Book Review: Beyond Greek
by Denis Feeney
Harvard University Press, 2016
It may seem a strange thing to ask in light of the glories of Virgil, Horace, Catullus, and Ovid, but Princeton University professor Denis Feeney, in his new book Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature, asks it anyway: why is there even such a thing as Latin literature?
He takes as the main time frame of his book the “short century” stretching from the end of the Roman war with Sicily in 241 BC to the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC – the amazingly brief period when the unremarkable city-state of Rome rose to imperial dominance of the Mediterranean world and began ruling and absorbing other cultures. In that period, the Romans not only imported many examples of the art and literature they encountered in their travels and conquests but also began to create their own adaptations. This has typically been seen as some kind of natural progression, but Feeney points out how truly remarkable it is:
How did it happen that the Romans, without any predecessors or templates for the project, set about the task of equipping themselves with a vernacular literature on Greek models? – and not only a body of texts with claims to literary status, but an array of accompanying phenomena that define and convey those texts, so that one eventually sees in Rome a heavily Greek-style education and apparatus of literary scholarship, together with a developed historiographical tradition about their past and a mythological network that connected them to the inheritance of the Greeks. None of these projects was predictable … It had never happened before or anywhere else in the Mediterranean that one culture should set out to take over the prototypical literary forms of Hellas in order to create its vernacular equivalent, and for a parallel of any substance we have to wait until the Late Middle Ages …
Feeney looks at the widespread responses to the writings of early authors like Ennius and Lucilius and attempts to excavate the reasons for those responses. “To these large and growing audiences,” he writes, “in response to the dizzying expansion of the empire, the new Latin literature was making available systems of knowledge and ways of apprehending experience that were not in play before and that had a transformative energy of their own.”
(The chief weakness of Feeney’s book is this penchant for turgid academic-speak like “making available systems of knowledge and ways of apprehending experience,” whatever that might mean.)
At the center of Feeney’s inquiry are the plays of Plautus and what they reveal about how thoroughly and energetically the literature of Greece had worked its way into the consciousness of the Roman intellectual classes:
We should not underestimate how much cultural work has had to be done in order for an actor to stand up in Rome and impersonate Mercury, taking an audience into his confidence as he tells them that his father Jupiter had made Alcumena pregnant and then acknowledging that they “all know what my father Jupiter is like, how broad-minded he is in these numerous affairs, what a mighty lover he is once someone has taken his fancy.”
That there should even be a Roman intellectual class is yet another oddity of this cultural transformation, an oddity no previous historian has noticed to such profit. Feeney notes what others have noted, that an empire where the elite read – or write – poetry is a very unusual thing. “In fact, an empire where the elite write at all is not necessarily so usual a thing,” he writes. “Other empires in the ancient world were successfully governed by a functionally illiterate ruling class working in tandem with a scribal bureaucracy who commanded a variety of scripts and languages.” If such thoughts brought to his mind any recent empire elites, he’s polite enough not to name any names.
Beyond Greek is a string of revelations about how the Romans busied themselves building a new literature for their new position on the world stage. It takes all the familiar characterizations of ancient Roman literature – as parvenu, as derivative, as a series of ham-handed imitations of a superior culture – and turns them inside-out in some wonderfully thoughtful ways.