Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Mario Lentano, La prova del sangue. Storie di identità e storie di legittimità nella cultura latina. Antropologia del mondo antico, 3. Bologna: Società editrice il Mulino, 2007. Pp. 295. ISBN 978-88-15-12109-7. €20.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Anastasios D. Nikolopoulos, University of Peloponnese

Table of contents

This is the third volume to appear in the series 'Antropologia del Mondo Antico' inaugurated five years ago with Cristiana Franco's Senza ritegno: il cane e la donna nell'immaginario della Grecia antica (BMCR 2005.08.17) under the guidance of Maurizio Bettini.

This book by Mario Lentano lacks a formal introduction, but is equipped with conclusions. The essays which form its contents are divided into two parts: first the stories, and then the models. The term 'essays' is deliberately used because there is hardly any sense of logical progression or overall argument despite a certain amount of cross-reference. This is not necessarily a drawback, as each reader can choose what interests him-/herself more, skimming through the table of contents: the titles are appropriate and informative. A further essay on Horace Odes 4.4 is relegated to an Appendix, presumably because it is more textually focused than the rest. Finally, the bibliography which closes the book is full and, as far as I was able to check, almost typographically flawless.

All Greek and Latin is quoted in translation, while the original text is normally offered in the notes that follow after each chapter. The names and titles of ancient authors and works appear in Italian without abbreviations. All this makes the book accessible to everyone interested in the anthropology of the ancient world, and beyond. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable qualities of this book is the wide-ranging knowledge of European literature and culture of its author. This is a great asset for anyone using an anthropological approach to ancient literature as 'anthropology is fundamentally comparative.'1

Shakespeare is quoted several times, but the book's striking starting-point is Andersen's (not Hamlet's) Denmark, where the Ugly Duckling comes to life on a sunny day. Reading on, one realizes that this is a standard procedure followed by Lentano: a literary text, sometimes rather obscure, like Erasmus' Christiani matrimoni institutio in chapter three, sets the scene for the exposition. In the first three chapters three tests employed by animals and barbarians in order to find out if their offspring is genuine and at the same time if their wives are faithful are discussed. Baby eagles must be able to stare at the sun (chapter 1), infant Psylli should survive snake-bites (chapter 2) and new-born Germans should withstand the Rhine's cold water (chapter 3). In the fourth chapter Lentano moves on to the other end of the spectrum, i.e. divine offspring, before concluding the first section with a chapter on more or less plain humans (chapter 5).

As Lentano himself acknowledges on p. 86, for example, the essays largely offer a 'percorso', in other words a diachronic (more often than synchronic) series of examples or manifestations of a certain cultural phenomenon, a standard procedure in anthropological literature. These are meant to shed light by themselves, by embedding the specific custom or ritual in a cultural and cross-cultural context. On occasion Lentano puts forward assertions like the one on p. 65: "Therefore, Latin culture does not seem to distinguish, as far as the linguistic and conceptual categories employed are concerned, between legitimacy proper, i.e. with reference to the familial nucleus, and 'ethnic' legitimacy". Only at such rare points does the style become rather intricate and demanding. Compared to the quoted statement, which seems to derive naturally from Lentano's presentation of the relevant material, others are not so convincing. Nevertheless, Lentano is always careful to show the requisite academic caution, as on p. 62, where it is claimed that the 'hardening' of the baby's 'soft' flesh has a symbolical rather than a physical significance (my emphasis).

What underlies all the stories in the first part of the volume is the search for signs, not so much external signs, as these can be forged, but signs of behavior which are somehow related to innate characteristics. The second part begins with an essay on the language of resemblance in Latin culture (chapter 1): monumentum, imago and similitudo.2 The signs sought in the stories of the first part are used to verify the similarity (similitudo) between aspiring members and those belonging to the in-group, the tribe (gens) as well as the family (genus). Or considered from a slightly different angle, the issue is to what extent these new members can serve as reminders (monumenta) of the older generation, to what extent they constitute true images (imagines) rather than flawed or even fake copies. Lentano is convinced that both monumenta and imagines are culturally neutral terms, i.e., by themselves they do not differentiate between genuine and illegitimate offspring. He will only go so far as to admit that the former naturally denotes something inferior to the original (p. 150).

It is no surprise that the resemblance that matters to Romans is that of the male offspring with the male parent. Again it is emphasized that although physical similarities, especially with regard to the face and the forehead, were considered significant, behavior, starting from the way one walks (incessus), was even more so. To illustrate this thesis, Lentano mines the texts of Plautus and Seneca (chapter 2). Conversely, the son whose habits and ethos did not resemble his father's was considered degenerate (chapter 3). Given the emphasis on the male side of the family tree, it is hardly surprising that Latin culture does not differentiate between the various reasons for genetic mutation, i.e. degeneration. All that is not genuine is the product of adultery. Indeed, in all periods of Latin3 the root adulter- seems to be related not only to unchaste sexual relationships but also to the production of impure, counterfeit objects. To conclude, part 2 contains more discussion of linguistic matters and excellently complements part 1.

All in all, this is a readable collection of material on legitimacy in Latin and other pre-modern cultures, clearly a formative aspect of identity, inasmuch it is legitimate to use this concept with reference to the ancient world. Classicists averse to theory need not be afraid of a practically jargon-free book which puts Latin words and texts in their cultural and social context with sophisticated clarity.


1.   Marcel Detienne's phrase from the English text of the preface written specially for the Greek edition of D. Yatromanolakis-P. Roilos, also available in Towards a ritual poetics, Athens 2003, pdf form.
2.   This term is consistently preferred by Lentano, instead of "Roman culture".
3.   adulterinus in the sense of 'forged', 'counterfeit' appears already in Plautus, while for the other words originating from this stem this particular semantic aspect is attested from Ovid onwards.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.