Scholia Reviews ns 5 (1996) 14.

Wiseman, T.P., Historiography and Imagination: Eight Essays on Roman Culture. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 167, incl. 5 half-tone illustrations, 1 line illustration and 2 maps. ISBN 0-85989-422-3. UK£13.95.

Peter Tennant
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg

Making conjectures is an unavoidable part of being a classicist. Those who delve into the murky depths of early Roman history have to become quite adept at it. For anyone daunted by such an occupational hazard, this collection of essays is a most comforting and encouraging vade mecum. As the author states in his introduction, 'imagination, controlled by evidence and argument, is the first necessity if our understanding of the past is ever to be improved' (p. xiii). Wiseman amply demonstrates how profitable it can be to apply one's imagination--sometimes quite boldly--to historical topics which are clouded either by a dearth of evidence or by unquestioned assumptions.

The value of this approach is particularly well illustrated in the first two essays ('The Origins of Roman Historiography', pp. 1-22, and 'Roman Legend and Oral Tradition', pp. 23-36).[[1]] Wiseman puts forward cogent arguments for believing that 'the supposed documentary origin of Rome's historiography is not the whole story; it is not the story at all' (p. 1). The common assumption that the writings of all 2nd century historians were as dry and succinct as the pontiffs' chronicle is open to serious question (Cato, for one, at the beginning of book 4 of the Origines, explicitly distanced himself from that source). Rome's historical tradition, he argues, grew not so much from the annalistic chronicles as from the realm of dramatic performance (and his model of 'history from dramatic fiction' (p. 5) is well illustrated by the dramatic structure and quasi-fictional character of the great legends of regal and early-republican Rome). This process did not begin with the literary innovations of Livius Andronicus in the 3rd c. B.C., but considerably earlier--first, in the context of the Greek-style symposion (the adoption of which by the native aristocracies of central Italy in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. is best evidenced by archaeological finds a mere 11 miles from the site of Rome), and second, in the context of public festivals (particularly the ludi Romani, which, as Wiseman argues, probably included Etruscan-inspired dramatic performances from the inception of the festival in the 6th c. B.C.). Rome did not develop in cultural isolation, and Wiseman rightly stresses the considerable body of evidence which 'suggests a community open from the beginning to influences from the Greek as well as the Etruscan world' (p. 21). It was against such a background that in his earlier review of Bremmer and Horsfall's book Wiseman questioned--with an impressive collation of evidence--the assumptions that (1) in archaic Rome Greek cultural influences were insignificant and (2) that the transmission of Rome's 'historical' tradition was necessarily literate. In the latter case, Wiseman shows that we should rid ourselves of the notion that the essentially aristocratic carmina convivalia provided the only pre-literary vehicle for myth; in particular, the contributions of the performing arts in the 6th and 5th centuries and of the popular story-teller should not be underestimated.

In the third essay ('Monuments and the Roman Annalists', pp. 37-48) Wiseman argues how, in two instances, the historiographical tradition relating to the 260's B.C. might have been influenced by the misinterpretation of monumental evidence. The first concerns Suetonius' mention of a statua diademata, set up by a Claudius at Forum Appi. Wiseman believes that this represents a hostile and retrospective attribution--probably in the 50's or 40's B.C.--of regal insignia to a member of a family renowned for its superbia. The likelihood that such an attribution was an anachronism is the strongest argument in favour of Wiseman's contention that 'the statua diademata at Forum Appi is not a historical but a historiographical phenomenon' (p. 44). While there is much that remains speculative (including the identity of the Claudius involved), Wiseman's imaginative detective work here is intriguing, if not completely persuasive in all its details. Much the same may be said for his second topic, where he speculates that the destruction of a monument commemorating the achievements of M. Fulvius Flaccus made it easier for a hostile historian to deprive the latter of his glory and to transfer it to Decius Mus and Appius Caudex. The complexity of Wiseman's arguments in this essay resolves into a succinct and elegant conclusion: 'When a historian attacked the record of such deeds, by attributing them to others or turning them into criminal acts . . . that was simply the equivalent of defacing or destroying the physical monument of a rival triumphator. Glory could be preserved in words as well as in stone or bronze, and attacked as effectively by the pen as by the pickaxe' (p. 48).

In the fourth essay ('Lucretius, Catiline, and the Survival of Prophecy', pp. 49-67) Wiseman employs the evidence of two hitherto neglected passages to challenge the widely held belief that ritual and not moral behaviour was the only concern of the Roman gods. Citing Lucretius 1.62-11, in which the poet belittles the frightening predictions of the vates, he argues that 'the very vehemence of Lucretius' polemic is evidence for their impact' (p. 53)--thus demonstrating both the gods' power to urge virtuous behaviour and the intelligible role of the vates in Roman society. The second passage, from Dionysius of Halicarnassus (5.54.1-3), is supposedly about an event in the tenth year of the Republic, 'but in reality a thinly disguised piece of contemporary history' (p. 56, clearly an episode modelled on the Catilinarian conspiracy); and Wiseman sees in the term mantis, as used by D.H., 'the same arbiters of moral and religious orthodoxy against whom Lucretius directed his contempt and indignation' (p. 56). Wiseman warns against viewing the Lucretian vates ('prophet') as identical to the Augustan concept of the 'inspired poet', the latter (he argues) going back no further than Varro. The evidence for the prominent role still played by manteis in late-Republican Rome is, as Wiseman proceeds to demonstrate, 'surprisingly plentiful' (p. 58); and he concludes that 'if Lucretius' diatribe and the story of the repentant conspirators . . . do indeed accurately represent their idiom, the prophets in the Forum in the first century BC were a conservative force, preaching traditional piety enforced by threats of punishment in Hades' (p. 66).

In similar vein, the next essay ('Satyrs in Rome? The Background to Horace's Ars Poetica', pp. 68-85) challenges another generally held assumption: that, despite Horace's explicit reference (A.P. 234-5) to his being a satyrorum scriptor, there is no real evidence for satyric drama at Rome. Diomedes clearly equates fabulae Atellanae with the Greek satyrica, but notes that the characters in the former are not satyrs but 'Oscan characters'. Wiseman, however, remains sceptical about such an equivalence and prefers to take at face value references to the composition of 'satyric comedies' and 'satyr-plays' by Sulla and L. Pomponius, even though the latter was best known as a writer of Atellanae. He later concludes (p. 82) that 'Roman satyr-play did exist after all--largely, no doubt, in generically contaminated forms like "satyric comedy" . . . and "satyric mime" . . . but there is certainly no reason to suppose that they were fabulae Atellanae.' (There is, however, an interesting reference in Horace Serm. 1.5.54-61 to an Oscan buffoon who is described as equi . . . feri similem. More to the point, the left side of his 'hairy brow' is disfigured by an ugly scar, suggesting that he has been deprived of a horn which once grew there. Do we have here the notion of a peculiarly Italian satyr? It is tempting to see this as a corroboration of Diomedes' equation of the indigenous fabulae Atellanae to Greek satyr-plays). Wiseman endeavours to support his thesis by gathering an impressive array of circumstantial evidence which points clearly to a familiarity in Rome with satyrs, if not with satyr-plays, from at least the late 6th century onwards (e.g., satyrs portrayed in red-figure vase painting and antefixes in the form of satyrs' faces provide 'concrete' evidence of this); and other evidence shows that this familiarity did not end with the suppression of the Bacchanalian cult in the 2nd century B.C. Having established beyond doubt that satyrs and Dionysiac themes could not have been strange to the Romans, Wiseman embarks upon an imaginative survey of Ovidian themes (e.g. the Lupercalia with 'the quasi-satyr Faunus'), which he believes are characterised by satyr-play motifs. This is a particularly entertaining and challenging discussion; and, in typically 'iconoclastic' style, Wiseman concludes by questioning whether Diomedes was really mistaken in claiming that 'satire is named after satyrs' since some satyric drama was certainly satirical.

In 'The Necessary Lesson' (pp. 86-89),[[2]] Wiseman extols the universal importance and relevance of Cicero's contribution: 'a political career which for all its failings and compromises stood for the rule of law against the rule of force, and a literary corpus that effectively defined our civilization's concepts of humanitas and the liberal values' (p. 89). The penultimate essay, 'Who was Crassicus Pansa?' (pp. 90-97), brings into focus yet again the themes of Greek cultural influence and the theatre.

It is appropriate that this collection should end with an essay in which Wiseman depends on an especially vivid use of the imagination ('Conspicui Postes Tectaque Digna Deo: The Public Image of Aristocratic and Imperial Houses in the Late Republic and Early Empire', pp. 98-115) which the author describes as 'an attempt to "read the city" by imagining the visual impact of the great houses of the late-republican elite, and the Augustan complex on the Palatine that developed into the imperial palace' (p. xiii). It is the latter which makes the focal point of this very interesting discussion: Virgil, in his description of Latinus' palace (Aen. 7.170-86), refers significantly to 'augusta . . . moenia' and 'tectum augustum ingens'. Wiseman believes that Servius was correct in seeing this as an allusion to the Palatine complex, and not to the Forum Augustum (which would have been 'chronologically impossible' (p. 101). However, the problem is to reconcile Augustus' 'deliberately modest' private quarters with the notion of a 'palatial' structure. The solution, in Wiseman's view, is to imagine what impression it would have made from the outside. Guided by Virgil, Ovid and Martial, he skilfully elucidates the changing topography of the imperial complexes on the Palatine, showing how successive principes engineered the positioning of their monumental entrances for maximum visual impact. This increasing quest for glory manifested itself in 'a direct line of development from the private houses of the republican principes civitatis, their vestibula hung with triumphal trophies, to the grandiose palaces of Nero and Domitian' (p. 114).

All of the essays in this collection are characterised by Wiseman's enviable ability to collate a wide variety of pertinent evidence and by his readiness to put forward interpretations which often demand a reappraisal of preconceived notions. Seldom does he give one cause to suspect that his imaginative reconstructions are at variance with the evidence or quite beyond the bounds of likelihood or possibility. Any such scepticism is rendered insignificant by the encouragement to be gained from his bold yet controlled handling of obscure and complex issues.


[[1]] The latter essay is a review of J.N. Bremmer and N.M. Horsfall, Roman Myth and Mythography (London 1987), which appeared in JRS 79 (1989) 129-137.

[[2]] A review of C. Habicht, Cicero the Politician (Baltimore 1990) and P. MacKendrick, The Philosophical Books of Cicero (London 1989), which appeared in TLS (15-21 June 1990) 647-648.