (eds) Group Identity and Religious Individuality in Late Antiquity (Washington, D.C., 2015).
3.   See e.g. Jaclyn Maxwell, Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and his Congregation in Antioch (Cambridge, 2006); Lisa Kaaren Bailey, Christianity's quiet success: the Eusebius Gallicanus sermon collection and the power of the church in late antique Gaul (Notre Dame, IN, 2010); Éric Rebillard, Christians and their many identities in late antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca, NY, 2012).
4.   Significantly, the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is here taken as an originally late fourth/early fifth century text at 162 n. 35 against the scholarly consensus, with a future paper arguing this case trailed in the footnotes.
5.   Michael Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire, Transformation of the Classical Heritage 39 (Berkeley, CA, 2005); Thomas Sizgorich, Violence and Belief: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).
6.   Elizabeth Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York, 2004); Lucy Grig, Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity (Bristol, 2004); Candida Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions (New Haven, CT, 2012); idem, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York, 2013); Stephanie Cobb, Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Berkeley, CA, 2017).

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Fabrizio Bordone, Paolino Nolano. Per la morte di un fanciullo: introduzione, testo critico, traduzione e comment. Poeti Cristiani, 8. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2017. Pp. 478. ISBN 9788846747242. €40,00.

Reviewed by Dennis Trout, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site

The series (Poeti Cristiani, edited by Roberto Palla) in which this volume appears has already offered important editions (text, translation, and commentary) of several late Latin poems that have existed on the margins. We might think, for example, of Roberto Palla and Marinella Corsano's editions of both the so-called poema ultimum and the pseudo-Cyprianic carmen ad senatorem.1 Furthermore, in recent years a number of Paulinus of Nola's individual poems have received similarly focused attention.2 Fabrizio Bordone's study of Paulinus's carmen 31, therefore, naturally takes its place not only as another detailed commentary on a particularly intriguing late Latin poem but also as a further step forward in the general reassessment of late antique poetics. Now often mentioned in the company of such premier contemporary poets as Ausonius, Prudentius, and Claudian, Paulinus of Nola—a Gallo-Roman senator who spent the second half of his life in Campania as priest, bishop, and impresario of the cult of the confessor Felix—bequeathed to posterity a poetic corpus whose thematic range and generic variety invite continuing engagement along a number of literary and historical fronts. Bordone's study does just that for the poem of 316 elegiac couplets that Paulinus addressed to the couple Pneumatius and Fidelis upon the death of their eight-year-old son, Celsus.

To be sure, Paulinus's carmen 31 has hardly gone unnoticed. The occasion of its composition has ensured it a place in many surveys of ancient consolatory literature, while almost every study of the Christian transformation of the consolatio, the rhetorical category with which carmen 31 is most often associated, has had to reckon with it. In addition, several of Paulinus's most sensitive modern readers, Giuseppe Guttilla and Salvatore Costanza, for example, turned to it often, devoting significant time and energy to its explication. All of this (and much more) is known to Bordone, who laid the groundwork for this volume under the guidance of Fabio Gasti at the Università degli Studi di Pavia and whose introduction and commentary methodically extricate Paulinus's carmen 31, de obitu pueri, from the crisscrossing lines of literary, religious, and cultural history that entangle it.

Per la morte di un fanciullo consists of an introduction (100 pages), text and facing translation (50 pages), and line by line commentary (300 pages). The heart of the introduction is Bordone's treatment of the literary and theological questions that have animated many modern readers of carmen 31. Here opinions have ranged widely, contesting the success of the poem both on grounds of its literary and thematic (dis)unity and in respect to its actual ability to have consoled its addressees. Understandably, given the dominance of the poem's interwoven theological and ethical emphases, one prevalent tendency has been to view the poem as essentially a treatise on Christology, bodily resurrection, and ascetic lifeways that is but loosely framed by personalized consolatory messages addressed to Pneumatius and Fidelis. Bordone convincingly argues against some of the more deprecatory assessments of carmen 31 by stressing Paulinus's adroit manipulation of previous consolatory topoi, his calculated allusions to earlier poetic epitaphs and verse consolationes (reaching back through Statius to the Augustan poets), and his sensitivity to the guidelines of rhetorical handbooks and the strategies of previous prose consolations. For Bordone, however, the caratteri originali of carmen 31 and its rinnovamento del genere letterario especially arise from Paulinus's subjection of this diverse heritage al processo di cristianizzazione (45-6). For example, the consolatory topos that stressed the tension between the consolator's personal grief and the prospective joy arising from the opportunitas mortis, which transformed death into a liberating event releasing the soul from life's travails, could be reformatted (as it was by other Christian writers) in both Pauline and Neoplatonic terms (47-49). Bordone does recognize (55) that carmen 31's explicitly consolatory themes are packed into the first 54 verses and its brief concluding sections. In the hundreds of intervening lines Paulinus devoted himself to dogmatic exposition, foregrounding the Christian promise of eternal life and parading arguments for the ultimate resurrection of the flesh. These topics, pursued by Paulinus through the catechetical exegesis of Christology and eschatology (interspersed, to be sure, with solacia) occupy carmen 31 in proportions, as Bordone emphasizes, that clearly distinguish Paulinus's poem from the vast bulk of Christian consolationes (56-65). The poet amplifies this novelty, which Bordone observes finds its only real comparison in Ambrose's de excessu fratris, both by developing a wide range of commonplace topoi, some drawn from nature and most familiar from other works, and by adducing scriptural proofs, often in ways that suggest the influence of Ambrosian exegesis (65). Yet these lengthy expositions, Bordone stresses (65-69), are linked to the poem's consolatory aims in two ways: they assure Pneumatius and Fidelis of Celsus's heavenly life and they serve as the basis for advising the couple to honor the ascetic precepts that will ensure their own salvation and their future reunion with Celsus. It is the poem's ascetic protreptic that most obviously bridges its dogmatic and consolatory agenda and that, in the end, validates Paulinus's moving invocation of the young Celsus as intercessor at the poem's conclusion. Bordone's discussion of these themes is richly documented and highlights Paulinus's development of previous consolatory and didactic strategies, building a case for the overall integrity as well as exceptionality of the poem.

Briefer sections of the Introduction catalog notable features of prosody and metrics, outline the poem's structure with reference to rhetorical categories, consider the implication of Paulinus's choice of elegiac meter (more for its protreptic than funerary associations, Bordone argues), and treat the little that can be known about the poem's date of composition (broadly between 393 and 408) and the identity of its addressees. An overview of the poem's language and style isolates lexical debts and innovations; surveys Paulinus's recourse to poetic registers and phrases that evoke Vergil, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, and Martial; and spotlights Paulinus's intent to express Biblical material in classical verse, particularly the Psalms and Paul (often through paraphrase). In other words, Bordone's introductory contextualizing of the poem offers guidance to readers who may approach carmen 31 from a wide range of perspectives and with different sets of questions. These hundred pages also set out themes and issues that will be elaborated and illustrated in the commentary.

Wilhelm von Hartel produced his CSEL edition of carmen 31 on the basis of three manuscripts (B, O, and T).3 Franz Dolveck added a fourth (J) for his recent CCSL edition.4 Bordone employs the same four manuscripts as well as a short extract (lines 311-322) of carmen 31 that is preserved in an early fifteenth-century poetic anthology, which Dolveck also utilized (CCSL 21,129). Bordone provides full descriptions of the manuscripts and their features (88-103) and his simplified stemma codicum (103) agrees with that produced by Dolveck (CCSL 21, 131 and 225), grouping B, J, and O (with B and J sharing features not found in O) in a branch separate from that in which T descends. Bordone also reconstructs the history of the publication of carmen 31 from the editio princeps of Iodocus Badius published at Paris in 1516 through Franz Dolveck's CCSL edition of 2015, which revolutionized the presentation of Paulinus's poetic corpus by foregoing the clumsy traditional numbering system and organizing the poems into the two distinct groups (the natalicia and carmina varia) that reflect the actual transmission history of Paulinus's poems.

The only feature one might hope for that is not included is a list of variants between this edition of carmen 31 and those of Hartel and Dolveck. A quick check reveals that Bordone's choices run quite close to those of Dolveck, the differences amounting to fewer than a dozen. Most choices have but slight implications for meaning. At line 57, for example, the description of the incarnate Christ preferred by both Hartel (initially but later withdrawn; see Kamptner at CSEL 30, 594) and Dolveck (both following T: hominum) is cuncta gerens hominum ("bearing all the attributes of men," in the translation of P. G. Walsh).4 Bordone, however, prefers the reading of BJO (hominem): cuncta gerens hominem, which he translates as "sostendo in tutto la condizione di uomo." The expression has long been debated: Dolveck points for support to Phil. 2.6-11 (presumably because we can read there in similitudinem hominum factus), while Bordone (218) offers a list of similar constructions with the accusative hominem. The theological point is at best a fine one. Nevertheless, it will pay to consult Bordone's clear commentary on such decisions.

We are fortunate to have this study of a fascinating and complex consolatio, a poem that challenges our assumptions about genre and form at the same time that it puts on display so many of the literary dynamics and religious impulses that have renewed the appeal of late Latin poetry. A patient reading of Bordone's commentary, therefore, offers an invigorating walk through a late ancient cultural landscape shaped by the legacy of past poetry and enriched by contemporary currents of thought, especially as those were absorbed and recast by a poet whose own life so vividly embodied some of the age's most telltale signs.


1.   Ps. Paolino Nolano, Poema ultimum [carm. 32], Poeti Cristiani, 5 (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2003); Ps. Cypriano, Ad un senatore convertitosi dalla religione cristiana alla schiavitù degli idoli, Poeti Cristiani, 7. (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2006).
2.   E.g., Margit Kamptner, Paulinus von Nola: Carmen 18. Text, Einleitung und Kommentar (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005); Beate Surmann, Licht-Blick: Paulinus Nolanus, carm. 23: Edition, Übersetzung, Kommentar (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2005); Sciajno, Lorenzo Sciajno, Paolino di Nola: Il carme 15 (Natalicium IV). Introduzione, traduzione e commento (Pisa and Rome: Fabrizio Serra, 2008).
3.   G. de Hartel, Sancti Pontii Meropi Paulini Nolani Carmina, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 30, 2d ed. with supplements by Margit Kamptner (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999).
4.   Framz Dolveck, Paulini Nolani Carmina, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 21 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015). See the review by Aaron Pelttari at BMCR 2016.09.03.
5.   P. G. Walsh, The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, Ancient Christian Writers 40 (New York: Newman Press, 1975).

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Fiona Cox, Ovid's Presence in Contemporary Women's Writing: Strange Monsters. Classical presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. ix, 251. ISBN 9780198779889. $74.00.

Reviewed by Peggy McCracken, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site

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Fiona Cox takes her subtitle from May Sarton's evocation of "writing women and strange monsters" (4), and in her new book she charts the many ways in which contemporary women writers articulate strangeness and estrangement through reference to the works of Ovid, primarily the Metamorphoses. Such notions of strangeness are grounded both in the self and in culture; Cox insists throughout on the cultural and political resonances of the representations she tracks, and locates them firmly within the agendas of third-wave feminism. That is, she identifies her authors as moving beyond the recuperation of women's voices to speak about social and cultural inequalities and injustices. Her "strange monsters" are not strange because they are women writers, but because they adopt a gendered position from which to speak—through fiction, poetry, theatre, and memoir—about social and political issues. Cox traces the reworking of Ovidian themes in representations of ecological concerns, the plight of refugees and immigrants, bodily transformations in illness and in war, the terror of social and financial precarity, and the exploration of sexualities.

Ovid's Presence is organized as a series of eleven chapters, each devoted to a different author or pair of authors. Each chapter is highly descriptive, tracing explicit and implicit citations, reworkings, and engagements with Ovid's writing. Chapter 1 examines Ali Smith's 2012 lectures on literature, and especially literary form, gathered in Artful, along with two works of fiction, Public Library (2015) and Autumn (2016), and Cox ends her discussion of transformation, life, death, and books in Smith's works with a brief consideration of "True Short Story" (2008). Chapter 2 turns to Marina Warner, whose Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds (2002) deals directly with Ovid and to which Cox returns more than once for Warner's claim that "tales of metamorphosis often arose in spaces (temporal, geographical and mental) that were crossroads, cross-cultural zones, points of interchange on the intricate, connective tissue of communications between cultures" (17). Throughout her study, Cox insists on metamorphosis as a way in which writers imagine encounters with different worlds, and in this chapter she focuses her attention on Warner's novel, The Leto Bundle (2001), in which a story of metamorphosis and loss speaks about homelessness and the plight of refugees in the modern world. Chapter 3 focuses on Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada. Cox begins by highlighting Tawada's description of the dislocation of inhabiting foreign cultures and languages, articulated in a set of lectures published as Verwandlungen: Tübinger Poetik-Vorlesungen (1998), and she emphasizes Tawada's stress on the possibility of invention, which she also locates in the experience of living in relation to the foreign. Cox shows that both are at play in Tawada's exploration of being between two worlds in Opium für Ovid: Ein Kopfkissenbuch von 22 Frauen (2000). In this novel, Tawada blends Ovid's Metamorphoses and The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon, transposing characters from Ovid's epic onto the streets of modern-day Hamburg, where they negotiate the city as immigrants, and explore gender roles. Chapter 4 offers a short reading of voice, song, and rivers in Alice Oswald's book-length poem Dart (2002), and in Chapter 5 a discussion of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, first produced in 1998, focuses in particular on the use of water in the staging.

With Chapter 6, Cox turns to Saviana Stanescu's "GOOGLE ME!" (2006), an extended poem that imagines letters written by a Barbarian woman, Tristia, to Ovid. In the second half of the chapter, Cox discusses Stanescu's play, For a Barbarian Woman (2011), an extension of the poem in which Stanescu imagines a modern-day couple to parallel Tristia and Ovid, and personifies the Black Sea as a protagonist. Chapter 7 focuses on Jo Sharpcott's Of Mutability (2010) and returns to Ovid's Metamorphoses and the way that Sharpcott refigures the text to speak of her changing experience of self after a breast cancer diagnosis. Chapter 8 turns to Marie Darrieussecq's 2008 translation of the Tristia and the Letters from the Black Sea in Tristes poniques, which Cox reads as offering a response to the insecurities and losses of the modern world. Chapter 9 considers two poetic responses to the Tristia: Josephine Balmer's The Word for Sorrow (2009) and Averill Curdy's Song and Error (2013). Balmer's book puts Ovid's concern for his own renown in relation to the experiences of the weary veterans of World War I, and Curdy maps contemporary America onto the songs and legacy of Ovidian exile. In Chapter 10, Cox studies Michèle Roberts's The Book of Mrs. Noah (1987), which retells canonical stories from the Bible and from the Western classical tradition, and Clare Pollard's Ovid's Heroines (2013), which Cox describes as a "translation-cum-adaptation" of the Heroides (205). Finally, chapter 11 turns to Jane Alison's Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid (2014) and Alison's memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), where Ovid's stories of metamorphosis offer insight into emotional turmoil and bodily changes of adolescence.

A short conclusion reiterates some of the volume's broader claims: women writers experience the pull of longing for stability and home, yet they also celebrate the possibilities of transformation and reinvention. For Cox, these writers retell Ovid's stories in order to comment upon and activate social and political change, a desire Cox associates throughout with third wave feminism, though she acknowledges that her authors do not all explicitly identify themselves or their work as feminist.

Ovid's Presence in Contemporary Women's Writing offers exactly what it promises: a detailed account of contemporary women writers' rewritings, adaptations, and translations of Ovid's works. Close readings, along with extensive citation, give life to what are often lengthy summaries, and a perceptive attention to language grounds the analyses of debts to Ovid. As should be obvious from the chapter outline, Cox's perspective is very broad, and the series of chapters organized by author offers more of a catalog than a cumulating argument. To be sure, Cox highlights themes shared among the texts she studies: the experience of change, of course, but also the experience of loss in change, the experience of possibility, and indeed, the transformation of loss into possibility. The frequent appeal to Echo among Cox's authors is perhaps to be expected; the several appearances of Iphis may be more surprising. I myself was surprised by the importance of water: pools, rivers, and, especially, the Black Sea all appear centrally in a number of the works Cox studies. But despite some common threads and characters, the texts Cox examines remain fairly distinct from each other. Rather than make a claim for a common project or a shared reception of Ovid's works, Cox demonstrates the diversity of engagements with Ovid among her authors. For me, the primary lesson of Ovid's Presence is not so much that understanding the Ovidian references supports a better reading of contemporary women writers, but that reading the works of contemporary women writers might make me a better reader of Ovid.

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Ann Vasaly, Livy's Political Philosophy: Power and Personality in Early Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 209. ISBN 9781107667945. $28.99.

Reviewed by Jonathan Master, Emory University (

Version at BMCR home site


The last decade has seen political scientists and philosophers using methods and questions from their disciplines to explore what the historians Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus have to offer on politics and government, a productive injection of energy into a field that has been dominated by rhetorical and literary approaches since the 1980s.1 Ann Vasaly's book, the 2018 paperback reprint of the edition first published in 2015 (not reviewed in BMCR), brings a deeply learned philologist's perspective and firm grasp of Livy's structure and style to the discussion of Livy's specifically political ideas. Livy's didacticism in the first pentad is her primary concern: what can citizens (mostly elites) participating in the government of the Roman republic in roughly the 30s BC learn from the early, legendary years of the monarchy and republic that could help pull Rome from the catastrophic violence and instability that characterized Livy's life up through the time of his writing?

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. In the introduction, Vasaly briefly surveys competing twentieth-century scholarly views of the political didacticism of the first pentad. Without resolving the question of the work's didacticism, she then pivots to Livy's poorly attested biography and the events in northern Italy that he would have witnessed in the years leading up to its composition. She establishes the frame, "a world convulsed by civil war and its aftermath" (8), to which Livy responds in his text. In the late 30s a big question for Livy, as it had been for Cicero in the previous two decades, would have been where such violence comes from and how to reestablish the republic.

The first two chapters build the foundation of her arguments about the pentad as a whole. Vasaly suggests in Chapter 1 that Livy's first five books might productively be viewed as one enormous archaeology. Using Cicero's De re publica, Polybius, Sallust, and Thucydides, Vasaly establishes a premise that philosophers and historians alike would use archaeologies to put in concrete form their "ethical-political ideas" (17) and to avoid abstract theorizing about ideal governments. While these authors all acknowledged the limited veracity of the ancient history they related, they simultaneously insisted on the didactic value of their accounts. Livy builds on this tradition of manipulating ancient material to his own didactic ends but on a previously unmatched scale.

The second chapter argues that Livy's preface promises that the work's contribution to Rome will be its service to the Roman people, which Vasaly interprets as its didacticism. She argues that Livy echoes the authors surveyed in the previous chapter when he insists on there being didactic value in early Roman history even if historical accuracy is not achievable. Linking moral and political concerns, Livy provides a holistic explanation for the growth of the Roman republic while connecting the distant past to the present. Livy's ethical and political paradigms provide lessons for contemporaries struggling to reestablish their state. The early history offers opportunities to develop "instantiations of every sort of paradigmatic truth" (30). To illustrate how Livy shapes his stories with didacticism in mind, Vasaly analyzes the narrative of Manlius Torquatus and the Gaul (7.9-10), an anecdote also recounted in a fragment of Claudius Quadrigarius preserved by Aulus Gellius (NA9.13). Vasaly shows how Livy distinctively locates Manlius' actions within the military and familial hierarchies of Roman society.

Vasaly tackles the first book of the AUC in Chapter 3 and draws two major conclusions. First, and unsurprisingly, she shows that Livy believes the success of a monarchy is dependent on the character of the monarch himself and therefore that monarchy is an extremely fragile form of government. Vasaly argues that Livy places blame for the degeneration of the monarchy on Tarquinius Superbus, even though kings from Romulus through Tarquinius Priscus and Servius Tullius all showed signs of tyrannical behavior. Second, Livy's common people required managing even under the monarchy. Romulus' reign features a split in public opinion: the senators are skeptical about the king, but the plebs are deeply loyal. Romulus' suspicious death requires an act of finesse of which Livy approves—patriotic dishonesty—in the speech of Proculus Julius, which mitigates the plebeian reaction in an early example of a patrician using oratory to keep the state together. The fourth chapter begins a section of the book that focuses on the early republic and the theme of factional conflict, only glimpsed during the narrative of the monarchy. Vasaly emphasizes that Livy worries about threats from both the patricians who at their worst abuse the plebs and display tyrannical tendencies and the plebs who also can destabilize the republic with their tendency toward license. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the patrician side of the dyad. The fourth chapter defines the tyrannical tendency of the patricians as illustrated by the Claudian family and the fifth covers a positive exemplum with the Quinctii. Vasaly uses the tool of familial stereotyping to develop her arguments in both chapters. She notes that Livy did not invent familial stereotyping but put it specifically to didactic ends. Family stereotyping and repetition of the themes and actions more generally, like archaeologies, "raise the narratives to a theoretical level" (92).

Using the first of the Claudii, including Appius Claudius Inregillensis, his son Appius Claudius, and Appius Claudius the decemvir, Vasaly shows how savagery, obstinacy, and divisive self-interest are hallmarks of this family and more generally of patricians who do not have the welfare of the entire republic in mind. While patricians such as the Claudii represent potentially catastrophic threats to the republic, they are also crucial to Rome's growth and success. The res Romana needs men like the Claudii, but it also needs restraints to keep them from catastrophically disturbing the balance of the state.

Chapter 5 presents the Quinctian family as positive models of patrician behavior, "anti-Claudii" (80), who promote domestic concordia . In Vasaly's reading, Livy's Quinctii, especially Quinctius Capitolinus and Cincinnatus, transcend the self-interest and personal ambition so characteristic of the historian's early republican patricians. Vasaly zeroes in on the speeches of the Quinctii to the plebs to illustrate this aspect of their exemplarity. Capitolinus' exemplarity lies in his frank assertion to the plebs that their freedoms ought to have limits and his indictment of popular leaders who have not the interests of the state in mind but their own self-promotion. Vasaly notes that Capitolinus' rhetoric echoes Livy's presentation of the dangers of plebeian oratory expressed elsewhere in the pentad.

The sixth chapter considers Livy's presentation of the plebs collectively in the pentad. They are consistently shown to be the foundation of military success but also emotional and volatile, for the most part without prudence, though they occasionally act prudently when they feel respected. Vasaly makes the point that the plebs have the capacity to destabilize the republic but are more likely to be intimidated and abused by patrician rulers. The chapter then examines examples of bad and good leadership of the plebs. The lowest of the low in Livy's estimation, according to Vasaly, is the elite demagogue who stirs up the plebs out of tyrannical ambition. Conversely, patricians who champion the cause of the people are especially praiseworthy, with the Valerian family being particularly notable in this respect. These patricians pursue concordia , but their specialty is redressing wrongs done to the plebs. Vasaly devotes the rest of the chapter to plebeian figures who, justifiably in the narrator's view, lead collective action against elite abuse even if that action leads to widespread social unrest.

In the conclusion Vasaly recaps and expands the major themes of the book: Livy had the freest hand in structuring the first pentad and its themes. Like Cicero, in whose philosophical writings Vasaly consistently contextualizes Livy's political ideas, he was deeply concerned with how to restore a republican government that would have tensions between its various political entities but would still produce figures who helped the collective transcend individual interests—and most of all, would have safeguards against aspiring tyrants such as Appius Claudius the decemvir, whose threats to the state Livy mimics in the challenge the early Claudian presents even to the annalistic framework of the narrative. Both the patricians and plebeians at their worst could fatally disrupt the republic. Livy tries in the first pentad to show how the worst could be averted and the republic could keep functioning successfully.

This book consistently offers interesting readings and insights about the first pentad and its potential to influence the Roman world in the period before Augustus cemented his role as princeps. Vasaly at times accepts too willingly Livy's airbrushing of his exempla. In the case of Romulus, for example, Livy includes the detail that the first king took on a band of bodyguards (1.15.8) within the context of factional discord, a clear indicator of tyrannical ambition beginning at least with Herodotus (e.g., Hist. 1.98.2). Vasaly reasonably finds that this alone does not define Romulus as a tyrant. But I found myself wishing she had grappled more with something like the point put in Julius Caesar's mouth in the Bellum Catilinae (51.25-27), that actions should not be interpreted only under their original, particular circumstances but also with a view to how they could be abused by less honorable actors later in history: all destructive exempla arise from positive origins (omnia mala exempla ex rebus bonis orta sunt). Livy's didacticism surely is illustrating that lesson, too.

That, however, is a minor complaint. The overall work is learned and interesting. Vasaly makes a careful and persuasive argument, based on a thorough understanding of the text, for what Livy is trying to teach readers in the pentad. She carefully contextualizes every aspect of her argument with reference to the historiographical tradition and Cicero's philosophy. With her examination of Livy's didacticism Vasaly's book powerfully reminds its readers that Livy's history and historiography more generally have a place in discussions of the history of political ideas.


1.   Dean Hammer, Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination (Norman, 2008) and Roman Political Thought from Cicero to Augustine (Cambridge, 2014), Daniel Kapust, Republicanism, Rhetoric, and Roman Political Thought (Cambridge, 2011). Jed Atkins Roman Political Thought (Cambridge, 2018) and Joy Connolly, The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton, 2014) engage with these other methodologies from within the discipline of classics.

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Silvio Bär, Emily Hauser (ed.), Reading Poetry, Writing Genre: English Poetry and Literary Criticism in Dialogue with Classical Scholarship. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Pp. xi, 256. ISBN 9781350039322. £76.50.

Reviewed by Charlie Kerrigan, Trinity College, Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book gathers together ten contributions from scholars (eight women, two men) working in the UK, US, and Norway, under the auspices of Bloomsbury's Studies in Classical Reception series. It aims 'to map the history and development of English poetry and the literary criticism connected to it as a story of genre discourse in dialogue with classical scholarship' (p. 1). I found it useful to keep in mind the 'triangle of key concepts' that the editors, in their introduction (p. 2), note as being central: this is a book about the interrelated histories of classical scholarship, literary criticism, and genre. That introduction gives a concise history of the term 'genre', covering Aristotle as well as current scholarship, and then previews each of the ten chapters. The editors' stated wish for the volume is 'to emphasize how genre is constantly negotiated, reworked and contested in dialogue with contemporary debates in literary criticism and classical scholarship' (p. 6); their conception of genre is open and plastic, noting as they do 'the permeability of genre in response to its literary and cultural context, its openness to re-shaping and its dialogism with … critical movements' (p. 6).

The ten contributions stretch from the grammar schooling of medieval England to the twenty-first-century 'transgressions' of poet Josephine Balmer, taking in along the way neo-Latin poetics in Elizabethan England, the Virgilian translations of James Harrington (1611– 77), eighteenth-century georgic poetry, Paradise Lost, the epyllion (in both classical and Elizabethan contexts), as well as Homeric scholarship and reception, both Victorian and twentieth-century; traditionally canonical figures like Milton, Dryden, and Tennyson feature, but so do Elizabeth Barrett Browning, H. D., and Balmer. For certain contributors (Pellicer, Bär) questions of genre are of primary concern, while for others (Canevaro, Hauser) genre appears in the midst of broader studies in reception. This is a positive, in the sense that those looking for work on classical reception (and translation) in English literature will find as much here as the reader interested specifically in the history of genre.

I would have liked more interrogation of that term, more probing of its utility and politics. How useful is genre as a continued frame of reference? Is there anything to be learnt from how other cultures in other parts of the worlds have thought about such classification, or is the return to Greece and Rome inevitable? In many of the chapters one realizes that one is dealing with 'a relatively small set of literary men' (p. 82): what are the implications of this narrowness, both for studies of genre and for classical reception more generally? This is not meant to slight what is an informative and well-researched collection, one whose chapters got me thinking along such lines in the first place, and one that adds to the growing body of work done on the reception of classical literature in English literature.1 The book is well presented: notes to and references for all chapters are grouped at the back; I found it helpful that each of the chapters has a distinct conclusion, while the one typo I found is so minor as to almost not warrant mention: it should (I think) be poets' rather than poet's on p. 20, seven lines down. The front cover features an image ofLyric Music, a bronze statue by American artist Paul Howard Manship (1885–1966).

Each of the contributions has something to offer, but for reasons of space I mention here only five. Gerber takes us to medieval England at a time when words like 'epic', 'elegy', and 'genre' had yet to enter English and when Aristotle's classifications were either unknown or just finding greater currency. Far from a world of literary-theoretical backwardness, however, she convincingly argues that it was the medieval system of grammatical and literary exegesis, with its practical, pedagogical focus, that not only preserved classical modes of thought but made use of them in distinctive and idiosyncratic ways. Renaissance developments in this regard are thus shown to be less a rebirth than a continuation indebted to the work of medieval forebears.

Pellicer begins by noting that, apart from the famous essay by Joseph Addison, there is little evidence for the influence of classical scholarship on the many poetic imitations of Virgil's Georgics published in eighteenth-century England. In seeking to look beyond Addison, Pellicer's scepticism at several points strikes a useful note of caution. The influence of scholarship on the georgic genre was 'necessarily of a general character' (p. 80), he argues, while the image of the Georgics as a lightning rod in contemporary debates about literature and science is based on certain and select incidents (like the exchanges between Jethro Tull and Stephen Switzer in the 1730's) rather than on a large body of evidence. Against the view of Frans De Bruyn (quoted on p. 83), that science and literary scholarship clash uneasily in the commentary of Cambridge scholar John Martyn (1699–1768), he notes—correctly, I think—that the distinction is a false one, particularly when viewed in the light of much later commentaries like those of Mynors and Thomas, works equally comfortable with the literary and scientific aspects of Virgil's poem. More generally, in terms of investigating scholarly and literary receptions, Pellicer's caution is again instructive: 'the scarcity of available hard evidence is chastening' (p. 92).

Those interested in Homer and the Homeric tradition are well served by three excellent essays, whose overlapping themes make them a kind of book-within-book. Canevaro's subject is the impact on Homeric translation of Friedrich August Wolf's seminal Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795)—before Wolf there had been the rhyming translations of Dryden and Pope, whereas with him Homer appeared to move from the realm of poetry to that of philology. Taking a short extract of Iliad 6, Canevaro contrasts the treatment of the text's formulaic elements by both Dryden and Pope with the later, unrhymed versions of Lattimore and Fagles, concluding that, in certain cases, 'free flowing English verse captures something that a more literal translation cannot' (p. 103). William Morris' 1887 Odyssey stands somewhere in between, a rhymed version that nevertheless sticks closely to the Greek text. Growing scholarly recognition that the Homeric poems formed part of a long-standing oral tradition, it is argued, suited and complemented Morris' own socialist politics, allowing him to put forward a vision of 'the people as poet' (p. 116).

In the following chapter Hurst argues for the importance of the dramatic monologue in Victorian receptions of Homer. Not only do Tennyson's short pieces—'Ulysses', 'Oenone'—rise to the challenge of doing something different with the Homeric source texts, but they bring to light broader themes: the capaciousness of epic as a genre, the availability to poetic imitators of 'humble or even disreputable' (p. 125) characters alongside the usual heroes, the 'skill in the handling of inherited materials' (p. 124) which marks out the poets—from Virgil to Tennyson and many more besides—who successfully engage the long tradition of epic poetry.

And that tradition is by no means exclusively male, as the final chapter in this Homeric trio shows. Hauser argues that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and H. D., authors of Aurora Leigh (1856) and Helen in Egypt (1961), respectively, set about the challenge of defining themselves in and against a very male genre partly by engaging with specific works of scholarship. For Barrett Browning, her title character's rejection of Wolf's 'philological and historicist model' (p. 156)—we are shown the moment when Aurora decides to sell her father's copy of the Prolegomena to fund her travels in Italy —symbolises, as Hauser would have it, the determination to do epic her way, 'a personal vision of epic authorship' (p. 156). The engagement of H. D. with the work of Milman Parry is, Hauser admits, 'much more oblique' (p. 161), and the evidence for H. D.'s awareness of Parry—that she was a long-term friend and correspondent of Ezra Pound, who did know of the scholar and his work—is a little circumstantial. That is helpful in highlighting an old crux in reception studies, namely, if and how much it matters that we can prove X definitely knew and read the work of Y, whose work they respond to. For those who prioritize the reader in the here and now, it need not, and Hauser's comparative study of two women poets who constructed their epics 'in dialogue with contemporary issues in classical scholarship' (p. 161) I found useful in illuminating both the poetry and the scholarship, and in adding—along with Cox's chapter on Balmer—a female dimension (see in particular the mini-history of female epics in English on p. 152) to the otherwise largely male world of genre, scholarship, and criticism evoked in this book.

I hope that that is enough to give readers here an idea of the book and its strengths; anyone interested in the triangular themes it investigates, or in the reception of Greek and Latin texts in English literature more generally, should find something useful in it.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, viii
List of Illustrations, ix
List of Contributors, x
Silvio Bär and Emily Hauser, Introduction, 1–12.
Amanda J. Gerber, 'Classical Pieces: Fragmenting Genres in Medieval England', 13–29
Emma Buckley, '"Poetry is a Speaking Picture": Framing a Poetics of Virtue in Late Elizabethan England', 30–50
Ariane Schwartz, 'A Revolutionary Vergil: James Harrington, Poetry, and Political Performance', 51–65
Caroline Stark, 'The Devouring Maw: Complexities of Classical Genre in Milton's Paradise Lost', 66–78
Juan Christian Pellicer, 'Georgic as Genre: The Scholarly Reception of Vergil in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain', 79–93
Lilah Grace Canevaro, 'Rhyme and Reason: The Homeric Translations of Dryden, Pope, and Morris', 94–116
Isobel Hurst, 'From Epic to Monologue: Tennyson and Homer', 117–137
Silvio Bär, 'The Elizabethan Epyllion: From Constructed Classical Genre to Twentieth-Century Genre Propre', 138–150
Emily Hauser, '"Homer Undone": Homeric Scholarship and the Invention of Female Epic', 151–171
Fiona Cox, 'Generic "Transgressions" and the Personal Voice', 172–186
Notes 187
References 218
General Index 249
Index of Passages Cited 253


1.   See, among others, H. Stead and E. Hall (eds.) 2015, Greek and Roman classics in the British struggle for social reform (London, Bloomsbury); N. Vance and J. Wallace (eds.) 2015, The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Volume 4: 1790–1880 (Oxford); H. Stead (2016), A Cockney Catullus: the reception of Catullus in Romantic Britain, 1795–1821; S. J. Harrison (2017), Victorian Horace: classics and class (London, Bloomsbury).

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