EMPIRE OF LETTERS

Stephanie Ann Frampton

OUP (2019) h/b/ 206pp £47.99 (ISBN 9780190915407)

The central theme of F.’s book is given in the last sentence of the Introduction. ‘Far from being transparent vehicles for transmitting information from an author to a reader, written texts were objects, too, in ways that were essential to the worldviews and self-fashioning of the authors whose works too shape in them.’ We read classical texts, she believes, without thinking how important to author and reader was the form in which those texts were first presented. It made a difference that Augustus’ Res Gestae were published on bronze tablets, and that they were in front of the Mausoleum. It mattered to Catullus that his readers should think about his charming little book (‘charming’ of the material object, or of the contents?) just as it was when handed to Cornelius, fresh from the polisher’s pumice stone. It is important even in Virgil, who seemed to care less than many others about the actual process of writing his poems down, to have a sense of the structure of the volumen, so that it does not escape us, reading Eclogue 6, that Varus’ name is most pleasing to Apollo when it appears at the top of a page—and lo and behold, given the 36-line column of a scroll of Virgil, that is just where it appears, on the 13th page.

The first chapter (‘Classics and the Study of the Book’) is designed to find ‘common ground among the varied disciplines of book history, bibliography’ etc. The second (‘Writing and Identity’) deals with the arrival of literacy / the alphabet and what it meant to the Romans. The third (‘The Text of the World’) and fourth (‘Tablets of Memory’) consider the way letters and writing in general became central to Roman ways of thinking about the world. Chapters 5 and 6 (‘The Roman Poetry Book’, ‘Ovid and the Inscriptions’) think about how Horace, Virgil and Ovid use the idea of the material thing, the book, its production, circulation and readership, for poetic effect. We conclude with the provocative idea that Tristia 4.10 is Ovid’s response to the Res Gestae.

There is a list of abbreviations, a thorough bibliography and a useful index. There are several well-chosen illustrations. It is very welcome to have the footnotes all at the bottom of their page.

There are some clunky sentences: ‘When it is named within the text, such a book (Catullus’ lepidus libellus) is a totalizing force as both the ideal referent of the textual libellus and the subject of description within the diegetic frame’ (p. 115). There are a few misprints (e.g. p. 39 ‘the Teleboae’; p. 92: some slips of orthography in the text of Aristotle; p. 100: Tibur for Tiber.) In this reader’s view F. seemed to be straining to give the earlier chapters enough weight to balance the last two. Nevertheless, in those last two chapters especially, but also in the earlier ones, there is a great deal of interest and plenty of incentive to appreciate the inadequacy of one’s experience as one settles down to study Horace in the Loeb edition on one’s Kindle.

Keith Maclennan

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