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New Literary History 34.3 (2003) 383-408

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Classical Genre in Theory and Practice

Joseph Farrell

IT WAS ONCE BELIEVED that the ancients invented and perfected certain genres and that the works they left might serve as models for later writers. Today belief in ideal patterns is a distant memory, and our interest in genre takes other forms. Classicists, by engaging with the specific problems presented by Greek and Roman literature and with the speculative discourse taking place throughout literary studies, have developed very different approaches to genre from the ones that prevailed in the past; but outside of classics, it appears that a traditional (and, now, outmoded) conception of the role that genre plays in classical literature continues to hold sway. This conception has a distinguished pedigree, and in fact derives from classical genre theory. But the practice of ancient writers was much more sophisticated than anything that classical theory could account for, and it is mainly on this practice that classicists now base their understanding of ancient ideas about genre. 1 In this essay, I will briefly run over some familiar aspects of classical genre theory, but will be mainly concerned to illustrate how attention to the practice of ancient writers has led to an outlook on Greek and especially Roman literary genres that is very different from the traditional story and that has much more to contribute to the contemporary discourse about genre.

1. Classical Ways of Theorizing Genre

Classical genre theory was a powerfully essentializing discourse. Its essentializing tendencies expressed themselves in at least two ways. First, it was widely assumed in antiquity that the kind of poetry that a person wrote was linked to his character. Second, ancient critics further assumed the existence of a similar link between genre and metrical form. In different strains of critical discourse these two kinds of essentialism might reinforce one another, fail to interact, or even operate at cross-purposes. I make this point to establish that classical genre-theory, while always insisting on the essentializing nature of genre, was neither uniform nor wholly self-consistent in other respects; [End Page 383] and this fact opened the door for poets to exploit the tendentiousness of such essentializing assumptions, as we shall see.

Classical genre theory began to take shape within the Platonic theory of imitation. 2 In keeping with the idea that poetry is a mimetic art, and that mimesis is a natural capacity of all human beings, Plato takes it for granted that different individuals will work in genres suited to their respective characters. In the Republic (394e-395b)he makes Socrates base an argument concerning the natural capacities of "guardians" in his ideal state on the belief that the same person could not write both tragedy and comedy, or indeed even act in both kinds of drama. 3 Plato's pupil Aristotle later explains the origin of genres with reference to the same belief: "We have, then, a natural instinct for representation and for tune and rhythm—for meters are obviously sections of rhythms—and starting with these instincts men very gradually developed them until they produced poetry out of their improvisations. Poetry then split into two kinds according to the poet's nature. For the more serious poets represented the noble deeds of noble men, while those of a less exalted nature represented the actions of inferior men, at first writing satire just as the others at first wrote hymns and eulogies." 4 From this statement it is obvious that Aristotle classifies genres by the kinds of actions that they represent, but that this in itself is not the primary consideration; for the choice to represent this or that kind of action will be a function of the poet's own character. Genre is thus an expression of character rather than a choice to be made among several freely available kinds of action or literary forms. A poet of serious character will produce serious poetry, which will involve the imitation of serious actions; a poet of less noble character will produce less exalted poetry that imitates baser actions...


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