Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 17.

John Henderson, Telling Tales on Caesar. Roman Stories from Phaedrus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. x + 286, incl. 16 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-199-24095-7. US$60.00 UKú40.00.

Anne Gosling
University of Natal, Durban

Once upon a time intense scholarly debate was fuelled by the issue of whether individual poets were pro- or anti- or even just un- Augustan. Then such questions became unfashionable, but -- perhaps inevitably after a century haunted by totalitarianism -- 'political' readings of classical literature are again in vogue, now with more probing interrogation of culture and discourse; it is hard to find a commentator who does not take it as axiomatic that any writer will be critical of the powers that be, and will couch his critique in more or less oblique terms. The title of Henderson's study of Phaedrus clearly signals such an approach. The book has its origins in a DPhil dissertation[[1]] but its publication now means that it takes full advantage of recent work on both reader response theory and fable. Readings of Aesop emphasise his 'otherness' in nationality and status as a distinctive generic trait of fable as the vehicle of safe criticism for the disempowered,[[2]] a hermeneutic that squares with Henderson's reading of Phaedrus as an interrogation of power relations contextualised in the Rome of the Caesars.

The tales Henderson has chosen mostly have some connection with Rome and include 'real' characters, and he provides a wealth of historical and cultural information, along with sensitive literary analysis and detailed commentary, amply documented in the endnotes. The work is organised in such a way as to be useful to classicists and non-specialists alike, particularly as technical terms like Latin terminology of textual criticism are glossed.[[3]] Henderson's translations are close to the Latin and catch the conversational feel of Phaedrus' iambics, and his own flair for telling verbal (dis)play is used to good effect in rendering metrical and rhetorical emphases in the Latin.[[4]] The General Index (pp. 279-85) is usefully cross-referenced to facilitate pursuit of particular themes, and the References (pp. 245-73) are a browser's delight, for in addition to classical scholarship and literary theory Henderson has drawn i.a. on sociology, anthropology, theatre, animal lore, art history, historical novels.

The Introduction (pp. 1-5) maps directions to be explored. What does it mean to read Phaedrus, if we take into account that he is a compiler of Aesop's fables; a Greekling freedman of Augustus in Tiberius' court; writing at a time of adjustment to a new imperial dispensation? Chapter 1, 'We Are Not Amused: Tiberius Caesar and the Flunkey (2.5)' (pp. 9- 31), addresses some of the problems of reading a fable pinned on a historical person. Because we can't date it securely, we can't know whether the story seeks approval in the early years of Tiberius' reign or rehabilitation later; because we are aware that its author is a palace freedman, its satirical look at officious obsequiousness takes on a different slant.

In Chapter 2, 'The Only Good Caesar . . : Divus Augustus and the Case of the Widow and the Wicked Freedman (3.10)' (pp. 33-55), Henderson shows 'Caesar' implicitly equated with 'justice' in a story that reflects Roman focus on civil law and the sanctity of marriage. But Augustus' social legislation was not uncontroversial; how, then, to interpret the majestic imperial intervention by which Augustus resolves legal doubts and ensures justice for an unfortunate widow?

At the midpoint of his work, Phaedrus answers -- and raises -- questions about his aims, his reader(s), the genre, as he moves away from merely Latinising Aesop towards authorial status. Chapter 3, 'Another Hard Luck Story: Phaedrus' Tale (3. Prologue)' (pp. 57-92), is concerned with 'fable theory', ours as well as Phaedrus', who aligns his work not only with the oblique criticism of the slave Aesop, but with the claims to frankness, liberalism, literary status, of Horatian satire. So the naming of Sejanus (41) links the poet to the Julio-Claudian involvement in a reign of terror.

Audiences, theatricality and power are examined in Chapter 4, 'L'Acteur Roi: Piper Prince Breaks a Leg and Gets a Good Hand (5.7)' (pp. 95-118), 'Appendix. It's the Real Thing: Grunt Piggy Grunt (5.5)' (pp. 119-28). An accompanist (really) called Princeps is out of circulation for some months, and on his return he mistakes a song honouring the princeps for a welcome to himself. The fable shows how audience reaction can make or break not just a player but a princeps; 'Such is the theatrical world of Caesarian personality-cult.' (p. 105). Linked with the downfall of Princeps by some similarities of expression and theatrical setting is a tale of an audience bamboozled by multi- layered pretences of an entertainer and a rustic, ending with the rustic commenting scathingly on their critical insight; in turn, Henderson asks us to put Phaedrus in the rustic's place and consider what the poet may be saying to Rome, or about his genre.

An anecdote of an oddball soldier in Pompey's camp who turns out to be both a thief and a hero illustrates how hard it is to know the real person behind the stereotype. In Henderson's analysis in Chapter 5, 'The Price of Fame: Pompey the Great and the Queen's Shilling' (pp. 131-48), Pompey -- 'the Other of Julius Caesar' (p. 139) exposes how concepts of virtus and the role of the imperator had changed in the transition from republic to principate.

Chapter 6, 'Talent-Spotting: King Demetrius meets the Poet Menander (5.1)' (pp. 151-62), looks at the tyrant who must eat his words when he is told that the man whose appearance he has condemned is Menander. Henderson draws links between the Hellenistic tyrant on whom servile Athenians reluctantly fawned and the plunge into servitude of Rome's leading citizens at the beginning of Tiberius' reign (Tacitus, Ann. 1.7.1), finding in addition a hint that tyranny is readily associated with spectacular downfall. He also draws attention to Phaedrus' (and Menander's) repudiation of stereotyping, an interesting feature of writers whose genres abound in stock characters and situations.

An unnamed king and a cobbler turned quack who has to confess that his medicine is a hoax have even less to do with Caesarian Rome than Demetrius, but in Chapter 7, 'Your life in their Hands: The King and Dr Cobbler (1.14)' (pp. 165-74), Henderson points out that fable can take particular point from the circumstances of its narration and that monarchy was an issue in the discourse of the early principate. Chapter 8, 'Kings of Fable and Fables of Kings' (pp. 177-93), carries this further with a survey of lions (and a wolf) as kings in fable. These beastly kings, who entrap and eat their subjects instead of protecting them, lead to an interrogation of culture and savagery: ' . . . if you ask Fable, talk of civilisation . . . is rot . . . (p. 186)'. But we listeners are victims, never learning from the fables that kingship means surrender of autonomy. So, in each interregnum at Rome, leading citizens debated about monarchy -- before installing the next princeps, like the frogs in 1.2 who dumped king log and ended up with king watersnake. Does the reviewer want to spoil the fun by remarking that Phaedrus might not have had such clear insight (foresight?) about Julio-Claudian succession as we do with hindsight? Henderson's readers need to be aware that he often surveys a wider timescale in his depiction of the principate than could have been encompassed by Phaedrus' life. This is not so much anachronism as fleshing out details of the period of Augustus and Tiberius from comparable evidence in later sources, but there is a risk of obtruding later attitudes into earlier discourse and thereby reading more into Phaedrus than his (con)text will support.

Fables are deceptively simple, easy to read idly. Henderson brings to Phaedrus techniques of close reading that reveal unexpected poetic dexterity, considerably enhancing the pleasure of reading the ostensibly straightforward language and metre. Henderson's own style (as readers will surely know by now) is witty, informal, offbeat, meticulously scholarly, using lecture-note shorthand to make a point succinctly but suggestively (e.g. a word struck out, as in '-f-a-t-h-e-r-/husband/lover' (p. 46), where a man has mistaken his son for an adulterer and killed him). Strings of questions open our eyes to a variety of interpretive stances, and Henderson repeatedly reminds us that fable is deceptive and its audience willingly deceived. The caveat on p. 154 ('Beware of your implication in the upshot of whatever decision you make on this') could stand as a motto for the book as a whole, and indeed for the open-ended and conditional nature of all reading. This is a fascinating look at a little-known author and at the Rome of Tiberius, a rewarding read for classicists, comparatists, all who enjoy perceptive and intelligent reading.


[[1]] J. Henderson, Anecdote and Satire in Phaedrus: Discussion and Commentary (Oxford 1976).

[[2]] E.g. Annabel Patterson, Fables of Power : Aesopian Writing and Political History (Durham, N.C. 1991).

[[3]] Greek, though, is not translated, presumably because it occurs mostly in the notes intended for classicists.

[[4]] Once, political correctness enforces the ungrammatical but convenient 'their' for 'his', to the detriment of 3.Prologue.17 (p. 59): '. . . if it's crossing the Muses' threshold you're thinking of. / I myself, some-one delivered by their mother on the Pierian range, . . .' (ego, quem Pierio mater enixa est iugo). By the rules of English grammar, 'their' implies 'the Muses' mother', manifest nonsense, set straight in the subsequent discussion with 'his mother bore Phaedrus on the Pierian ridge' (p. 62). But there are many felicitous moments: e.g. 'Setting sweet earning before sweated learning' for docto labori dulce praeponens lucrum (ibid. 26).

[[5]] I detected very few errors: 'sureWre' (p. 10); 'report' should be 'retort' (p.109) and the retort referred to was delivered not by Cestius but by Cassius Severus in response to Cestius (Sen. Contr. 3.Praef.16); a stray quotation mark (p. 205 n. 53).