Thursday, February 14, 2013


Maurizio Bettini, The Ears of Hermes: Communication, Images, and Identity in the Classical World. Translated by William Michael Short. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 278. ISBN 9780814211700. $59.95.

Reviewed by Peter Dent, University of Bristol (

Version at BMCR home site


In 'Doubles and Images', the final section of this excellent collection of essays by the Italian philologist Maurizio Bettini, discussion turns to the disorienting presence of the double in classical culture: the comic predicament of the slave, Sosia, in Plautus' Amphitruo, for example, whose identity is replicated by Mercury; or Virgil's Trojan exiles haunted by a crippling nostalgia that some choose to ease with beguiling imitations of a home long left behind; or the Roman aristocrats aped in life by professional mimics and reproduced by wax masks and effigies in death. Like its modern counterpart, the classical double causes confusion; it attracts the attention due to the original and usurps its place. At the same time, however, it can also imply a status worthy of replication. Much the same might be said of this recent and welcome translation of Bettini's book Le orecchie di Hermes, first published by Einaudi in 2000. The desire for an English double of the Italian original certainly reflects the status of Bettini's scholarship. In his preface, the translator makes the bold claim that 'it is difficult to overstate the significance of this work for Anglophone classicists' (vii). I am not a classicist, but that means that I belong to the wider readership that Bettini hopes to reach (on which more shortly), and I can confirm wholeheartedly that there are essays here that should be read beyond the confines of the field, particularly by those with an interest in visual culture. Indeed, anyone who has read Bettini's wonderful Il ritratto dell'amante (1992) will find plenty of stimulation here as well.1

However, like some of the more entertaining doubles in The Ears of Hermes, this translation is almost, but not quite, what it seems. In Amphitruo¸Mercury's theft of Sosia's identity includes the appropriation of his name, an act that prompts Bettini into a short digression on the significance of names as markers of the individual. With this in mind, the reader of these essays will sense that there is something peculiar about the book right from the title page because The Ears of Hermes both does and does not share a name with the Italian original. The main titles are identical, true, but the subtitles are not: 'Studi di antropologia e letterature classiche' has become 'Communication, Images, and Identity in the Classical World'. Further in, the disorientation grows because it soon becomes clear that this is not a faithful rendition of Le orecchie di Hermes, but a kind of directors' cut. With Bettini's agreement the book has been reshaped. Chapters have been removed and one new essay introduced. While this state of affairs is communicated briefly in the prefaces, it may help to offer a fuller account of these alterations.2 The chapters eliminated from the original are the following: (from part I, 'Simboli ed eroi') chapters three, 'Il detective è un re: anzi, un dio: A proposito dell'Edipo re di Sofocle' and four, 'Turno e la rondine nera'; (from part II, 'Doppi e controfigure') chapter six, 'Anfitrione prima e dopo Plauto'; and (from part III 'Racconti di parole') chapter eleven, 'Come un confetto: Credenze sulla donnola e origine della parola mustela'. The remainder has been reordered and redistributed in the translation across three new sections: Mythology (chapters 1 and 2 of the original), Social Practices (8 and 10), and Doubles and Images (5, 7 and 9). One new chapter has been added to the final section: 'Death and Its Double: Imagines, Ridiculum and Honos in the Roman Aristocratic Funeral'. This was first published in 2005 but has been revised for the present book.3 So in truth this is a rather different work from its Italian namesake. Overall, the reordering is surprisingly effective. The new section three, 'Doubles and Images,' is particularly substantial, with the various chapters interlocking in mutually illuminating ways. However, this produces a curious situation: reading this translation is no true substitute for reading the original, but neither does reading the original render acquaintance with the translation redundant.

In translation, the book now unfolds as follows. The first section, 'Mythology', opens with 'Hermes' Ears: Places and Symbols of Communication in Ancient Culture', in which Bettini muses over the various epithets of Hermes, an exploration that leads him through a fascinating series of digressions beginning with the social significance of the proverb 'lupus in fabula' ('speak of the Devil') and moving through the possibility of talking with the dead, the various types of trained 'memory man' in the ancient world, and the ears as the seat of memory. Chapter two, 'Brutus the Fool', is devoted to the story of how Brutus feigns madness after his father is killed by his cousin Tarquin in order to deceive this murderous usurper into thinking him a harmless halfwit. Bettini collects the scattered textual fragments that report the nature of his foolish behaviour. Although these may follow the predictable narrative patterns of folklore, Bettini carefully extracts the specific qualities of Brutus' false stupidity that are particular to the Roman context. In the process, he manages to retrieve something of the fugitive character of the popular fable in the Roman world.

Part II opens with 'Mos, mores and mos maiorum: The Invention of Morality in Roman Culture', which in some respects functions as a microcosm of the whole book in so far as it argues that an 'excess' of cultural identity might be treated by seeing your world through the eyes of an outsider (see the comments below on the author's preface). Antiquity was no stranger to the challenges raised by cultural relativity, and Bettini quotes Herodotus dryly observing that 'everyone is…convinced of the superiority of his own customs over all the rest' (91). Here he concentrates on Roman cultural norms, in particular the processes by which the behaviour or attitude of an individual might be transformed into a collective habit before acquiring the impersonal authority of ancestral tradition. He suggests that the mos maiorum was perhaps more flexible and open to redefinition (given the right authority) than the surviving written sources appear to indicate.

Chapter 4, 'Face to Face in Ancient Rome: The Vocabulary of Physical Appearance in Latin', attempts to construct an '"anthropology of physical appearance" in the Roman world' (131). Bettini charts a constellation of terms including species, aspectus, rostrum and persona, but concentrates above all on the distinctions between os, vultus, and facies, which he defines, respectively, as 'the 'speaking' face…the face as 'interiority'…[and] the 'natural' face'(157). Through a digression on facies and related words Bettini moves into a discussion of the contribution of visual culture to the conceptualization of the body and face in Roman thought. This leads him towards the fascinating suggestion that 'a person's somatic and facial identity in ancient Rome oscillated between the two poles of "immobility" and "movement" the image as something "fashioned" and the person as a "living being"' (168).

The final section, 'Doubles and Images', opens with 'Sosia and His Substitute: Thinking the Double at Rome,' an examination of 'the first character in the history of Western literature to experience the unenviable fate of encountering his own Double' (171-72). Mercury has not only taken on Sosia's appearance but also knows everything that Sosia knows. Bettini follows Sosia's futile attempts to assert his identity in the face of this imposition. Sosia's status as a slave gives the encounter a distinctly Roman flavour that distinguishes it from the figure of the double in modern culture. This culturally specific character is tied to the double as a marker of aristocratic identity in Roman society. The noble Roman was doubled in life and death by professional mimes and wax effigies, whereas a slave had no rights to such treatment.4 As a result, Sosia's double generates a rich stream of comic irony, rather than the deep anxiety produced by the uncanny doubles of modernity.

The focus on doubling runs on into Chapter 6, 'Ghosts of Exile: Doubles and Nostalgia in Vergil's Parva Troia'. Bettini takes the marriage of Helenus and Andromache as reported in the Aeneid as his point of departure. He rapidly turns to the 'miniature' simulation of Troy that the couple have constructed as their new home. This leads into an exploration of the relationship of this urban double to images in general as substitutes for what is absent. Bettini concludes by showing how Aeneas' own repeated failure to reconstruct Troy liberates him from 'a nostalgic obsession' (224) with his Trojan identity and ensures his ultimate success in founding Rome.

In chapter 7, 'Death and Its Double: Imagines, Ridiculum and Honos in the Roman Aristocratic Funeral', the author returns to the funerary effigies of the Roman aristocracy. After running through some of the more extravagant cases of this practice, the discussion concentrates on that other form of aristocratic doubling, (comic) impersonation by mimētai. Bettini establishes the close relationship between the two: 'the Double signified Death, and seeing one's own Double was an immediate reminder of aristocratic Death' (232). The comic character of doubling was a significant aspect of this function. The double may have been a sign of pubic honour restricted to the few, but this honour was balanced as elsewhere in Roman culture by an element of mockery.

This section concludes with a short piece, 'Argumentum', in which Bettini follows through the implications of one of the definitions of argumentum as a kind of 'inferential sign' that leads to the revelation of hidden truth. Particularly interesting here is the extension of the discussion into the realm of visual art, where Bettini argues that the term could easily be adopted as a way of dealing with allegorical signs and symbols. Such visual argumenta are eloquent images that express much more than can be captured at the surface.

This rapid summary of the contents does little justice to the great richness of these essays. Above all, the reader is struck throughout by how deftly Bettini moves between the ancient and the modern, always with a light touch and always in a fashion that illuminates the subtle but significant differences between superficially similar phenomena.5 This breadth of reference is not a display of cultivation for its own sake, but helps to bear out the claims advanced in Bettini's short preface to the whole volume. This opens with Samuel Butler's lifelong distaste for the classics, including his thinly-veiled satire of classical education in Erewhon, a land where the inhabitants set great store by learning a 'hypothetical language' from the distant past as preparation for life. Deliberately setting aside the satire (but with a smile on his face, one imagines), Bettini aims to take the study of 'hypothetics' seriously. He expresses an enthusiasm that 'in modern culture the classics can function precisely as 'hypothetics'…to open our eyes to so many 'possibilities' of life that otherwise we might not be able to see' (xiv). Indeed, Bettini models a way of doing classics that reaches out beyond the confines of his field to readers well beyond it. In doing so, however, he manages to affirm the relevance of the classical world on its own terms and not as a mere reflection of contemporary concerns. In this sense, the confusing yet ultimately revealing double functions almost as an implicit frame for the book as a whole. Given the overall thrust of the project, there are moments when a reader might want these parallels teasing out in further detail. It would have been interesting, for example, to see Bettini explore the differences between the argumentum, as presented in his final chapter, and the symptom, a term that has enjoyed considerable vogue in modern hermeneutics. But the fact that we are constantly thrown back in this way to ponder with fresh eyes the eccentricities of contemporary culture is a clear marker of the success of Bettini's 'hypothetics'.

As Short observes in his Translator's Preface, Bettini writes with great style and a wry sense of humour, and his careful but creative translation deserves praise for capturing these elusive qualities in Bettini's prose. It is a book that I will certainly read again, and how often can you say that about a collection of essays addressing a field distant from your own?


1.   Available in English as Maurizio Bettini, The Portrait of the Lover, trans. Laura Gibbs (Berkeley,1999), (reviewed by Thomas E. Jenkins in BMCR 2000.07.19).
2.   According to the translator, what remains has been revisited, reedited and (in some places) updated 'at the author's direction' (ix). Although it is difficult to assess the extent of this work without doing a line-by-line comparison, a quick trawl through the bibliography suggests that only one or two pieces of new literature have been cited (see the introduction of a reference to Wiseman, T. P., "The Legend of Lucius Brutus," in M. Citroni, ed., Memoria e indentità: La cultura romana construisce la sua imagine (Florence, 2003), 21-38 at the beginning of chapter 2). That said, the typographical errors in the original bibliography have been caught and corrected, so even if there seems to be little in the way of substantive change to the individual essays, a sharp eye has certainly gone over the text.
3.   In Katariina Mustakallio et al., Hoping for Continuity: Childhood, Education and Death in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (Rome, 2005), 191-202.
4.   Although for an apparent exception, see C. Ginzburg, 'Rappresentazione: La parola, l'idea, la cosa,' in idem, Occhiacci di Legno: Nove riflessioni sulla distanza (Milan, 1998), 86.
5.   These read like essays in the best sense, gently and judiciously coaxing a subject into view, rather than wrestling it to the ground. In Bettini's own words: 'in this as in so many other cases, we will be dealing with cultural representations that are not entirely coherent. In other words, the terms and cultural models that we are about to examine do not fit neatly into a single, internally consistent "theory"' (131). ​

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