Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS report 30/01/2015: characterisation in Herodian and the story of the Oxford Fragment(s)

Oyez, oyez! Hear ye, hear ye! All ye noble postgrads, your highnesses, your worships, your studiousnesses! Let it be known throughout all the land that another session of the Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar has been held! Oyez, oyez!

My esteemed co-consul Graham Andrews stepped into the fray first this week, speaking on ‘Characters in Crisis: A Brief Foray into the Third Century’. Graham introduced us to Herodian, the somewhat shadowy historian whose Greek-language History of the Empire after Marcus Aurelius, covering the years AD 180-238, was written probably around 240-60. Plagued by inaccuracies, outright fabrications and general historiographical confusion though it is, this work is nonetheless of value to historians of the ancient world as the only developed account of the years 229-38, and as a useful point of contrast to other ancient historians for the years before that. What’s more, it’s filled to the brim with scandal, with eighteen of its nineteen emperors meeting unnatural and ever more violent ends, rioting in the streets of Rome, soldiers ambushing citizens, citizens ambushing soldiers, fires, militarised gladiators, betrayals, intrigue, salacious dancing, and anything else you might imagine HBO dramatising in some hypothetical new series of ‘Rome’. Scandal’s always a draw for classicists, and this was no exception: questions afterwards drifted inexorably to Caracalla’s ignominious death, the various feigned authors, forged documents and fantastic episodes of the Historiae Augustae (another ancient historical text on imperial Rome with a more-than-dubious commitment to veridicality), and how exactly one might verify that a riot did, in fact, take place.

Rome in 238, probably

Graham’s paper centred around Herodian’s use of characterisation. Though not seeking to reclaim the historian as an acute political commentator and brilliant literary mind – something of a futile mission, by all accounts – he drew attention to the scholarly tendency to view Herodian’s History as a series of vignettes, arguing that we can in fact perceive broader, overarching schemes, not only of narrative but of characterisation. Looking especially at the final two books of the History, he examined Herodian’s characterisation of both the various emperors and the three sectors of Roman society he identifies – the elite, the ‘mob’ of citizens, and the army – in terms of their nature, their interests, and the roles they played in the cycles of political upheaval and unrest. He examined the back-and-forth of Rome’s political upheaval under six emperors in six months, finding certain recurring themes of characterisation: the attribution of civil unrest to the people’s perception of themselves as besieged or engulfed in civil war in peacetime, for example, or the emperors’ various failures to please not only the military but the elite, not only the elite but the people, not only the people but the military. He connected this with his wider interest in the question of whether the third century can be explained by military involvement in politics, and in how ancient historians approached this question.

Gabriele Rota, our second speaker, took us from riots in Rome to cards-on-the-table, swords-drawn, pistols-at-dawn scholarly disagreement in his paper on ‘Prejudice and Obstinacy in Brackets: Juvenal, Satire 6 and the Oxford Fragment(s)’. The story of the Oxford Fragments is a century-old counterpart to the current debate over the newly discovered Sappho papyri, a somewhat Umberto Eco-esque ( – or Dan Brown-esque) tale of ancient texts long lost to us, rediscovered in improbable circumstances, and plagued by questions of (in)authenticity.

In this case, the fragments are thirty-six lines supposedly part of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, which are found in only one manuscript of Juvenal, written some time in the eleventh or twelfth century and now kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They somehow remained undiscovered there until 1899, when an Oxford undergraduate stumbled upon them, and have since been the subject of fiercely-fought academic battles: are they written by Juvenal, or someone else? If the former, why are they only found in one manuscript ? – how could they have fallen out of the archetype of the other manuscripts? If the latter, when did they enter the manuscript tradition, and how? What were the motives of their author and scribe(s): malicious forgery, or playful imitation, or editorial correction? And what do their presence and absence in the text change about our reading of Juvenal?

A. E. Housman: far from infallible himself?

Gabriele first took us through various pitfalls and shortcomings in certain scholars’ accounts of the (in)authenticity of the Oxford Fragments: those for whom the inauthenticity of these lines would be a useful demonstration of how far interpolation can go and thus enable other deletions from the text to be made, for example, or those who justify attributing the verses to Juvenal himself less because of the cogency of arguments for authenticity than because, to put it simply, that would be pretty darn cool. Housman himself (somewhat topically, here at Cambridge) came in for substantial criticism: Gabriele levelled against him the charge of seizing upon the fragments as an opportunity to put himself forward with enviably good emendations and elucidations, a demonstration of his scholarly excellence. The majority of subsequent accounts rest upon Housman’s, either refuting or building upon his arguments; Gabriele went right for the jugular, first attacking Housman’s postulated reconstruction of the lengthy process by which the lines were lost from all but one of the extant manuscripts, and then turning his attention to arguments regarding the merit and sense of the lines when incorporated into Satire 6. Concluding that they must be, in the end, not Juvenal’s, he also offered a reconstruction of their loss involving a more economical two stages against Housman’s five.

Join us next time for Ruth Allen’s paper, ‘Wearing Dirce’s Punishment: a Roman intaglio gem in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge,’ which will put forward new ways of looking at engraved gems that prioritise the material qualities of the stone and the changes in iconography brought about by miniaturisation. We will also hear Claire Jackson on the intriguingly titled ‘Disbelief, Deception, and an Octopus: Lucian’s Dialogi Marini 4 on Fiction,’ in which she will examine ancient literary approaches to the idea of proving the unbelievable, and the place of fiction on the boundary of unbelievable truths and credible flasehoods. To find out about the significance of the octopus in this epistemological labyrinth, come to GIS at 5.15pm this Friday in 1.11!

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