AUTHOR UNKNOWN: The Power of Anonymity in Ancient Rome

Tom Geue

Harvard (2019) h/b 361pp £36.95 (ISBN 9780674988200)

We have all grown up with the death of the author: G. here gives us a manifesto for the death of the context. Contexts bind texts into straitjackets of interpretative pigeon-holing, and G. advocates instead that texts are better when nameless and taken at face value—as face is all they have. Blind-tasting the wine is in fact better than reading the label. 

This is not (in fact) so difficult to do, as much of ancient literature is effectively anonymous. Even where we do have a name, we often know little or nothing about authors such as Lucretius or even Juvenal, and a small industry built up in antiquity of vitae designed to plug the teasing gaps. Deliberate anonymity can certainly be useful. From Odysseus’ self-pseudonym as outis to outwit the Cyclops to today’s internet trolls, withholding your identity can be a suit of armour, and some literary works were (and still are) originally anonymous or pseudonymous (Frankenstein, l’Histoire d’O, Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventuras etc). It is odd that G. says little about the ancient equivalent of the Banksy or the troll, namely the scribbler of graffiti. But literature is (surely) different: many ancient writers did not court invisibility and the Horace of exegi monumentum is probably the rule rather than the exception. G.’s gallery of the faceless were mostly just unfortunate not to become names. 

G.’s first star witness is certainly surprising. The Res Gestae of Augustus shows no modest coyness and the author emblazons his identity all over it. The only anonymity here is that which Augustus forces onto other men (Brutus, Antony etc) who might steal his operatic thunder. Augustus’ inflated conceit even lets him humblebrag his own removal of his own statues (RG 24). This is not anonymity of but anonymity in the text, as G. admits (p.273). G. argues that the use of antonomasia (patronymics, allusive phrases (‘our old-Etonian leader’), etc.) was a mode of concealment: but this is not obviously true, as antonomasia can in fact enhance one’s image as someone who ‘needs no introduction’ and who we all know from the smallest tangential detail, so that it becomes the reverse of anonymising. G. applies similar discussion to Ovid’s gloriously savage poem Ibis, suggesting (with some plausibility) that Ovid applies the anonymity to the target of the attack, and so does not allow him a shred of martyred victimhood, adding oblivion to his many other sorrows.

Much better evidence for the power of anonymity is provided by the Laus Pisonis. We have no name and no date for this text and do not even know which Piso is being praised: and Piso is a good name to choose for an elusive honorand as Pisos appear all over the shop in Rome. The laus gushes in the hyperbolic manner of its unnamed teenage author, and not having a context opens up a wider range of possible readerly responses—it may even be a send-up of the genre and the Piso in question—which supports G.’s case that firmer contextual information would close down the discussion which anonymity opens up. 

G. sees the anonymity on parade here as part of an authorial retreat from view which is a form of inverse strength—a trope he examined in his impressive 2017 book Juvenal and the Poetics of Anonymity. Having no context forces readers to judge the text without preconceptions and without bias. Dated work also easily becomes dated and names slip into oblivion. Keeping authorial identity out of the picture adds to the pose of being a truth-telling messenger—a character who is also usually nameless in tragedy. 

Even when not chosen, anonymity can also be convenient for the author: Phaedrus the fabulist never made it into the big league and is (in G.’s account) a tale of human unsuccess in a comedy of distress (to mangle Auden)—something like the absurd self-image of Horace in the Epistles: ‘his precondition is absolute anonymity, textuality neat’. Calpurnius Siculus the pastoral poet keeps his garden safely free of all contact with the dirty world of the datable and mappable city. In G.’s account this comes over as almost ideological eirenism: ‘the principate is as timeless as the shepherd’s shade under which it’s piped’ (274). Political comment is often anonymous to protect the author, and it is tempting to see Octavia as part of Nero’s damnatio memoriae – a literary hatchet which often fell on dead emperors (and G. looks tellingly at how Seneca took Claudius apart in the Apocolocyntosis). Petronius’ Satyrika is incomplete (missing both its beginning and its end) and its authorship has been debated endlessly, but this lack of context is played by G. as a literary trope in itself, whereby the text which concerns men (such as Trimalchio and Eumolpos) who are crazy about tituli are revealed in a book which lacks one. Tacitus almost certainly wrote the Dialogus, even though it is not in the same style as the rest of his work (p.236): it is possibly an ironic text which in its style imitates the sort of orator(y) whose demise is lamented by its speaker. The form of neo-Platonic dialogue suits well this meeting of minds, with moral education and literary style both elided and discussed: ambivalence is built in as none of the three main interlocutors ‘are’ Tacitus, and the elusive author slips away with the question-marks still hanging there. It is written ‘now’ but reads as if it were written ‘then’. The final witness is [Longinus] On the Sublime which is a good example of a text lacking an ending and an author, and a perfect text to end with: it seeks transcendence of time and place, analysing Greek literature but also bringing in bits of the Septuagint and addressing itself to a Roman. ‘[Longinus] reads and purveys texts “unanchored in time and place” but he aims to be one too.’ (271).

Latin and Greek are (mostly) translated. There are a few small typos, such as G.’s misquoting of Eden’s text of Seneca Apocolocyntosis 10 on p. 216 (Eden reads: etiam si σφυρὸν meum [Graece] nescit, ego scio. G. prints [and translates] etiam si soror mea Graece nescit which is a variant manuscript reading dismissed in his notes by Eden). 

G.’s style is always lively and thought-provoking. He makes us look again at some of the also-rans (and some big names) of Latin literature and always does a good job of close-reading the texts with his own engaging insights couched in his own scholarly patois: as we read this book he certainly makes us stop fretting about the extraneous details and enjoy the text on its own merits—no names, no pack-drill—with G. as the conductor of the magical mystery tour.

John Godwin

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