Susanna MORTON BRAUND and Christopher GILL (edd.), The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. x + 266 pp.
Review by Estelle Haan
The Queen's University
This volume of essays traces its origins back to a conference on 'Understanding the Passions in Roman Literature and Thought' held at the University of Exeter in July 1992, but also includes specially commissioned papers. Wide-ranging in its interests and beautifully presented, this book makes a refreshing contribution to classical scholarship, and should appeal to a very broad audience on account of both its intellectual merits and clarity of expression.
The aims of the volume are clearly highlighted in a lucid introduction (Braund and Gill), while the essays themselves progress from an analysis of Epicurean anger (D.P. Fowler) to a study of the specific passion of grief in Cicero?s Tusculans (Andrew Erskine) and in Seneca's Epistles (Marcus Wilson). Susanna Braund discusses Juvenal, Satire 13 in the context of Greco-Roman philosophical thinking about consolation, while the next three chapters examine the arousal of emotions by artistic and/ or rhetorical means in: Seneca's tragedies (Alessandro Schiesaro), in Greco-Roman thought (Ruth Webb), and in Tacitus (D.S. Levene). The scope of the volume is extended in the final four chapters, which focus on the contemporary intellectual background, with particular emphasis upon the Stoic theory of the passions: thus passion as sickness in Catullus 76 (Joan Booth), anger in the Aeneid (M.R. Wright), envy and fear in Statius (Elaine Fantham), and passion as madness in Roman poetry (Christopher Gill).
In its simplest tenns the volume seeks to explore ways in which the emotions (or 'passions') were understood in the life and literature of the Romans, but its scope is more extensive than this would seem to indicate, offering frequently illuminating insights into a whole range of texts, which are studied in novel contexts. Prose and verse passages, some familiar, others not so familiar, are read with a fresh and perceptive eye. The result is an unconventional and multi-faceted exploration of a whole range of emotional thought-worlds, an exploration that not only encapsulates a variety of gemes, but also, quite daringly, crosses the traditional boundaries between literature and philosophy. In so doing, it presents a thesis that is not only interesting, but also convincingly argued.
Although the collection as a whole achieves a sensible balance between ancient philosophy, rhetorical theory and textual analysis, providing many novel interpretations of key passages (with a wealth of examples drawn from both poetry and prose), several of the essays merit special mention. D.P. Fowler's excellent discussion of Epicurean anger argues for the close interrelationship between anger and discourse of anger, and in so doing adopts a methodology that in itself seems (quite interestingly) to mirror that very ambivalence towards anger which his essay so convincingly illustrates. Susanna Braund provides an ingenious reading of Juvenall3 as a mock-consolatio, in which grief is replaced by anger. Ruth Webb strikes an appropriate balance between theory and illustration in a thought-provoking discussion of the use of enargeia / phantasia as a means of enabling an audience to create a mental picture, and draws upon a wide spectrum of classical authors in support of her argument. Impressive also is M.R. Wright's discussion of anger in the Aeneid, as Aeneas' controversial killing of Turnus at the end of the epic is analysed in the context of the contrast between Aristotelian and Stoic attitudes towards anger.
Although the subject of the 'passions' in Roman thought and literature is by its very nature difficult to define and obviously complex when viewed in its philosophical and rhetorical contexts, this volume does full justice to the topic by presenting in a focused yet versatile collection a whole series of exempla, which are explored by various methologies. It is a highly readable volume, employing throughout a language which is non-technical, thereby extending the appeal of this erudite collection far beyond the realms of the specialist.