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Reviewed by:
  • Latin Literature. A History
  • Richard F. Thomas
Gian Biagio Conte. Latin Literature. A History. Translated by Joseph B. Solodow. Revised by Don Fowler and Glenn W. Most. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xxxiii 1 827 pp. $65.00.

The work under review is a translation of Gian Biagio Conte’s 1987 book Letteratura latina; Manuale storico dalle origini alla fine dell’ impero, a book whose title page acknowledged the collaboration of Alessandro Barchiesi, Emanuele Narducci, Giovanni Polara, Giuliano Ranucci, and Gianpiero Rosati. In the translation these scholars have been moved into C.’s “Acknowledgements,” making room for the new group on the title page, as given above. Of these, Don Fowler provided a bibliography and “in a sense has helped to direct the whole editorial enterprise,” while Glenn Most (like Solodow, one of C.’s English translators), rewrote sections on reception. Elaine Fantham introduces the work with an encomiastic “blurb” and general appreciation of the scholarship of C. C.’s own preface adds to the “gang of five” original collaborators a new group of three (Mario Labate, Alessandro Schiesaro, Rolando Ferri) who “have freely given me the support of their attentive and considerate criticism.” One recent reviewer talks of “the thorough control of the material by the single mind of the original author” (Robert P. Sonkowsky, The Key Reporter 61.3 [1996] 13), as does another for whom “the book is the production of a single mind” (J. Griffin, “The Long Latin Line,” review in New York Review of Books [Oct. 6, 1994] 43); it therefore seems only right to register my dissent from such a judgment.

Much in Latin studies right now seems to involve a pack mentality: teams toil away for their grex, writing encomiastic and disingenuously uncritical reviews, or footnotes acknowledging the help of other teammates, attending conferences, organizing group-solidifying essay collections, even new series and manifestoes promising a “New Latin”—a term that seems to have no particular theoretical or intellectual content, nor a purpose other than to appeal vaguely for some sort of postmodernist approval. Barbara F. McManus’ summary of a paper on the uses of e-mail for mobilizing interest groups, delivered at a conference on computers and the classics by the very editor of the book under review, Don Fowler (“The Scroll and the Screen: Computers and Classical Literary Criticism”), gives a clear account of procedure and techniques in use:

Electronic communication allows small groups with strongly related interests to form, cohere, and influence the larger disciplinary community; because such groups start with fundamental agreement on intellectual frameworks and approaches, they can develop ideas rapidly and in depth.

(2/8/97 <>)

What happens when other, less organized and more individual, insights fail to coincide with the “fundamental agreement” of the “group,” and how, we might wonder, will such individualism hold up in the face of this mission to “influence the larger disciplinary community”? [End Page 471]

Be all this as it may and whatever the realities of authorship, the achievement of Gian Biagio Conte’s volume is a signal one. Latin Literature is a work of considerable value, a work which I have already used with success in teaching the history of Latin literature. Whatever the state of its authorship, I would now move to a review of some of its merits, which are considerable, and in which C. himself is obviously a participant throughout. The book begins with the origins of Latin literature and extends to Bede and the national literatures that were to transmit Latin literature into the vernaculars, that would in turn connect the essential themes and fundamental concerns of classical Latin literature to the cognate and evolving experiences of later antiquity and the middle ages. The original authors worked to a formulaic scheme: generally “Life,” “Works,” some treatment of cultural/political/social context, “Literary Success” (for the Italian “Fortuna”—I would have preferred “Reception”), and bibliography. This latter, again by Fowler, is developed from the Italian version and is generally made more international, often with the result that it sits somewhat uneasily with the original articles, which are largely unchanged, and whose authors presumably made...

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