Dario N. Sánchez Vedramini: Eliten und Kultur. Eine Geschichte der römischen Literaturszene (240 v.Chr.-117 n.Chr.) (= Tübinger althistorische Studien; Bd. 7), Bonn: Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelt 2010, VI + 460 S., mit 13 Tafeln, ISBN 978-3-7749-3676-8, EUR 98,00
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Dario Sanchez Vendramini's stimulating and learned book is the revision of a dissertation, written in 2006 at Tübingen with Frank Kolb. The dissertation, to judge from its title, was restricted to literary culture in the Roman Empire. The book offers an account of the emergence and social valorization of aristocratic literary culture in Rome, from its earliest detectable beginnings after the first Punic War down to the end of the reign of Trajan. The primitive culture of the Roman aristocracy is imagined - no less by later Romans than by modern scholars - as a state of pragmatic virtue, in which political prestige derived from success in the uncompromising school of war. By the late Republic, however, aristocrats had come to conceive of literary distinction as a substitute - inferior, but honorable - for military achievement. The change of attitude has been explained with reference to the rise of Roman autocracy: as powerful individuals and their families came to monopolize military power, the Roman senatorial class had to find other outlets for their political and social ambitions. Denied distinction in army careers, they turned to literary pursuits. The idea is amply attested in literary sources: see, for example, Tacitus' writings. Sanchez Vendramini gives it due attention (8), but rightly sees the "aristocratization" of literature as the consequence of a more complex and gradual development. He approaches the problem through what he calls the "Literaturszene," by which he means "the legitimate and socially recognized forms of contact between author and public, and the forms of dissemination of literary works" (8).
The book is organized chronologically, its five chapters conforming to conventional divisions of Roman political history. The first chapter treats the "Genesis of the Roman Literaturszene" from the end of the first Punic war to Pydna (240-168 BC), the second "the expansion of the Literaturszene and the Genesis of an Aristocratic Literature" from Pydna to roughly the outbreak of the Social War (168-90 BC). With the third chapter the author reaches the better attested "Time of Cicero" (90-43 BC). The fourth chapter deals with "The Time of Augustus," when the Literaturszene achieved its definitive state (43 BC - AD 14). The final chapter is devoted to the early empire down to Trajan (AD 14 - 117). For reasons unclear to me, the author characterizes the Literaturszene of this era pejoratively as "stagnant" (rather than, for example, as "mature" or "stable"). The chapter concludes with a tantalizing, but incomplete and imperfectly integrated discussion of the literary culture of provincial elites. Is the literary culture of the empire unified? Or do localities enjoy their own distinguishable literary cultures? (William Johnson's work on "communities of reading" is relevant here). The discussion is limited to the sparse evidence from the Latin west in the early empire; to explore the relationship between the literary culture of the metropolis of Rome and that of smaller cities, the field of investigation should be expanded to include evidence through late antiquity and from the Greek east.
Recurring themes include the influence of Greek models on Roman practice; the mechanisms by which Roman literature achieved a final form and was disseminated; the values and groups fostered by these mechanisms; the social characteristics of Roman authors; and the constitution of a "public" for literature. Thematic argument is subordinated to the chronological organization of the book; presentation is dispersed among the five chapters of the book. This organization allows the author to emphasize developmental aspects of the Literaturszene, but at the price of incisiveness. The pace of the argument is in places leisurely and repetitive, and sometimes decays into a general expository literary history. Given the scattered presentation of the various themes, the omission of an index is a flaw.
The presumptions supporting the author's concept of the Literaturszene constitute a minefield of uncertainties and controversies. The book is well researched and the author is conscientious about noting differences of scholarly opinion before taking his own positions. That said, elements of his account lapse into patterns of thought that are more at home in modern print-culture. For example, does the distinction between professional writers and dilettanti (211) describe an important distinction in the Roman world? How precisely might authors have derived a living from their writing, and so become professionals? Given the limited capacity of scribal production and distribution, is it reasonable to imagine a general public for literature, transcending class and defined chiefly by their capacity to read (222)? Despite the commonplace rhetoric of literary eternity and universal fame, did authors write to attract as large a readership as possible (226), as modern authors "pitch" their books to the "market"? Given the fluidity of the text in scribal cultures, in what sense was a "publication" conceived as final? And what circumstances sparked the apprehension of authors about the release of their work (225-6)? The notion of literature itself deserves consideration. In this book the idea is unproblematic. How does the introduction of print impact the traditional concept of literature? For the author, literature seems defined by some criterion pertaining to its formal content, rather than, for example, by its written-ness, by the material circumstances of reproduction and distribution. The point matters because, for example, it allows him to treat oral theater as literature, and consequently he can take that position that in Rome literature begins as a broadly based popular form, later imitated by the aristocracy.
A larger issue is the long debated problem of the extent of literacy in the ancient world. The problem has a strategic importance in the book, for example in discussions of the development of general reading "public". The author summarizes various arguments and concludes that literacy must have been extensive among Roman citizens (citing particularly Frank Kolb, 237). He estimates the literate population of the city of Rome as high as 25 percent, about 250,000 people, of which he imagines a "not insignificant portion" (nicht unwesentlicher Teil) will have been readers of literature (337). This claim is uncharacteristic, in that he provides an approximate number (cf. 413 for reasons why he prefers not to do so); the doubly negated reference to the "not insignificant portion" is more typical. Generally the author speaks vaguely of literacy as "increasing" or "extensive". There is no need to rehearse the problematic nuances of the problem: the question of the definition of what ability qualifies one as literate; the trouble with mapping literacy rates directly on class hierarchies; the difficulty of differentiating levels and kinds of competence among "literate" historical actors (e.g. "craft literacy"); the relation of reading to the expense of writing materials; and so on. The position the author takes is well-informed and respectable, but far from uncontroversial. In my opinion he is excessively optimistic.
Charles W. Hedrick