Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Recepti Scriptores and Some Others

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Recepti Scriptores and Some Others

Article excerpt

Recepti Scriptores and Some Others

Bird's-eye views and "general introductions to" a subject did not really exist in classical antiquity. Encyclopaedists like Pliny or compilers of adversaria like Aulus Gellius and Athenaeus were more huntergathers than pedagogues, the first of things observed in the natural world, the other two of interesting quotations from the worlds of texts and gossip. Porphyry wrote a book in the later third century CE to help readers of Aristotle, but it was more of a textbook than an introductory guide for neophytes. Hellenistic scholarship earlier focused on Homer; but while there was an obvious need some five hundred years after the poet's putative lifetime for the establishment of an authentic text of the Iliad and the Odyssey, there was no real need for "A Young Person's Guide to Homer," much less a propaedeutic for adult learners in the modern sense. Such books became prevalent only with the spread of literacy in the West during the nineteenth century, and today they are the mainstay of several publishers. There are almost 3,000 titles in the "For Dummies" series, which was begun twenty-five years ago with a book on the DOS operating system; the somewhat younger and more academically focused Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press now comprises some 450 titles. Both series have been hugely successful and demonstrate that there is an extensive market for books that, in length and assumed audience, fall somewhere between a Wikipedia article and a scholarly monograph.

Richard Jenkyns' survey of the literature of Classical Antiquity does not form part of a series, but it is certainly written in the spirit of a propaedeutic.1 His aim, as he puts it in the concluding words of his Preface, is to "present the best of what the Greeks and Romans wrote, and to show, as well as I can, what makes it the best." He begins with Homer and ends with Petronius and Apuleius, as close to a millennium of written texts as not to quibble about. He focuses on the writers "whom I find most inspiring"; scientific and medical writers are not touched on, nor genial geographical writers like Pausanias, who comes at the very end of Jenkyns' period. Comedy and oratory get short shrift by the author's own admission. One assumes that those texts do not inspire him. Rather surprisingly the writers of the Gospels, St. Paul, and the John who wrote Revelation ("the most imaginative and compelling work of prose fiction in Greek") are included, since they wrote in Greek and fall into Jenkyns' thousand-year span. While few readers would normally think of Classical Literature as including the New Testament- the latter shares one of the languages of the former, but hardly its world view or theology-there is certainly a useful "compare and contrast" value to bringing it into the picture. On the whole, Jenkyns is evenhanded, as befits the author of a survey, and there are no surprising omissions or instances of special pleading in his book, unlike the work of Ezra Pound, for example, whose extensive writing on the literatures of Greece and Rome regularly included a denigration of Virgil, for whom Pound had little respect. (Self-anointed "great" writers did not interest Pound. He denigrated Goethe too.)

This is not to say that Jenkyns does not make literary judgments. He could hardly refrain from doing so, given that Classical Literature includes not only canonical masterpieces such as the Iliad, the Oresteia, the Aeneid, and the Metamorphoses, but also less highly esteemed and less often read compositions like Lucan's Pharsalia or Statius' Silvae. Of Lucan he says dismissively, "no classical author of comparable talent is so often and so massively bad." Seneca's plays are described as Grand Guignol, and Jenkyns says in conclusion that "a man must have real talent to write works as bad as these." (Oddly, he is kinder to Manilius, whose name now, if it is remembered at all by the common reader, is largely known because A. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.