T. P. Wiseman, Talking to Virgil: A Miscellany. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1992. Pp. 212 + xii, incl. 8 plates and 11 figures. ISBN 0-85989-375-8. UK£12.95.
University of Natal, Durban
The title essay of Wiseman’s miscellany will be of particular interest to South African scholars who remember a visit to the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town in 1950 by W. F. Jackson Knight, of which his friend T. J. Haarhoff, professor at the former, subsequently wrote ‘he was a great success although he was a difficult guest’ (p. 196). Mutatis mutandis, the remark could probably be applied to Jackson Knight’s career as a whole: he must often have been an awkward colleague, yet many remember him as an inspiring teacher; his contribution to Virgil studies was immense, yet he was never really accepted by the scholarly establishment.
Wiseman begins this portrait of Jackson Knight with observations about the originality of his approach, his use of lateral thinking and incorporation of up-to-date anthropological research in his study of the Aeneid. Jackson Knight was drawn by Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and his increasing incorporation of the mystical in his scholarly work and commitment to reincarnation made some regard him with suspicion. Haarhoff shared his interests, and was moreover a practising spiritualist. They first met in 1935, although they had already been corresponding for some time, and it was Haarhoff who was responsible for recommending Jackson Knight to a post at Exeter, where he spent the rest of his working life. Haarhoff believed himself to be in communica- tion with Heraclitus, among others, and in 1951 first made contact with Virgil, initially through a medium, but increasingly through automatic writing. Both on his own account and on behalf of Jackson Knight, who had begun work on his Penguin translation of the Aeneid in the same year, he consulted Virgil on the meaning of disputed passages in the epic, and he reported that Virgil expressed great interest in the translation. Wiseman’s use of the letters from Haarhoff to Jackson Knight in these years in conjunction with the published translation, makes fascinating reading; clearly Haarhoff, or Haarhoff’s Virgil, influenced Jackson Knight’s translation, but equally clearly Jackson Knight kept his critical faculties alert and did not blindly accept everything Haarhoff reported Virgil to have said.
Wiseman presents a balanced assessment of Jackson Knight, generous to his merits, not blind to his short- comings, and sensitive to the experiences and influences that shaped his extraordinary personality. There are other essays in the book that deal with scholars, amateurs and characters of the world of classical learning, archaeology, antiquarian studies and letters; two on classical influences in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Anthony Powell respectively; and some that explore the history of sites in Rome and Italy from ancient times through the vicissitudes of the Papal period, the Renaissance, the romantic ruins of the eighteenth century and the city-planning of the nineteenth. The Giants’ Revenge is an elegant portrait of the area around the Bay of Naples, from its legendary beginnings – Giants, and Hercules’ construction of a road and dam – through its occupation by Oscans, Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, Romans, to its fiery end. Instead of Pliny’s well- known eye-witness account of the eruption of Vesuvius, Wiseman gives us Martial and Dio, and the elegance of this brief essay, originally published in History Today, is complemented by the charm of the 18th century translations Wiseman has chosen to use.
One impression that emerges in different ways from these essays is the continuity of antiquity in the European tradition: we are apt to think of the ancient world as a separate culture bounded by the books and museum cases in which it is locked up, but Europe has lived with its visible remains in the environment, as much as with its intellectual legacy. The essay entitled ‘Julius Caesar and the Mappa mundi’ has much to tell about the survival of classical knowledge into the world of mediaeval Europe. Three mediaeval world maps, probably derived from a lost map made for Henry III in 1235, refer to a world survey commissioned by Julius Caesar. From two extant texts dating from late antiquity Wiseman traces the transmission of the versions of Caesar’s survey through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and then goes on to discuss the likelihood that texts of the 4th or 5th century AD accurately record an enterprise undertaken in the 1st century BC, and to attempt a reconstruction, based on the progress of Caesar’s conquests, of the circumstances in which the survey was carried out, and presumably brought to completion by Agrippa.
In ‘Killing Caligula’ Wiseman raises the question of what the assassins expected to happen after the killing of Gaius, and points to the theme of liberty and the laws that pervades the version of Josephus. He demonstrates that the literary tradition, supported by coin evidence, shows that this connection of liberty and the laws belongs to republican ideals, and that a concomitant idea was that of justifiable tyrannicide; Chaerea and his friends were expecting to restore the republic. Wiseman reminds us that the division between Republic and Principate was not as clear-cut to contemporaries as it is to modern historians. This is an illuminating exploration, by way of historical writings, drama, letters, speeches, prosopography, coins, of what first century Romans – senatorial nobility on the one hand, and the army and populace on the other – thought about the principate. It is an article one would readily recommend to students, not only for its content, but for its methodology.
The final essay, ‘Uncivil Discourse,’ will strike a ruefully familiar note among South African university teachers, with its tale of cuts in university funding and unsympathetic attitudes in government towards the humanities. Wiseman’s vigorous criticism of the inequities of Thatcherite education policy makes bracing reading.
This is a delightful book, one which amply demonstrates how versatile Wiseman is, from cartography to the sonnets of Hopkins, dabbling in depth, always to be taken seriously, always securely grounded in scholarly evidence. Latin quotations are either translated or paraphrased, so that the book is accessible to the classical civilisation student and the non-specialist reader; and this (idle) reviewer welcomes the return of footnotes to the bottom of the page, where they can be easily consulted, instead of at the back of the volume. It is a book wholly within the humanist tradition; and it is a book classicists will love to give like-minded friends for Christmas.