The Lives of Latin Texts

The Lives of Latin Texts

Terence, Hécyre, Paris, credit Wikipédia

Lauren Curtis, Irene P. Garrison, eds., The Lives of Latin Texts: Papers Presented to Richard J. TarrantHarvard University Press, Loeb Classical Monograph, 2020, pp. i-xxvii; 1-336, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Distinguished as a textual critic, RJ Tarrant’s literary insights are combined with a knowledge of Latin syntax. To mark his retirement from the Pope Professorship of Latin Language and Literature, the department of Classics at Harvard organized a conference in 2018. The collectanea now published evidence the admiration in which he is held by students and colleagues. Select comments are due.

Kathleen Coleman remarks on his publications and contributions to classical studies in a paper entitled ‘Richard Tarrant: Scholar, Teacher, Colleague’, after which a 5-page bibliography is appended. The book includes three sections: Part I: Editing; Part II: Seneca, Ovid, and Other Incursions in Latin Literature; Part III: Music. Fourteen papers are included, all astute; some more, some less interesting [see Table of Contents below].

Rebecca Benefiel’s paper ‘Editing Ancient Graffiti’ illustrates her approach to editing ancient handwriting. Providing plenty of figures and illustrations, readers are given opportunities to grapple with expressions that are unclear, with inscriptions that defy dogmatic interpretation. On p.16 she argues that many words should not be “frequently dismissed as misspellings or mistakes”. We beg to differ. Even if we grant the omnipresence of colloquialism, Latin idiom among Romans definitely could be conveyed correctly or incorrectly. These things essentially are matters of judgement. As scholarship advances, it seems likely that rigid assertions about the character of language will go the same way as pronouncements hitherto made on the distinct characteristics of different people.

G.B. Conte’s paper ‘Christian Gottlob Heyne as a Virgilian Textual Critic’ gives a sketch  of Heyne’s work on Virgil. Past scholars ranked his exegetical skill above his textual editing (p.36). Conte redresses the balance. Overlooked and disregarded, Conte proves that the dismissal of Heyne’s text-criticism by subsequent Virgil scholars was hasty. The article illustrates, with numerous examples, that Heyne’s commentary was successful because his text-critical efforts were sound.

In the book’s longest paper, C. Damon writes of ‘… Parentheses in Caesar’s Commentari’. She addresses Quintilian’s notion that a ‘parenthesis’ is ‘some intervening idea that interrupts the continuity of an utterance’ (pp.67-8). Damon is well aware of how punctuation is able to bring to readers attention parenthetical statements that are Latin. In ‘Interpolation Hunting in Senecan Tragedy…’ , SJ Heyworth identifies misplaced phrases and locates a trove of texts needing discussion. He agrees with Tarrant that earlier interpolators should not be wholly linked to ‘forgery and fraudulence’; but they were ‘readers interacting with the text and trying to improve the experience of reading by correcting, annotating, or collaborating with the perceived aims of the author’. That kind of optimism will not be shared by all philologists. Texts examined by Heyworth in Seneca, Ovid and Horace are dealt with in excellent ways. And along with Gareth William’s paper below, Heyworth’s explanatory footnotes does more than indicate sources, and are a better assortment than those in other papers.

Who would imagine that a paper on an ancient sculpture could hold one’s attention beyond 4 paragraphs? M. Reeve, however, produced a study titled ‘IVPPITER IMPERATOR?, which surely will stimulate debate about whether the reading ‘imperator’ should be replaced by ‘impetrator’.  Beginning with Cicero’s fourth Verrine [2.4.128-130], Reeve makes the case that manuscript ‘evidence of the three witnesses speaks louder for impetr– than for imper’ (pp.117-118). The journey that brought him to that conclusion involved considerable detective work.

Part II consists of 140 pages in which various and sundry subjects are treated. There are two papers on Seneca, one on Ovid, Martial, Terence and Statius. An expert on The Vulgate Commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, F.T. Coulson’s paper on how the Ceyx and Alcyone episode was read in medieval traditions is of interest. He believed Ovid’s Fasti was a model for Seneca’s Consolatio ad Marciam. Maybe. At any rate, J. Ker explicates Cremutius’ words of consolation to Marcia whose son Metilius has died. Ker is compelling on Cremutius’ stoic doctrines of the afterlife and on Seneca’s use of the word animae. Ker’s search for intertextual parallels leads him through Augustan poetry looking for clues. P.A. Brunt’s Studies in Stoicism (2013) would have bolstered several hypotheses of his. In the only other paper of considerable length, A. Keith explores Epicurean themes in Martial’s poetry (Epigr. 10). Images in Martial’s epigrams come to life in this paper.

The goal of helping students to view the characters in a play critically is hardly new. J. Neumann is evidently reluctant to introduce Terence to students because of his references to rape, prostitution, and overtly demeaning depictions of women. In a paper sub-titled ‘Terence and his Contemporary Adulescentes’, she posits active correspondences with modern adolescents. As she observes, sexual violence is ubiquitous on campuses. And doubtless there will always be people who find depictions of sexual misconduct off-putting, whether in print or in film.

Seeking to fill a scholarly gap, G. Rosati’s piece, ‘Pauca Meo Stellae’ puts Statius in competition with one of Virgil’s eclogues. The paper is a firm product of literary criticism and provokes three questions among many: (1) does Statius Silvae 1.2 teach us ‘that when a poet addresses a work to another poet, we should expect it to contain some musings and a debate on the two colleagues’ literary predilections’? (p.228); (2) is eros really a universal energy? (p.232); (3) if ‘Latin erotic elegy’ in fact ‘is a place of ethical and literary tensions and conflicts’, whose fault is it that such conflict is perceptible? Contemporary scholars superimpose frames of thought around clauses and phrases which any number of ancient authors did not consider problematic. G.D. Williams’ paper, ‘Ax of Love’ honors Tarrant by studying three aspects of Seneca’s Agamemnon, in which Tarrant’s ‘celebrated 1976 commentary sheds important light and takes up strong positions.’ Williams’ writing is lucid and free of the intentional ambiguities one finds in literary pieces in general. In truth, his paper is a rigorous piece of scholarship. Some of his interpretations are superior to Tarrant’s. Thanks to Williams’ elucidation, Clytemnestra’s motivation for murder  is now explicable.

Comments on the three pieces in Part III: Music are omitted. The translations given throughout the book are reliable. In most places the authors translate their own selections.


  1. Editing

Editing Ancient Handwriting [R. Benefiel]; Christian Gottlob Heyne as a Virgilian Textual Critic [G. B. Conte]; On (Authorial and Other) Parentheses in Caesar’s Commentarii [Cynthia Damon]; Interpolation Hunting in Senecan Tragedy, Ovid, and Horace [S. J. Heyworth]; IVPPITER IMPERATOR? [Michael Reeve]

  1. Seneca, Ovid, and Other Incursions in Latin Literature

Reading Ceyx and Alcyone in the Medieval School Tradition on Ovid [Frank T. Coulson]; It’s the Animae, Stupid: Seneca’s Ovidian Afterlives [James Ker]; Martial’s Retirement and Other Epicurean Postures in Book 10 [Alison Keith]; Est Enim Difficilis Curarum Rerum Alienarum: Terence and his Contemporary Adulescentes [J. Neumann]; Pauca meo Stellae: Life Choice and Genre in Statius Silvae 1.2 [G. Rosati]; Ax of Love: Clytemnestra’s Motivation for Murder in Seneca’s Agamemnon [G. D. Williams]

III. Music

Augustan Poetry and the Age of Rust: Music and Metaphor in Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown [Thomas E. Jenkins]; Roman Civil War in Verdi’s Trovatore [Michèle Lowrie]; Bob Dylan and the Art of the Citharode [Richard F. Thomas]

Darrell Sutton writes on poetic, classical and biblical topics for QR


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