Sunday, March 28, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Philip Hardie (ed.), Paradox and the Marvellous in Augustan Literature and Culture. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 388. ISBN 9780199231249. $130.00.
Reviewed by David Meban, Campion College, The University of Regina

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

'Marvellous' and 'paradoxical' are not adjectives traditionally applied to the Augustan age. The frequent reluctance to employ these terms perhaps stems from a longstanding belief in the concept of Augustan classicism and its attendant qualities of balance, moderation and idealism. Yet close scrutiny does not always bear out such a characterization. The wondrous and paradoxical, as this book attests, were important elements in the literature and culture of these years and the accompanying social and political transformation. The seventeen papers in this volume, produced by an admirably wide range of scholars, aim to provide a more comprehensive view of the topic than has been achieved by individual studies. Although at times opportunities are lost to explore a wider array of material, or to exploit some broader conclusions regarding the paradoxical and marvellous in the Augustan era, this is a solid collection. It has much to offer newcomers to the topic and is also very suggestive for future research.

The papers in the collection are not categorized or arranged under any subheadings. But numerous connections between the offerings, some of which Hardie outlines in his introduction, present themselves. Several of the contributions, for example, incorporate analysis of both material culture and literary text to illustrate some of the distinctive aspects of the paradoxical and marvellous in the Augustan period. Verity Platt examines paintings from the Villa Farnesina and elsewhere to elucidate the meaning of the marvellous and its ideological implications for viewers of the time. With a close analysis of the frescoes, in addition to consideration of relevant material provided by Vitruvius, Horace, and other works such as the Ara Pacis, Platt argues that while the depiction of the marvellous is common in private and public art of the period, its representation is controlled and never exceeds restraint or unsettles the viewer. Room still exists for creativity and choice, but marvellous motifs are contained and naturalized. This paradoxical move to normalize the extraordinary, Platt argues, replicates the political move of Augustus to transform the state into something new while presenting it as a return to the past. This is a very good discussion and offers an attractive model for literary studies of the period. Alessandro Barchiesi's study of the Phaethon episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses succeeds on similar grounds. Barchiesi views Phaethon's journey in terms of spectacle and reveals how the urban space of Augustan Rome, especially the cosmic elements created by the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine and its ornamental quadriga, and the Circus Maximus and the obelisk contained within, inform the Ovidian episode. More could be said on the Circus as an early site of solar cult, but the chapter is a very good example of how reading text and monument in conjunction can enrich appreciation of both. Rebecca Armstrong looks at how poets such as Horace, Propertius and Virgil react to contemporary examples of marvellous art and architecture. Armstrong concludes that while Augustan poets no doubt express admiration for grand architectural or artistic accomplishments, they also often colour such celebration in ambiguous terms and invoke some of the accompanying moral implications, issues absent at comparable moments in the works of earlier Hellenistic poets or later Roman authors. This is a rewarding study, although further comparison with immediate Roman predecessors to the Augustan poets might have been useful, perhaps providing insight into whether the developments Armstrong traces are distinctive to the age, or indeed might have roots in reactions to earlier large scale building projects such as the sanctuary of Fortuna at Palestrina.

A number of papers in the volume focus on the appearance of the marvellous and paradoxical in one particular author or text and often address how this shapes our understanding of literary history. Mario Citroni opens the collection with a discussion of one of the few Augustan analyses of the marvellous. The relationship between the Ars Poetica and the Aristotelian tradition is Citroni's primary focus, although he does include consideration of how Horace's treatment might be a reaction to the overuse of the marvellous in earlier artistic production. Philip Hardie's essay on Virgil reviews paradoxical elements in Virgil with an eye to uncovering how his practice differs from that of post-Augustan poets. Through a detailed review of small-scale figures and how these might relate to potential larger structural paradoxes (e.g., characters such as Dido or Camilla), or contribute to existing interpretative trends on the Eclogues or Georgics, Hardie concludes that "for the most part the paradoxical in Virgil...lurks rather than shouts" (110) and does not match the scale seen in Ovid or Lucan. Alain Deremetz analyzes passages such as the laudes Italiae and praise of country life at the end of book 2 and argues that Virgil rejects some of the marvellous aspects of his Greek models and replaces them "with a marvellous that is properly Roman, and which is to be found in the contemplation of Italian nature and places" (122). Yet what is missing here is fuller discussion of how and why this differs from the poet's practice elsewhere in his work, or indeed the tendencies of Virgil's contemporaries, or how what Deremetz suggests might be contextualized within Augustan culture in general. Damien Nelis lays greater emphasis on literary history and Ovid's attempts to situate his work within preceding traditions. Through close intertextual analysis Nelis reveals Ovid's debts to a long history of philosophical discussions regarding metamorphosis, and asserts the particular importance of Empedocles and Lucretius.

Other papers in the volume pursue similar goals, but stress the role of the marvellous and paradoxical within the narrative strategies of the text. In her examination of the Metamorphoses, for example, Florence Klein considers how the poet explores the issues of fictionality and belief and how his narrative creates an allegory for the reaction of the reader to the text. Klein discusses how Perseus' adventures frequently illustrate Ovid's thematization of a lack of belief in the marvellous, especially in the non-Iliadic and aetiological sections of the narrative. At other moments in the narrative - such as the metamorphoses of Atlas and Medusa - miraculous and marvellous elements are rationalized and thus lent a certain air of trustworthiness, although the narrative techniques Ovid uses to express them simultaneously undermine their credibility. Klein closes her contribution by tying this ongoing balance between belief and disbelief to some of the theoretical underpinnings of the reading of poetic fiction, the ideal reader being "self-conscious of his own suspension of disbelief when reading marvellous poetic lies" (210). In a dense and at times impenetrable essay, Jürgen Paul Schwindt provides a reading of Horace's Odes that highlights how they often express a "disquiet about thematic speech" (161). Marco Fucecchi examines the narrative functions of metamorphosis in Ovid and Virgil, paying particular attention to the reactions it creates in characters and readers and how these are often influenced by literary expectations. Andrew Feldherr's discussion highlights the many paradoxical and miraculous elements in Livy's portrayal of Hannibal despite a historiographical tradition, represented mainly by Polybius, which sought to downplay such aspects of Hannibal's achievements. Feldherr then sets these narrative dynamics within the context of Lucretian echoes in Livy's text and draws attention to many interesting parallels between Hannibal and Epicurus. Feldherr also discusses how Livy manipulates his Lucretian model, encouraging his readers to turn to history and imitate its positive models, rather than to turn away from history and politics to focus on the unchanging and universal.

How the appearance of the marvellous and paradoxical in various literary texts relates to the changing social and political environment is another concern of several papers. Joy Connolly, for instance, examines the appearance and use of the sententia or epigram in Seneca's Controuersiae. The arguments in Seneca's work often rely on reasoned judgement, but Connolly draws attention to how the sententia - with its frequent reliance upon the paradoxical and marvellous to create dramatic effect - highlights some of the psychological issues colouring the moral choice so many of the speakers in the Controuersiae face. Unlike during earlier periods, moral reflection in Seneca seems prompted rather by emotional and illogical factors, in a process akin to the effects produced by poetry or literary texts. Connolly connects this increasing concern with the rhetorical and linguistic means to express moral choice to the often irresolvable decisions and dilemmas faced by individuals in a time of changing conceptions of political authority, duty and identity. In her discussion of the speech of Pythagoras in book 15 of the Metamorphoses, not surprisingly a very popular entry point for discussion in this volume, Mary Beagon argues that Pythagoras manages to present change and transformation as a universal phenomenon and a matter of common experience. Ovid thus "produces the paradox that the extraordinary is ordinary" (297). Understood from this Pythagorean perspective, the developing Augustan world view, predicated upon the idea of stability and timelessness, becomes an empty shell, the imposition of "a superficial veneer of stability upon an inherently unstable world" (299).

Roman religious practice was also a central cultural preoccupation of the Augustan years, and a number of papers in the volume examine how concerns about divine power, and some of the shifting boundaries between gods and man, find expression in conjunction with the paradoxical and marvellous. Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, for instance, reads the episode of Philemon and Baucis in Metamorphoses 8 within the context of religious renewal and restoration of tradition occurring during the age of Augustus. In a sensitive reading of the episode, much of which is achieved through comparative analysis with the tales told by Achelous, Fabre-Serris elucidates how Lelex's narrative strategy serves to create a credible and appealing story that ultimately manages to convey and emphasize the power of the gods and their intervention in the lives of men. In his analysis of elements of the fantastic in the Aeneid, Mario Labate acknowledges some of the affinities between Aeneas and Hercules but also quite rightly draws attention to the differences between the two. Through close readings of episodes such as the fight between Hercules and Cacus and Aeneas' descent into the underworld, Labate illustrates the different ways these two heroes encounter the fantastic. Hercules relies on his fantastic, primitive, and superhuman capabilities, whereas in comparable situations Aeneas' actions remain rooted in a world of reality, history, virtus and pietas. Gianpiero Rosati's analysis of the song of the Pierides at Metamorphoses 5.318-31 examines how the depiction of divine power in Ovid helps elucidate Roman reaction to Egyptian presence. Rosati illustrates how Ovid traces the rise of theriomorphism in Egypt through the flight of Greek gods from Typhon and their subsequent transformation. This serves to prioritize Greek religion in the face of other accounts which suggest its Egyptian origins. The aetiological dimension consequently serves to "explain and normalize the Other, indeed assimilates it and renders it derivative" (279). Rosati argues that this normalization signals an evolution from earlier portrayals of the monstrous and barbaric Egyptian in the poetry of Virgil and Horace.

The papers in the volume thus address a number of different aspects of the paradoxical and marvellous in Augustan culture and examine not only how they find expression in different texts or artistic works, but also how they intersect with many of the period's social and political preoccupations. The contributions also approach the subject from a variety of angles, some arguing for the representation of paradox as reflective of the changing political environment, for example, or emphasizing its use as an instrument of subversion. But although the collection offers a number of different perspectives and readings, some aspects of the volume hamper its stated goal of providing a "synoptic treatment of the subject" (1). The most obvious limitation is the rather narrow array of evidence adduced. The majority of the contributions investigate the topic in Augustan literature, Ovid not surprisingly attracting the most interest. Seven papers, for instance, take the Metamorphoses as their primary focus. Only Platt's contribution maintains a principal concern with material culture, with the essays of Barchiesi and Armstrong doing so to a lesser degree. The success of these contributions, deriving in considerable part from their inclusive survey of the subject matter, underscores some of the lost opportunities in the choice of material.

The failure of many papers to devote greater consideration to some of the larger questions and issues the appearance and role of paradox and the marvellous in Augustan culture provokes, moreover, also detracts from the comprehensiveness of the collection. One of the most interesting of these, as Hardie states in his introduction, revolves around the qualities of "continuity and discontinuity" (3). Paradoxical and marvellous are terms more often employed in conjunction with periods earlier and later than the age of Augustus. Interpretation of their appearance in these years, consequently, has important ramifications for our understanding of Augustan culture and its transitional position. Several papers touch on these issues. Connolly, for instance, locates Senecan sententiae between Cicero and later Neronian and Flavian authors, while Hardie and Citroni situate Virgil and Horace within the context of earlier and later literary productions. Yet these are too often the exception. Indeed, one area for comparison that is surprisingly neglected is the triumviral period. These years, so often associated with doubt, uncertainty and a world turned upside down are fertile terrain for such an examination. In the Eclogues, for instance, wonder and amazement are connected both to the upheavals of recent years and also the attempt to rectify them. As Hardie notes in his introduction, moreover, metamorphosis and the fantastic were common in neoteric poetry. Comparison with examples from this period would be useful to see how they anticipate developments in the years after Augustus seized power, or how and to what ends specific images are transformed. Even the role of Augustus himself seems too often overlooked. The collection begins with a passage from Suetonius (Augustus 43-4) that neatly illustrates how Augustus both exploited and controlled the marvellous. To be fair some paradoxical aspects of the Augustan principate itself is touched on in the volume, but given the role of the princeps in the literature and culture of the period, his contributions are too often excluded from analysis.

In a book devoted to such a large and interesting topic it is of course possible to cite issues that one feels could have been included. The brief examples provided above are simply emblematic of some of the more encompassing questions this volume at times neglects to consider. This is no doubt partly attributable to the format of the book - a collection of papers by a variety of individuals rather than a single author volume. But these comments are not meant to detract from the quality of the contributions in the book. To reiterate my opening comments, this is a valuable collection, and one that suggests and no doubt will provoke further work on such an important subject.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Paradox and the Marvellous in Augustan Literature and Culture, Philip Hardie

2. Horace's Ars poetica and the Marvellous, Mario Citroni

3. Where the Wild Things are: Locating the Marvellous in Augustan Wall Painting, Verity Platt

4. Against Nature? Some Augustan Responses to Man-made Marvels, Rebecca Armstrong

5. Virgil: A Paradoxical Poet?, Philip Hardie

6. The Question of the Marvellous in the Georgics of Virgil, Alain Deremetz

7. In Search of the Lost Hercules: Strategies of the Marvellous in the Aeneid, Mario Labate

8. Thaumatographia, or 'What is a Theme?', Jurgen Paul Schwindt

9. Phaethon and the Monsters, Alessandro Barchiesi

10. Prodigiosa mendacia uatum. Responses to the Marvellous in Ovid's Narrative of Perseus (Metamorphoses 4-5), Florence Klein

11. Encountering the Fantastic: Expectations, Forms of Communication, Reactions, Marco Fucecchi

12. Constructing a Narrative of mira deum: the story of Philemon and Baucis (Ovid Metamorphoses 8), Jacqueline Fabre-Serris

13. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.416-51: noua monstra and the foedera naturae, Damien Nelis

14. Alien Divinities. How to Tame Monsters through Aetiology, Gianpiero Rosati

15. Ordering Wonderland: Ovid's Pythagoras and the Augustan Vision, Mary Beagon

16. Delusions of Grandeur: Lucretian 'Passages' in Livy, Andrew Feldherr

17. The Strange Art of the Sententious Declaimer, Joy Connolly

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