Monday, January 26, 2009


Tim Whitmarsh, Ancient Greek Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 284. ISBN 0-74 56-2792-7. $24.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Yun Lee Too, New York (

Tim Whitmarsh's Ancient Greek Literature has been published by Polity Press in a series entitled 'Cultural History of Literature'. Polity for the most part chooses to do textbooks, and this book is aimed at university undergraduates and, appropriately, all Greek passages are translated for accessibility. (But I want to add that the book I am reviewing is very suited for Greeked readers too.) The series 'Cultural History of Literature' lists Whitmarsh with such texts as Hallamore Caesar and Caesar's Modern Italian Literature, Sandra Clark's Renaissance Drama, Diane Watt's Medieval Women's Writing, Thomas Cartelli and Katharine Rowe's New Wave Shakespeare on Screen, Tim Armstrong's Modernism and Scott Warren's Early Modern Literature. Also included in this series are works on science fiction, romance and detective fiction. We are told this is a 'cutting-edge list in literary studies and cultural theory' by British and North American scholars. As Ancient Greek Literature is the only work on classics, and certainly on Greek literature, in the series and in the Polity list, it strongly signifies a break from the mainstream or run-of-the-mill.

I suggest that the book is indeed cutting edge or on the forefront of Greek literature studies and, as such, it is representative of the classics tripos at Cambridge University (where incidentally TW and I both studied and had research fellowships in the 1990s). In his preface TW denies a chronological structure to his work in favour of themes and topics that cluster around literary texts, albeit chapters 1 to 9 proceed rather chronologically around the various genres. This is what I describe as the diachronic approach in the book. Chapters 10 to 13 read Greek literature synchronically, ordering the discussion around very current topics that seek to demonstrate that the literature we are calling 'Greek' was always in contest in a way that we might find very relevant and engaging today.

The first two chapters, titled 'Concepts', set the book up to be a history of Greek literature. Chapter 1, 'Greek Literature and Cultural History', effectively locates the current book in the Polity series 'Cultural History of Literature'. It acknowledges that literature and the leisure it implies are modern concepts; the ancients texts, were far more functional as the world was a much harsher place that did not tolerate so easily the luxury of literature. TW is aware that he is reading Greek literature from a position that may be quite distinct from the Greeks, and to indicate this he raises as questions: what is a text? what is a canon? why do we periodize as do (say between 'ancient' and 'Hellenistic')? what about the role of politics in constructions of classics, particularly Greek? Overall, TW is concerned with the different forms of labour that go into canon-formation. In chapter 2 TW looks at what has become the problem of tradition. He considers Homer established as the founder of the tradition in antiquity, one that is other than uniform: Homer was allegorized; Homer was a text about Greeks and barbarians; it was 'contaminated' in its textual tradition; and it is a translated text. So we are to transpose the problem with reading Homer to all of Greek literature.

The next section of the book is called 'Contexts' and it contains the chronological reading of Greek literature. Chapter 3, entitled 'Festival', looks at the the texts of Homer and Hesiod and their performance at public festivals. TW covers the major issues associated with these texts, namely their composition, the representation and struggle over power and the physical body. Chapter 4, the 'Symposium', addresses the role of food and drink and the literature associated with them, the symposiastic poem, in ancient Greek society. Friendship and order in society are topics identified for discussion. Tragedy, which is generally a major part of classics education, is the focus of the next chapter, 'Theatre'. Here we turn specifically to Athens to think about the representation of politics in the city, war with the 'other' and the psychological dimension of tragedy, as present in Euripides' Hippolytus. There is some attention given to comic writing and the plays of Aristophanes at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 6, 'The Power of Speech', considers oratory and the representation of the speechwriters and the city through oratory. TW looks at strategies of self-characterization that (probably) result in one winning the argument. He turns particular attention to Lysias 1, Against Eratosthenes, a speech familiar to those who have taken or taught the Cambridge classics tripos and the rhetoric paper. TW has us look at the rhetorical strategy of the speech and the defendant's depiction of himself. Then he turns briefly to consider Socrates and his use of the spoken word. The 'Archive', the monumentalizing impulse in literature, is the theme of the following three chapters. 'Inventing the Archive: Athens' reads prose in particular, examining Herodotus as an author who presents causes, rather than a cause, for things and who writes from a cultural relativist perspective and Thucydides as one who aspires to write the truth as a possession for eternity. The following chapter, 'Building the Archive: Hellenistic Alexandria', treats the library and the museum in the Greek outpost of Northern Africa. The game has changed and here TW looks at the literature written by the knowing elite for the knowing elite rather than the democratic mass. Authors like Callimachus rewrite the past for the present through aetiology, and authors seek the patronage of the Ptolemies while still writing for the public. The chapter is very informative on an area that may be less familiar to students of Greek literature.

Chapter 9, 'Reading from the Archive: Roman Greece', demonstrates TW at his best, not suprisingly because this material is his area of specialty (cf. Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation Oxford, 2001). The author introduces this chapter with very informative background about the relationship of Rome and Greece in the early empire and with an important discussion of paideia as a means of distinction (cf. Bourdieu) in society. Education legitimizes social stratification in this, and I would argue, any world. He then proceeds to treat the Second Sophistic, travel and the ancient novel.

Part III of the book is entitled 'Conflicts'. It considers topics across the range TW calls Greek literature rather than by genre and provides the audience with some of the most insightful readings. Chapter 10, titled 'Inventing the Greek: Cultural Identity', considers what 'Greek' is, looking at texts from Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus amongst others. 'Greek' is a contested term and TW recognizes this, drawing notions of territory (pp. 169-72), festival (p. 173) and paideia (p. 176) back into play. The following chapter, 'A Woman's Place', recognizes that the book has been concerned for the most part with male identities and now turns to considering Helen as a traveling figure, Sappho as a reader of Homer, and women in tragedy and comedy. TW notes a change in the representation of women beginning in the Hellenistic period and in the novel with a greater emphasis in the depiction of female subjectivity. Chapter 12 is 'Sexing the Text' and considers desires of various forms, including the same-sex desire of Sappho. Chapter 13, 'Status and Slavery', considers how social status give certain individuals a voice in society and other individuals a lack of speech up to the classical period. It also looks at slaves in comedy and the slave in philosophical writing in the case of Epictetus. This chapter ends this excellent volume, and it concludes with some reflections on the 'Invention of Literature', revisiting the roles of class and identity in this process.

TW includes end notes and a substantial bibliography in his book.

Ancient Greek Literature is an intelligent and stimulating book for undergraduates and also for scholars, who sometimes need to see again the forest for the trees. TW puts his finger nicely on the issues that matter in reading Greek literature and succeeds well in presenting this huge corpus of material succinctly in around two hundred pages. This is a precise and excellent presentation that will enrich any undergraduate's course of study in Greek writing.

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