- Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius
This is a book that needed to be written, in answer to a deep gap in our resources on Latin literature. As our current time and our students keep raising questions along the lines of cultural history, we are obliged to seek answers about the circumstances that conditioned the production and consumption of [End Page 135] poetry and prose. Fantham’s book is a significant start on a project which, I dare predict, others in coming generations will be inspired to continue.
Fantham modestly declares at the outset that she is contributing to the search “toward a social history of Latin literature.” If we ask her to elaborate on the extent of her project, she obliges as follows: “I see as important aspects of any literary work its author in his social and political setting, its recipients and their culture, and the medium or nature of its presentation” (2). Fleshing out each of these three aspects (author, audience, and medium of presentation), she devotes most attention to the various circumstances that affect the author. First of all, the author is almost universally male: Sulpicia is a precious exception that proves the rule. But then his social class may vary widely, as will his civil status in Rome. Fantham instances for contrast Cato and Ennius, the first a novus homo and therefore an almost fanatic advocate of Roman values, a thorough politician (consul, censor, senator), a celebrated speaker and a writer of prose (history and treatises on agriculture and education); the second a noncitizen Calabrian who came to Rome and won patronage for his poetry, then citizenship, practicing a variety of genres that looked to the Hellenistic world—a poet, not a politician. (An even greater contrast would have used Terence, a slave brought to Italy from Carthage and eventually freed because of his literary talents.) Fantham does not elaborate on how the different social and civil backgrounds affected the literary culture, except to say that senators and some equestrians did not need to resort to patronage, whereas of course outsiders and equestrians like Horace did. We would expect that social background would often have had decisive and particular influence on writers, but that is an area where we still are groping for reliable methodology. How often did men use their literary presentation to turn their backs on their socially inferior or non-Roman background? How often did they look at Roman culture obliquely from the alien cultural position of their origins?
A writer’s education was obviously very important. We have a fair sense of how senatorial sons and wealthy equestrians were educated; Horace’s father, who wasn’t exactly poor, but rather undignified in the way he personally took the boy to and from school, saw to it that Horace was given an education that equaled the training of senatorial sons, both in Rome and later in Athens. Boys were taught Latin grammar, style, and the classics of Latin literature; and they were given a grounding in Greek. The amount of Greek and the relative mastery of that language would vary according to the century and the social and political intentions of the future writer. A young man whose family destined him for a political career and who one day might retire to write history, like Sallust or later Tacitus, would be unlikely to become as thoroughly bilingual and bicultural as a poet like Vergil, Horace, or Ovid, whose entire career was centered on poetry and achieving effective intertextuality with the great poets of Classical Greece and the Hellenistic world. There were men like Cato who ostentatiously [End Page 136] put Greek culture down (while instinctively exploiting it), and men like Catullus, a century later, who idolized the literary culture of Alexandria.
As Fantham notes, the word “audience” (auditores) does not fully cover what we today mean by the literary public, but it was accurate to start with. Since the first literary material was tragedy and comedy, it was aimed at the...