Monday, December 29, 2008


C. W. Shelmerdine, Introduction to Greek. Second edition. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2008. Pp. xiv, 317. ISBN 9781585101849. $36.95 (pb).

C.A.E. Luschnig, An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach. Second edition, revised by C.A.E. Luschnig and Deborah Mitchell . Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007. Pp. xviii, 374. ISBN 978-0-87220-889-6. $34.95. (pb).
Reviewed by Kirsty Jenkins, University of Manchester (

These two second edition textbooks have the same basic aim, which is to teach the fundamentals of ancient Greek to college level students in such a way that they are able to confront real Greek texts after one year's teaching or, in the case of Luschnig, within one year. This is a comparative review of the two presentations. Both texts have previously received individual attention on BMCR: Barbara Clayton reviewed the first edition of Shelmerdine (BMCR 2005.05.14 and Wilfred E. Major reviewed the present edition of Luschnig and Mitchell (BMCR 2007.12.35).

Neither text is designed to be used by a student studying alone, but rather for use in a classroom situation under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Shelmerdine's text consists of 34 short chapters designed to be covered in three meetings a week over the course of one college year. Luschnig's text, on the other hand, consists of 14 much longer lessons. The amount of material covered in each book requires that the teacher and students move at a fairly rapid pace, but the workload is coverable in the time allotted. In addition, the Luschnig text has a website which provides supplementary readings and a forum for discussion about learning Greek.

Both texts also aim to keep the student motivated by providing examples of real Greek for the student to study. In the case of Shelmerdine this consists of slightly adapted readings from Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides and in one case Plato, although the majority of readings are taken from Herodotus. These readings are highly enjoyable and useful as an introduction to Greek authors, and their length means that students very quickly become used to reading extended passages of text rather than single sentences.1 Luschnig favours a slightly different approach, and provides approximately 20 readings per lesson, usually of 1-4 lines each, although there are some longer passages starting from Lesson VII. These readings are in the original Greek, and a key to unfamiliar words and phrases is provided after each reading to help the student with translation. The fact that the student is reading actual Greek is of course an impetus to continue. Nevertheless some of these readings are very difficult, especially in cases where crasis and ellipsis occur, and sometimes the key is not very helpful.

Both books cover all the grammar usually associated with classical Greek, although Shelmerdine does not cover the future perfect tense and neither author covers the dual forms. In both books the grammar is covered first and then reinforced by exercises, with the readings coming after this. In Shelmerdine the chapter vocabulary is given at the end of the lesson after the reading, but in Luschnig the vocabulary comes at the end of each section and before the readings.2 Both approaches work well.

Shelmerdine's book is extremely well laid-out with clear tables and large, easy-to-read text. Her table of contents is incredibly detailed, making it very easy to find each topic. Her chapter vocabularies are very helpfully divided into two parts: learning and reading, which come under the same heading but are distinguished in an easily recognizable way, since bold type highlights the vocabulary to be learned (words which will appear frequently throughout the book), while the reading/passive vocabulary is displayed in ordinary type. The learning vocabularies are quite short, especially in the later chapters, and do not place too heavy a burden on the beginning student who will want to spend most of his/her time on learning the new grammatical forms presented in each chapter.

In contrast, the text in Luschnig is small and appears rather crowded. Exercises in particular are difficult to read since they are single spaced in small type, and Greek - English sentences for translation are displayed in lists of up to 80 sentences, meaning that the student flicking through the book to look up unlearnt words will have difficulty in spotting the sentence s/he was translating when s/he returns to the page. The vocabularies too are rather long3 and I fear that coupled with the grammar to be learnt in each section this will prove off-putting and overwhelming to most students. However, Luschnig's vocabulary lists shine in respect to their attention to detail. Where applicable, English translations of Greek words are followed by examples of how the particular word passed into English or in some cases into Latin.4 This makes for enormous fun while reading, as well as leading to a greater understanding of English words, particularly the complex scientific ones which are often derived from the Greek.

The grammatical explanations in both texts are very clear and easy to follow, although Shelmerdine tends to explain technical terms such as athematic once, and then to assume that you will remember their meanings when you come across them again several chapters later. For a beginning student who has perhaps never studied grammar before, this may be a little confusing and at times exasperating. Also, Shelmerdine seems to assume that the student is familiar with basic grammatical terms such as noun and adjective. Unfortunately, I have found with my own teaching of undergraduates that this is often not the case, and that students benefit from a quick review of basic terminology.

Luschnig on the other hand makes no such assumption. She provides a handy grammatical outline (pp.13-19), which explains all the basic grammatical terms and how Greek differs grammatically from English. She even gives the parts of speech in their Greek terms as well as their English ones. This attention to detail is seen throughout the book, with plenty of hints for learning, supplementary information, such as a discussion about the three obsolete Greek consonants, and mini lectures at the end of each chapter covering themes as diverse as Greek colours, street signs, and Socrates. Even the pithy Greek proverbs and sayings which are scattered throughout the chapters are translated. While some students and teachers (myself included) will find this to be one of the charms of the book, others will no doubt feel discouraged by the sheer amount of inessential information the author provides.

The first edition of Shelmerdine's book was based on L. A. Wilding's Greek For Beginners5 and this clearly shows in the flow of the grammatical instruction, which is on the whole highly logical and traditional, with opening chapters covering high frequency forms such as the present indicative active of thematic verbs and first declension nouns, and with concluding chapters covering the lesser-used forms such as the perfect. The presentation distinguishes clearly between the forms of middle and active verbs. However, she splits up the definite article by introducing the feminine form of the definite article only, followed by feminine nouns of the first declension in Chapter 3, and then introducing the whole of the definite article at the beginning of Chapter 4, followed by the masculine nouns of the first declension, which seems a little strange to me.6 Also, the text would perhaps have benefited from the inclusion of some discussion about Greek customs or important Greek personages such as that found in Luschnig, as this would have relieved some of the tedium of learning endless tables of forms and lists of words.

Luschnig takes a different approach and begins by giving both the active and the middle - passive forms of the present indicative of ω verbs. Where possible she continues to introduce middle or middle - passive forms with active ones. This approach means that the student avoids the situation encountered in most Greek textbooks, where s/he is suddenly confronted after nine or ten chapters with the disconcerting discovery that there is an extra set of verb forms to be learnt, and is, I think, to be praised. What is not quite so understandable is the fact that she introduces the perfect and future perfect before the subjunctive and optative, even though the latter are far more frequently encountered in Greek than the former.

When it comes to exercises Shelmerdine by her own admission concentrates on translation, both from Greek - English and from English - Greek.7 Like the rest of the book, the exercises are nicely laid out, with plenty of space between each question, and because there are relatively few exercises in each chapter it is perfectly possible for all of the exercises in each chapter to be carried out either during the class or as homework for the next class. But only having a few exercises per chapter is also a potential drawback, since it means that there is no room for the teacher to pick and choose between exercises, and there is no scope for students who might wish to do extra work on their own outside the class. Also, the concentration on translating whole sentences means that on occasion the opportunity to reinforce forms is lost.

Luschnig's text contains an extraordinarily huge number of exercises of all varieties, including sentences to translate, exercises in conjugating and declining and exercises in parsing forms, which is extremely useful to students. There is plenty of scope for the teacher to pick out the exercises which s/he thinks would be most beneficial for the class, and there is room for the student to put in extra practice on those areas at which s/he feels weakest. Unlike in Shelmerdine's book there is no possibility that all of the exercises can be covered in class or for homework, so picking and choosing the most relevant exercises is of extreme importance.

Both books contain a number of errors, but these are mainly minor typographical errors and can easily be spotted by an experienced teacher. In the case of Shelmerdine a complete list of errata is given on her publisher's website and I feel that it is necessary to mention only one error, which is quite serious and likely to be a source of confusion to students. This error occurs in Chapter 14 on p.82, where the principal parts of labial stem verbs are presented. The text wrongly states that when labials τ, β and φ are added to ς the phonetic change becomes ς. τ should in fact be π and the phonetic change is of course ψ. In Luschnig, a reading in Lesson III is repeated in Lesson V, and in Lesson XIII on p.267, in the example sentences showing the use of μή in object clauses after verbs of fearing, αὐτὸν is wrongly written as αὐτὴν, but these are mainly irritating and not likely to cause any real confusion.

Both of these books are extremely useful guides to learning or teaching Greek, and I would have no hesitation in recommending either of them or in using either one myself. They can quite easily compete with existing Greek textbooks such as Athenaze and Reading Greek,8 and choosing between them will no doubt come down to personal preference rather than any real problem with either text. The website connected with the Luschnig text is a nice bonus and will doubtless be invaluable to many students and teachers. My personal favourite is the Luschnig text, simply because of the sheer wealth of supplementary information it contains, which provides a respite from the hard slog of learning by rote which successful acquisition of any language requires.


1. These readings are not introduced until Chapter 8, in order to allow students to build up their grammatical knowledge to the point where they are capable of reading extended texts, after which there is one reading per lesson.

2. For example, in Lesson I Luschnig discusses the present indicative active and middle - passive of ω verbs and nouns of the first η and second ο declensions, and provides a separate vocabulary for each section. This pattern continues throughout the book. The readings, of course, have their own key.

3. In Lesson I a total of 69 words are presented for learning, a pattern which continues throughout the book.

4. One example is ἀγγέλλω (Lesson III); which is translated as announce (angel; evangelist); the words in brackets are the English derivatives.

5. L. A. Wilding, Greek For Beginners Second Edition. Faber and Faber Limited, 1959.

6. It would make more sense to provide either the whole of the definite article before introducing nouns or to give masculine and feminine nouns together with their corresponding forms of the definite article and subsequently to introduce the article altogether.

7. However, the book provides a variety of exercises such as translating only the underlined part of a sentence, and identifying and translating forms of verbs and nouns.

8. Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall, Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek 2 vols., rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, and Joint Association of Classical Teachers, Reading Greek 2 vols., 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. (read complete article)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


David R. Slavitt (trans.), Lucretius. De rerum natura = The Nature of Things: A Poetic Translation. The Joan Palevsky Imprint in Classical Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 301. ISBN 9780520255937. $14.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (

The Slavitt Lucretius (emphasis mine) follows on the heels of A.E. Stallings's recent Penguin Lucretius as another choice for Latin-less anglophone readers of the enigmatic Epicurean.1 Unlike Stallings's admirable Penguin, Slavitt's translation cannot be recommended for any would-be reader of the De Rerum Natura, except those interested in a tedious lesson on how not to render Latin verse into English.

Slavitt does not disclose the Latin text he purports to translate. He mentions Bailey's magisterial edition of 1947 (actually revised in 1949) and no other, so I presume throughout this review that he used Bailey's 1947/1949 text (itself significantly revised from his Roaring Twenties (second edition) OCT.2 The translation is not complete; Slavitt notes that he has omitted some ten percent of the text where he feels Lucretius is "repetitive" in his examples (nowhere does he alert the reader to where he is making cuts, and only once does he explicitly note a probable lacuna in the original--often ellipses are misleadingly used). As if this were not sufficient to raise eyebrows among those who want to read something as closely approximating Lucretius' original as possible, Slavitt further reveals that not only was it a matter of removing "repetitive" examples, but also sparing the presumably fragile ego of the long dead Lucretius by eliminating repetitive examples that are "embarrassing" in the light of "modern science". In point of fact, much of what Slavitt omits seems inexplicable, and rarely something at which modern science might scoff.

Lucretius is a difficult poet, and any translator of the De Rerum Natura needs to provide something in the way of introduction to the challenges that await the neophyte reader. Slavitt offers two paragraphs, including an excerpt from the close of Bailey's Lucretius article in the 1949 OCD (the only work of scholarship that is cited; Slavitt provides no bibliography). From Slavitt we learn that "[Lucretius'] belief is that pleasure is the object of life." We learn that Memmius, the alleged "embodiment of all evil" for Catullus, was governor of "Bythnia."

Slavitt expresses the fear that someone might use Bailey's prose translation ("and others by other translators") without having the Latin at hand, something he concludes "contorts and betrays the encounter." Are we to assume Slavitt intends his Lucretius to be read only by those who have the Latin at hand and can read it with proficiency? In what remains of a muddled foreword, Slavitt announces that he is an impersonator of Lucretius, a director "making a few cuts here and there for dramatic purposes." Slavitt declares that he intends to "restore" the "poetry" to Lucretius, repeatedly aiming his barbs at prose translations (really only one, Bailey's, since he mentions not a single other translator of Lucretius anywhere in his book). No indication is given of how his version might be better than Stallings' Penguin, or the Oxford verse translation of Melville, another formidable competitor Slavitt does not equal.3 It does not seem to have occurred to Slavitt that someone taking his implicit advice to have the Latin at hand might profitably use Bailey's text and translation or the quite serviceable Loeb.4

I sample only some of the numerous problems. In general, the greatest deficiency in the translation (besides its omissions) is failure to capture Lucretius' style: archaism and indeed repetition are part of what makes Lucretius Lucretius (and not Slavitt).

I, 21) "I seek, therefore, your blessing and help in writing these verses" (te sociam studeo scribendis versibus esse). Lucretius would not approve of making his divine ally into a giver of blessing.

23) Lucretius does not call (the son of) Memmius (Slavitt does not like patronymics) his "friend," a misleading term to use in the Roman patron-client relationship.

47-51) Lucretius tried to make clear what Slavitt seriously muddles by not providing an accurate distinction between materiem, genitalia corpora, semina rerum, and corpora prima. Slavitt's capitalization of Matter is deeply misguided, especially before he (correctly) capitalizes the Nature (59) he did not capitalize previously (e.g., 49).

119 ff.) Slavitt's mistranslation has Lucretius imply that he will go beyond what the Greeks discovered.

124-125) Slavitt is often unnecessarily obscure where Lucretius is not; here the translation could give the impression that Lucretius is speculating on whether or not he will enjoy being friends with Memmius.

138) We are not "obliged to look further" past the first of Lucretius' principles to find another foundation for the argument.

145) "Meadowlands" and "deserts" for culta and deserta rather misses the point.

154-155) Slavitt has "It cannot happen that things can arise and be begotten from anything else" for atque hac re nequeunt ex omnibus omnia gigni. And yet it happens every day.

185) Slavitt introduces a misleading duality of "flesh" and "matter" foreign to Lucretius.

232-233) There are no children playing in the streets or birds raising chicks in Lucretius 259) "Gently purling brooks" is a lovely phrase of which Slavitt is fond (cf. II, 31), but not an accurate translation here.

297) Our sight is not "crude" but rather begrudges us the chance to perceive the atoms. Slavitt warned us he would omit repetitive examples from Lucretius' text; he does not note that he also adds examples: the plant of 299 ff. is his invention. 320) Slavitt neglects to translate Lucretius' important point that without void there could be no birth, let alone movement.

391-392) Another mistranslated un-Lucretian statement: "Whatever there is must possess physical properties our senses can report." What about the void, which has just been discussed?

451 ff.) Slavitt omits the important point that there must be solid first bodies (i.e., atoms) without void.

468) Lucretius' "penetrating fire" penetralem ignem is stronger than Slavitt's "heat."

485) Slavitt twice omits mention of the concept of fixed seasons for growth.

498) Not "matter," but (literally) the "most solid bodies of matter," i.e., the atoms. So again at 506 Slavitt gives the false impression that Lucretius is talking about two things (solids and single atoms).

522) Slavitt paraphrases rather than translates the Latin, thereby missing the important concept of the "boundary stone" (terminus).

567) Slavitt omits translating Lucretius' reference to Heraclitus' obscure language, and gives the impression that Lucretius is accusing all Greeks of "silliness."

752) Lucretius does not express the hope that the "meanings" of his words "are clear." Likewise Lucretius' atoms do not merely copy what letters do, but do more than the elements of words.

837 ff. In Lucretius the atoms laugh, which is more clever than having the hapless reader laugh.

893) "And the flight of the weapon can never escape into even more distant space." Slavitt gives us the opposite of what Lucretius actually argues.

II, 7 ff. Slavitt unnecessarily introduces the concept of "philosophical battles," while failing to translate the crucial nil dulcius. Similarly at 18 Slavitt omits translating nil aliud.

23-24) Latin epulis does not = "grand salons," and Lucretius' language is not recherché enough to warrant "gewgaws" and "garnitures."

52) As elsewhere, the important mention of species with ratio is conflated.

72) "Different and yet the same" is not in the Latin and decidely un-Lucretian. At 77 "inertia" (also not in the Latin) adds needless complications for the scientifically educated reader (as does 334 "photons"). Nor does the Latin restrict atomic clashes to encounters between two bodies only.

174 ff. Slavitt leaves the beams and rafters out of the water, which leads to the rather amusing image of people trying to push down water itself.

188 ff. Slavitt removes Lucretius' first person introduction to the clinamen atomorum, becomes perhaps the first person in English poetry to define the swerve as the atoms' "wiggle," and omits the key detail that the "wiggle" occurs at undetermined times and locations.

274) There is no "veranda" in Lucretius to make sheep-gazing a more comfortable prospect, nor a "pastoral mural."

315) Petulci does not = "wobbly."

342) Lucretius' centaury is wild, not red. His saffron is from Cilicia, not Corcyra (416), though in any case Slavitt should prefer Corfu to Corcyra since elsewhere he makes Acragas Agrigento. We find Etna but also Aetna.

468 ff. Slavitt omits the specific mention of India/ivory and Lucretius' description of how the elephants keep its interior inaccessible.

525) Lucretius does not use the name Cybele, and Slavitt misses the point that grain first appeared in Phrygia. In Lucretius the crowds are ungrateful and "unfilial" (Bailey); in Lucretius coins are not softer than roses.

592) Some words do have the same letters (but in different arrangements). Slavitt regularly mistranslates or confuses Lucretius' non quo constructions.

624) There is pleasure in Lucretius, but no pain. Slavitt omits some of Lucretius' discourse on the colorless nature of the atoms. A note would be helpful to assist the reader with the highly condensed section on the (non-possibility of) white crows and black swans, one of the more challenging passages in Book II.

III, 9) In Lucretius the followers of Epicurus are the bees, not E. himself.

23 ff.) Lucretius says that there are no realms of Acheron; he does not say that the gods think Acheron an "unlikely story" or that the gods look down on earth.

81) Slavitt omits Lucretius' mention of suicide.

84 ff. Slavitt omits mention of the Greeks and inserts the misleading concept of the "aura."

122) Lucretius does not say that the mind "alone is the locus of sense."

275) Slavitt omits translating Lucretius' important point that he cannot set forth the secret causes for the differences in temperament. "There must be a physical basis for these differences in behavior" is not in the Latin.

311) At death the body loses the soul that was "not its own," rather than "an essential part of itself."

695) An odd misreading of III, 793: Lucretius' point is that even in such bizarre circumstances as the mind arising in the foot, at least it would still appear in the same man.

771) Lucretius does not say that the Hyrcanians (or anyone else) feed people to wild beasts.

801) Lucretius does not say that the dead have a better lot than the living.

805) The unwary reader might be led to believe that the phrase tempus fugit originated with Lucretius

808) There are no canapés or bowls of fruit in Lucretius

821) The Danaids are not mentioned in Lucretius, and Slavitt gets the sense reversed.

900) Lucretius does not mention Homer here or the death of Patroclus.

IV, 1ff. The breathless imagery Slavitt introduces is not in Lucretius, but there is a spring of venerable poetic history Slavitt omits.

90 ff. Slavitt does not note a lacuna of probably considerable extent; Slavitt mistranslates Lucretius' IV, 127-128.

329) The distance is great between the sun and the mountain, not the mountain and us.

370) There is no dreaming eloquent orator in Lucretius

418) "Sigodlin" is rather pompous for obstipa, even if the word is rare.

476) Lucretius does not compare echoes to "trained falcons."

480-481) Pan and his entourage do not have "fairy pipes" and "violins," but Pan does have a piny covering for his head.

627) The mind is not itself said to be delicate, but rather the idols.

819) Lucretius mentions the starting gate, not the finish line. Slavitt also omits Lucretius' point that the zeal one brings to an activity excites dreams (IV, 984).

852) Lucretius' account of nocturnal emissions is very much in the high style; Slavitt's "sweetest tits" gives exactly the wrong impression (and there are no breasts in Lucretius).

872) Lucretius' boy has girlish limbs, not a pout.

878) Lucretius speaks of "chilly care" (frigida cura), not madness.

883) "Shoot your wad elsewhere" is un-Lucretian and fails to catch the elevated style.

966) Lucretius' vocabulary to describe terms of endearment for less than desirable women deserves less bland adjectives; Slavitt's one attempt to match Lucretius' descriptions, "humongous Winnebagoes," is questionable for tumida ... mammosa.

989) The "reek" is not necessarily "floral."

1009-1011) "thrust against the penis of the mounting..." is perhaps borrowed from Smith's revision of Rouse's Loeb, where it is no better a translation of Lucretius' coyly subtle Latin. Lucretius' subare deserves a better translation to convey its porcine connotations.

1076-1077) "Blow jobs or taking it up the ass" are not in Lucretius

V, 9) Not "close to a god" but a "god, a god" was Epicurus (and cf. 26 and 51 for the same problem).

20) Lucretius does not mention the Germans.

41) Lucretius does not joke about the eastern home of the Hesperides because he knew they were in the west.

53) Slavitt seems determined to avoid translating or mistranslate what Lucretius says about Epicurus and the gods.

59-60) Lucretius says nothing about time.

79 ff. Lucretius' point is that the progress of the sun does impact the growth of crops, but the sun does not know that.

104) Lucretius says that perhaps only actual earthquakes will cause belief in his doctrines.

253-254) The earth is the common tomb for all things, not just human beings. 355) "Infinite" refers here to space, not bodies.

385) Lucretius does not mention the aetiology of African deserts, nor does he make explicit reference to the deluge.

458) "Part" should be "parts."

474) Slavitt obscures Lucretius' two explanations for the existence of air currents.

516 ff. Lucretius notes how a thin body can have great power.

618 ff. Slavitt omits the key mention of the "mid-course" of the winds, admittedly the main problem in a difficult section that demands notes. Slavitt omits note of a probable lacuna at 631.

758) Slavitt abbreviates the section on the disappearance of monsters.

845) "For which she would give him a tumble" is another of Slavitt's frequent sexual colloquialisms that are foreign to Lucretius

862) Slavitt misses Lucretius' vivid image of the living flesh becoming a living tomb.

885) Slavitt expands the section on the enervating effects of sex but removes Lucretius' note about children cajoling parents.

919) "Teaching is hard enough when students are eager" is not in the Latin. 1101) The fences are dogs are for hunting, not guarding cattle.

1139) Slavitt omits Lucretius' mention of scythe chariots. Lucretius' boars stain the half-weapons left in them with blood, but his fallen horses do not crush riders.

1219) Lucretius does not say that the invention of music led (perhaps) to the first hint of happiness.

1236) Lucretius says the enjoyment of modern watchmen in their songs is no greater than among the ancients, which leads to his discussion of how the pursuit of novelty goads humans ever forward.

1246) No togas in Lucretius

1280) Slavitt misses the point that we have reached the summit (summum cacumen) of human evolution.

VI, 39) Some mention of the serious corruption in the text here would be useful. 79) Lucretius does not mention the Etruscans.

84) Calliope is callida; she is also the muse of epic, not history. Further, it is C. who is rest for men and delight for gods, not Lucretius

241) Lucretius does not personify his storm's lightning with "demoniac glee" or elsewise.

309) Lucretius says that lightning passes harmlessly through some things, not all, and he does not mention ground strikes.

359) Jupiter does not "keep a book and wait for cloudy weather," but rides the clouds.

398) The mountains most likely prevent waterspouts from being seen, not from occurring.

574) Lucretius says the sky is actually smaller in ratio to the whole universe than a single man is to the world.

630) It is redundant to say that the "etesian" winds blow "every year."

636) The blacks of Ethiopia are not called "tribesmen" in Lucretius Further, the sea drives the sand, not the Nile.

661) Cecrops did not disobey Athena, but rather his daughters.

671) The deer draws snakes, not insects.

832) Slavitt misses the interesting image of the "breastplate of the sky" (caeli lorica).

930) Lucretius does not mention borax, which Lucretius probably did not have in mind.

958) Slavitt omits Lucretius' mention of the Ethiopians.

987) Catervatim does not imply a military metaphor.

1070) "In agony but in no way without honor" is not in the Latin.

Slavitt's volume enters a crowded field where there are praiseworthy translations of Lucretius in both prose and poetry. There was no need for yet another English version of the De Rerum Natura, and Slavitt's attempt to compete with the likes of the venerable Bailey, the reliable Melville and the often sublime Stallings should serve as an impetus for those interested in Lucretius to learn Latin, or at least to use a translation that is more Lucretius and less David Slavitt.


1. A.E. Stallings, Lucretius: The Nature of Things. London: Penguin Group Ltd., 2007. On matters metrical relevant to the translation of classical verse into English, Stallings' "note on the text and translation" is a model of clarity.

2. Cyril Bailey, Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex, edited with Prolegomena, Critical Apparatus, Translation, and Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947. (As for the two editions of his OCT, Bailey himself seems not to have been sure when they were published, as Holford-Strevens and Smith have shown). At 801 ff. Slavitt notes B.'s solution to a locus desperationis, but omits mention of the probable lacuna.

3. Ronald Melville, Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe. Oxford, 1997. Also Anthony M. Esolen, Lucretius On the Nature of Things. Baltimore, 1995.

4. M.F. Smith, Lucretius De Rerum Natura (revision of Rouse). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975 (reprinted with revisions, 1997). (read complete article)


Elizabeth-Anne Scarth, Mnemotechnics and Virgil: The Art of Memory and Remembering. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008. Pp. v, 109. ISBN 9783836476669. $76.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Giampiero Scafoglio, Università di Salerno (

Questa pubblicazione, nata dall'attività svolta dall'Autrice come "research assistant" durante il suo "Master's degree" all'Università di Victoria in Canada, riguarda una particolare forma di mnemotecnica (basata sulla memoria visiva e cinestetica, cioè sull'associazione delle idee con le immagini e sulla loro combinazione in apposite sequenze) sia come materia didattica nelle scuole di retorica, sia come strategia di propaganda politica, sia come prassi quotidiana (non solamente delle classi colte ma, in forma semplificata, che esula dalla scrittura, anche della gente comune) nell'antica Roma. L'Eneide è chiamata in causa per verificare come l'arte della memoria si rispecchia nella produzione letteraria e come, di conseguenza, ne fornisce una possibile chiave di lettura.

Il primo capitolo (p. 7-42) prende in esame il paesaggio urbano nel periodo augusteo, concepito come "an archive which ordered memories and made them accessible to people from all social strata" (p. 7). Già in epoca repubblicana la via Appia si configura come "a Roman mnemonic gallery" (p. 8), delimitata com'è dalle tombe di personalità prestigiose e famiglie illustri, che consegnano alla collettività la memoria delle proprie gesta e virtù mediante le iscrizioni e le immagini: "both a visual and cultural experience" (p. 9), leggibile in forma letteraria o puramente visiva. Questo processo, avviato nel periodo repubblicano, è portato a uno sviluppo sistematico e cospicuo da Augusto, che consolida il proprio potere e fomenta il consenso "by constructing and manipulating memories" (p. 17) per mezzo di monumenti come il Mausoleum Augusti, il Solarium o Horologium Augusti (simbolo del tempo infinito attinto e gestito dal princeps, al pari del dio-sole Apollo, suo protettore), l'Ara pacis (rappresentazione della conquista più preziosa, la restaurazione della pace). I monumenti si inseriscono funzionalmente nel paesaggio urbano, che li incornicia e li esibisce adeguatamente, potenziando il loro impatto visivo sui cittadini. Augusto sembra seguire i precetti dell'Auctor ad Herennium, che prescrive di convertire i concetti da memorizzare in oggetti visivi con caratteri specifici (tali da rimanere impressi nel ricordo) e di collocarli ciascuno in un proprio luogo, in modo da formare un percorso tematico. Ciò è evidente soprattutto nel Forum Augusti, posto nel cuore del contesto urbano e imperniato sul tempio di Mars Ultor, intorno a cui si dispongono i monumenti dei summi uiri, i grandi uomini del passato, "whose memory was forever to be memorialized in conjunction with Augustus" (p. 27).

Il secondo capitolo (p. 43-63) verte sull' "architectural mnemonic system" discusso dall'Auctor ad Herennium (3, 16-21), da Cicerone (De or. 2, 87-88) e da Quintiliano (Inst. 11, 2), che prescrivono all'allievo-oratore un esercizio mentale consistente nel ricorso a "concrete imagery of physical loci, such as colonnades or elaborate houses, to remember heterogeneous information" (p. 44). I concetti da ricordare (siano essi res o uerba) devono essere identificati con oggetti visivi (imagines) da disporre in ordine logico e da inquadrare in appositi spazi (loci) corrispondenti ai luoghi urbani, "so that the memory is able to easily visually imprint and embrace all the needed information as well as reel it off in order when needed" (p. 50). L'efficacia di tale mnemotecnica è verificata dall'Autrice alla luce delle moderne ricerche di psicologia e scienze cognitive: i precetti degli antichi oratori trovano riscontro (pur a un livello più maturo e consapevole) nel lavoro scientifico dello psicologo Francis Bellezza, nell'esame condotto da Jonathan Spence sul metodo mnemonico di Matteo Ricci (un gesuita italiano del XVI secolo), nello studio svolto dal neuropsichiatra A. R. Luria su Solomon Shereshevskii (un giornalista russo del XX secolo), "whose prodigious memory was based on using places and mental imagery" (p. 54). Il moderno lavoro scientifico quindi sembra confermare i principi metodologici prescritti dagli autori classici.

Nel terzo capitolo (p. 64-103) è presa in considerazione l'influenza esercitata dalla mnemotecnica sull'Eneide, di cui sono analizzate le principali scene descrittive in funzione ideologica. Il poema "can be viewed as a literary monument in that Virgil constructs a connection between the figures of the past and contemporary Rome", secondo il progetto politico di Augusto, "in order to stimulate specific remembrances in his readers" (p. 64). Nel perseguire questo scopo, Virgilio sembra applicare i precetti retorici discussi nel capitolo precedente. Una conferma sarebbe offerta dalle forme verbali di percezione usate nelle scene in questione (ad esempio uideo, agnosco, cerno, conspicio), che per le loro potenzialità semantiche servirebbero, secondo l'Autrice, "to suggest that the visual images seen by the characters are not only physical, but are also imaginative and part of their inner vision" (p. 65). La discussione prende le mosse dalle arte laboratae uestes che adornano le mense nella reggia di Didone (1, 639-642): non si tratta soltanto di "a part of the stately display", bensì di un tipo di "memory system" paragonabile ai ritratti degli antenati custoditi dai Romani ed esposti nei loro atri "to inspire family members and impress visitors" (p. 69). Ne fa fede l'espressione series longissima rerum (v. 641), che dà l'idea di una sequenza ordinata di immagini, usata da Didone "in the same way as an orator would mentally link a series of images together in order to accurately remember the contained information" (p. 70). Lo stesso vale per i ritratti degli antenati esposti da Latino nel palazzo reale ex ordine (7, 177) "to act as visual memory prompts", appunto per offrire "mnemonic reminders to guests and family about the past" (p. 91). Il discorso riguarda altresì i dipinti osservati da Enea nel tempio cartaginese (1, 456-494), il quale in tal modo "is transformed into a monument deliberately designed to provoke memories" (p. 79): le scene descritte, Iliacas ex ordine pugnas (v.456), sono delimitate da "locative phrases" come nec procul (v.469) e parte alia (v.474) "to emphasize the spatial distinction between each tableau" (p. 74).

Il punto più interessante riguarda il libro VI. Gli incontri di Enea nell'Averno, in particolare con Deifobo e con Didone, sono ambientati in loci precisamente delimitati "by the use of specific locative words" (p. 81): i personaggi riconosciuti dall'eroe troiano "both physically and mentally" si segnalano e si imprimono nel ricordo "by some identifying characteristic" (p. 82), come il corpo orrendamente mutilato di Deifobo. L'incontro di Odisseo con i morti nel libro XI dell'Odissea ha in comune col racconto virgiliano l'avvicendarsi di personaggi del passato, che il protagonista deve riconoscere e ricordare: però, diversamente da Odisseo, che resta fermo all'ingresso dell'Ade, Enea lo attraversa e vede scorrere davanti a sé i diversi personaggi, ciascuno in un proprio ambiente: "moving through different mental loci is key to using the Roman mnemonic system" (p. 83). Nell'Eneide dunque la catabasi si configura come "both a reflection of the Roman system of artificial memory and ... a poetic monument" (p. 86). Ciò vale tanto più per il discorso di Anchise, che mostra a Enea i personaggi del futuro romano longo ordine (6, 754), "all set up in a sequence and spatially arranged so they are set apart from one another" (p. 90). Il percorso di Enea verso il futuro romano prosegue poi nel regno degli Arcadi (scil. nel libro VIII): Evandro lo conduce tra i loci del Lazio antico, che forniscono "the visual prompts needed to remind him of past individuals and events" (p. 92). Lo scopo, costituente il nerbo ideologico del poema, consiste nel fissare nel ricordo di Enea (e del lettore) "the information associated with the different monuments and places" (p. 93). A conferma dell'analisi condotta su queste scene, l'Autrice invoca infine la terminologia usata in relazione alla memoria, a partire dalle ragioni dell'ostilità di Giunone (1, 23-28), descritte "as being stored away, deep in her mind" (p. 101). Virgilio quindi sembra possedere e applicare nel poema, consapevolmente o inconsciamente, "the place memory system" insegnato ai giovani aspiranti oratori dai loro maestri. L'influenza di questa mnemotecnica si riscontrerebbe sia nella strategia virgiliana della descrizione (basata su immagini allineate ordinatamente e circoscritte ciascuna in una propria cornice) sia nella sua funzione ideologica, consistente nel riferire la rappresentazione figurativa alle tematiche politiche (così come i concetti sono legati dagli oratori a elementi visivi). Le linee della discussione sono riportate in sintesi nella conclusione (p. 104-105), seguita da una scarna bibliografia (p. 106-109).

Le idee sostenute dall'Autrice in parte non sono nuove: infatti è noto e solidamente acquisito lo scopo politico-propagandistico perseguito dai monumenti e dai percorsi urbani, soprattutto nel periodo di Augusto. Originale è invece l'attenzione per la mnemotecnica basata sulla memoria visiva e cinestetica e per la relativa precettistica retorica. È senz'altro interessante l'esame comparativo dei passi dell'Auctor ad Herennium, di Cicerone e di Quintiliano, sui quali però si poteva attingere un maggiore approfondimento, a partire dalla questione squisitamente filologica delle fonti (l'Auctor ad Herennium elabora suo Marte quel peculiare criterio o lo apprende da altri? Cicerone si rifà a lui o a un modello comune?). La tesi dell'Autrice, che l'Eneide riveli qua e là l'influenza di tale mnemotecnica, non è priva di buone argomentazioni e in certa misura mi sembra condivisibile, sia pur con qualche riserva. Le prove linguistiche non sono convincenti, anche perché non si fondano sull'analisi metodica della lingua virgiliana e neppure su un'adeguata bibliografia lessicografica e storico-linguistica: verbi come uideo, agnosco, cerno, conspicio possiedono uno spessore semantico cospicuo, con diverse accezioni e sfumature, da considerare alla luce di una rassegna ragionata delle varie occorrenze registrate nell'Eneide. Non si può fare affidamento soltanto sull'Oxford Latin Dictionary, che dovrebbe essere affiancato da strumenti più potenti e raffinati, come il Thesaurus linguae Latinae, il datato ma sempre utile Lateinisches etymologisches Wörterbuch di Walde e Hofmann, il Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine di Ernout e Meillet (nell'edizione corretta e ampliata da J. André, Paris 1985).

Insufficiente, da ultimo, il quadro critico di riferimento su Virgilio, sia per quanto riguarda il suo profilo in generale, sia in merito ai passi presi in esame. Ad esempio, poteva essere utile (non soltanto per il terzo capitolo, ma anche per il primo) Karl Galinsky, Augustan Culture (Princeton 1996). Sulla relazione tra memoria e ideologia nelle profezie dell'Eneide si potevano confrontare le opposte visioni di E. Henry, The Vigour of Prophecy (Bristol 1989) e J. O'Hara, Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's Aeneid (Princeton 1990). Si doveva citare poi almeno qualcuno tra i numerosi contributi riguardanti i dipinti nel tempio cartaginese (per esempio R. D. Williams, "CQ" 10, 1960, 145-151; S. Lowenstam, "CW" 87, 1993, 37-49; A. La Penna, "Maia" 52, 2000, 1-8). Tra i commenti virgiliani è menzionato quello di Austin al libro II; se non che per il libro VI, da cui sono presi in esame passi importanti, è tralasciato il pregevole commento dello stesso autore e perfino quello imprescindibile di Norden. D'altronde i titoli elencati nell'indice bibliografico (poco più di 60, di cui meno che un terzo dedicati a Virgilio) sono tutti esclusivamente in inglese.

Nonostante questi limiti, il libro resta complessivamente stimolante e piacevole da leggere, anche per la limpidezza e la fluidità della scrittura. (read complete article)


A. J. Boyle (ed.),Octavia: Attributed to Seneca. (With introduction, translation, and commentary). Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xc, 340. ISBN 9780199287840. $130.00.
Reviewed by George W.M. Harrison, Université Concordia, Montréal (

To start by admitting an interest: this book invites comparison with Ferri's 2003 Cambridge 1 commentary and Boyle by his own admission (preface) disagrees with Ferri on 'innumerable issues both large and small'. Ferri's commentary is much fuller because it is aimed at scholars, while Boyle addresses a much wider audience. Boyle's commentary aims to make the play accessible to the advanced undergraduate or graduate student while the translation presents the play to the general public. The differences, however, are mainly ones of substance and not solely the result of scope. Additionally, Boyle was able to take full advantage of the 2000 edition with commentary by Barbera2 which had just appeared as Ferri was completing his manuscript. My instinct, as in my interpretative guide to the Octavia ,3 is to side with Ferri against Boyle in most instances, but this does not in the least diminish my regard for and appreciation of Boyle. In the end, final proof in all areas of genial disagreement is impossible, and I have profited greatly in my own work from our correspondence, as I have also from Ferri. But more relevant and important is to see how Boyle's appreciation of the Octavia has developed from his 2006 book, Roman Tragedy (reviewed BMCR 2007.01.39) where he devoted most of his attention to a review of scholarship rather than enunciating his own views.

The introduction treats the background issues at much greater length than was possible for Ferri. As to authorship and date, Boyle (xvi) makes no guess as to the identity of the author and prefers the early years of Vespasian, tying it to the re-opening of theatres in his reign. Certain features argue strongly against any earlier composition, and the prominence of Britannicus would have been uncomfortable during the reign of Domitian, since Britannicus had been a close friend of Titus, Domitian's older brother. A section on 'The Neronian Principate' delves into the theatrical character of Nero as a backdrop to the play. This leads seamlessly to 'Imperial Theatricality' and discussion of the 'Roman Theatre from its Republican beginnings' to (more interestingly) Boyle's view of its transformations during the Empire. The two important trends Boyle sees are plays coming to be written by men of substance and the 'depoliticisation' of all forms of drama, against which writers and performers constantly rebelled. He would place the Octavia squarely in tug-of-war between emperors wanting performance to be entertainment with pro-imperial moral propaganda and the inevitable artistic reaction against restraints of any kind. This ends with the question of performance (xl-xlii): Boyle obviously considers it performable because his translation was performed. He assumes that the play was intended to be performed, even if it cannot be known whether it was ever put on stage. Boyle is more sanguine that parts of the play, particularly the lyric passages, had open or semi-open public performance, for which there was a vogue in the last quarter of the first century CE.

There follows a long section on the fabula praetexta. The subject has received much more detailed treatment from Manuwald4 and Kragelund5; Boyle's remarks are a sensible condensation of a subject over which there is general agreement. Given his remarks on the Roman Theatre, there is an emphasis on the highly political context of the production of historical drama, as well as overtly politicised content. This is the legacy of the sub-genre of which the Octavia is the only surviving example. The next section examines the three surviving ancient accounts of 'The Divorce and Death of Octavia'. For this reader, the most riveting part of the introduction is that on 'The Play' itself. In terms of structure, genre, and allusion, Boyle gives the evidence for a complex inter-relationship of acts and scenes worked out in detail. He sees the play occurring in six acts (not seven) over three days, basing act divisions on separation by choral odes; the assignation of 201-21 to the nutrix, as opposed to the entering chorus, is key to his division as well as those who agree with Boyle. Six acts over three days allows for a balance and symmetry of parallel and inverse relationships. In the sub-section on 'Politics, Perception, and History' Boyle writes sensibly that no character is entirely sympathetic, all are somehow prisoners of the play's main personalities and trapped by the historical circumstances. This helps keep the play from becoming a cardboard representation, and is aided by what Boyle sees as an 'implosion of stereotypes', particularly in the case of the chorus, but even in the poet's restraint in not making Nero a proto-typical tyrant, and Seneca the soul of reason. There are two final sections, one on the Octavia and Renaissance Drama and one on metre. The former is a subject worthy of a book itself and of importance because Renaissance revivals, adaptations, and reworkings on stage, both as plays and opera, belong very much to the turbulent politics of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

The text and translation appear on facing pages, which is of great utility to the reader but makes it impractical for course adoption. The translation 'aims to convey to the Latinless reader as much as it is possible to convey in English and without violation of English idiom about the form and meaning of the Latin play (xc)'. It will be familiar to many already from its adoption in the North American premiere of the Octavia under the direction of Amanda Caraway of the Experimental Theater at San Diego State University in April 2006. An explanation for the dots in the margin on the translation side of the page might more profitably have been placed on the bottom of p. 2, rather than on p.lxxxix. The translation is line-by-line as far as common sense allows and is in ten-syllable blank verse, as Boyle's earlier translations of Seneca's Phaedra (1992) 6 and Troades (1994).7 His translation thus emphasises the lyric qualities of the play in a way which is absent from Fitch's Loeb8 and not part of the strategy of Harrison,9 which sees the play resonate more with opera and so less with Shakespeare. Boyle's translation has real poetry with its own beauty beyond the power inherent in the Latin text. At no point is the translation stilted, and some of the enjambment, particularly over even to odd numbered lines, shows his dedication to his craft, and real talent. Boyle attempts to parallel assonance and alliteration when practical. Monosyllabic line endings, fairly rare in the Latin text, are invariably translated with monosyllables in the English. Repeated words, such as 'poison' in the English are usually given the same position in the line at each occurrence.

The text is essentially that of the 1986 Zweirlein OCT to Seneca, a monument of scholarship with few rivals.10 The text of the Octavia, however, is the most stable of all of plays, no doubt due to the comparative rarity of its performance. The cruces are few and Boyle (82-83) cites the 39 instances where his readings diverge with those of Zweirlein and the six other instances where his assignment of speaker or transposition of lines is different from the OCT. When he does so Boyle usually adopts the readings of the A-family against E, rarely preferring the reading of Fitch in the volume he published in tandem with the Loeb.11 In addition to making clear where and how his text is different from the OCT, Boyle provides a 'Selective Critical Apparatus' for variant readings in some of the more contentious passages so as not to overwhelm the commentary.

The commentary is in Boyle's own words (88) 'exegetic, analytic and interpretative'. Verbal reminisces are given and scholarship is cited but in both instances he is more selective than Ferri. In his notes, where Ferri might bring a lot of information to bear on a word, clause or passage, Boyle chooses to discuss less in more detail. The commentary is not filled with technical terms that might overwhelm some users or require a glossary. On matters of interpretation, Boyle states his preferences and usually names the scholars with whom he is in agreement, most often Barbera. Alternate interpretations are not frequently addressed, and when he does so, Boyle is never curt or dismissive. Not surprisingly, Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca are most often cited for parallel passages. Lucan's historical epic must be in some way important for a historical play and so one might have expected more reminiscences. The same might also be said for Flavian epic, although questions of dating would affect the question of who is imitating whom.

It is the trap of most scholarship on the Octavia and on the Hercules Oetaeus to admit that these plays are not by Seneca and then treat them as if they were. Boyle is valiant but not immune. There is much in the Octavia and more in the Hercules Oetaeus that is a critique of Senecan norms for tragedy and so to treat these plays according to those norms is to do them a disservice, and to miss an important part of their raison d'être. Boyle's book deserves a place on shelves next to Ferri. Shoulder-to-shoulder they inform us so much more than either alone. From Ferri all of the nuance and subtlety of the play emerges, proving the author was an extremely gifted poet, and from Boyle we find that poetry comes to centre stage as well as the aching forfeit of a valuable human life.


1. Rolando Ferri, Octavia: A Play Attributed to Seneca. Cambridge, 2003.

2. E. Barbera, Lucio Anneo Seneca: Ottavia. Lecce, 2000.

3. G.W.M. Harrison, An Interpretative Guide to the Octavia. In revisions.

4. G. Manuwald, Fabulae praetextae. Spuren einer literarischen Gattung. Munich, 2001.

5. P. Kragelund, "Historical Drama in Ancient Rome: Republican Fluorishing and Imperial Decline?", SO 76 (2002) 5-51, 88-102.

6. A.J. Boyle, Phaedra. Liverpool, 1992.

7. A.J. Boyle, Troades. Liverpool, 1994.

8. J.G. Fitch, Seneca's Tragedies. Cambridge, Mass., 2002 and 2004.

9. G.W.M. Harrison, Octavia: An ancient play for the modern stage. under consideration for performance.

10. O. Zweirlein. L. Annaei Senecae Tragoediae. Oxford, 1986. Full argumentation for the readings he adopted are in his companion volume Kritischer Kommentar zu den Tragödien Senecas. Mainz, 1986.

11. J.G. Fitch, Annaeana Tragica: Notes on the Text of Seneca's Tragedies. Leiden, 2004. (read complete article)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Andreas Willi, Sikelismos. Sprache, Literatur und Gesellschaft im griechischen Sizilien (8.-5. Jh. v. Chr.). Biblioteca Helvetica Romana XXIX. Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2008. Pp. xvii, 477. ISBN 9783796522550. €47.50.
Reviewed by Susana Mimbrera Olarte, Cambridge/Madrid (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is the most recent book by Professor Willi, his Habilitationsschrift for the Faculty of Classics in Basel, which is devoted to the language, literature and culture of Greek Sicily from the 8th to the 5th century B.C. The author studies Stesichorus, Epicharmus, Empedocles, Gorgias and the inscriptional evidence down to the 5th century, when Athens became the cultural and political hub of the Greek world. As such, it will be of great interest to those concerned with the pre-Greek languages in Sicily, the Greek language (epichoric dialects and literary languages), Greek literature (choral lyric, comedy, rhetoric, philosophy) and, more generally, the cultural history of Sicily.

The most remarkable thing about this excellent and beautiful work is that it combines a philological, linguistic, literary and cultural approach, all fields in which the author displays an astonishing expertise. Indeed this combination of perspectives characterizes his research, as the readers of The languages of Aristophanes will know. At the centre of this book is the issue of how colonization shaped Sicily's cultural production, not only because of the colonists' contact with the indigenous population, but also due to the need to acquire an independent identity with respect to their mother-cities. This is, I think, the only work to present a truly holistic study of the language and literature of ancient Sicily.

He takes several hypotheses as his starting point (chapter one): the fact that Greeks met indigenous people when they settled in Sicily must have sharpened their linguistic awareness, which inspired them to creative experimentation (Hybridisierung) in order to acquire an independent identity and to make a new centre from what was originally a cultural periphery.

In chapter two the author takes a sociolinguistic approach to the relationship between Greek and the indigenous languages of Sicily and the phenomena that arose from it: interference (as a result of which Sicilian Greek had a characteristic accent that distinguished it from other types of Greek), loans and hybrid formations. He also discusses the typology of linguistic contact between Greek and the indigenous languages of Sicily and the disappearance of the latter. After this, he addresses the internal dynamics of Greek in Sicily, where an international form of Doric predominated, centred on the dialect of Syracuse. The result was that Greek Sicily gradually became a Kulturregion, with its Greek being innovative due to the mixture of diverse elements, centrifugal with respect to continental Greek, centripetal or integrative in Sicily due to koineization, and dominant, with the eventual death of the indigenous languages. All these features contributed to the creation of a Sicilian identity.

In chapter three, the author studies the language of Stesichorus from a phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical viewpoint. The author rejects the usual view that Stesichorus essentially uses the language of epic, with a superficial dialectal colouring. Instead, he convincingly argues that his language is typical of Doric lyric, although it is relexified (its vocabulary and diction are not Doric, but Epic). He also discusses the issue of Stesichorus' performance, and thinks it possible that his poems were sung by a choir, as was the case with choral lyric. According to Willi, Stesichorus' originality lies in the fact that he rethematizes the lyrical form with themes from Epic poetry. The fact that Stesichorus, who comes from a Chalcidian (Ionic) colony, adopts the genre and dialect of Doric choral lyric, is another instance of what Willi calls "hybridization". Therefore Stesichorus can be considered a literary exponent of Vallet's cultural koiné, which is confirmed by the fact that the poet shows his preference for the mythical themes that had a special importance in the colonial environment and also by the fact that the reception of his work in the Ionic colonies is well-documented. Summing up, his poetry is the proof that a new common identity had arisen in Sicily.

In chapter four Professor Willi analyzes the Geryoneis and the Lille papyrus and concludes that Stesichorus portrays his characters from a psychological and individualized point of view through the words and speeches that they utter, in a different way from Epos. Another crucial aspect of Stesichorus's work, admirably explored in Willi's discussion of the Lille papyrus, is the recurring theme of the relationship between language and reality. A recurring motif in many other fragments of Stesichorus is the concept of Sprachrelativismus (the tenet that linguistic expressions can be independent from external realities and in this way can be relative), when, for example, he depicts the speaker fearing that his words are not going to be taken seriously or believed. In this way the action is more complex from a psychological or dramatic viewpoint. Willi shows that this can be translated or transferred into the sphere of the art of poetry, which means that even the words of a recognised poet can lead astray. We see this most clearly in the Palinody, where the Homeric and Hesiodic version of the myth of Helen is reappraised and condemned as a fiction, and is rejected in favour of an alternative one, bringing about Stesichorus' healing. Therefore Epic poets are not maîtres de vérité; only the Muse is. In this way, Stesichorus overthrows the old traditions. Colonial myths are as valued as the myths coming from the mother cities, and the canonical texts containing these are now considered pure fiction, their account being replaced by a different version. Therefore Stesichorus is not only the poet of colonial unity, but also the poet of colonial emancipation. The question of the relationship between word and reality is a leitmotiv in Stesichorus and soon becomes a central issue of Greek thought in the Western colonies, e.g. in Gorgias, Epicharmus and Empedocles.

In chapter five Professor Willi turns to Epicharmus, whose language he analyses from every possible perspective. The conclusion is that his language is representative of everyday Syracusan, since there is very little polymorphy and the little that there is can be explained in terms of synchronic variation. Also, Epicharmus uses specifically local features in terms of vocabulary, idioms and morphological and derivational formations. Whenever Epicharmus deviates from this everyday Syracusan, it is for comical-satirical purposes. The language of Epicharmus has a colloquial foundation and sometimes shows vulgarisms, as does Aristophanes. Stylistically Epicharmus is also very close to Aristophanes. An interesting difference is that in Sicily there was no tragedy, so it is very remarkable that, for the first time in the Greek world, we find an open genre that claims literary status without a Kunstsprache. This markedly colonial language is intended for a public for whom there was no literature before. That the raising of everyday Sicilian to a literary language has taken place precisely in Sicily is understandable, if we take into account that Epicharmus' goal was not only to contrast popular with elitist literature, but also Sicilian literature with foreign literature.

Chapter six focuses on the question of how Epicharmus deals with the Sprachkultur of his time, especially with Epos and rhetoric. Despite the brevity of his fragments, we can glimpse that his comedy was highly developed both in literary technique and with regard to the topics discussed. Epicharmus' literature is democratic, in that he places a positive value on colloquial language, critizises Xenophanes' intellectualism, makes fun of Aeschylus' language, mistrusts professionalised rhetoric and overthrows epic heroes. Epicharmus also questions canonical values, and that is the reason why he attacks epic and myth, which were the cultural property of wide swathes of the population. To value traditional and accepted things in a different way is a necessary act for a colonial author, who tries to create something new and different from what we find in the Greek mother cities, and for a comic author.

Chapter seven is devoted to Empedocles, who is different from the philosophers of nature before him and from his contemporaries. Instead he appears as an innovator, both with respect to the signifier and with respect to the signified. Professor Willi discusses in detail the lexical, morphological and syntactic innovations, with which the philosopher tries to achieve a distinct poetic style and tries to distance himself both from the language of Epic and from normal language. He also deals with a very important component of Empedocles' style: metaphors and paretymology (by which a word takes on a new meaning as the result of an innovative association with a phonetically similar word). Therefore the public must intuitively understand the lexeme. The effect can be named studied ambiguity (Kahn). The result of all this is that an unequivocal interpretation of Empedocles is not possible. Empedocles' work seems to have been conceived as an oracle or an initiation enigma.

Chapter eight explores the three different facets of Empedocles, who appears sometimes as a teacher, sometimes as a prophet and sometimes as a god. Important in this connection is Empedocles' presupposition that there are two distinct languages: one language agrees with thémis and, therefore, is sanctioned by the divinity. The other language is human. His use of the divine language makes Empedocles appear as a mantis or a true god. That language is central for Empedocles is discussed at length by Willi, who argues that for Empedocles the spoken language is the basis of the Weltordnung. For Empedocles, only the person with a disposition to learn can acquire the knowledge of the mantis, so it seems that Empedocles' speech is aimed at an elite. However, each person has the power to develop the right disposition to learn (that is, to analyse Empedocles' words and to understand the logos), which constitutes a democratization of the elite. With this the rhetoric is expanded, as it incorporates the Sprachpsychologie. In all of these ways, Empedocles creates a poetry that moves away from Homer.

Chapter nine discusses the relationship between Gorgias' thought and that of Empedocles. On some points it seems that Gorgias accepts Empedoclean postulates: for example, when discussing sensory perception, where he says that language is an ainigma and it is the task of the hearer to decipher the logos, or when he maintains that human behaviour can be influenced by logoi. Also as in Empedocles, the power of a logos depends on the mental disposition of the hearer. Yet on a number of points Gorgias moves away from Empedocles. For example, for Empedocles it is sometimes arduous to persuade, whereas for Gorgias the logos that has peitho overcomes resistance, even if this resistance is rational. Gorgias and Empedocles also differ on the issue of absolute truth. For Gorgias truth is a relative thing, because, when two speakers have agreed to a common concept of truth and have established a convention, the truth or lack of truth of a statement can be measured. The truth is not defined in each communication act. That is why the first task of the orator is to assess the audience and the situation (kairos). Rhetoric for Gorgias must concentrate on the art of convincing, and the issue of truth is not central. Gorgias also criticises Epos (for example in the Helena, where he uses a logismos, rational thinking, or in Palamedes). Gorgias' rhetoric is democratic, because it allows anyone to master a technique that was previously the preserve of the few. Willi argues that it is also democratic in the sense that Gorgias adopts the Attic dialect, because he addresses his speeches to an Attic audience.

Chapter ten. In literature we have seen that Empedocles and Gorgias can be defined as democratic authors. As for Stesichorus and Epicharmus, they undermine the position of the epos as a canonical text. This chapter deals with possible parallels in Sicily for a "democratization of the authorised word" in the non-literary sphere. For example, Willi relates the emergence of rhetoric to the development in Sicily of democracy and egalitarian structures (the parity of men and women in some respects), although rhetoric must also have been boosted by the legal disputes concerning the possession of land which arose as a result of the frequent transfer of populations in Sicily. The publication of laws in Sicily also constitutes a democratic act, since it manifested the fact that everyone was subject to the same laws. Democratization is also apparent in the fact that, although magic must originally have been the preserve of specialists, in Sicily women and the lower strata of society wrote defixiones.

In chapter eleven the author summarizes his conclusions. Contact with the indigenous population increased the linguistic awareness of Sicilian Greeks, who tried to transform their cultural periphery into a new centre. Professor Willi shows how Sicilian Greek was innovative, centrifugal, integrative and dominant. He also points to the fact that similar phenomena to the ones we find in Sicily have arisen in modern postcolonial literatures. Many of the cultural developments that were to take place in Greece proper were first initiated in Sicily. Innovation, the critical questioning of authorities and relativism are key issues in sophistics, so it is correct to say that without Sicily there would have been no sophistics.

The book concludes with an appendix dedicated to the pre-Greek languages of Sicily.

This is an extraordinary work and I fully endorse Willi's main theses. However, there are some minor and rather marginal details that I do not agree with. They are all linguistic issues. For example, as proof for the realization of aspirated plosives as unaspirated voiceless stops due to Sicel substrate influence, Willi includes the examples ἐντάδε and εχθός (which he considers hypercorrect). I'm not so sure that they are to be interpreted in this light, since they are also attested in other dialects where no such linguistic phenomenon (nor such substrate influence) is attested, which suggests that there must be another explanation for these forms: El. ἐνταῦτα Argol. ἐντάδε perhaps influenced by ταῦτα, τάδε.1 We also find Delph., Locr., Arg. ἐχθός (*ἐκσ-τός), where the aspiration is probably caused by the sibilant.2

Also, the author is perhaps too ready to accept Bartonek's theory of a Syracusan-based koina (pp. 45-47), which is more a theoretical and historical construct than something underpinned by the data: the only indication of dialect levelling according to Bartonek is the spreading of mitior vocalism to the Rhodian-Cretan colonies. However, it is possible that these colonies had mitior vocalism from the start3. Therefore, the presence of this feature in the Rhodian-Cretan colonies may not indicate dialect levelling at all. That there was a Syracusan-based koina in the 5th century is in itself a plausible idea, but mitior vocalism alone is not enough to prove it.

Finally, the author explains the presence of the athematic infinitive ending -μειν (typical of the Rhodian-Cretan colonies) in Epicharmus' Syracusan alongside the expected -μεν by claiming (following Cassio) that infinitives in -μειν were created independently in Syracusan, which seems possible but unlikely. It is easier to suppose that Epicharmus' -μειν is a Rhodian-Cretan feature present in Syracuse since 485 B.C., when part of Gela's population was transferred to Syracuse by Gelon. In fact even Willi does not wholly discard this possibility, which would not contradict his main thesis that Epicharmus' dialect is basically everyday Syracusan.

However, this is rather petty quibbling. This very valuable book is essential reading for anyone interested in Sicilian language and literature. Among its merits are the excellent examination of literary and non-literary sources, the new interpretation of some problematic texts (in particular the superb reconstruction and analysis of the Odysseus automolos), and the clarity of exposition (the author gives numerous tables) which will certainly be of help to those still grappling with their German.


1. Einleitung
2. Die Insel der Sprachen (Zur Soziolinguistik des antiken Sizilien)
3. Auf der Suche nach einer gemeinsamen Sprache (Stesichoros' neue Chorlyrik)
4. Die Wahrheit der Fiktion (Zu Stesichoros' Umgang mit dem Mythos)
5. Die Literarisierung des Alltags (Epicharms Komödie als paradigmatische Gattung)
6. Raffinierte Redner und feige Heroen (Themen und Parodien bei Epicharm)
7. Ein Epos der Verfremdung (Empedokles als Sprachschöpfer)
8. Dichtung zwischen Menschensprache und Göttersprache (Zur Sprachphilosophie des Empedokles)
9. Die Entdeckung der Kommunikation (Gorgias und die 'Erfindung' der Rhetorik)
10. Eine sizilische Aufklärung (Rhetorik, Magie und Gesetzgebung im kolonialen Raum)
11. SchlussbetrachtungAppendix: Die vorgriechischen Sprachen Siziliens


1. Cf. Buck Greek Dialects, p. 60, paragraph 65.

2. Cf. Buck op.cit., p. 60, paragraph 66, Lejeune Phonétique historique, p. 74, paragraph 62, n. 5.

3. Cretan probably had mitior vocalism, cf. R.J.E. Thompson, "Long mid vowels in Attic-Ionic and Cretan", PCPS 52, 2006, 81-101. In fact, it is possible that all dialects once had mitior vocalism (with only some of them simplifying the vocalic system according to the Doris media or severior types); cf. G.A. Sheets (1979), "The dialectological implications of secondary mid-vowels in Greek: a clarification", AJPh 100, pp. 559-567, J. Méndez Dosuna (1985), Los dialectos dorios del Noroeste. Gramática y estudio dialectal, Madrid, pp. 275/6, M. del Barrio Vega (1998), "Vocalisme mitior, innovation ou archaïsme? État de la question", Mnemosyne 51, 257-281, esp. 272ff. (read complete article)


Ilaria Marchesi, The Art of Pliny's Letters: A Poetics of Allusion in the Private Correspondence. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 278. ISBN 9780521882279. $99.00.
Reviewed by Sandra Citroni Marchetti, Università di Firenze (

Marchesi's book applies to a text in prose the interpretative instruments of intertextual analysis commonly used for poetic texts. The fundamental question that Marchesi aims to answer is: what is it that makes the collection of Pliny's private letters a work of literature? Her methodological intentions are clearly explained in the Preface and the Introduction (and they are constantly recalled during the analyses of the single letters that make up the substance of the book). Marchesi makes reference to the new approach to studies on Pliny, which has shifted the focus of interest from the historical and social background of the letters to specific problematic aspects of the author's individual situation.1 However, Marchesi intends to distinguish her approach from these recent studies: she moves the attention from the extra-textual reality represented by the author to the text in itself, considered as a self-sufficient, and consciously self-reflecting literary artefact. The survival to which Pliny's letters aspire is not the personal survival of their author, but their own survival as texts: that is to say, their capacity to enter into the canon of imitable works. The still-fluid nature of the epistolary genre allowed Pliny to negotiate their insertion into the canon. The instrument that he chooses is allusion. According to Marchesi, allusions function in two different ways in Pliny's collection: they set up a dialogue between the letters and other works that possess the authority of models, and at the same time, they create internal resonances within the collection, thus contributing to structuring it. For this operation, which makes use of poetic material, and is, in itself, poetic, Pliny had a model in the poetic collections of the Augustan age (which included also collections of texts in an epistolary form: Horace's Epistulae and Ovid's Epistulae ex Ponto). For this extremely subtle operation, according to Marchesi, Pliny had to trust in the active participation and the hermeneutic ability of his public, which shared with him the same "mental encyclopaedia". Bringing to the surface and recognizing connections where Pliny's early readers saw them is the task that Marchesi aims to carry out. And we must admit that in its turn, it is an extremely subtle, delicate task.

Marchesi's working method is based on a close reading of single letters or of clusters of letters that are closely connected. The organisation of the book is determined by the selection of three main fields (poetry, rhetoric, historiography) in relationship to which Pliny's dialogue with the models of the past combines with his desire to intervene in the present, in order to redefine the canon in which his own works and those of his contemporaries will be included. The first two chapters (pp. 12-52 and pp. 53-96) regard Pliny's dialogue with poetic precedents, while the following two chapters (pp. 97-143 and pp. 144-206) deal with his dialogue with Tacitus, respectively concerning rhetoric and historiography. The fifth chapter is dedicated to the relationship with the dominant epistolographic model, Cicero (pp. 207-240).

By avoiding a single addressee and a chronological order, Pliny invites his readers to carry out a fragmentary reading of the letters; however, according to Marchesi, he gives cohesion to the collection by means of strategies of a narrative and intertextual character. The latter kind of strategy, to which Marchesi dedicates particular attention, applies to very small portions of the text, and requires a detailed examination. One particularly significant example of the allusive technique of composition that Marchesi recognizes in Pliny, with which she opens her discussion, is found in two letters placed almost at the beginning of the collection. In ep. 1.2 and 1.3, Marchesi identifies an allusion to Aen. 6.129-30 hoc opus, hic labor est. Pauci quos aequus amavit/Iuppiter (pp. 27-33). This is a divided allusion, which in this specific case is composed of an actual quotation in the first letter, followed by a more subtle reference in the second one. In ep. 1.2, Virgil's line is quoted with reference to Pliny's attempt, which he presents as necessarily imperfect, to imitate the great orators: nam vim tantorum virorum, "pauci quos aequus..." adsequi possunt. In ep. 1.3, Pliny exhorts his addressee to devote himself to studies, in terms that echo the first part of Virgil's line: Hoc sit negotium tuum hoc otium; hic labor haec quies. By likening his own literary accomplishments, and those of his friends, to Aeneas' descent to Hades, Pliny forces Virgil's verse to assume a meta-literary dimension. But besides connecting 1.2 and 1.3 in a micro-cycle, according to Marchesi, the Virgilian allusion creates a connection between the first and the last book of the collection (pp. 36-39). Through the image of an ascent to fame as to a bright, higher world, the language of ep. 9.14 seems to refer to the same verse by Virgil, and 9.13 already contained a quotation from line 6.105 of the Aeneid. The Virgilian reminiscence placed in the last book of the collection (where it likewise has a meta-literary value) invites the reader not only to connect the last book with the first one, but also to re-interpret the tone of the incipit in a more confident sense. Likewise, a double allusion can be found to Catullus (pp. 39-50). In ep. 1.12 (referring to the heroic suicide of Corellius) Pliny uses the same language (destinasse, obstinate, induruisse) that Catullus uses in c. 8 to formulate his renunciation of love. And 1.13 contains another allusion to c. 8, completing the previous one, though this can only be noticed after appreciating the first one: at the verbal level, the reference can be noted in the parallel perdidit -- perdidisse.

The second chapter deals particularly with the relationship between Pliny and Catullus. Pliny not only writes verses in the style of Catullus, but he also defines the poetics of his epistles through a critical re-reading of Catullus. The neoteric poet is at the same time a model of style and a polemical target in view of the potentially antisocial ethical choice that he represents. For Pliny, neoteric poetry can become a part of the literary canon only if its antisocial character is neutralised. By reinterpreting neotericism purely as a question of style, and refusing its political and polemical significance, Pliny was continuing a kind of reading that had already been adopted by the Augustan poets. The conditioned acceptance of the Catullian model is the principle that controls Pliny's use of a broad network of allusions to Catullus. In counting on the active collaboration of his readers, Pliny thus added his contribution to the contemporary cultural debate, and took part in the redefinition of the canon.

According to Marchesi, Pliny's participation in the debate about rhetoric is to be found not only in those passages of his letters which specifically deal with the subject, but also in his dialogue with Tacitus, conducted by means of a series of allusions. Employing a procedure that Marchesi defines as "allusion in praesentia" Pliny uses, in his letters to Tacitus, passages that were written by Tacitus himself, taking them either from published works or from letters that he received from Tacitus. Pliny does not share the negative vision of contemporary rhetoric that Tacitus makes Maternus express in the Dialogus (a vision which Pliny identifies as that of Tacitus himself). By means of allusion, he ironically overturns the pessimistic position of Tacitus, indicating that the dynamics of the literary exchange have, in general, taken a turn for the better.

Pliny's dialogue with Tacitus also deals with history. Pliny's meditation on history is essentially expressed in three letters to Tacitus. Pliny does not write history, but his letters contain a historical potential, and are already, partly, historical works. Pliny is interested in historiography as a canonical form of writing, that is to say, its literary aspect and its relationship with rhetoric. He aspires to the role of an author and an actor of history. One particularly significant document is ep. 6.20 (pp. 173-189), which contains his personal testimony regarding the eruption of Vesuvius, and is an experiment of para-historical narrative presented in a pathetic register, in which the writer is also the protagonist. The literary and poetic sources that Pliny uses (Livy, Virgil, Lucan, Ovid) also serve to create an ironic distance from his own way of writing history. The overall attitude with which Pliny regards historiography brings us back to his opinions about rhetoric. Pliny claims a task for the orator that is in competition with that of the historian: the orator can discuss, above all in elogia and in portraits, historical themes in his own manner, from a stylistic and ethical point of view. An example is offered by the eulogy of a pathetic and "familiar" character for Virginius Rufus in ep. 2.1 (pp. 190-198). Also in this case, Pliny's reference point is Tacitus, in particular his Agricola.

For Pliny, Cicero is a model that he seeks to emulate on different levels (rhetoric, political commitment, etc.). In his relationship with Cicero, it clearly emerges that Pliny carries out a cultural renegotiation, interpreting the past with reference to his involvement in the present debate. While in other fields Pliny admits that he cannot surpass the Ciceronian model, in epistolography he can go even further, doing what Cicero has not been able to do: he could publish his own letters as a product of the author's selection, ordering and revision, as an editorial project. As Marchesi rightly observes, Pliny's letters survive thanks to the non-Ciceronian care with which he edited them.

In the final chapter (pp. 240-251), the author presents a brief summary of the subjects discussed, laying particular emphasis on the reading public's capacity to understand the subtle strategies that Pliny adopted in order to enter into the epistolographic canon (a canon which he himself was setting up, starting from a series of practices that had not yet been stably defined). The readers' "encyclopaedia", their education of the memory, and their ability to go beyond the barriers between prose and verse could enable them to appreciate Pliny's literary project. One final example is given (pp. 249-250) of the care with which Pliny constructed his text, modelling it on the collections of poetry of the Augustan age: the connection between the first and last letters of the corpus, expressed by the contrasting similarity between the names of the addressees (Clarus / Fuscus).

An appendix lists the main passages by Pliny for which thematic or other references to Cicero have been indicated; each time the reference is not to the scholar who pointed out the connection, but to the one who has dealt with the subject in greatest detail. In the notes, Marchesi includes a discussion of the comparisons. The volume has been edited with great care, and includes appropriate indexes.

As I have said, the task that Marchesi tackles, that of illustrating the network of allusions by which the letters rise beyond their original condition of variety and causality, to become a work of art capable of entering into the literary canon, is extremely subtle and delicate. The figure of the sceptical reader, evoked by Marchesi in the short chapter of Acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, occasionally comes sympathetically to mind. For example: it does not seem to be very convincing that there is a significant affinity between the death of Corellius in ep. 1.12 and the "metaphorical death" of the lyrical "I" of Catullus in c. 8, and the connection between Cat. 8, 10 nec quae fugit sectare and Hor. sat. 1.4.115 f. vitatu quidque petitu / sit melius (p. 50 s.) seems even less convincing. Given the doubtful nature of many connections, we may be surprised when Marchesi, in turn, casts doubts, quite rightly, on connections proposed by other scholars. And yet Marchesi is right in her insistence, exemplified by her work, to subtract allusions from the field of chance, and to recognize them as parts of an overall network constructed by the author, to be re-constructed by means of a careful reading.

In single cases, Marchesi probably goes too far, and sees too much in the texts she examines. But what she proposes is undoubtedly a fascinating journey through the minds of the early readers of Pliny. His addressees and his early readers possesses a culture and a memory different from ours. They were also, as Marchesi recalls, producers of literature, as well as beneficiaries. And for them, furthermore, the boundaries between prose and poetry were less rigid than they are for us. The attempt to reconstruct their relationship with those texts of prose and poetry which have come down to us and for them were already canonical, and to reconstruct the connections that might be activated by reading a new text that aspired to a position in the canon, is an operation that, given the sense and value that it has in itself, goes beyond the cogency of the single comparison. The comparisons proposed by Marchesi often lead us to wonder about the resonance that even common expressions might have, and the connections that they might activate in relation to texts that were extremely familiar in the minds of readers. In some cases, the connection proposed, while not appearing to be wholly convincing in itself, throws new light on other passages involved in Marchesi's reading. For example, the idea that the historical paradigms used both by Ovid in trist. 1.3 and by Plin. in ep. 6.20 include Livy's description of the capture of Alba Longa (pp. 85-188) may appear to be doubtful: but the reference that Marchesi makes to two other passages in which Ovid and Pliny refer to Livy (the inclusion of the name Mett(i)us in trist. 1.3.75-6, and the indication of the author as occupied in legere and excerpere Livius in ep. 6.16) does not allow us to reject the hypothesis, and on the contrary, makes it attractive.

From Marchesi's reading of the texts, we are continually led back to the external context: to the cultural and historical conditions in which works were created, and also to the psychology of their authors (for this aspect, the reconstruction of Pliny's attitude towards Tacitus is particularly interesting). In this sense, the close adherence to the texts has a disciplinary value, avoiding the risk that these aspects external to the text may predominate. But, in turn, the close reading of the texts performed by Marchesi does not claim to reach any exclusive, dogmatic truth. The author does not impose her reconstructions, but offers them as possibilities. Her work is open-ended: at the end of the book (that is to say, when the close reading of a selection of Pliny's letters is concluded), readers are invited to take up Pliny's book again, and to read it again from the beginning. The last words, both of the Preface and of the Introduction were "his own": in the sense that in view of the variety of interests to which it responds, Pliny's text may appear to be "his own" to every reader, and that, as a carefully edited book, it is "his own" work for the author. In investigating the most minute structures of the work, and at the same time inviting readers to search in other directions, Marchesi follows the double approach that she detects in the author. For its originality, intelligence and serious approach, this book may rightly take its place among the most significant works dealing with the present renewed interest in Pliny.


1. Besides the two collections of essays from the Manchester and Como conferences (R. Gibson-R. Morello, eds., Re-Imagining Pliny the Younger, Baltimore 2003 = Arethusa 36. 2 and L. Castagna-E. Lefèvre, eds., Plinius der Jüngere und seine Zeit, Munich-Leipzig 2003), Marchesi acknowledges her debt to M. Ludolph, Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung. Untersuchungen zu den "Paradenbriefen" Plinius des Jüngeren, Tübingen 1997; S. Hoffer, The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger, Atlanta 1999; J. Henderson, Pliny's Statue: The Letters, Self-Portraiture, and Classical Arts, Exeter 2002. (read complete article)


Marina McCoy, Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. viii, 212. ISBN 978-0-521-87863-0. $80.00.
Reviewed by Evan G. Rodriguez and Ravi Sharma, California State University, Long Beach (;

Table of Contents

The "philosophers and sophists" of this book's title are not the historical figures whose work forms the intellectual background to Plato's. They are instead the characters of the dialogues themselves: the book is a study of Plato's attempt to differentiate his Socrates, the philosopher par excellence, from the various "sophists" who populate the dialogues. While there is no shortage of works concerning Plato's engagement with the sophistic movement, the current resurgence of interest in Plato as a literary author invites a fresh examination of the interplay between drama and philosophy in Socrates' many encounters with sophistry. The topic of the book is thus a timely one.

As McCoy points out, a comprehensive survey of that topic would engage most of the Platonic corpus. Her own account is necessarily more limited. There are six selective treatments, focusing on aspects of the Apology, Protagoras, Gorgias, Republic, Sophist, and Phaedrus. In an introductory chapter, McCoy develops her main theme, which is that there is no methodological distinction between philosophy and sophistry. Although dialogues like the Gorgias might be read as suggesting that the philosopher has a distinctive method, such suggestions are consistently undermined by dramatic features of the encounters between Socrates and his interlocutors. For, "philosophy, as Plato understands it, includes important rhetorical dimensions" (3). Here and elsewhere, McCoy uses the term 'rhetoric' to designate any persuasive verbal technique ("the means used to persuade through words" (3)). She is especially concerned with those techniques that appeal primarily to the emotions, and her thesis that philosophy includes rhetorical dimensions is thus a contention that Socrates freely avails himself of such techniques in examining his interlocutors. (See for instance pp. 3-4, 42.) As McCoy would have it, the ultimate difference between Socrates and the sophist is to be found "in character and moral intention" (1). That is to say, Socrates speaks as he does with an eye to some overarching goal of character formation, while the sophist does not. (What precisely the sophist's goals may be is not so clear. McCoy tells us at one point: "nor are the sophists consistently presented as disinterested in knowledge or morally corrupt" (3).)

In her chapter on the Apology, McCoy discusses the ways in which Plato appropriates characteristic themes and devices of the oratorical tradition in order to pursue his own moral purposes. She continues that discussion in her chapters on the Protagoras and Gorgias, where she contends that Socrates has no fixed conversational method and instead adapts his approach to the moral condition of his interlocutor. In subsequently analyzing the Republic, she argues that the dialogue offers a gradual disambiguation of the roles of philosopher and sophist. The former, it turns out, is a lover of the Forms who displays virtues both moral and intellectual. McCoy underscores the idea of the philosopher's virtue in her chapter on the Sophist, which contrasts the Eleatic Stranger, who identifies philosophy with the method of division and collection, with the true philosopher, who is centrally concerned with "self-knowledge and knowledge of the human soul and its moral good" (139). Her final chapter on the Phaedrus gathers together all of these themes. Here, the philosopher emerges as someone who uses rhetoric to lead the soul toward love of the Forms. It is this love that is crucial for self-knowledge and moral improvement.


The idea that Socrates avails himself of the same techniques as the sophist raises some familiar questions about Socratic sincerity. Is it acceptable for Socrates--who is of sound character and moral intent--to argue in a knowingly fallacious manner? Can one make someone else a good person (whatever precisely that might mean) without supplying models of honesty, clarity in argument, and so forth? Are these utterly non-moral values? At points, McCoy thinks not. For her, good character is inextricably linked to certain conversational virtues, namely good will and frankness. (Those virtues are a central theme of her chapter on the Gorgias; see pp. 86-7, 97, 103-6.) Yet this raises hard questions about her general idea that the philosopher can at times eschew "intellectual" appeals and appeal instead to "emotion."

Take her chapter on the Apology as an illustration. Denying that the work preserves a historical record of Socrates' trial, McCoy argues instead that it offers a "rhetorical defense of Socrates" (20). The defense is also "philosophical" in the sense that it shows Socrates to be centrally concerned with the moral improvement of his audience: apparently overcoming the reservations he expresses in the Gorgias about the efficacy of speaking before large audiences, Socrates seizes the occasion of his trial to work at improving the entire group of jurors, and perhaps the surrounding audience besides. Yet, Socrates realizes that "excellence cannot be taught" (24); and so he aims not so much to inculcate virtue as to provoke a kind of "intellectual and emotional disequilibrium" (24). His hope is that the disequilibrium will foster a commitment to moral truth.

This is precisely the sort of interpretation regarding which one needs a fuller elaboration. Why precisely should Socrates think that "disequilibrium" fosters any commitment to truth? And what techniques for producing disequilibrium are appropriate, given the larger goal? Instead of answering those questions directly, McCoy concentrates on defending the idea that the Apology is written in full consciousness of the oratorical tradition--a thesis that most scholars these days will hardly doubt.1 What the reader really needs, but doesn't so clearly get, is a more painstaking analysis of Socratic practice. There is little by way of precise discussion here or elsewhere as to what forms of moral and intellectual "seriousness" are relevant to Socrates' larger purpose. In general, the chapters of the book are much longer on paraphrase than on integration of the various themes the author sounds.


To our minds, the book's strengths and weaknesses are most clearly on display in the chapter on the Protagoras. That chapter is a reworked version of an earlier article focusing on the dialogue's final section, the one devoted to hedonism. McCoy's main argument here is that Socrates' questioning of Protagoras is not meant as an exposition of the explicit views of either thinker. It is instead meant to bring out the implications of what Protagoras says earlier, in his "Great Speech," where he characterizes human behavior as essentially self-interested and directed towards "survival, pleasure, and other physical goods" (62). When Socrates forces Protagoras to embrace a hedonistic position, he effectively shows that Protagoras' truncated conception of the human good fits poorly with the sophist's inclinations to celebrate the nobility of courage and to proclaim his own wisdom as a teacher.

In working out this reading, McCoy is at her best as an interpreter. Her account of the "Great Speech" brings together a number of otherwise puzzling features of Protagoras' narrative and creates an engagingly nuanced portrait of Protagoras as a thinker. Her approach to the discussion of hedonism also holds a good deal of promise. At 351b6 and e2, Socrates introduces the whole discussion in a way that would suggest he expects a positive answer regarding the truth of hedonism. McCoy's interpretation neatly explains such remarks: Socrates invites Protagoras to embrace hedonism precisely because he believes it to be the upshot of what Protagoras has already said. Regrettably, however, McCoy does not develop that interpretation in detail. Rather than discuss the workings of the hedonism argument, she largely confines herself to general comments on the passage's significance.

The last section of McCoy's chapter shows how some of the novelties of her approach can be stretched too far. There, she argues that Socrates' labor in the dialogue is not entirely negative and critical. Instead, Socrates is engaged in a "process of discovery," one that is essentially dialogical in the sense that it cannot be the work of an "autonomous rational agent" (71). In elaborating this idea, McCoy relies almost entirely on a few lines in which Socrates offers a quotation from Homer to support the idea of a joint undertaking (348c-d). As she reads those lines, the passage "testifies" to Socrates' "skepticism about the individual human being's ability to reason adequately on his own" (73). It also supports the idea that one could never be sure one has made an intellectual discovery without the presence of another person to confirm it. For, "Socrates does not hold there is some independent, universal epistemic standard by which a person could judge whether his beliefs are adequate or inadequate" (73). These are large claims indeed--much too large for the slight support of the passage on which McCoy relies. And unfortunately, we find out little about how precisely McCoy would develop them. She tells us that philosophy "has performative elements" in the sense that the meanings of the key terms under discussion are "created" in the process of conversation. However, she also insists that Socrates is trying to get at something he deems objectively real, existing beyond any social construction. It is of course a significant question how these two ideas can be held together.

McCoy would like to resist any suggestion that the process of discovery can be reduced to a single method of inquiry: "[Socrates'] approach to questioning varies depending upon the person with whom he is in dialogue" (61). Accordingly, she rejects Vlastos' famous account of the elenchus as too reductive an explanation of Socrates' conversational practice. Yet it remains unclear how precisely Socrates might think he can get at "the real" through the process of question and answer. Most of McCoy's positive descriptions of Socratic practice would seem to apply equally well to features of Vlastos' view or to the many modifications of it that have since been proposed. In the end, she offers a host of interesting suggestions about how to approach the Protagoras and other dialogues; but her treatments are far too short on connections between the larger themes she sounds. To that extent, her conception of Socrates as a thinker of many methods seems ultimately to get in the way of a more fully integrated account of his philosophical concerns.

The book is handsomely produced, as is typical for Cambridge University Press. There are, however, a number of distracting errors. Most puzzlingly, the name 'Palamedes' is given the non-standard spelling 'Palamades' throughout the book (even in bibliographical references in which the standard spelling is used). And there is occasionally an unfortunate casualness about matters of fact. On p. 25, for instance, McCoy cites with cautious approval Ledger's late date of 386 BCE for the composition of the Apology. Then on p. 28, she tells us that by the time that Plato wrote the latter work, a certain rhetorical device had become quite familiar. Among the figures cited in support is Demosthenes, who of course was not born until 384.2


1. Over the course of the chapter, we get precious little by way of reference to the numerous scholarly discussions of the composition and structure of the Apology. There is no mention, for instance, of S. R. Slings and E. De Strycker, Plato's Apology of Socrates: A Literary and Philosophical Study With a Running Commentary (E.J. Brill, 1994).

2. This stretch of the book also contains a number of misspellings of ancient proper names: 'Demonsthenes' for 'Demosthenes' (p. 28), 'Manthitheus' for 'Mantitheus' (p. 28), and 'Denarchus' for 'Dinarchus' (p. 30). (read complete article)