Reading the Romans: 7 Rules for Primary Texts

BasilConstAs classical teachers we often ask our student to read primary sources about the Greeks and Romans in English,and the ability to analyze them critically forms one of the primary learning goals in many courses. I have never seen formulated any explicit general guidelines for students on how to do so, or discussion of how these texts might differ from analogous types of texts they’re more familiar with, despite the fact that students often have a hard time interpreting unfiltered ancient sources. So here are some modest rules of thumb, much of it common sense, but some of it also reflecting some peculiar features of Roman literate culture. Hopefully these rough guidelines will help students to better appreciate what Roman texts have to offer: Please leave a comment if you have others to share!1

Consider the perspective of the author. Each author will have his or her own viewpoint and aims in a particular instance, which will be shaped by circumstances, status, family, education, life experiences, and so forth. It helps to keep certain questions in mind: Is the writer attempting to persuade, entertain, praise, inform, impress, draw some pertinent moral, or some combination of these aims? Is he talking about contemporary events or some remote period? Does he wholeheartedly endorse the views presented or propose them merely for the sake of argument or as something to think about? Is the author speaking in his own voice or through the persona of some particular character? Does he have any motive to be less than truthful or honest? Does his social position or economic circumstances or other factors predispose him to think in a certain way? Is he attempting to challenge received views or reporting what seems like a consensus? Is he attempting to shock his audience? The conventional wisdom is that Roman writing is less confessional and more influenced by models, personae, and what needs to be said on a particular occasion than is writing in more modern eras—though this generalization is debatable.

Consider the audience. Is the intended receiver a single individual, a friend, an enemy, a student, a group, or a god? A good deal of Roman writing is persuasive or hortatory (urging people to do something), and this includes poetry. Consider what a particular argument implies about the predisposition of the audience and its expected views.

What is extraordinary is not typical. We tend to remark on things that are not obvious or ordinary. What is surprising or noteworthy implies by contrast what is normal or average. Beware of inferring that, because some individual Roman is said to have done things in a certain way, or that somebody says that people should do things a certain way, that most people in fact did do it that way. The opposite is often more likely to be the case. By the same token, things that are said as if they had no special importance are often good evidence for common practices. All of this is especially relevant for anything to do with sexuality.

Ideas reflect controversies. Like any group of people, the Romans disagreed strenuously among themselves about many things. What counterarguments are stated or implied in the positions taken by a given author? Are the terms of the debate familiar from modern controversies, or do they seem to reflect peculiar Roman institutions, customs, blind spots, or preoccupations? What do the positions taken imply about values and priorities of the author and the audience?

Look for the evaluation. Roman authors, no less than modern ones, rarely describe things simply for the sake of describing them. Usually there is an expressed or implied evaluation, a position being taken that a particular fact or behavior is good or bad, right or wrong, or somewhere in between. These evaluations are key to the interpretation and assessment of what is being said, and are often foregrounded—something that has given Roman authors a well-earned reputation for being moralistic. But evaluations are often unstated, especially in historiography and letters. Attempt to figure out the implied position on what is being described.

Consider the genre. Put very simply, Roman love poetry is meant to evoke desire, pastoral to conjure up an idyllic landscape, oratory to stir the mind and emotions, and satire to attack vice. Every genre has its traditional goals and parameters, which can be followed or subverted by individual authors, and which are usually not coextensive with their modern relatives. Roman and Greek biographers were primarily interested in illustrating and evaluating character, rather than simply describing the facts and circumstances of the subject’s life (see further the introduction to Plutarch). Similarly, historical writing tends to be more exemplary (that is, offering a model for behavior) and moralizing than its modern counterpart. Philosophy can be cast as poetry (as with Lucretius) or as letters (as with Seneca). Epigram, a genre perfected by Martial but now rare, will always be short and have a sting in the tail. Try to get a sense of what genre an author is writing in, and what that implies about the kinds of things he is likely to say, and how he innovates. Roman authors were fond of playing with genre, as when Ovid humorously adopts the conventions of instructional literature in The Art of Love. The introductions in this book offer some guidance on this matter.

Consider what is not said. Many types of documents we would like to have either do not survive or were not written in the first place. We do not have personal diaries, church and municipal archives, or journalism of the sort historians of more recent eras take for granted. And there are many other gaps, due both to the vagaries of what was preserved in the Middle Ages, as well as to who could write, who chose to write, and what they chose to write about. A figure like Cicero looms large because he was so prolific and his Latin style so beloved in later ages. But the thoughts of even some very influential Romans, like Marius, Sulla, or Nero—not to mention countless ordinary people—are relatively or entirely inaccessible to us. One would like to have the memoirs of Roman priestesses, engineers, magicians, slaves, soldiers on the frontiers, or Gallic tribesmen who adopted Roman ways, but we do not. And even within the documents we do possess, many issues we would like to hear about are simply not discussed. These silences are themselves often significant.

1. What follows is excerpted from Christopher Francese and R. Scott Smith, Ancient Rome: An Anthology of Sources (Hackett, 2014), pp. xx-xxii.

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