book cover imageBeyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature
by Denis Feeney.
Harvard University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $35.

If students of literature and the classics take anything for granted, it is the existence of the texts themselves, be they in the original Latin or in translation. The Eternal City, it would seem, has always had—indeed, it was fated to have—an eternal literature to go with it. American high school Latin students in particular have for centuries been introduced to a canon of authors in a sequence nearly as enduring as Rome itself: Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid. Those who continue to study Latin in college read several more authors whose works are just as venerable and formidable as the civilization that produced them. To most of us, these Latin works are just there, pining for readers and curious seekers, seemingly as old as the earth itself.

But what if Latin literature had never come to be in the first place? Denis Feeney argues vigorously that not only was Latin literature not destined to exist, the fact that it came to be at all is nothing short of miraculous. Feeney’s Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature aims “to recover a sense of astonishment” that “there is a literature in Latin when there should not really be one at all.” By discarding the assumptions that Latin literature was destined to exist and is as old as the Romans themselves, Feeney’s historical retracing of Latin’s written development achieves one of the goals that every Latin and literature teacher shares: generating an appreciation for these precious texts in the eyes of their readers.

Feeney begins by asserting that the “creation of a Roman literature based on Greek models was not just a matter of time, something that was bound to happen sooner or later, but instead one of the strangest and most unlikely events in Mediterranean history.” There were many other advanced civilizations contemporary to and in contactwith the Greeks—Egyptians, Phoenicians, Etruscans, Jews, Persians—yet only the Romans used Greek literary models to create what would become the Western world’s first vernacular literature. And compared to these other civilizations, the Romans were late to the international scene: Latin literature was born in 240 BC, one year after the end of their first-ever foreign war victory, when Livius Andronicus translated into Latin a Greek drama that was performed on the Roman stage. To reach this point, however, a number of different cultural and political factors—many of which were without precedent—first had to coalesce.

The first was the emergence of the practice of translation as “the transferring of textual material from one technically encoded instantiation to another,” a practice we take for granted today, but was “sporadic, not normative” in the Mediterranean world before 240 BC. The second unique occurrence, following from the first, was what exactly the Romans selected to translate: in comparative studies of genres translated from one language to another over the centuries, it has been works of science, mathematics, divination, and music that tend to dominate; Feeney provides the Arabic choice in the years after AD 750 to translate only these types of works from the Greeks rather than others as just one example of a standard pattern. The Romans, by contrast, in a choice “curiously at odds with more regular patterns in the ancient world,” ignored these Greek genres and instead translated Homer’s epics as well as the drama and comedy of fifth-century Athens, but nothing later. Because of this, when looking at the ancient world we can “define ‘literature’ negatively” as “that which does not get translated.” Their “anomalous” choice of genre is significant for understanding the Romans as a whole; when analyzing any culture, “[c]hoosing what not to translate … is as revealing a question as choosing what to translate.”

A third factor was the nature of the Roman interactions with the Greeks. Upper-class Romans became enamored with Greek culture in the third century and began to study the Greek language in their schools a century later. In the popular American mindset, Horace’s famous phrase—“captured Greece captured her wild conqueror”—is often invoked in a way that implies the Romans actively seeking Greek forms to imitate. But Feeney, ever-ready to shake up what we have come to take for granted, remarks that “it is easy to overlook how extraordinary it is that the Roman élite learned not only to speak but to read and even write, at some level, the language of one of the groups they had conquered.” Further, he cautions against overlooking the rest of Horace’s sentence—“and brought her arts to uncultured Latium.” It was Livius Andronicus, a native Greek teaching in Rome, who first brought the classics of Athens to the Latin language in an effort of “Latinizing” his own Greek patrimony. In fact, for nearly the first hundred years the new Latin literature was entirely produced by native Greeks, many of whom were slaves or freedmen working as teachers.

As indebted as the Romans were to the Greeks, they were not mere imitators—they were innovators as well. Their innovation was the most important ingredient contributing to the fourth factor in the birth of Latin literature: the new Roman consciousness that was developing as the culture’s international stature grew. Through the uncoordinated processes of education and the rapid continuance of “the Latin translation project” in the years after 240 BC, the Romans were “advertising the ideology that the other Italian languages did not count” and they were “developing the apprehension that Latin and Greek were the paired languages of power and prestige [that] reinforced the distinctive status of the new imperial language”—Latin. Through the translation project, which eventually yielded in the late second and early first century BC to original Latin works, the Romans “developed a shared body of texts in a standardized language that helped sustain a sense of collective identity across large tracts of space and time.”

Hence the translators were more than just scribes: “they were catalysts, transformative agents. Thanks to the effects of their productions, the culture of the Roman people and their allies underwent a decisive shift.” The literature they produced helped the Romans realize who they were vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and eventually Latin literature would help the world learn who the Romans were and what made them tick. Perhaps no line is more indicative of this self-understanding than that of Virgil’s Aeneid: “You, Roman, remember to rule the people with power, to impose the rule of peace, to spare the conquered, and to crush the proud.”

In seeking the genesis of Latin literature, Feeney also explains the style of Roman drama as it developed over the centuries; the nature of translation as an endeavor, both for the Romans and compared to our own times; and how the Roman efforts at translation compare—and mostly contrast—to other famous efforts at translation, including that of the Septuagint, the King James Bible, and Russian literature. The concerted focus on translation and writing style broadens the book’s appeal beyond classicists to readers with a broad literary interest. Classically minded readers will particularly will benefit from Feeney’s excavation of the long-overlooked grandfathers of Latin literature, the men without whom there might not have been a Livy, a Cicero, or a Horace.

As the epic of Rome is retold in classrooms and in the imaginations of readers year after year, we can all more deeply appreciate the literature it inspired thanks to Feeney’s lively writing. We owe him a debt of thanks for reminding us of a truth too easily ignored: “Although nothing seems more natural than that a nation should have a literature, there is nothing inevitable or predictable about it.”  

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.