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Reviewed by:
  • Mnemotechnics and Virgil: The Art of Memory and Remembering
  • David Meban
Elizabeth-Anne Scarth. Mnemotechnics and Virgil: The Art of Memory and Remembering. Saarbrücken: Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008. Pp. v + 109. US $76.00. ISBN: 978-3-8364-7666-9.

Memory was always an integral component of Roman cultural life. But in the late Republic and Augustan principate memory assumed even greater significance, a development typical for periods of upheaval and transition. As an important participant in the events of these years, Virgil not surprisingly displays a keen sensitivity to questions of memory throughout his work. Given the richness and relevance of the topic, and indeed the attention it has received in other disciplines in recent years, it is surprising that Virgil's engagement with memory remains relatively unexplored. Scarth's study of the poet's use of artificial memory helps to address this shortcoming of Virgilian scholarship. Scarth addresses a number of important aspects of how Roman mnemonic practice informs Virgilian poetry and points the way for further work. At times, however, a failure to explore fully the implications of some of the issues involved hampers Scarth's analysis.

The book, consisting of a total of 109 pages, is divided into three chapters. The first two chapters lay the groundwork for Scarth's interpretation of Virgil with a review of the visual nature of memory and recall in Rome [End Page 483] and discussion of the artificial memory system. In Chapter One Scarth discusses monuments such as the Ara Pacis and the Mausoleum of Augustus, and documents such as the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre, to illustrate some of the many connections between space, landscape and memory. She thereby demonstrates how memory and its physical manifestation figured prominently in the everyday lives of Romans, and suggests that as a result Virgil's readers would recognize mnemonic cues in his poetry. In Chapter Two Scarth turns to a survey of artificial memory as it is illustrated in works such as Cicero's de Oratore, Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria, and the Rhetorica ad Herennium. How these authors encourage the use of images and places (e.g., loci, imagines) for the assignment and recall of memories is the main focus of Scarth's discussion. She draws particular attention to the importance of sequential order, distinctiveness and discriminability for accurate recollection. For modern comparisons of similar memory systems Scarth examines the techniques employed by individuals such as Matteo Ricci and Solomon Shereshevskii. Both chapters are in large part reviews and the coverage they provide of the basic issues regarding the relationship between space and memory and the principles of artificial memory prepare the reader for Chapter Three on Virgil. It is possible to raise some general criticisms. In terms of structure, for instance, with the conclusion of Chapter Two the reader is 63 pages into a 109 page book, and there is as yet no discussion of Virgil. But, more importantly, there appears in these chapters a failure to address adequately some of the questions Scarth's discussion provokes. This is a recurrent problem that will ultimately undercut elements of her subsequent interpretation of Virgil. For instance, no doubt there is overlap between the use of space in the artificial memory system and memory as it is constituted in physical structures and places. But there are also some fundamental differences. In rhetorical theory the same individual assigns and recalls the memories, whereas in architecture, for example, there is no such link. The lack of attention to this issue detracts from some of Scarth's observations. She posits, for instance, a rather straightforward response to the memories provoked by the Mausoleum (19–21). In the late first century, however, the memories Augustus perhaps hoped the Mausoleum might convey were no doubt often radically different from those it engendered among many of the inhabitants of Rome. I am not suggesting that Scarth is unaware of these matters. But in a study that will eventually focus not only on the cultural underpinnings of memory in Virgil, but also on how readers and various characters appear to recall and react to specific memories, these are central issues and must be addressed in...


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pp. 483-486
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