Monday, July 1, 2019


Louise H. Pratt, C. Michael Sampson (ed.), Engaging Classical Texts in the Contemporary World: From Narratology to Reception. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 291. ISBN 9780472131082. $80.00.

Reviewed by Samuel Agbamu, King's College London (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]

Engaging Classical Texts in the Contemporary World: From Narratology to Reception is a rich collection of essays that reflect the diverse interests and theoretical perspectives of its honorand, Ruth Scodel. Each of the volume's contributors notes some personal connection to Scodel, whether through studying at the University of Michigan or through later collaboration, with the collection coalescing into a powerful testament to the scholar's influence. The volume states as its aim the development of Scodel's effort to situate Classics within a more diverse and inclusive scholarly community, and to challenge the perception of the discipline as the preserve of 'dead white men' (1), a project that sees essays address themes and texts considered, in some way, marginal. The focus of the essays is on 'interactions', broadly conceived, which the editors summarise as social interactions between characters within a text, narratological interactions between author/text and audience(s), literary interactions between texts, hermeneutical interactions between critics and texts, and theoretical interactions between critics (3).

Essays of broadly similar themes are grouped into pairs. Given the scope of the volume and the sheer range of topics, there is a lot of overlap and interaction between these pairings. Nevertheless, the structure holds up well, and helpfully guides the reader through the thematic focuses of the volume. The 'contemporary world' of the title makes appearances with applications of current theoretical perspectives, such as critiques of internalised misogyny in the essay of James H. Kim On Chong-Gossard and Lin Li Ng on the women of Euripides' Trojan trilogy, or politeness theory in James V. Morrison's essay on comic twins in Plautus and Shakespeare. Beyond this, however, the contemporary world is explicitly foregrounded only in the final pair of essays, so that the title of the volume could be read as slightly misleading.

The first pair of essays considers non-human subjects in Homer's epics. Bernd Steinbock's essay on the Argus scene of Od. 17.290–327 considers the dog's situation as paradigmatic of Odysseus' oikos, shaping the narratological expectations of the hero's return, while Louise Pratt considers the family life of the Olympian gods in the Iliad as a negative exemplar for human familial interactions, viewed through the lens of 'alien minds' as laboratories for thinking about human interactions. These essays succeed in giving fresh perspective to well-trodden scholarly territory. The next pair addresses societal interactions between characters in texts. David D. Leitaio persuasively situates the homoerotic love between Achilles and Patroclus in Aeschylus' fragmentary Myrmidons within the changing socio-political terrain of early fifth-century Athens, when aristocratic ethics were assimilated into the burgeoning democracy. James H. Chong-Gossard and Ng grapple with the question of internalised misogyny in the behaviour of the women of Euripides' Trojan trilogy. A methodological problem raised by this approach, and addressed by the essay, is whether we can read 'internalised' misogyny in tragedies written by a man, played by men, for a primarily male audience. The Internalised Misogyny Scale developed by Marg Piggot (74) appears to falter when applied to words written by a man for men. The essay closes with the authors' assertion that they 'would never argue that Euripides was a misogynist' but instead, 'created fictional women whose internalised misogyny is a learned and narratively enforced social behaviour that they overcome' (90). This assertion could bear further elaboration with regard to literary products emerging from deeply patriarchal societies.

Katherine Lu Hsu's essay, the first in a pair on dramatic twins, picks up this thread to show how the contrast between virtuous Helen in Egypt and her infamous eidolon at Troy, in Euripides' Helen, serves to formulate patriarchal paradigms of positive femininity. As the essay argues, for the real Helen to prove her identity, she must fulfil the expectations of her interlocutors by adopting elements of the negative behaviour of her eidolon, highlighting the ambivalences of identification that allow for her assertion of selfhood. James V. Morrison turns to comic twins in Plautus' Menaechmi, with supporting discussions on the Amphitryo and Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, to show how the surrealism of mistaken identities arising from having an unknown twin causes a breakdown of norms of politeness. A more expansive discussion of Shakespeare's reception of Plautus would have been interesting – as it stands the treatment of the Elizabethan comedy reads like a thought-provoking digression to an otherwise very engaging discussion of Plautine twins, which manages to retain the humour of the texts under discussion. Why Plautus is so interested in comedy based on mistaken identity (other than the intrinsic comic potential) remains to be considered in the essay. In this regard, scholarship has highlighted the cultural anxieties over the Greek influence on Roman culture of the second century BCE, and how these are expressed in Plautine comedy. 1 With many other comedies of Plautus being centred on cases of mistaken identity even when not involving twins, there must be something of this historical context in Plautus's use of twins as a comic device and as a means to explore questions of identity.

The next pair of essays takes Hellenistic contexts as the unifying theme. Peter Bing argues that Artemidorus of Perge’s inscriptions at Thera, and their increasingly centripetal organisation around the shrine of Homonoia, belonged to a class of similar arrangements of inscriptions which may have served as a model for early Hellenistic organisation of books of epigram, while Amanda Reagan shows how the reconfiguration of Homeric ethics of hospitality in the Argonautica reflects a changing political landscape of inter-state diplomacy. Next come two essays that consider the sources for ancient texts. C. Michael Sampson considers the problems in attributing too rigidly Aeschylus' fragmentary Aetnaeae as a source of Macrobius' narration of the myth of the Palici (Sat. 5.19.15-31). Macrobius suggests that the twins (resonating with the pair of essays on twins) were born underground, while the fragments of Aeschylus' play along with its fragmentary hypothesis suggest a katabasis followed by an anabasis. Rebecca A. Sear's essay considers Minerva's transformation of Arachne in book six of Ovid's Metamorphoses as initiating an escalation in the use of magic, as opposed to divine power, in Ovid's poem. She reads Minerva's punishment of Arachne, performed through the 'juices of Hecate's herb' as premeditated, since the potion required preparation, aligning Minerva with figures such as Circe, as much witch as goddess.

The final pair of essays deals with contemporary reception of classical antiquity. Anja Bettenworth's chapter on the reception of Roman antiquity in Maghrebian novels offers a fascinating perspective on an underdiscussed area. The 'gaps in transmission' (213) of classical antiquity in North Africa is, according to Bettenworth, at least in part a result of official representations of the past in postcolonial North Africa (218). Bettenworth's compelling argument could have been nuanced by situating Maghrebian and Andalusian scholars within the context of the transmission of the classical tradition, to problematise the narrative of 'gaps in transmission' of the classical tradition in North Africa. This problematisation could have been historicised further in gesturing towards pre-colonial Maghrebian interactions with Greco-Roman antiquity, for example, with the material remains of the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli, as recently outlined in an article by Anis Mkacher. 2 Moreover, as accounts of Italians living in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century show, ambivalence or disregard towards classical antiquity in North Africa was not unique to North Africans. 3

While the essay does highlight the role of colonial education in the transmission of classical education in Africa, and indicates the achievements of the likes of Senegalese statesman and intellectual Léopold Sédar Senghor as a classical scholar (217), the epistemic violence which this colonisation of the mind entailed, and which could account for the ambivalent attitudes towards classical antiquity in postcolonial North Africa, is not elaborated upon. Despite references to Franz Fanon (note 21, pp.217-218), the psychological trauma of ambivalent identification forced by colonial education is not identified as a significant factor to the engagements with classical antiquity in the novels discussed in the chapter. For example, in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon writes:

The black schoolboy in the Antilles, who in his lessons is forever talking about 'our ancestors, the Gauls,' identifies himself with the explorer, the bringer of civilization, the white man who carries truth to savages—an all-white truth. There is identification—that is, the young Negro subjectively adopts a white man's attitude. 4

In this context, the reservation with which Roman antiquity is considered by the novels discussed is given a more political weight: with French and Italian imperialisms in North Africa posing themselves as the returned Roman Empire, postcolonial ambivalence must have been a consequence. The novels considered in the essay all emerged from the last decades of the twentieth century, and therefore in the wake of political independence from European imperialism. Bettenworth's thoroughly engaging essay could have benefitted with a closer engagement with anticolonial and postcolonial scholars' writings on ambivalences of identification. In this regard, Ricardo Apostal's essay is a fitting partner to Bettenworth's. Apostal suggests that the ambivalent identification of Rome with progress and decline in cinematic representations of Roman antiquity is rooted in the identification of the audience with the 'modern' protagonist of these films, the face of enlightenment narratives of progress, in opposition to the Roman empire, typically represented as an oppressive entity. Apostal centres race, gender and class in guiding these identifications, an important insight for any reception-oriented study.

Overall, the broad range of themes addressed by the volume ensures that it would be of general interest as an ensemble to anyone interested in diverse engagements with classical antiquity, while the quality of each essay makes each of interest to specialists in its respective field.

Table of Contents

'Interactions of Antiquity', Louise Pratt and C. Michael Sampson, 1
Gods, Beasts, and Homeric Narrative
'The Narrative Richness of the Argus Scene (Od. 17.290–327)', Bernd Steinbock, 9
'Alien Minds: The Family Life of the Iliad's Gods', Louise Pratt, 29
Sex, Politics, Love, and Hate in Greek Tragedy
'Achilles in Love: Politics and Desire in Aeschylus' Myrmidons', David D. Leitao, 51
'Euripidean Women and Internalized Misogyny: Agones in Troades, Electra, and Andromache', James H. Kim On Chong-Gossard and Lin Li Ng, 71
Seeing Double: Twins on Stage
'Distinct and Yet Alike: The Two Helens of Euripides' Helen', Katherine Lu Hsu, 93
'Surrealism, Politeness Theory, and Comic Twins in Plautus and Shakespeare', James V. Morrison, 113
Poems in a Hellenistic Context
'A Precinct of Epigrams: The Sanctuary of Artemidorus of Perge', Peter Bing, 135
'Unwelcome Guests: Subversion of Homeric Hospitality in the Argonautica', Amanda Regan, 161
Reading between the Lines and Sources
'Macrobius, Aeschylus' Aetnaeae, and the Myth(s) of the Palici, C. Michael Sampson, 179
'"Sucis Hecateidos Herbae": A Magical Curiosity in Ovid's Metamorphoses', Rebecca A. Sears, 195
Modern Receptions of Greco-Roman Antiquity
'Mind the Gap: The Reception of Antiquity in Maghrebian Novels on the Ancient World', Anja Bettenworth, 213
'Whither the Roman Empire? Fear of the Future in Toga Films', Ricardo Apostol, 229


1.   See, for example, Henderson, J. (1994) 'Hanno's Punic Heirs: Der Poenulusneid des Plautus', Ramus vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 24-54; Leigh, M. (2004) Comedy and the Rise of Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Whitmarsh, T. (2001) Greek Literature and the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
2.   Mkacher, A. (2017) 'Quand observations et interprétations diffèrent: les cas de l'arc de triomphe de Tripoli dans les sources arabes', Libyan Studies 48, 149-157
3.   Ungaretti, G. (1961) Il deserto e dopo. Vol. 1. Prose di viaggio e saggi (Milan: Mondadori), pp.29-37
4.   Fanon, F. (2008 [1952]) Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press), p.114

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.