Sunday, November 13, 2016


Martin Hose, David Schenker (ed.), A Companion to Greek Literature. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Pp. xix, 552. ISBN 9781444339420. ₤120.00.

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam (

Version at BMCR home site


After a brief introduction by the editors (outlining purpose, definitions, and method of this Companion), 33 contributions, divided into 8 parts present the reader with an overview of various aspects of Greek literature. (The table of contents is reproduced below and may also be accessed via the preview.) For the intended audience—interested readers at an introductory level (as the editors themselves describe it: p. 1)—the book offers "a comprehensive introduction to the wide range of texts and literary forms produced in the Greek language over the course of a millennium beginning from the 6th century BCE up to the early years of the Byzantine Empire" (the publisher's blurb). Nevertheless, because—as the editors rightly observe—"no single scholar can any longer master the entirety of Greek literature and its concomitant scholarship …" (p. 1), I firmly believe that the relevant audience is much, much wider than that of mere "interested readers" (unless "interested reader" should be understood in a more extensive context, a view I would endorse).

Since a review regrettably is too short to discuss all contributions of a work like the one under scrutiny, no matter how much these contributions deserve attention, I intend to discuss here only a selection of the chapters, which present (though based upon personal interests) a representative selection—or so I like to believe—of what this volume has to offer. In this respect the editors' observation is useful to keep in mind, i.e. that a Companion is, more than a mere history of the subject: it should approach its subject—here Greek literature—"from diverse viewpoints with equal stringency and is thereby able to provide internal and external contextualization for this body of literature" (p. 2).

In Part 1 ('Production and Transmission'), Lucio Del Corso presents us with a very useful first chapter on 'Mechanics and Means of Production in Antiquity.' It is in fact, so basic that it should be a subject familiar to every student of ancient literature. After an 'Overview', he surveys various writing materials (like papyrus, codex, etc.) and writing practices and text composition. He underlines (p. 22) that (also) in ancient Greece, the production of a literary text was a dynamic process, influenced by various external factors. I do not believe, however, that this is merely a "structural characteristic of Greek literature" (p. 22) but rather one that is common to good literature. The second chapter, by Richard Armstrong (detailing 'Textual Survival and Transmission'), is an extremely valuable, necessary, and elementary addition to Del Corso's text: in fact, I believe the two should be considered inseparable in any introductory course, if only to understand the process of how our literary sources for the classical world originated, survived, were—and still are—established and transmitted with every new edition, as well as to impress upon readers the staggering number of works that we have lost over the centuries.

Part two underlines the dynamic character of Greek literature, as its title ('Greek Literature as a Dynamic System') indicates and it does so in six chapters. Here I single out chapters 5 ('Literature in the Classical Age of Greece' by James McGlew) and 6 ('Literature in the Hellenistic World' by Anatole Mori). Notably, McGlew's observation that the 'Classical Age' is less determined by time limits than by a change in attitude (more critical and more directly linked with their audience) of the authors (many of them using prose) is—or at least should be—relevant for our treatment of literature from this period. In that respect we might conclude that the 'spirit' of the authors of the Classical Era continued during the Hellenistic one (a view I believe also Mori endorses): what sets them apart is the widening of their scope of Hellenistic authors, partly (my emphasis) thanks to the expansion of Greek as conveyor of ideas over a much wider territory, both geographically and mentally. Though, in my view, both chapters somewhat suffer from the constraints set by the necessary limited space required by any Companion, they offer nonetheless a good basis for an understanding of the development of Greek literature in these periods.

In the third (and largest: 9 contributions) part, the topic is 'Genres' in Greek literature. Most useful is, first, the chapter by Antonis Tsakmakis (chapter 14, 'Historiography and Biography', and second, Stefan Tilg in chapter 16, 'The Novel'. Though Tsakmakis' review is largely schematic, following the beaten track, its succinctness makes it simultaneously also an excellent survey. For the Classical Era, however, while it seems logical that he pays most attention to the three best preserved authors (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon), some more room for not or less transmitted writers would have been welcome. The same focus on 'preserved authors' hinders his discussion of the Hellenistic Era: here, too, somewhat more information could have been offered to the audience. The part on Imperial Rome I applaud; of his section on 'Biography' I would have loved to read much more. I endorse his view that Greek authors regarded historiography and biography at least complementary (some, like Plutarch, perhaps, even to a large extent identical), but I hoped for a fuller treatment of the thesis. A positive element in his contribution I also find the 'References', in which a fair number of non-English titles (rightly!) feature. As regards Tilg's contribution, I found it both entertaining and very valuable (in spite, again, of its succinctness), especially the parts on the fringe novels and the Greek novel's elasticity. Here as well the 'References' are not exclusively or largely limited to English titles.

Part four is devoted to 'The Players'. The chapter by Mary Lefkowitz (Chapter 18), 'The Creators of Literature' is an interesting attempt to draw a picture of their lives in a context in which very little direct information on them has survived. That especially fifth-century poets receive attention can surprise no one remotely familiar with ancient Greek literature (as well as with Lefkowitz's work), but also several fifth- and fourth-century prose authors receive attention. Though I am fully aware of the limited amount of available evidence, I must nevertheless admit to having hoped for something more informative than Lefkowitz gives in this chapter. Her information on Callimachus (p. 292), for example, cries for some elucidation that, unfortunately, is not provided. With a view to the intended audience I believe that to be a missed opportunity. Nünlist's contribution ('Users of Literature', Chapter 19) I found, in comparison, much more inviting to the modern reader to further explore the theme, helped by a varied 'References'-section and guidelines for further reading. Also Schenker's paper ('Sponsors and Enemies of Literature') is a good—and useful—read: however, his 'References' are all limited to works in English.

In part five 'The Places' are brought into the limelight. The contribution by Hose (Chapter 21) on 'Places of Production' is both readable and worthwhile account of the shifting of the main centers of Greek literature—and civilization—through the centuries, crowned by a very good 'References'-section and 'Further Reading'. The same goes for Baumbach's (Chapter 22, 'Places of Presentation'), though it is very succinct. The most interesting chapter could have been Suzanne Saïd's (Chapter 23, 'Topos and Topoi', viz. place and commonplaces). I must admit that I have read it with mixed feelings. Admittedly, it is—for the available space—quite exhaustive, a true mini-catalogue of places and their appropriate ornamental epithets. It offers, though, little, or at least much too little, analysis regarding these epithets. At the same time, also the topoi discussed are largely place-oriented and do not discuss other commonplaces, like, e.g., certain attitudes, feelings, etc., that we encounter in authors like Diodorus of Sicily, Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Plutarch (to name a few). Here, too, I find that the interested reader is deprived of a challenging incentive to further explore Greek literature, no matter how valuable and interesting the material offered may be.

'Literature and Knowledge' is the subject discussed in the five contributions that make up Part six. Hose discusses in chapter 24 a challenging topic, sc. 'Literature and Truth'. Obviously, in our modern view not all (ancient Greek) literature can be subjected to an investigation regarding its truthfulness: non-fiction literature especially lends itself to such scrutiny. However, Hose's analysis as regards the relation between (concepts of) truth and literature is an interesting read in which many genres, notably those that are not immediately associated with truth, like poetics, pass in review. Hose's warning (e.g. on p. 380) that we should not look at 'true' and 'false' in ancient Greek literature with modern eyes needs especially to be heeded: it is a lesson some critics too frequently tend to overlook. Nevertheless, Hose rightly (in my view) concludes that "[t]he lie … is a central category of Greek literary aesthetics" (p. 381). Also other chapters (and/or sections of them) in this part are interesting to read, like—for example—the section on 'Greeks and Barbarians' in Daniela Dueck's ('Knowledge of Self', Chapter 25) and the two chapters on explicit and implicit knowledge.

Part seven, with three chapters, is on 'Literature and Aesthetics'. For me, the chapter by Willi ('The Language of Greek Literature', Chapter 29) stood out. By its subject the chapter is more linguistically oriented than purely literary, but it is elementary and informative, and yet nevertheless probably too technical for everyone to use it to the full. Equally interesting is Victoria Wohl's discussion of 'The Function of Literature' (Chapter 31), at the present a charged, if not explosive, issue. Her statement that the question "can never be reduced to a single function—'the [her emphasis] function of literature'—or subordinated to a logic of pure functionality, …" most readers will recognize and—probably—endorse, possibly apart from university administrators. Regrettably, also this chapter is succinct and makes the reader long for more. The final two chapters of the book, constituting Part eight, treat 'The Reception of Greek Literature'. Both chapters, that by Emily Wilson and that by Edith Hall, I found extremely interesting and important considering our perceptions and understanding of Greek literature and its influences, directly and imminently as well as indirectly, on the culture(s) we have come to regard as our own.

Reviewing the whole, I have experienced more moments of approval than of disappointment (I have indicated some of them). Generally, I regret that each chapter has endnotes instead of footnotes (disrupting the unity between text and relevant note), even though I acknowledge that to opt for endnotes could be a valid choice (at least if explained) for a book with the intended audience as the one under scrutiny. I also regret that some of the contributors limited their bibliographies ('References' as they are called in this volume) predominantly to works available in English, depriving the interested reader of (diverging) views expressed in, for example, German, French, Italian, or Spanish. A third regret is that, though there is an extensive 'Index', an 'Index locorum' is absent. Finally (but this point is entirely personal), I find it a pity that the 'Abbreviations of Ancient Authors and Works' (pp. xiv-xix) deviate from LSJ and OLD. The book is well produced, with few typos (an unfortunate one is to be found on p. 221, dating the Battle of Actium to 331 B.C. instead of 31 B.C.).

To conclude, I find it generally an excellent introduction to many aspects of Greek literature in spite of its occasional succinctness, being fully aware of the fact that a really perfect 'Companion to Greek Literature', suiting everyone's tastes and preferences, probably, would be impossible to compose. In the end, I think both editors as well as Blackwell should be commended for their efforts.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Companion to Greek Literature, Martin Hose and David Schenker
Part I Production and Transmission
1 Mechanics and Means of Production in Antiquity, Lucio Del Corso
2 A Wound, not a World: Textual Survival and Transmission, Richard H. Armstrong
Part II Greek Literature as a Dynamic System
3 Orality and Literacy: Ancient Greek Literature as Oral Literature, Steve Reece
4 Literature in the Archaic Age, Timothy Power
5 Literature in the Classical Age of Greece, James McGlew
6 Literature in the Hellenistic World, Anatole Mori
7 Greek Literature in the Roman World: Introducing Imperial Greek Literature, Jason König
8 The Encounter with Christianity, Jan Stenger
Part III Genres
9 Greek Epic, Hanna M. Roisman
10 Lyric: Melic, Iambic, Elegiac, James Bradley Wells
11 The Ethics of Greek Drama, Richard Rader
12 Epigram and Minor Genres, Regina Höschele
13 Oratory: Practice and Theory, Mike Edwards
14 Historiography and Biography, Antonis Tsakmakis
15 Philosophical Writing: Treatise, Dialogue, Diatribe, Epistle, Martin Hose
16 The Novel, Stefan Tilg
17 Technical Literature, Thorsten Fögen
Part IV The Players
18 The Creators of Literature, Mary Lefkowitz
19 Users of Literature, René Nünlist
20 Sponsors and Enemies of Literature, David Schenker
Part V The Places
21 Places of Production, Martin Hose
22 Places of presentation, Manuel Baumbach
23 Topos and Topoi, Suzanne Saïd
Part VI Literature and Knowledge
24 Literature and Truth, Martin Hose
25 Knowledge of Self, Daniela Dueck
26 Explicit Knowledge, Markus Asper
27 Implicit Knowledge, David Konstan
28 Preserved Knowledge: Summaries and Compilations, Markus Dubischar
Part VII Literature and Aesthetics
29 The Language of Greek Literature, Andreas Willi
30 Poetic Devices in Greek Literature: Pleasure and Creative Appropriation, Nicholas Baechle
31 The Function of Literature, Victoria Wohl
Part VIII The Reception of Greek Literature
32 Trends in Greek Literature in the Contemporary Academy, Emily Wilson
33 The Reception of Ancient Greek Literature and Western Identity, Edith Hall

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