Monday, February 23, 2015


Douglas Cairns, Ruth Scodel (ed.), Defining Greek Narrative. Edinburgh Leventis studies, 7. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 380. ISBN 9780748680108. $162.00.

Reviewed by Robin J. Greene, Providence College (

Version at BMCR home site


Defining Greek Narrative is the product of the seventh biennial A. G. Leventis Conference held in October 2011 in Edinburgh. The conference's title, "What's Greek about Ancient Greek Narrative?," poses a timely question, given the growing scholarship that approaches Greek narrative qua narrative. Since the publication of the pioneering works of Genette and Bal, narratology has become a standard technique for the analysis of classical texts, and a number of edited volumes utilizing structural and other narratologies have been produced in recent years. Yet, as Ruth Scodel observes in her introduction to the present collection, structural narratology's synchronic orientation tends "to erase…the process of development" and differences between Greek and other literatures (5). Other approaches, especially diachronic narratology, may offer the means for tracing the evolution of Greek narrative. However, Scodel rightly contends that to comprehend the developmental history of Greek narrative, we must first demarcate its boundaries and identify what makes it 'Greek.' Defining Greek Narrative is a strong first step in doing just that. This volume offers original and compelling treatments of the 'Greekness' of Greek narrative, and it is a provocative beginning to what promises to be a long and exciting conversation.

Scodel's introduction contextualizes the volume's aims as they relate to current scholarship involving structural, historical, and 'new' narratologies. Narrative theory informs many of the volume's essays, but Defining Greek Narrative is not a collection of formal narratological studies. Rather, the fifteen contributors address the broadly construed challenge of defining Greek narrative using a variety of approaches, ranging from traditional literary study to diachronic narratological analysis to cognitive theory. Tradition and innovation meet in this collection, and most stimulating are those essays that combine methodologies, wedding formal analysis with literary interpretation.

The volume is divided into three sections that consider Homeric narrative, post-Homeric Greek narrative, and Greek narrative as it relates to Latin and modern European literatures. The variety of subjects addressed by the contributors matches the diversity of their theoretical approaches; this renders the essays difficult to encapsulate and impossible to critique comprehensively in the limited space available. However, I shall touch on each one briefly to convey the collection's scope and intimate connections between the essays.

Johannes Haubold, Adrian Kelly, and A. D. Morrison each distinguish the particularly 'Greek' through comparative study. Haubold compares the ways Homeric epic and the Epic of Gilgamesh represent and grant access to reality to ultimately affirm Auerbach's famous estimation of Homer's "immediacy." Yet Homer is not all surface; Haubold underscores the poet's self-awareness as reflected in his concern for the "unplumbed depths" beneath the facsimile of reality his enargeia creates (26). Kelly also rethinks established approaches as he challenges the practice of treating ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts as direct source material for Homeric epic. His comparison of the structures and content of ANE and Iliadic battle narratives is particularly effective, as it highlights the singularity of the Homeric accounts. ANE battle accounts are generally brief, focus on the events before and after battle, and, most importantly, lack the narrative poikilia of Homeric combat scenes (46). In contrast, Homer aestheticises and narrativises battle itself to the extent that it becomes "a vehicle of meaning" (41). Morrison, on the other hand, compares works separated by time in his evaluation of ancient and modern epistolary narratives. His approach is a fruitful one. Although all the narratives reflect an interest in the psychology of the letter writers, he identifies several characteristics exclusive to the ancient examples, including their brevity, tolerance for narrative gaps, and lack of editorial presence. Morrison's findings, and his discussion of the letters' features as they relate to the biographical and apologetic traditions, suggest multiple avenues for further study of the genre.

Scodel adopts an innovative approach that incorporates comparisons to the Hebrew Bible and cognitive narratological theory in order to evaluate the distinctive qualities of Homeric shifts in focus, narrative gaps, and characters' capacities to make inferences. This is a dynamic essay, and one especially significant to our understanding of Homeric psychology and characterization as expressed through narrative techniques. As Scodel shows, Homeric characters often grapple with or make inferences about the mental states of other characters. She convincingly analyzes these attempts at "mind-reading" as indications of the narrator's interest in his characters' Theory of Mind. Moreover, the narrator's withholding of information about his characters' states of mind also creates drama; these gaps draw in (and perplex) the external audience as it struggles to understand the unclear motivations of seemingly known figures. Characters in the Hebrew Bible are similarly opaque, but the critical difference lies in the Homeric characters' ostensible transparency. Although the latter "talk and talk," inference is still needed in order to construe their motives (74).

Four essays explore the various relationships between Greek narrative forms, narrative meaning, and performance. Not all the elements they identify are exclusively 'Greek,' but they are fundamental elements in the Greek narrative traditions. Erwin Cook's meticulous discussion of intricate ring structures in the Odyssey ultimately connects form with performance, suggesting that Homer's distinctive applications of ring composition guide specific audience responses to eternally-returning epic narrative. Turning to the Athenian stage, P.E. Easterling surveys the narrative effects of the spatial and temporal compression of tragedy. Her section on messenger speeches delivered by actors also cast as protagonists is especially noteworthy. These narrative speeches unite the different agents of a tragedy in the single voice of the protagonist, and, consequently, cohere and reflect the multiplicity of voices intrinsic to Greek drama. The realities of performance can also be determinants of epinician narrative, as Lucia Athanassaki shows in her treatment of related occasions as stimuli for narrative creation in Pindar's odes for the Emmenidai. Athanassaki's detailed essay reveals that the content, themes, and occasion-specific elements in Pythian 6 are remembered and adapted by the new narratives of Olympian 2, Olympian 3, and Isthmian 2. As a group, the Emmenid odes demonstrate that related occasions provide opportunities for constructing rich narrative associations between successive odes for the same family. Alex Purves' nuanced consideration of the deliberately anti-narratorial Sappho offers different insight into lyric narrative. Purves elaborates Sappho's evocation and subversion of Homeric narrative forms in her analysis of elliptical interrogative and indefinite pronouns in Sappho fr. 1. Aphrodite's deployment of tis and ti recall, for example, Il.1.8 and 1.362–3 as markers for expected narrative, but Sappho's refusal to answer Aphrodite's questions denies both goddess and audience the narrative that the markers imply.

Irene J.F. de Jong takes a different approach to locating the specifically 'Greek,' utilizing historical narratology to probe the origins of the ubiquitous 'anonymous traveler' device. De Jong tracks appearances of this third-person observer from modern European novels back through a variety of ancient genres. She persuasively argues that this traveling stranger, through whom places, peoples, and narratives may be viewed, is an originally Greek device. Her meditation on the diffusion of the motif is particularly interesting. It is unlikely that every modern manifestation of the 'anonymous traveler' was consciously inspired by Greek originals; de Jong muses that the device operates like a meme that has been copied to the point that imitators are unaware of its true genealogy.

The influence of tradition and imitatio is central to Lisa Irene Hau's study of characteristics distinct to Greek historiography. Hau touches on many elements in few pages; she is most successful in her compilation and discussion of stock situations, events, and topoi that pervade Greek historiography. These stock features become abiding markers in the Greek historiographical tradition that direct and characterize the content of historical report, and Hau's identification of them is a valuable contribution. Dennis Pausch brings Greek historiography to Rome in his analysis of Polybius' and Livy's authorial relationships with their readers. His consideration of metalepsis, summaries/previews, and other narrative strategies provides insight into the narrative practices of both historians, as well as the surprising final picture of the Roman "standing for a more literary way of reading history" (296–7).

Understanding particular representations of the universal is just as critical to defining Greek narrative as identifying its idiosyncrasies. On this topic, Douglas Cairns delivers one of the collection's most exciting essays. Cairns anchors his study in cognitive approaches to detail how a recurrent artistic form can be encapsulated in a culture as a traditional norm, so that it "encourages a symbiotic replication both of the form and of the response that it evokes; it helps define the repertoire of both artists and audience" (108). Cairns uses the (likely) universal 'principle of alternation'—the idea that no human life is without suffering—to trace the ways Greek exemplary narratives incorporate and are determined by this normative pattern to the extent that the pattern itself becomes a salient feature of Greek culture. His final reading of the Life of Aemilius Paullus reveals that Plutarch organizes his narrative, and structures audience response, through the principle of alternation as expressed in Iliad 24. This ultimately "re-Hellenises the theme of the mutability of fortune" in the story of the man instrumental to the rise of Rome (135).

René Nünlist and Richard Hunter depart from the other essays and examine the Greeks' critical awareness of narrative. Nünlist moves beyond Aristotle and provides a detailed account of ancient critical discourse on the subject. United by their belief in the importance of narrative, ancient scholars engaged in heated debates on the value of narrative elements ranging from Homeric analepsis to narrative 'tedium' (τὸ προσκορές). Of particular note is the sustained interest of critics in narrative's effects on the reader, which has previously been underestimated and which resonates with a number of contributions in the collection. Hunter evaluates the relationship between narrative and critical discourse from a different angle in his piece on literary expressions of the Odyssean "problem of beginnings"(Od 1.9.–12 and 7.241–3). He begins by observing the effects that this narrative strategy had on subsequent literature, as later authors thematized issues of choice, causation, and taxis. Hunter's demonstration that some works also integrate the critical discourse about Homer's "particularly Greek" way of structuring narrative is especially provocative (A-scholium, Il. 1.1). For example, Heliodorous reflects the critical tradition of Homeric interpretation in his portrayal of the 'Odyssean' Calasiris as a character who has "fully internalized Homeric lore and scholarship" (150). Together, Nünlist's and Hunter's essays form an excellent foundation for continued study of how Greek narratives inform and are informed by literary critical discourse.

J. R. Morgan explores issues of cultural identity and narrative expression in his affirmation of the 'Greekness' of the Aethiopica. Central to Morgan's claim is the novel's intense and exclusive engagement—intertextual and otherwise—with the classical literary tradition. Other elements, such as the quality of Greek and non-Greek focalization and characterization, and the representation of a quintessentially Greek Theagenes, reinforce the novel's emphatically Greek orientation. Morgan's position that Heliodorus' Emesan background supports, rather than invalidates, his Greek identity is persuasive, and aligns with his final reading of Heliodorous' Ethiopia as a "true Greece beyond the south" (275). His discussion of the ideological perspectives that have influenced various readings of the novel is especially germane to the collection's goal: it evokes the sensitive issues (judiciously addressed in the volume's introduction) inherent in establishing literary boundaries to differentiate what is 'Greek' narrative and what is not.

A conference proceedings cannot, by nature, be comprehensive, and this collection is not an exception. Herodotus, for example, receives only passing attention, and studies of philosophical, inscriptional, and oratorical narratives are absent. The inclusion of essays that consider these types of narratives would have complemented the volume's concentration on poetry, historiography, and the novel (although the editors do note that several conference participants were unable to contribute to the published proceedings). The volume is well-produced with few typographical errors. The index is thorough, but an index locorum would have been a welcome addition.

These omissions do not, however, undermine the merits of the volume as a thoughtful, innovative, and timely response to a complex question that concerns all Hellenists. This is a valuable book, both for the quality of the individual essays and the scholarship that it is sure to generate.

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