COMPLEX INFERIORITIES: the Poetics of the Weaker Voice in Latin Literature

Ed. by Sebastian Matzner and Stephen Harrison

OUP (2018) h/b 320pp £70 (ISBN 9780198814061)

When Catullus calls his poetry nugas, or Horace tells us in his Satires (1.4.39-42) that he is not really a proper poet, or Virgil (Aeneid 6.847-53) has Anchises tell us that ‘the Greeks know many things, but the Romans one big thing, and it’s not literature’ (p. 24), they are adopting a stance of inferiority which—like Socratic irony—is a passive aggressive act. Larkin’s line ‘books are a load of crap’ is not perhaps to be taken at face value, and neither should these Latin poets. As Tom Geue reminds us (p. 89), ‘we are right to be suspicious of any claim to simple inferiority in our élite authors, and well poised to pick through it as so much complex strategy’.

William Fitzgerald’s opening chapter sets out the issues perfectly: the pose of weakness both masks and demonstrates strength. He looks closely at Catullus 76 where the poet adopts a stance of being a pathetic victim of pathological love (and desperate virtue-signalling), emotional abasement couched in sublime language. The stance elevates the literary form which enacts it—just as Horace (Odes 1.1) and Virgil (Georgics 4.559-66) privilege the poetic life of ignobilis otii over other pursuits. 

Sebastian Matzner examines Roman philhellenism as a major area of complex inferiority. Horace’s dictum (Epistles 2.1.156-7) that ‘captive Greece took her fierce conqueror captive and brought the arts to rustic Latium’ introduces a wide discussion of the inverse colonialism at work whereby the colonisers were themselves (aesthetically) colonised by the colony they colonised. The only comparable outside force to have this effect on the Roman cultural juggernaut was (of course) Christianity, which Bartsch and Hardie examine in their essays later in this book. Amy Richlin looks at the way early comedy used and portrayed marginal groups such as Africans (in Plautus’ Poenulus) and women, seeing the text through a post-colonial lens and giving us a fascinating glimpse into the way masks and costumes were their form of blackface and drag.

Poets are not expected to be rich men, and Jean-Claude Julhe takes an important poem by Martial (5.13) where the poet positively boasts of his material poverty as it brings artistic riches in the form of poetic fame and power. There is snobbery here too—the addressee is a rich upstart Greek freedman while Martial boasts of his (Spanish) equestrian background. Mocking the successful businessman for being a philistine is not new—think of Aristophanes’ depiction of Cleon—and neither is the stance of the poet in the garret suffering for lack of a patron, but epigram is not the usual route to poetic immortality, as Pliny observed (Letters 3.21.6) and there is a further current of inferiority in the choice of genre. ‘Martial has chosen to be neither poor nor Spanish’ (88) and his choice of a ‘minor’ literary genre has nonetheless given him the sort of fame which a Callistratus can only dream of. It has also given the poet the means to wound his so-called superiors through the medium of his invective.

Roman satirists often adopt the persona of downtrodden underdog, giving us the ‘worm’s-eye view’ of real life in the street rather than the idealised rhetoric of the senate. Tom Geue does not examine the obvious classic case of posed inferiority in satire—Juvenal 10—where the poet argues that wealth, power, beauty etc. are all in fact impediments to the happy life and one is better off being worse off. Geue looks instead at the studied anonymity and personal invisibility of Phaedrus and Juvenal, a less obvious but more original way to view the inferiority-stance of the satirist. Similar things could be said of Gregory Hutchinson’s essay ‘On not being beautiful’, which takes a slightly oblique view of the issue. He applies formal logic to the poetic form and argues that it seems axiomatic in much Roman literature that the object of love is always regarded as beautiful, even though there are counter-examples galore from the historical (Cleopatra was less of a beauty than Octavia) to the didactic (Lucretius 4.1278-82 concedes that women who are inferior in looks but ‘compliant in manner’ are loved). 

Horace is served by two very different essays. Victoria Rimell gives us a reading of the Ars Poetica in which the socially inferior but intellectually superior poet is seen as advising the politically superior young Pisones in a tone of didactic authority, while Stephen Harrison’s essay on ‘Homoerotic colour in Horace’s Odes’ is a beautifully written piece examining the many places where the poet voices desire for male characters. The quest to restore gay love to its rightful place in the reading of Horace is not new—and Horace does not (to my mind) tinge his homoerotic words with a tone of inferiority, in a Roman world where homoerotic desire is taken for granted (e.g. Lucretius [4.1053-4] who puts boys before women). Horace is after all composing for an audience which appreciated male and female beauty, and the poet is (inter alia) playing his audience as well as playing with the well-known homoerotic precedents in Greek poetry.

Vassiliki Panoussi examines the way Tacitus depicts the sexually aggressive women Messalina and Agrippina in his Annals, whose refusal to enact the submissive role sees them murdered back into line. Messalina deconstructs the whole edifice of marriage in her union with Silius and the language in which this is laid out is coloured with reference to other transgressive females (such as Bacchants): Agrippina deconstructed the norms of parental behaviour in her incestuous relationship with her son and her death is a dramatic and stylised tour de force which reinforces the stereotype and restores the hierarchy which this woman had challenged.

Ellen O’Gorman examines the role played when the many-headed Roman plebs opens its collective mouth in the pages of Tacitus and Livy. Her unpacking of some of the places where they are heard to shout (e.g. Tacitus Histories 1.32) is superb: this author plausibly teases out from the narrative the ipsissima verba of the chanting crowd and gives us a real insight into the power of the relatively powerless when it assumes a voice. Dunstan Lowe’s essay on the figure of the praeco in Roman Love Elegy examines another shouter—the barking crier—in life and in poetry. Here was another example of a man of inferior status who nonetheless commanded attention and earned respect.

Shadi Bartsch’s essay looks at how Fulgentius found a way through the Christian resistance to the pleasure of pagan literature, and managed to reclaim the Aeneid as a text worth reading. Christians already allegorised unappealing bits of scripture and did not at first allow pagan literature to be sanitised in this way: Fulgentius managed to allegorise this iconic pagan text and his ‘radical hermeneutics’ paved the way for a rapprochement between the Christian and the lover of Classical learning. Philip Hardie’s final chapter (‘Cowherds and Saints’) examines a delightful poem by Paulinus of Nola, where the gospel message of humility was translated into fine Latin poetry.

This is a surprising and fascinating book. There is little on the obvious areas—not much on recusatio, the Heroides, irony or Seneca, to name but four. We are given thirteen highly individual takes on the subject, with some cross-reference but no single theme. Typographical errors are very few, and the book is admirably proof-read and produced. There is a full bibliography, a general index and an index locorum.

John Godwin


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