CUP (2023) p/b 379pp £27.99 (ISBN 9781108823319)

Much of what remains of the ancient world is a thing of shreds and patches, and we Classicists spend much of our time seeking to join the dots and plug the gaps in our partial knowledge of the past.  This book turns this gap into a presence, looking at areas where the Romans themselves made eloquent use of silence, of conspicuous absences, of fragments as positive ways of expressing themselves.

Twenty leading Latinists have contributed to this book, giving us an wide range of approaches to this common theme and a massive amount to think about.

The book falls into three sections.  In the first part (‘Absence in Text’) we see how writers from Catullus to Claudian made use of silence and absence:  Ábel Tamás proposes that the lacuna in Catullus 51.8 may be enacting the very breakdown in speech which the text describes, Stefano Briguglio illustrates Statius’ dramatic use of aposiopesis in the Thebaid—a device which stops Pluto blubbing like an elegiac hero (8.53-60) or Antigone becoming a tragic character in the epic (12.382-5).  Philip Hardie looks at allegory, asking (inter multa alia) whether Hercules and Cacus are allegorical and whether Aeneas killing Turnus is meant to symbolise Romulus killing Remus.  Ovid, in personifying Envy and Hunger, Morpheus and Fama uses words to create the vivid appearance of what is not there, while Prudentius incarnates the Word into flesh.

Roman comedy uses absence for theatrical effect, as Giuseppe Pezzini shows in his piece on ‘proxied absences’—in simple cases such as the character Euthynicus in Plautus Casina who is never actually on stage, as well as the more complex trickery and misapprehension in plays like Pseudolus.  The Roman plays themselves are in a sense proxies for their Greek originals, and Terence himself is a proxy of his powerful friends who (allegedly) wrote the stuff for him to present.  Victoria Rimmell, on Ovid’s Remedia, questions whether its surface meaning, with its endless series of self-contradictions, is what it is ‘really’ about.  Viola Starnone discusses Dido’s first appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid and the oddity that Aeneas is not shown as looking at her at all: ‘the first look and impressions of the hero towards the heroine are absent from the text’ (p.109).  This scene is mirrored in the poignant scene in the underworld (6.450-5) where Aeneas sees her in the gloom and she retreats from his gaze.

The second section (‘Absence in Context’) turns from verse to prose and examines the uses of silence and absence in history and philosophy.  Kathrin Winter looks at the absence of free speech in Cicero’s Brutus and Tacitus’ Dialogus and comments wisely:  ‘How do you speak when speech is banished? …You write about the history of Roman eloquence’ (p.125).  Both authors examine the fruitful tension between speech and silence—and both use silence as desire for speech and also as a mode of discourse on the position of eloquence in troubled times.  The most obvious silence is anonymity, and Barbara Del Giovane examines how anonymity can be one of the first symptoms of Rome’s authoritarian turn. The reaction of rulers to this anonymous critique is interesting: the scabrous attacks on Julius Caesar help us to understand ‘the climate which led to Caesar’s murder’ (p.151), Augustus was not alarmed by insulting pamphlets (but did prosecute people who published maliciously under a false name and even burnt the offending pamphlets), while Tiberius went so far as to publish the anonymous verses attacking him, perhaps in an attempt to regain control of the medium and neuter his critics.

Catharine Edwards, in one of the best essays of the book, looks for the absent Nero in Seneca’s Letters, in a world where not mentioning Nero is as political as mentioning him.  Nero is there, and  serves ‘as an exemplar of the lack of self-command, or the surrender to vice, of the extreme rejection of nature, an arrestingly potent manifestation of the pathology of an individual utterly lacking sovereignty over himself’ (p.172).   When Seneca condemns the taste for luxurious building he knew that this was one of Nero’s besetting vices.  Epistle 114 takes Maecenas to task for his effete style and louche lifestyle—but was Nero the real target? All this lets Seneca have his cake and eat it:  he can nobble Nero safely but still be relevant to the later ages who will (he hopes) find his work relevant long after Nero is dead and gone.  John Henderson similarly looks at how Marcus Aurelius absents himself from his own Meditations,  whose ‘status as dummy autobiography serving the emperor’s self by dressing in new “Rhetorical Philosophy” clothes represents an abjuration of the mundane’ (p.200).  Here we see the ruler ruling out autocracy in favour of the Stoic emphasis on self-rule. James McNamara shows how Tacitus in his Germania  refuses to ‘subject his material either to historical narrative or to a “higher” viewpoint such as that of Seneca’s natural philosophy’, while Ellen O’ Gorman focusses on Tacitus’ rhetorical question (Annals 1.3) ‘how many were left who had seen the republic?’  Tacitus’ account of Junia’s funeral, where images of the tyrannicides Brutus and Cassius shone forth (praefulgebant:  Tacitus Annals 3.76) in their absence, is examined to excellent effect.  Romans, Tacitus asserts, may have lost their perception of freedom but there is hope that the essence of republican freedom can be maintained as an inner and a literary inheritance: ‘Tacitus’ writing aims to fill the gap and achieve some future reactivation of integrated political senses’ (p.234).

The third section (‘Going Beyond’) ranges more widely.  William Fitzgerald looks at that ultimate non-person, the slave, who is present during Horace’s encounter with the Pest as little more than an ear (Satires 1.9.9-10), and whose assumed presence goes unremarked in Virgil’s Georgics and in the Letters of Pliny.  Joanna Paul looks at the enduring absence of Pompeii, which ‘can variously be conceived of as forgotten, lost, empty or dislocated’ (p, 250).  She points out how poets such as Martial (4.44) and Statius (Silvae 3.5.72-80) as well as the historian Tacitus (Histories 1.2) mention its demise without naming it, verbally enacting its disappearance from the map.

Reception features in the following two chapters:  Francesca Bellei shows how Elena Ferrante uses the figure of Virgil’s Dido as a model for her two main characters ‘to interrogate Virgil’s own silences and omissions’ (p.271), while Erik Fredericksen shows how Anne Carson’s Nox takes on Catullus 101 and looks at the ‘fraught relationship between poetic creation and loss’ (p.289).  Fredericksen examines the criticism that Catullus 101 is in a sense a betrayal of his brother in that the poet is making poetical capital out of his brother’s death, and the resulting poem is more to do with the poet than the dead brother.  The poem’s initial reference to Homer, for instance, indicates the tension between the lived experience and literary artificiality.  I would urge that in fact the literary intertext is part of his consolation, since Homer outlives us all and offers some form of survival which only the poet can confer.

Duncan Kennedy writes eloquently about ‘Absence, metaphysically speaking’.  Josef Brodsky’s Letter to Horace seeks common ground with the dead Roman poet but Brodsky senses that he is in fact talking to a mirror:  Horace exists for us, but we are not present to him. Kennedy asks how far our sense of purpose is connected to an expectation of communication with the future:  making use of Latour’s ‘modes of existence’ he offers an inspiring reading of reception in which Horace will never know that Brodsky exists, but ‘through his texts Brodsky feels addressed nonetheless… . He has a friend in Quintus Horatius Flaccus’ (p.321).   Human beings are not just ‘atomized individuals’ but are offered a more positive view that we ‘attain presence as distributed selves through our attachments to other presences, past and future’ (p.332).

Latin and Greek is translated into English with differing degrees of success and some reliance on very dated Loeb translations (Ovid Heroides 12.208, for instance, is rendered ‘my ire is in travail with mighty threats’ [p.37]).   I only spotted one serious typographical error:  on p. 39 the author omits the word sociam from Statius (mene igitur <sociam> [pro fors ignara!] malorum).  There are thirty pages of bibliography, a general index and an index locorum.

The contributors refer to each other in a positive way and the chorus of voices which emerges is utterly convincing that there is something here which merits our attention.  You may not agree with all their findings, but you will not fail to be stimulated and excited by the debate.


John Godwin