Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Marios Skempis, Ioannis Ziogas (ed.), Geography, Topography, Landscape: Configurations of Space in Greek and Roman Epic. Trends in classics, 22. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. viii, 559. ISBN 9783110314731. $168.00.

Reviewed by Katharine T. von Stackelberg, Brock University (kvonstackelberg@brocku.ca)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

A long time ago, in a land far, far away there lived a child whose process for selecting books had one strict criterion: upon cracking open the cover, there had to be a map delineating the exotic topography that its protagonists would traverse in the course of the story. No matter how fatuous the ensuing tale, the thrill of that initial psycho-geographical encounter kept me coming back for more.

Skempis and Ziogas' well-curated collection of essays on Greek and Roman epic demonstrate how germane such mental configurations of space are to the process of narration. Even when the epic in question is not explicitly moving its characters along, the association between story and place can be so strong as to unavoidably call specific sites into mind (to many of my generation the opening lines of this review will invariably lead them to Tatooine). Early excursions into the study of epic geography focused on concrete issues: To what extent could authors have obtained first-hand knowledge of the topographies they described? Could the audience of the Argonautica (either version) have successfully navigated their own sea-journeys by following the text? Where exactly was Ithaca? But, just as Tolkien's maps of Middle Earth tell us more about early twentieth-century geopolitics than the exact distance between the Shire and Minas Tirith, so the places described in Greek and Latin epic serve as a metaspace for exploring (and exploiting) articulations of power, immanence and alterity. The "spatial turn" mediated by philosophers and geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan, Edward S. Casey and Edward Soja has produced a rich crop of literary studies on the narratology of space, and Skempis and Ziogas' volume brings together many of the key classical scholars in the field to provide a comprehensive and stimulating guide to epic space.

The collection is divided equally between Greek and Latin epic, with each part arranged in chronological order, the Greek beginning with Homer's Iliad and ending with Nonnus' Dionysiaca, the Latin bracketed by Ennius and Valerius Flaccus. Individual chapters are highly integrated with the volume overall, sharing many points of reference. Consequently, readers who confine themselves to cherry-picking individual poets or ignoring Greek epic in favor of Latin (or vice versa) may miss out on some useful insights. Fortunately, Skempis and Ziogas provide an excellent introduction that points out the interconnections between chapters while guiding readers through current methodologies and theoretical approaches.

Homer, of course, is our fons et origo here, with the Iliad providing the first sustained excursion into ethnography. However, Johannes Haubold's opening chapter on Zeus' wandering gaze to far-away lands (Il. 13.1-9) argues that this passage could not have been the first example of Greek ethnography. Instead, it draws on already-established ethnographical traditions to emphasize cultural distinctiveness not between the different tribes of mankind but between gods and men, with men on the wrong end of the voyant-visible dynamic. The implication that the very perception of space affects human occupation of the same in epic poetry is repeated throughout the volume, usually expressed as an encounter between familiar West and exotic East or between imperial center and colonial (or subaltern) periphery.

An ethnographical approach to space is not the only tool available to classicists, and the following two papers demonstrate how different applications of critical theory can open up new interpretations of epic space. Alex Purves takes Auerbach's assessment of Homeric style as "all foreground" as her starting point for a close study on the narrative intersection of time and space. Purves' intra-textual study of wilderness topoi embedded in Euryclea's recognition of Odysseus expands the spatial frame to include temporal depth by considering not only the defining moment of the boar hunt, but all of Odysseus' other excursions into the wild. By tracing the semantic associations of the adjective applied to the boar's hide (pukinos) Purves demonstrates how this digression becomes a Mandelbrot text of branching associations, each in turn presenting the reader with other Homeric thickets. In contrast to Purves' tight focus, Donald Lateiner's cognitive approach offers a broad synthesis of the mechanics of spatial perception in the Homeric corpus. Heroic and divine perceptions of space are understood to be socially determined, with distance not only a question of measurable units and ethnographic difference, but indicative of relational proxemics of gender and status.

Whereas the Homeric papers present cases where the boundary between urban and non-urban space is fluid and subject to negotiation, Anthony T. Edwards' phenomenological study of ethical value reads Hesiod's representation of town and country as firmly structured polarities. However, this spatial opposition is performative, not geographic; it is the taskscape of ergon not the landscape of agros that determines Hesiod's assessment of the social value of space. In the only chapter to present a sustained focus on the proxemics of gender (an important and emerging area), Kirk Ormand's valuable study of Atalanta's race returns to the subject of unstable boundaries. Ormand draws on both Theognis' and Hesiod's accounts to argue that the male-directed routes of racetrack and hunting path lead Atalanta into a Foucauldian "heterotopia of crisis", a landscape that both reflects and facilitates her identity crisis and her psychological transition from nymph to bride. Driven by erotic desire and murderous intent, Atalanta's racecourse transforms itself into a Homeric battlefield, re-casting the race between Hector and Achilles in front of the Scaean Wall, before reaching the telos of both finishing-line and marriage.

The ease with which real and mythological landscapes could segue into each other and create new narrative possibilities is a vital part of understanding how epic space acts as an agent in its own right, rather than simply serving as a passive backdrop to the action. Evina Sistakou's chapter brings this point into high relief by analyzing the imbrication of real and fictive geographies in Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica. Sistakou identifies five types of counter-factual landscape—fantasyland portals, landscapes of epiphany, idealized spaces of desire, heterotopias (mainly of crisis, less so of deviation), heterochronic mythic places, and mirage territory – and argues that these places facilitate immanence, creating opportunities for the kind of encounter between human and divine that turns a journey into a quest. A focus on unreal geography also allowed Hellenistic poets to establish their own narrative space, one that could point to epic predecessors while allowing creative freedom. This is an operative factor in the narrative treatment of space in late imperial epic, Quintus of Smyrna's Posthomerica and Nonnus of Panopolis' Dionysiaca, both works firmly rooted in Homeric tradition. Katerina Carvounis' chapter demonstrates how Quintus' recontextualization of famous Homeric landmarks expands their narrative frame to incorporate Hellenistic traditions. The resulting multiplication of persons and places (Niobe's Sipylos is Hecuba's Cynomessa; Memnon's river Paphlagoneios is Phaethon's river Eridanus) reflects the crowded itineraries of his contemporary world, the "globalized" imperium. Similarly, Robert Shorrock's chapter on the Dionysiaca argues that Nonnus's epic engages with both Homer and Callimachus to redraw the Hydaspes, the boundary of exotic India, as the more familiar Nile and Scamander rivers. Empire makes the world geographically bigger, but topographically smaller.

The Homeric clash between East and West is revisited with Ennius' Annales. The fragmentary nature of the text precludes definitive conclusions but Jackie Elliott's carefully organized analysis (including three appendices) indicates a nascent anxiety with Rome's overseas expansion, partially cast in gendered terms (Ilia's confusion at her dream of Rome). Virgil appears to have resolved this anxiety, in Stratis Kyriakidis' chapter, by establishing a semantic relationship between Delos and Latium and through the continuous deferral of geographic knowledge throughout Aeneas' journey. Thus, even before foundation, Rome already has overseas territories waiting to be reclaimed, as per Apollo's clear (delos) but hidden (lateo) prophecies. This expansion is maintained in Marios Skempis' study of the Caieta and Circe sequence in Book 7, where Aeneas' speech and actions morph foreign women into local places, colonizing western Latium with eastern toponyms even as Latin epic appropriates Greek literary traditions. This intersection of people and places is also the subject of Ioannis Ziogas' study of onomastic wordplay in Ovid's Metamorphoses. This chapter, which has such strong ties with Kyriakidis' and Skempis' submissions that one could profitably assign all three to a senior class on Augustan poetry, demonstrates how mythic landscape is reworked to suit imperial needs, with Apollo's laurel transplanted from Delphi to Rome, and Thessalian narratives substituted for Trojan. What is placed by authoritative tradition can also be displaced or replaced.

The reception of mythic landscapes is further explored in Alison Keith's study of Valerius Flaccus' and Statius' reworkings of Metamorphoses Books 7 and 3 in the Argonautica and Thebaid. As Carole Newlands and Stephen Hinds established, Ovid's inviting woods and meadows are deceptive places, only at the critical point of transformation is their danger apparent.1 Flavian poets keep Ovid's settings but avoid his ambiguity; their landscapes are openly unsettling and threatening, highlighting their themes of marital and martial discord. A more subtle example of how narrative space conveys poetic meaning can be found in Erica Bexley's chapter on Lucan's Pharsalia. Focusing on the spaces and places abandoned by Caesar and Pompey's troops, Bexley highlights the tension between natural and artificial boundaries which are illustrative of how civil war reduces the scope of Roman power, severing genealogical ties between land and people, and between citizens and the state.

Dynastic change and the traumatic memory of the Year of the Four Emperors provide a solid historical rationale for why Flavian poets would favor Ovid's polyvalent topography over Virgil's expansionist itinerary, but there is plenty of scope for further studies in this area. The different approaches of Flavian and Augustan poets to epic space suggest that there was a cognitive shift in the perception of space; distance and difference took on new meaning, prompted by the ease and scope of travel within the peaceful borders of the Roman empire. Ruth Parkes' study of journeys in the Thebaid, notes the temporal elasticity of narrative space, with both the Argive women and Theseus' army making journeys of the same itinerary but radically different duration. Statius' road to Thebes demonstrates the paradox of place, the more one pays attention to it, the longer it is; as in Purves' chapter, epic topography is fractal. Epic topography is also recycled, the experience of each journey filtered through previous accounts. This is the theme of Helen Slaney's paper on the Argonautica, which argues that Valerius Flaccus deliberately presents foreign landscapes within a culturally familiar context in order to promote a vision of a globally, integrated Roman empire. The colonizing periplus of the Hellenistic world thus becomes a tour of subaltern territories, foreign and yet utterly familiar. In this world can the theme of East meeting West still have any meaning? Gesine Manuwald's final chapter explores this question, noting that in this Latin version of the Greek myth the Argonauts' journey destabilizes the boundaries between East and West even as it defines them. The Argonautica is a journey of discovery, but the routes it opens up, like those of imperial expansion, bring negative consequences, as well as positive, in its wake.

It is to the editors' credit that despite the wide range of topics and approaches the volume works exactly as an edited collection should: providing a snapshot of the field as it is now to readers familiar with the subject; offering an introduction to available texts and methodologies to those who want to expand their research in new directions; and suggesting avenues for further exploration to probing minds. It is a pleasure to read such a diverse and yet highly integrated collection. My only criticism? More maps please.


1.   Newlands, C. E. (2004) 'Statius and Ovid: transforming the landscape', TAPA 134, 133-155; Hinds, S. (2002) "Landscape with figures: aesthetics of place in the Metamorphoses and its tradition", in Philip Hardie (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Ovid, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 122 149.

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