- Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic: Poetry and Its Reception
Just what forces in the earlier centuries of the Roman Republic gave shape to the literature of the late Republic and early Principate is an old question that has received new interest in recent years. Sander Goldberg suggests that to put the question as I just have is to put things backwards. In this book he argues that it is not so much a matter of how earlier literature shaped later literature but rather of how scholars and readers in the late Republic converted the poetic remains of earlier centuries into "literature." For Goldberg, literature in the fullest sense did not exist at Rome before a sufficiently large and critically sophisticated reading public had emerged, and until the available texts had been collected, studied, and canonized; and this process, he believes, did not happen or at any rate was not complete until the time of Cicero and, especially, Varro. The latter, one of the heroes of Goldberg's story (and rightly so), was instrumental in (for instance) turning the scores of plays that traveled in his day under the name of Plautus into an authenticated oeuvre of the sort that defines literature: a corpus that can be owned, read and reread, studied, commented upon, argued over, and shared by a community of more or less like-minded, cultivated individuals. Literati, in fact.
The idea is developed over a series of six chapters, plus an introduction and "Retrospective." The chapters are advertised as framing a continuous argument but also as capable of being read independently. They are arranged chronologically and bracketed thematically or imagistically by two arrivals: that of the Muse under the aegis of Rome's earliest poets and that of the one desired by Ovid, if not for himself back into Rome then for his works into the state-sponsored collection in the Palatine library. To my mind chapters 2 ("Constructing Literature") and 3 ("Comedy at Work") are the core of the book, as I have hinted [End Page 283] above and will explain further below; but subsequent chapters on tragedy (4, "Dido's Furies") and satire (5, "Enter Satire) offer novel commentaries on the history of these genres.
In staking out his position, Goldberg distinguishes himself from two groups who already are rather at odds with one another. On the one hand there are those who think that Roman literature was indeed already literature from "the beginning"—i.e., from the time of Livius Andronicus. On the other are those who might agree with Goldberg that the Romans did not invent literature until the dying days of the Republic but who give credit (or blame) for this achievement mainly to a relatively small group of elite writers. So it will be fascinating to follow the reception of Goldberg's argument in both these camps. I, for my part, would not want to predict what effect the argument will have. Instead, I will mention what strike me as some of Goldberg's more salient points and will add a few comments by way of reaction.
The decision to focus on readers strikes me as a positive contribution. Roman literary culture did not just happen, nor was it or could it have been created by writers alone. A public that wanted there to be a literature in Latin, one that was alive to ideas but also to the techniques that writers used to convey these ideas, was essential. Beyond this, scholars and teachers interested in the texts themselves and in showing readers what to do with them, scholars who were ambitious to create a culture of learning similar to the one that had for generations supported Greek literature, played an enormous role. Of course the writers are more visible to us, both as writers and as a peculiarly important audience for one another's work. But even in the smallest estimate of the literate population, there were many more readers than writers, and these numbers of readers are surely as important or more...