Beyond Greek.

I was intrigued enough by a reference to Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature to investigate it; while it’s not as pricey as I expected, it’s still more than I want to pay for a book. Fortunately, there’s a detailed review by Jackie Elliott in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and I was able to have the start of the book sent to my Kindle. Here’s a passage from Feeney that sets out the problem at the heart of the book, one I had never thought about:

Looking at the Mediterranean world in 250, no observer would conclude that an empire needed to have a widely disseminated vernacular literature, or that a state of non-Greeks should have intimate reciprocal links with Greece through a systematically interconnected historiography and mythology, or that another linguistic group should commission literary works to be translated from Greek into their own vernacular. It had never happened before or anywhere else in the Mediterranean that one culture should set out to take over the prototypical literary forms of Hellas in order to create its vernacular equivalent, and for a parallel of any substance we have to wait until the Late Middle Ages, when the Latin forms became in their turn one of the new interactive catalysts for the emerging European vernacular literatures. We are used to thinking of Greek and Latin as the “classical” literatures, with later traditions as the “vernacular” literatures, but from the standpoint of the Western tradition, at least, Latin is the first “vernacular” literature.

So why is there a Latin literature? In case you suspect he’s being simple-minded about it, here are a couple of later passages:

Everything about this project is problematic, starting with the definition of all the terms I have been using so far, “literature” and “translation,” “historiography” and “mythology.” Justifying the use of a term such as “literature” in an ancient context is a notoriously unstraightforward thing to do. These terms are still occasionally treated as self-evident categories, reified concepts that apply across time and space, but they are not givens in nature; instead, in the Roman middle Republic all of them are interactive frames in which Romans, Greeks of different heritages, and many other peoples, encountered and reshaped each other in unprecedented ways. […]

Assimilation is constitutive of Roman identity, marked by their selfconscious advertizing of how they took over their characteristic short sword from the Spaniards (Plb. 6. 23. 6), their distinctive toga from the Etruscans (Liv. 1.8. 3), and their very name as citizens, Quirites, from the Sabines (Liv. 1. 13.5). According to Cornell, in a—justly—commonly quoted aphorism: “an independent or autonomous Latin culture never had a chance to emerge.”

In fact, it is becoming more and more evident that there is no such thing as an independent or autonomous culture at any time or place. As Bayart puts it in his important study, “There is no culture that is not created, and . . . this creation is usually recent. Moreover, the formation of a culture or a tradition necessarily involves dialogue, and occurs in interaction with its regional and international environment.”

In Chapter 1, on translation, he has a section “The Strangeness of Translation” that points out that our modern expectation that we can read all sorts of other literatures in our own language is “a comparatively recent state of affairs” and quotes an Indian scholar, Harish Trivedi, as saying “There is no translation in India […] until very recently, nothing was ever translated directly between Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, and so on”; Feeney adds:

There has never been such a thing as an impermeable culture, but a group is able to represent itself as being its own knowledge-world to one degree or another, and this is particularly the case with forms of textually encoded knowledge. As Jack Goody has demonstrated, literacy’s codification of systems of knowledge and belief within a culture can in itself encourage the apprehension that there is a defined boundary between this knowledge system and the ones codified by other groups. From this perspective, it is not, on reflection, obvious that even a bilingual group will need to set up a dialogue with outside traditions of knowledge and power by importing vernacular versions of texts that matter to those outside traditions.

And there’s more in Elliott’s review, for example:

Chapter 6, ‘A literature in the Latin language’, reviews what marks c. 3-2 Rome as a recognizably literary society, at least from the limited, modern vantage-point that is perhaps all that allows the term “literary” momentary definition and coherence: Rome had “libraries, endowed professorships, a common educational track with a “core” and “periphery” of accomplishments (experience of which was indispensable for anyone with any pretensions to status), copying houses, transmission of authoritative texts together with the scholarship that accompanied them, and empire-wide circulation of texts in a great variety of genres” (p. 154). It is thus Rome’s definitive co-option of a pre-established canon recognized also by others, one that in time acquired the full surrounding social and critical apparatus with which we are familiar, that in Feeney’s view defines what is distinctive about Rome as a literary society in its day. Chapter 7, ‘The impact and reach of the new literature’, complements this by further emphasizing the longevity but especially the mobility of the physical texts produced. These attributes allowed the texts to transcend time and space, as conditioned by initial production and reception. More importantly, they promoted an awareness of that transcendence on the part of author and audience, an awareness that again helps constitute the category of the “literary” (p. 195, citing Lowrie 2009). Inferring growing audiences at Rome and beyond, Feeney argues that the new literature also functioned as a means of systematizing and integrating the expanding forms of knowledge coming ever further within range.

Lots of food for thought!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The thing about assimilation as a distinctively Roman Way is interesting. It’s the sort of thing one just takes for granted until someone points out that, actually, it’s pretty odd.

    There can’t be all that many states that have fought a vicious war against their allies which was triggered by the said allies wanting to be assimilated and being refused.

  2. marie-lucie says

    They wanted to be assimilated culturally, not politically.

  3. Actually it was political. The Social War was fought because the allied Italian cities wanted Roman citizenship rather than the mere local autonomy they then had. After declaring war, they announced they wanted to create a separate federal state, but they lost, so that didn’t happen. The rebellion was very costly to overcome, however, so the Senate decided to grant Roman citizenship to all Italian cities that did not rebel, and individuals from the rebellious cities could apply for Roman citizenship on request.

    About three centuries later, the Emperor Caracalla made all subjects of the empire Roman citizens. This widened the tax base and the base for the legions.

  4. Thanks JC. I was thinking of “Conquered Greece conquered her conqueror” (or a saying to that effect).

  5. Ah, I see. That applies to China too, which systematically assimilated its conquerors as well. The Mongols could not be fully assimilated, because they had a population base outside the empire, but the Manchu did not, and as a result there are essentially no Manchu-speakers today.

  6. 1. Do we also need to reconsider the relationship between the Greeks and the older civilisations to their east? The Greeks ‘assimilated’ a lot but apparently didn’t need to ‘assimilate to’ those cultures.

    2. I am sure there are various similar (or similar but different) situations throughout history. The way the Japanese assimilated to Chinese culture but later declared a kind of ‘cultural independence’. The way the Turks were assimilated to the culture of the Arabs and the Persians… Each situation was, of course unique, which makes things interesting. The analogy that is often made, that Chinese is to Japanese what Latin is to English (as a source of roots for modern vocabulary) is possibly only true in a fairly general kind of way.

  7. Stephen C. Carlson says

    I’m trying to come with what works were actually translated in antiquity. One that comes to mind is the Torah, which was translated from Hebrew into Greek in the 3rd cen. BCE. Other parts of the Jewish scriptures came later in the following centuries.

  8. @ Stephen – the early Mahayana sutras in Chinese came to mind, but I guess those weren’t translated until much later than I thought.

  9. It depends on what counts as a work, I suppose. All those government documents dictated in Persian, written down in Aramaic, and retranslated at the receiving end, for example.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Likewise, there’s all that Late Bronze Age correspondence in Akkadian – including the peace treaty on exhibit in the UN building in New York – between people who didn’t necessarily speak any Semitic language.

  11. Stephen C. Carlson says

    @ AG :- another religious work. These might have their own reasons favoring translation?

    @ John, David :- had in mind literary works. The scribal culture of routine documents in Akkadian/Aramaic is however fascinating in their own right.

    I wish I knew more about the Ilias Latina

  12. Stephen CC: The scribal culture of routine documents in Akkadian/Aramaic

    Long after the fall of the Roman Empire, documents were written in Latin, not only in the former Empire but in countries that were never part of it.

  13. George Kennedy’s edition and translation of the Ilias Latina was self-published, and is supposedly available from the author: “copies are available for $12 form PO Box 271880, Fort Collins, CO 80527”. However, this information dates from 1999 and may no longer be usable, as Kennedy is now 90 years old. Still, worth a try.

  14. The Greeks ‘assimilated’ a lot but apparently didn’t need to ‘assimilate to’ those cultures.

    But they were apparently close enough to assimilating that they found a need to erect psychological and cultural barriers to the threat.

    Long after the fall of the Roman Empire, documents were written in Latin, not only in the former Empire but in countries that were never part of it.

    M-L, the use of Latin in Germany and Scandinavia comes to mind, with academics even latinizing their surnames. In an American context I’m sure there are examples of trade jargons getting that kind of currency and influence. It’s a shame there aren’t any written records other than for Chinook.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m trying to come with what works were actually translated in antiquity.

    A vast amount of Sanskrit stuff was translated into Tibetan from the ninth century on, especially Buddhist texts.
    According to Stephan Beyer’s (very enjoyable) grammar of Classical Tibetan, the principles of translation were so highly standardised under King Khri Gtsug-lde-btsan, and the translators were such unimaginative hacks, that reverse-engineering of lost Sanskrit works is very feasible.

    (I am indebted to Beyer’s quirky but scholarly book for, among other things, the knowledge that Julius Caesar has become the epic hero of Tibet, and that the Buddha was at one point a Catholic saint under the name of St Josaphat.)

  16. Julius Caesar has become the epic hero of Tibet

    Good heavens! How does that work?

  17. David Eddyshaw says
  18. Hmm: “It has been proposed on the basis of phonetic similarities that the name Gesar reflects the Roman title Caesar…” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    OK, I exaggerated a bit …
    It does seem possible that the name is ultimately that of the Dictator, for all that; there do seem at least to be links in Tibetan sources with Rome, as the ‘pedia goes on to say:

    In some Tibetan versions of the epic, a king named Phrom Ge-sar or Khrom Ge-sar figures as one of the kings of the four directions – the name is attested in the 10th century and this Phrom/Khrom preserves an Iranian form (*frōm-hrōm) for Rūm/Rome.

    At any rate, you know you’ve made something of a splash when your name becomes the ordinary word for “supreme ruler” in dozens of languages. No wonder they assassinated him. Smartarse.

    Reminds me of Pound’s line from “Homage to Sextus Propertius”:

    Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen

  20. I love “Homage to Sextus Propertius” — not only is it a great poem, it got me my first bookstore job. I’d been out of work for a long enough time my New Haven friends were getting tired of my crashing on their couches, and having just quit grad school I had no idea what kind of work I might be able to do; I wandered into the recently opened Book Haven, chatted with George the manager about a different translation of Propertius he saw me looking at, and compared it with Pound learnedly enough he offered me a job on the spot. (He was a great book guy but a lousy bookstore manager — he’d fill the store with great titles, attracting lots of customers, but then not pay for them, which meant the publishers stopped sending new titles, and eventually he’d get fired and move on to a new store which admired his taste but didn’t know about his fecklessness.) At last I was getting a paycheck and was able to afford cheap digs at (what we called) the Babson Arms!

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Agree re “Homage” in spades; also Propertius himself is a very remarkable poet. “Sunt aliquid manes” from his fourth book sends shivers down my spine every time. I can’t think of anything else quite like it in its combination of touching remembrance of lost love combined with sheer horror.

  22. In an even stranger twist – “The story of Barlaam and Josaphat” – the most widely read book in old Russian literature was actually a Christianized version of the story of Gautama Buddha (and name Josaphat actually derives from Bodhisattva ->Bodisav ->Budhasaf or Yudasaf -> Iodasaph -> Iosaphat/Josaphat )

  23. Stephen C. Carlson says

    “The story of Barlaam and Josaphat” is also notable in having incorporated the long-thought-lost second-century Apology of Aristides and nobody realized it until the late nineteenth century when Armenian and Syriac versions of the apology were discovered.

  24. David Marjanović says

    “Homage to Sextus Propertius”

    Found it; it begins here, and the quoted line is in part VI. Alas, I don’t know half of the mentioned figures, so much of it is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” to me.

    “Upon the Actian marshes Virgil […] shakes the Trojan weapons of Aeneas” (part XII) totally should have said “spears”.

  25. Emperor Caracalla made all subjects of the empire Roman citizens. This widened the tax base and the base for the legions.

    The subject of Roman taxes is more than a bit knotty. Citizens paid inheritance tax and sales tax (esp. on sale of slaves); non-citizen provincials paid land tax and poll tax (think Joseph and Mary being enrolled) and, in the case of the Jews under Vespasian, a religious tax (Fiscus Judaicus), and whatever the local tax farmers could squeeze out of them. Cassius Dio wrote that money was Caracalla’s aim, but the jury is still out on his motives, much less whether his blanket order made any difference to the fisc. Caracalla was a flighty sort of emperor….

    I’m trying to come with what works were actually translated in antiquity.

    Flavius Josephus wrote The Jewish War first in his “paternal tongue” (Hebrew or Aramaic, the text is lost), then in Greek for his Roman patrons.

  26. ə de vivre says
  27. David Marjanović says

    What is the language of the jingle in that podcast?

  28. ə de vivre says

    It’s “Hyori Jon” by Hadar Maoz, an Israeli musician from a Bukhara Jewish family. The whole thing is on her SoundCloud page. It sounds enough like Persian that I’d guess it’s Juedeo-Tajik.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Good to know I’m not completely hopeless at recognizing Persian, then. 🙂

  30. Yeah, it sounded like Persian to me as well.

  31. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    Julius Caesar has become the epic hero of Tibet

    Was it Julius or simply a caesar (or several of them fused together)?

  32. Lars (the original one) says

    Well, the historical figure seems to be a late first millennium Turkic ruler styling himself Rome Caesar (with slightly modified phonology). But the name is from July, of course. Clarum et duraturum cum aeternitate mundi nomen, with Festus.

    I’m sure little Sextus’ mother didn’t imagine that in 245 when she saw how much hair the newborn had.

  33. Tibetan, Mongolian, Buryat, Balti, Ladakhi and Monguor singers maintain the oral tradition and the epic has attracted intense scholarly curiosity as one of the few oral epic traditions to survive as a performing art. Besides stories conserved by such Chinese minorities as the Bai, Naxi, the Pumi, Lisu and Yugur,[6] versions of the epic are also recorded among the Balti of Baltistan, the Burusho people of Hunza and Gilgit,[6] and the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples,[7][8] in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes.[9] The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.[10]

    Burushaski epic about Julius Caesar.


  34. “one of the few oral epic traditions to survive as a performing art.”

    In Croatian we have an oral tradition of king Norin (Nero), though he actually ruled over what is now Croatia, as opposed to the Tibetans, Mongolians etc.
    Ref: “U kralja od Norina glava od gudina”

  35. Not that much weirder than a romance of King Arthur identifying the isle of Avalon as Sicily and the fires of Mt. Etna as the source of Morgan le Fay’s power, written in Old French and preserved as a unique manuscript in England. We happen to know how that worked: Breton storytellers accompanied the Normans in their rule of Sicily, 1130-1194, and the story spread out until it became part of Sicilian folklore.

  36. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    FWIW, brahmins became part of East Slavic folklore as рахманы via fantastic medieval accounts (some also relating Alexander the Great’s conquests). In people’s imagination they became more of a fairytale noble savage tribe going around naked and free. They also seem to have been contaminated with native mythological accounts of the Otherworld.

  37. David Marjanović says

    the fires of Mt. Etna as the source of Morgan le Fay’s power

    So that’s why the Vesuvius is the source of Magica de Spell’s power.

  38. Then of course there’s Trajan, remembered by the Slavs as “Troyan.”

  39. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    The name Troyan may echo Trajan or not (Diocletian remains indeed present in South Slavic folklore as tsar Duklyan) but certainly the personage has many features of a chthonic deity akin to Veles and Triglov (perhaps just different names of the same god). The expression Трояня земля in the Tale of Igor’s Campaign could be explained as a mere reference to the earth god (Veles as the patron of the country of Rus, especially the social groups other than warriors, who worshipped Perun more).

  40. David Marjanović says

    Would be fitting, of course, if Triglav had three names.

  41. I always thought it was reference to the Trojan War.

    Shows that author of Tale of Igor’s Host was acquainted with Homer (and why he wouldn’t be – in 12th century?)

  42. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    I always thought it was reference to the Trojan War.

    Could be anything in the Tale alone but I think it unlikely the three-headed, goat-eared creature melted by sun rays we hear about in Serbian folk tales was begotten due to people reading the Iliad.

    Would be fitting, of course, if Triglav had three names.

    That would be fitting indeed but there are actually more than that, as far as I know (that is, Slavic earth god names with various degrees of certainty).

  43. Hearing the Odyssey read aloud (in Latin translation) certainly led to The wandering of Ulixes son of Laertes, in the 13C, writen almost 4000 km away from the story’s birthplace.

  44. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    Hearing the Odyssey read aloud (in Latin translation) certainly led to The wandering of Ulixes son of Laertes, in the 13C, writen almost 4000 km away from the story’s birthplace.

    That may well be, it’s just that the character is more easily connectable to what I know about native Slavic mythology than to any Homeric characters I’m aware of. Maybe someone can persuade me otherwise.

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