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Giulio Colesanti / Manuela Giordano (eds.): Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture. An Introduction, Berlin: de Gruyter 2014, X + 229 S., ISBN 978-3-11-033396-1, EUR 79,95
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Giulio Colesanti / Laura Lulli (eds.): Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture. Volume 2: Case Studies, Berlin: de Gruyter 2016, X + 396 S., zahlr. Farb-, s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-11-043457-6, EUR 79,95
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Andrea Ercolani / Manuela Giordano (eds.): Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture. Volume 3: The Comparative Perspective, Berlin: de Gruyter 2016, VIII + 278 S., 2 Farb-, 7 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-11-042743-1, EUR 79,95
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Rezension von:
Stephen Halliwell
School of Classics, University of St Andrews
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture

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Inspiration for the project embodied in this enterprising but not unproblematic set of volumes came from a suggestion of Luigi Enrico Rossi's, the distinguished Italian historian of Greek literature (to whose memory the first two volumes are both dedicated). Rossi's original proposal was to gather together evidence for various Greek works which had never been "protected" by the processes of formalised transmission - processes which included repeated performance, textual distribution, scholarly editing, commentary, and educational study. The idea was not simply to document the extent of what has failed to survive (a fate which can obviously result from a whole host of contingencies and at different stages of transmission), but to enrich our understanding of the practices, institutions and values which, while enabling certain kinds of discourse and text to benefit from privileged preservation, led others to be marginalised or even suppressed. So we are dealing, in principle, not with mere impermanence but with the negative consequences of forces of cultural selection, authorisation and - most fundamentally - canonisation.

The first volume, all of whose contributors were pupils of Rossi's (as are the editors of all three volumes), charts some of the general contours of Greek literary history in the archaic and early classical periods (with one or two forward glances to the key contributions of Hellenistic scholarship in creating a series of canonical classifications of works) as seen from the vantage point of an interest in the submerged: salient case-studies are taken chiefly from the spheres of epic, lyric and drama. Volume 2 offers a larger collection of case-studies, including some material from philosophy, religion, iconography, medicine, and music(ology). The final volume extends the remit (though inconsistently: see below) onto a comparative scale, testing the project's hermeneutic models against a range of cultural phenomena from antiquity to the present, and from Judaea to China. Since this review has space to refer only very selectively to individual contributions (forty-seven in all, including editorial introductions and conclusions), readers may wish to visit the De Gruyter website to check the full contents of the three volumes. [1]

There is a great deal here to admire and to learn from. The general standard of scholarship and writing is high, with commendably few misprints (though there are a few conspicuous ones in the printing of Greek). But a basic reservation needs to be registered at the outset. It is inevitable that in order to fit the purposes of an expansive, multi-authored undertaking of this kind, the concept of the "submerged" receives some rather elastic treatment. But with elasticity comes the risk of overstretch, looseness, and a lack of tautness of thought. A generous reader will be prepared, of course, to allow editors and contributors a fair bit of latitude in exploring the possible ramifications of Rossi's original agenda, and even in countenancing its extrapolation (via the idea of all cultural operations as quasi-textual) to phenomena such as the visual arts, though it has to be said that the art-historians in volume 2 are among the main offenders in neglecting the specific research objectives advanced by Rossi. It is nonetheless troubling that at certain points that agenda seems to drift out of sight altogether. No fewer than seven of the nineteen contributors to volume 2 do not mention the category of literary/cultural "submersion" at all, and the same is true of at least two of the contributors to volume 3. This is not accidental or incidental. The chapters in question, while in most cases worthwhile in their own right, do indeed have little or no bearing on the central issues of the project, and I am left puzzled why the editors permitted this to happen (though it is, needless to say, a far from rare occurrence in an age awash with academic collections of papers).

The underlying problem is that once the concept of the submerged requires account to be (legitimately) taken of such large considerations as the oral/literate interface, the formation of canons, questions of authorship and/or anonymity, the workings of cultural memory, the contrast between local and panhellenic traditions, the defining criteria of genres, the relationship between elite and "popular" culture, the role of archives and libraries, the influence of educational practices and syllabuses, and the fact that our body of surviving works represents only "the tip of an iceberg" (a trope which superficially fits the metaphor in "submerged" but is sometimes more a matter of the contingencies of survival, which was not the point of Rossi's concept) - well, once things are opened up in this multifarious way (cf. 3: 3, for Ercolani and Giordano's own list of seven prime factors in the dynamics of literary/cultural submersion), [2] there is a perpetual danger of diffuseness and centrifugality. Subordinate questions readily take on a life of their own, sometimes leaving the core raison d'être of the project unilluminated.

A related danger is that the vocabulary of submersion (and its positive counterpart, "emergence") leads to claims of novelty of interpretation where it would be more accurate to speak of the reformulation of familiar theses. That is so, I think, with volume 1 in particular. Here, the cultural primacy in archaic Greece of oral performance on specified types of occasion is very much in the forefront of several contributors' arguments, but this hardly represents a new lens through which to view the evolution of archaic poetry. When Riccardo Palmisciano concludes his discussion of archaic orality by suggesting that "we should expect notable results from renewed study of texts that have been preserved in the light of the awareness that those texts were part of a system of poetic communication, in which their specific function was no different from that of the texts of submerged poetry" (1: 31), I find it impossible to see that anything of real significance is being promised.

What's more, the broadly justified emphasis on performative context in archaic culture can be pushed too far, thereby masking the extent of what we do not know or understand. It is surprising, for instance, that Michele Napolitano, in an interesting piece about how musical notation developed too late to help preserve most archaic Greek music, can advance such an unqualified assertion as this: "in archaic and classical Greece there was no literature that was not devised for a particular occasion, and which thus had a particular context and audience in mind right from the start" (2: 312). But what - to take the most glaring case - was the particular occasion or audience for which the Iliad or Odyssey were created? Hypotheses are one thing but to suppose there must have been a determinate answer to this question is nothing more than dogma. This is just one strand in the challenge of trying to make sense of the intricate, variable interplay between performance and written texts in archaic Greek culture more generally - and therefore the challenge of giving a stable content to the notion of what should count as having been "submerged" as opposed to merely lost.

A different example of some of the conceptual tensions and instabilities which affect the notion of submersion is provided by Sergio Ribichini's contribution to volume 2 (161-76). Ribichini's topic is the status of "hidden" texts, or various kinds of ἱεροὶ λόγοι (liturgical and/or narrative), in mystery cults. Despite one or two small errors, Ribichini aptly reconstructs the ritualised employment of an esoteric literature within such cults. But when he calls such literature "submerged both in a normative sense and almost literally, that is, protected by institutions and kept physically hidden" (162), and later observes that it was precisely the fact of being "protected by the mystic silence" (174) which led to the non-survival of the texts in question, he seem oblivious of the fact that he has exposed a possible contradiction within the terms of reference of submerged literature. Rossi had stated unequivocally, as part of his original proposal, that submerged literature "never enjoyed the protection of either the polis or any other authority with institutionalized ... credentials"; moreover, he himself strangely used the case of mystery cults to illustrate the status of texts which benefited from "neither control nor protection" in circumstances where "it was in the interest of a community that they be concealed, and even suppressed". [3] So within Rossi's own criteria there lurks a potential paradox: while lack of "protection" might in some cases mean cultural devaluation and non-transmission, in others, such as that of mystery cults, it turns out to involve a special type of concealment - and indeed, as Ribichieni rightly states, a highly institutionalised kind of "protection". Yet at the same time, as Rossi and Ribichieni both recognise, it is precisely the fact of official concealment which consigns the texts to eventual disappearance. The idea of submersion, then, is being used here in relation to two distinct issues - cultural accessibility/visibility and long-term survival - and the result is confusion.

It is contributors who remain alert to the underlying complexity of what is at stake in the larger project, and to the danger of slippery criteria, who manage to extract the most substance from the concept of submerged literature. An exemplary case in point is Rafaelle Luiselli's treatment of the Acta Alexandrinorum (or Acts of the Pagan Martyrs) as an illustration of the circulation and transmission of Greek adespota in Roman Egypt (2: 289-310). Dozens of papyrus fragments show that the Acta flourished for two centuries or more of the imperial period and seem to have been textually quite stable, yet they were never recognised within the cultural practices or institutions of literary study. Luiselli argues, however, that such texts may have been read by some educated "middle-class" readers who also read high-prestige literature such as the canonical poets: he makes this thesis plausible by adducing evidence for the contents of the library of a tax-collector, Socrates son of Sarapion, of Karanis. Luiselli's argument, which at certain points prompts lateral thoughts about the case of the ancient novel (which surprisingly receives no discussion of its own anywhere in these volumes), is historically subtle and sensitive. His nine numbered conclusions alone (2: 307) are a shrewd synopsis of a cluster of factors which complicate the interpretation of the category of submerged literature in one part of the domain of Greek culture.

Also strongly papyrological in its underpinnings is the fine essay by Lucio del Corso on a range of "minor" or "secondary" genres that includes gnomologies, sympotic anthologies, agricultural manuals, calendars, prayers for Egyptian deities, and Greek translations of Egyptian fictional narratives (2: 269-87). Del Corso does not attempt to arrive at any overarching conclusion about all this material. Instead, he recognises "the complexity of a [cultural] system" (285) and situates the types of writings examined in a "grey zone" somewhere between the everyday and the established canons of literature. He speculates that if we knew more, we would discover that there was always the possibility of two-way interaction between high-prestige writings and more practical kinds of compilations or handbooks. In this respect, then, the question of what might count as "submerged" needs to be carefully handled within the multiple parameters of Greek literary history, rather than reduced to anything like a fixed paradigm.

The conceptual uncertainties that intermittently afflict the first two volumes in this series are somewhat compounded when we reach the far from consistently "comparative" perspective of the third volume. This is in part because almost half the contributions are not comparative in any robust sense of the term and could/should have found a home in either the first or second volume. This is true, for instance, of two pieces which are both highly effective in their own right: Margalit Finkelberg's analysis of the Homeric epics as deliberately designed to suppress and supersede some of the mythological traditions (e.g. the idea of the end of the race of heroes) found in the epic Cycle and other early poetry; and Robert Fowler's elegant overview of the trajectory of mythography from its emergence as a new kind of synthetic prose-writing in the late-archaic period to its much more utilitarian role (and hence its existence as a set of texts that were repeatedly "cannibalised") in later phases of Greek culture. Of the chapters of volume 3 which do fit the comparative bill, centrifugally different takes on the concept of literary submersion are all too evident. Jonathan Ben-Dov's concern is more with the fluctuating status of (religious) ideas than of texts: he shows how the motif of divine assemblies, common in several early Levantine literatures and necessarily presupposing a plurality of deities, was resisted and toned down in the Hebrew Bible but revived in later apocalyptic Israelite writings from Qumran. Jonathan Cahana equates submersion with patriarchal subjugation, which he explores in the relationship of both Gnosticism and modern radical feminism to their respective mainstream cultures. Pietro de Laurentis is informative about the history of Chinese funerary inscriptions, but in foregrounding the fact that for much of their history they were "literally" submerged (3: 215), i.e. buried in the ground, he creates a mere diversion from the core aims of the project. Roberta Denaro, on the other hand, scrupulously considers how far Rossi's concept of the submerged can be applied to the traditions and values of Arabic literary culture: the steady focus, the concision and the lucidity of her approach are virtues which would have been more generally welcome in the comparative part of this venture.

I should reiterate, by way of conclusion, that these three volumes contain a rich and wide-ranging collection of papers, only a small handful of which have nothing of note to offer. But the inescapable question is whether they add up to a sustained and coherent justification of the category of "submerged literature", or instead stretch and adapt the category in too many directions (as well as sometimes forgetting about it altogether) to form a wholly satisfying framework of thought. My own judgement, as will have been clear, leans rather towards the second of these verdicts. The best papers in the collection demonstrate that the concept of cultural submersion can be made to do productive analytical work in certain areas and when employed with sophistication. But the sum total of the project leaves one doubtful whether the concept can in itself provide a strong grip on the complex dynamics of Greek literary history.


[1] Contents of vol. 1 can be found at, of vol. 2 at, and of vol. 3 at

[2] Their list of factors is: canon formation, centre-periphery, cultural and political geography, group influence, orality-literacy, authorship vs. anonymity, educational systems.

[3] These passages (the first from unpublished notes) are quoted in both Italian and English in 1: 1-2; for the first of them, cf. also 1: 1 and 7.

Stephen Halliwell