Thursday, October 30, 2014


Peter E. Knox, J. C. McKeown (ed.), The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 633. ISBN 9780195395167. $35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Rex Stem, University of California, Davis (

Version at BMCR home site


This book presents an overview of Roman literature , providing introductions to and excerpts from 28 major Roman authors in English translation. The translations are of high quality, the selections well chosen, and the introductions informative and substantive, with an appealing dash of humor. I have desired such a book for years. At my large, public American university, I regularly teach survey courses on Roman civilization and Roman literature courses based on English translations, stitching together the literary elements of the syllabus through selections from various primary sources because no better option was available. But Peter Knox and Jim McKeown have now provided an impressively inclusive anthology that expertly serves student audiences at an affordable price.

The editors express their intention "to stand behind the curtain as much as possible" so that the texts "be allowed to speak for themselves" (p. viii). The editors' voice is regularly heard in the lively introductions and afterwords to each selection, but in such a way as to introduce the readings without overshadowing them. The collection thus succeeds as a smartly annotated anthology of Roman literature through its avoidance of presenting itself as a literary history.

The structure of the book is straightforward. It opens with an overall introduction of ten pages, entitled "The Roman World of Books," discussing the integration of Greek culture into Roman culture, the technology of the ancient book, and where and how a Roman might hear or read texts. There are then five chronological sections, each with a two-page introduction devoting a chapter to each author included from that period. The specific selections for each author, which are not conveniently listed in any one place, are as follows. Early Republic: Plautus, Menaechmi; Polybius 3.57-59, 77-94, 106-118. Late Republic: Lucretius 1.1-634, 3.830-1094; Catullus 1-60; Cicero, First Catilinarian, Pro Caelio; Caesar, Gallic War 4.20-5.23; Sallust, Catiline 1-33, 50-61. Age of Augustus: Virgil, Eclogue 4, Georgics 1, Aeneid 4; Horace, Odes 1; Propertius 1; Ovid, Amores 1, Metamorphoses 3; Livy, Preface, 1.1-16, 22-28, 57-60. Early Empire: Seneca, Medea; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19.1-19; Lucan 7; Petronius 16-47, 83-90, 110-113; Pliny the Elder 7.1-32, 73-132; Statius, Thebaid 12; Quintilian 1.1-3, 12.1; Martial, over 50 selected epigrams. High Empire: Tacitus, Annals 1.1-54, 60-71; Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.5, 3.21, 5.6, 6.16, 6.20, 10.96-97; Suetonius, Nero 1-13, 20-57; Plutarch, Antony 1-13, 23-31, 71-87; Juvenal 1, 10; Apuleius, Metamorphoses 2.15-3.29; Lucian, True History 1.1-29; Marcus Aurelius 1, 4.

The chronological span is limited to 200 BCE through 200 CE (the end date of 200 CE is defended in a four page Postscript), but within that period a wide range of authors and genres is represented. Internal summaries introduce each text within a selection and bridge excerpted gaps. The primary texts are printed in two columns per page, while the contributions of the editors are printed fully across the page, hence the reader has a constant visual cue as to whether s/he is reading ancient or modern material. At the back of the book is included a helpful chronological table (with dates down the middle, political history on the left and literary history on the right) and a glossary of terms, names, and places (many of which are keyed to the four maps at the front of the volume). There are no footnotes.

The English translations are drawn from those already published in the Oxford World's Classics series, with the exceptions of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, translated by the editors, and Josephus, Quintilian, and Martial, where the Loeb translations are adopted (see pp. 632-33, where it would have been helpful to list exactly which passages from each work are included in this anthology). One may not prefer the Oxford translation for a particular author, but they rarely disappoint, and relying upon a corpus that Oxford University Press already has under copyright is what makes this book possible at such a reasonable price. Moreover, the prudishness of earlier translations is avoided: these selections include frank sexual language (Catullus, Martial) and direct descriptions of sexual acts (Petronius, Apuleius).

The quality of the selections is the great strength of the book. The texts selected are appropriately representative, undoubtedly significant, and, most important of all, long enough to provide a sense of the achievement of each author. One gets a complete play (Plautus, Seneca), a whole book of poetry (Horace, Propertius, Lucan, Statius), or a reasonable equivalent (the first 60 poems of Catullus; Lucretius 1.1-634, 3.830-1094). Selections from prose authors have equal presence and coherence, though they have often undergone tactical abridgement. Chapters 14-19 are excluded from Suetonius' Nero, chapters 55-59 are dropped out of the first book of Tacitus' Annals and chapters 72-81 trimmed from its end. Was space at such a premium that these texts could not be included in their entirety? It could perhaps be argued that the missing chapters would not significantly change a reader's response to the whole, but in some cases the abridgement clearly has interpretive consequences. Plutarch's Antony is largely reduced to those sections that feature Cleopatra (1-13, 23-31, 71-87), which meets popular interest but greatly simplifies Plutarch's portrait. Omitting chapters 34-48 of Sallust's Catiline causes the reader to be unaware of the central digression in which Sallust directly characterizes the politics of his own day (chapters 36-39).

Many authors and texts have been omitted altogether, sometimes surprisingly. A second example of a genre within the same chronological period rarely makes the cut. Thus we get Plautus but not Terence, Propertius but not Tibullus, Statius' Thebaid but not Valerius Flaccus or Silius Italicus. If an author spans genres, usually only one of them is represented: two of Cicero's speeches but none of his letters or treatises, Seneca's Medea but none of his prose, Horace's Odes but no Satires. The exceptions are Virgil and Ovid, but even with two books each in their case, you might well be left wanting more. The most likely complaint about this volume, despite the fact that it is already an oversized and heavy book, with small print, is that it does not contain even more than it does.

The choices the editors made are always defensible, however, and there is undeniable value in offering a wider range of what Roman literature comprises than in assembling large quantities of those regarded as greatest. Note that five of the authors included wrote in Greek (Polybius, Josephus, Plutarch, Lucian, Marcus Aurelius), for this is an anthology of Roman literature not Latin literature, a commendable editorial choice that increases the book's completeness. Equally valuable is the inclusion of engaging selections from authors not frequently read in translation courses (e.g., Pliny the Elder, Quintilian), yet who represent genres and disciplines otherwise ignored in such courses.

The strength of the editors' introductions also merits praise. These introductions average 4-5 pages and convey an impressive amount of contextual information and critical perspective without strain or opacity. They highlight especially famous passages of the author, and they seed the reader's mind with several topics for consideration as s/he continues on to read the primary text. A few of the editors' claims struck me as undeservedly speculative (e.g., "It seems likely that Caesar would have managed to bring about the almost universal peace and stability that Augustus eventually bestowed on the empire," p. 141) or as a bit heavy-handed (e.g., the final assessment of Virgil on p. 215), but my much more frequent response was appreciation for the dexterity of their coverage. The afterwords at the close of each selection comment on the author's reception, in antiquity and since. These mini-essays are often light-hearted but learned sketches of the trends in an author's popularity, providing a gratifying coda to each chapter while demonstrating the ongoing relevance of Roman literature.

My pedagogical desire for a book of this type and quality caused me to adopt it for my courses in Spring 2014, and my satisfaction in teaching the book led to my solicitation of this review. Students across a wide spectrum expressed appreciation for the presentation of the texts, and I found that my own presentation of material was rendered more efficient yet more detailed because of the strength of the foundation offered by this anthology. Challenging some of the claims found in the editors' introductions both provoked discussion and revealed how well individual students could connect the texts to the introductions. Since each chapter stands on its own, this anthology can be accommodated to a wide array of syllabi. The somewhat hypothetical figure known as the general reader would also certainly profit from this book, but its most apparent value derives from its teachability. Thanks to Knox and McKeown, the power and range of Roman literature now opens more easily into the undergraduate classroom.

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