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  • Poetic Autonomy in Ancient Rome by Luke Roman
  • Alison Keith
Luke Roman. Poetic Autonomy in Ancient Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x + 380. £83.00. ISBN 9780199675630.

Luke Roman's investigation of the expression of literary autonomy in first-person genres of Latin poetry makes a compelling case for the invention, development, and enduring sophistication of a Latin discourse of literary aesthetics that differentiates poetic refinement from (and privileges it over) political achievement and moral utility. Most of the poets, poems, and genres he treats in the volume are central to the Latin literary canon and have been well studied for centuries, not to say millennia—Catullus, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid (amatory and didactic elegy and the exile poetry), Martial, Statius (Silvae), Juvenal; in fine, the genres of epigram, elegy, satire, and lyric. Specialists in Augustan Latin literature, in particular, may be forgiven for feeling that there is no more to be said about Callimachean poetics in Vergil, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. Roman proves otherwise.

An "Introduction" (1–30) lays out the stakes of the project with remarkable clarity. In the modern world, imaginative "literature" enjoys unquestioned autonomy as a field of practice, but it is illuminating to inquire when and how that came to be, especially since in the context of classical antiquity, we more often study "anthropology and the Greeks" (linking tragedy or epinician, for example, to Greek religious ritual, and lyric forms with social [End Page 462] practices like the symposium) and "the politics of Latin literature" (looking for a "Scipionic circle" or pro- and anti-Augustan poets and genres) than the aesthetics of classical literature. Roman argues that the development of a Latin poetic discourse of autonomy (i.e., a self-conscious aesthetics of Roman poetry) was neither inevitable nor uncontested, and he undertakes to trace the contours of poetic autonomy in the first-person genres of Latin verse from the breakdown of the republic at the end of the second century bce to the rule of Hadrian in the third imperial dynasty at the beginning of the second century ce.

Chapter 1, "First-Person Poetry and the Autonomous Turn," locates the impulse toward poetic autonomy at Rome in the increasingly fractious and divisive politics of the Gracchan period and Lucilius' contemporary literary practice of satire. In Roman's reading, Lucilian satire constructs itself in opposition, on one hand, to "the cult of esoteric poetic style" (broadly identified with Greek literature), and on the other, to "aestheticizing distance from everyday speech" (viz., the Latin language), in order both to "join the fray and stand outside it, excoriating his contemporaries' extremity in their voices in order to define his own" (39, italics his). Of particular interest is Roman's implicit rejection of Greek paradigms of literary autonomy (e.g., those of the Sophists or the Alexandrian poets), and in this regard his treatment of Lucilius in the political context of Late Republican Rome is a harbinger of the argument to come. In the rest of the chapter, he treats both Catullus and Cicero as deeply invested in the political dynamics of Roman aristocratic culture but finds strikingly divergent results in the two authors: Cicero chooses to write epic, understood as a genre of communal celebration, to commemorate in the Consulatus Suus his political achievement and he repeatedly demonstrates his commitment to the socially approved hierarchy of political negotium over literary, including philosophical, otium, while Catullus regularly dissociates his personal morality from his literary practice (e.g., c. 16, 22) and articulates a limited "pact" of aesthetic autonomy (e.g., c. 35, 50, 95). In neither case does Roman entertain the claims to exemplary status of imported Greek models of literary and philosophical autonomy, such as are provided by Callimachus, on the one hand (whose importance to Catullus is obvious from c. 7, 65, and 116), and Philodemus, on the other (whose Epicurean model of literary autonomy is critiqued but clearly articulated by Cicero at Pis. 70, quoted by Roman on p. 67), although Catullus (drawing on Callimachus) and Philodemus were both writing at the time when the Hellenistic poet Parthenius and the Roman Epicurean Lucretius were composing Alexandrian verse and...


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