- Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization ed. by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen
This collection of sixteen essays, as the subtitle indicates, aims to explore the role of fictionalization in biographies composed in Greek and Latin, although technically not in biographies written in Greece and Rome, as the main title claims, since the works studied in this volume come from a wider variety of locations and contexts. In his introductory essay, De Temmerman defines fictionalization as “the use of narrative techniques that interrogate, destabilize or challenge, if only for a minute, the narrative’s intention to be believed or its claim to be truthful” (14). He further describes several of the techniques, such as representation of the unknown, literary modeling, and intertextuality, that are examined in the chapters that follow. Taken as a whole, this collection of essays provides a clear demonstration that fictionalization is essential to ancient biographical writing. Also explored, and often left as an open question, is whether or not an author expected his reader to notice and respond in some way to the fictive elements.
The chapters are arranged into groups that study biographies of individuals (Life of Aesop, Plutarch’s Artaxerxes, Lucian’s Life of Demonax, Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius, Jerome’s Vita Malchi, and Severus’ Vita Martini); biographies in collections (Plutarch’s Agis-Cleomenes and Gracchi, Diogenes Laertius’ Zeno and Epicurus, Suetonius’ Caesars and Illustrious Men, and the Historia Augusta); and what the editors call “biographical modes of discourse,” which in this volume are epistolary narratives (Letters of Chion of Heraclea, the Ps.-Hippocratic letters) and embedded biographies (the life of Homer as narrated in Heliodorus’ Ethiopica). Each individual study focuses on a particular aspect of [End Page 589] fictionalization in a single text or in related texts. The individual authors are to be praised for the clarity of their arguments, their careful readings of the texts under consideration, and their prudent judgments and conclusions.
Several chapters may be singled out for being especially effective in advancing the aims of the collection. Christa Gray’s chapter on the Vita Malchi very succinctly demonstrates the generic complexity of Jerome’s original Latin text, highlighting especially its connections to the ancient novel. Then it demonstrates how the translator who rendered the Life into Greek “intervened” to guide his readers’ interpretation of the text and to situate it more firmly within a developing hagiographical tradition. Danny Praet offers a close reading of the scene in the Vita Martini where Martin, prior to his conversion to Christianity, gives half his cloak to a poor man. Praet argues persuasively that Sulpicius Severus invented this episode both as a clever imitation of the Gospels and in defense of Martin’s military service, which he continued despite his conversion. Rhiannon Ash articulates the multiple literary and historical influences on the assassination scenes in Suetonius’ Lives of Julius Caesar, Caligula, and Domitian, including Suetonius’ own “self-imitation” as he uses the assassination of Julius as a model for the other two.
As with many collections of this sort, each chapter is essentially self-contained. Although most make reference back to the introduction, no chapter really engages with the arguments of any other chapter. This lack is especially apparent in relation to the second chapter, in which David Konstan and Robyn Walsh propose that there are two basic types of ancient biographical writing that originate with Xenophon and appear in various forms. One, the “civic tradition,” has its prototype in the Agesilaus and emphasizes “character and civic virtues,” while the other, the “subversive tradition,” has its prototype in the Memorabilia and emphasizes “wit and other resources of the dispossessed, who subtly criticize the dominant values of society” (43). This is a significant proposal that would be more convincing with more argumentation than is possible in a single chapter. While several other chapters make general statements about the biographical tradition, none takes up the argument of Konstan and Walsh. One important example...