CJ Online Review: Hägg, Art of Biography in Antiquity

posted with permission:

The Art of Biography in Antiquity. By Tomas Hägg. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xv + 496. Hardcover, £70.00/$110.00. ISBN 978-1-107-01669-9.

Reviewed by Joseph Geiger, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This book is neither an enquiry into the evolution of the genre of ancient biography (if such it was) nor a step-by-step analysis of the remnants of lost works that may throw some light on surviving ones. Hägg does not intend to emulate the works of Leo or Momigliano, but is offering instead a very different book: it consists of detailed discussions of all extant works[[1]] (or well chosen examples of them in cases of lengthy series) that have as their subject the life of a person, and only occasional examinations of works known only from fragments; the emphasis is on literary analysis and criticism. “The primary purpose of the present study is to interpret the surviving texts” (68–9). Art, for some reason appearing in a smaller font on the dust-jacket, is written large in this book.

Hägg casts his net very wide: he discusses the art of biographical writing rather than the very loosely defined genre of biography, in other words, instead of worrying much about the definition of biography, it is the practice of biographical writing and the development of the literary art dealing with the life of a person that are the focus of this book; according to Hägg, “[b]iography is more subject matter than form” (3). It is not so much influences we are after, but the accretion of the elements that eventually make for full-fledged biographies, prefiguring their modern descendants, of whom the author indeed never loses sight. In his wide sweep we proceed from Ion of Chios and Xenophon’s three works, Memorabilia, Evagoras and Cyropaedia through the fragments of Hellenistic biography, the “open biographies” of Aesop and Alexander and the Lives of Homer, to the Gospels, the Roman biographers Nepos and Suetonius, Nicolaus of Damascus, Plutarch, Lucian, Philostratus and the Late Antique Lives of philosophers, with much more on the way. Once we accept the author’s terms, this is an excellent book. The analyses of the works, accompanied by sizeable extracts (Greek is kept to the footnotes), are lucid, the discussions well informed and to the point, and the book abounds in valuable insights.

Obviously in a book of this scope every reader will find points to differ (as, e.g., Hägg’s occasional disagreement with the present reviewer). However, it will be more productive to limit the discussion to the author’s method. His justly praised The Novel in Antiquity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) had a somewhat easier task: though also discussing extensively a variety of works on the fringes, the core of the “canonical” (our canon) Greek and Roman novels has never been doubted. In the present book the definition of biography, or even of biographical writing, is so loose as to admit, e.g., a long discussion (117–34) of the Alexander Romance, a work that has already been covered, at only somewhat lesser length, in the (much shorter) book on the novel.

Our gain from this book is clear, and should not be underestimated: not only a great number of sensible, and often excellent, descriptions and analyses of many works of Greek and Latin literature, but also an admirable overview of one aspect of classical literature spanning almost its entire length. It is also an asset that, as in the book on the novel, it was possible to treat Greek and Latin literature under the same cover, while not losing sight of the differences between Greek and Roman. This is arguably the best modern analysis of ancient biography, or biographical writing, as a modern reader may understand it. On the other hand since Hägg almost totally eschews theoretical questions and definitions, we are left as unenlightened as we were before as to whether the ancients, or any ancients, had a clear notion of biography or biographical writing. Did bios or vita in the title raise definite expectations in the prospective reader, expectations that were not present in the absence of these terms? Our understanding of ancient biographical writing and of many important works has been much advanced, our concept of the ancients’ notion of biography much less so.

This book will prove useful both to the uninitiated, who will benefit also from the most handy section of “Further Reading,” and to specialist classical scholars, few of whom will have the range Hägg displays in the book and in the bibliography. The death of the author shortly after the delivery of the manuscript to the publisher is a real loss to scholarship. We must be grateful to Stephen Harrison, who saw this flawlessly produced book through the press.


[[1]] Surprisingly the fourteen short Lives of women, discussed in D. Gera, Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus De Mulieribus (Leiden–New York–Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1997), are never mentioned, thus missing virtually the only opportunity to treat such biographies.

Latest Repatriation Issue: Orpheus Mosaic in Dallas

From Hurriyet:

Archaeologists are hopeful that Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay will announce the return of the Orpheus Mosaic to Turkey from the Dallas Museum of Art in the U.S. on the eve of new year, daily Hürriyet reported.

Günay had previously hinted that the ministry would return a specific historical artifact that was originally discovered in Turkey but was subsequently taken abroad, without specifying which item it would be. Rumors in the archaeology world suggest that it will be the Orpheus Mosaic, which was smuggled from the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa in 1950.

A delegation from the Culture and Tourism Ministry has reportedly left for Chicago for the handover process, and will return to Turkey on Dec. 5 with the Orpheus Mosaic.

Dallas Museum of Art Director Jill Bernstein has said they will issue an official statement on the subject next month.

The Orpheus Mosaic (A.D. 194) is known as the earliest Edessa mosaic that archaeologists have dated so far. Edessa is the Hellenistic name given to Şanlıurfa.

The mosaic was taken abroad by smugglers after its discovery by J.B. Segal in 1950 in Şanlıurfa. Turkey’s Aktüel Arkeoloji (Contemporary Archaeology) magazine earlier this year launched a campaign to return the Orpheus Mosaic back to Turkey.

Also Seen: Roman Medicine (pre-Greek)

The latest Carnivalesque is out and, as always, is very scant in terms of the ancient side of things (I really don’t know why … our Blogosphere posts should indicate that there’s a heckuva lot to choose from) but what it does include is very interesting … a post by Helen King on Roman Medicine prior to (more or less) the ‘Greek takeover’ of the discipline (in Rome):

CFP: Representions of Space and Place

Domesticating Reality: Representations of Space and Place in Antiquity

Graduate Student Conference
Department of Classics
University of Toronto
20-21 April, 2013

Keynote speaker: Lisa Nevett, University of Michigan

The interplay between culture and space in ancient thought is manifested in many ways. Not only are artistic and literary features envisioned and understood in spatial terms, but physical spaces are also imagined and explored through cultural expression. This interaction is found in all forms of the representation of spaces – textual, verbal, pictoral, architectural. Alex Purves’ recent study of space and narrative highlights this approach: "Plot’s spatial legacy is pervasive in ancient Greek thought, where songs might be conceived as pathways, logoi as routes, writing as the movement of oxen turning back and forth across a field with a plough…, narratives as pictures or landscapes, and plots even as living creatures that take up set areas of space."

As scholars of Classical antiquity, we find ourselves at the mercy of representation to shape and inform our understanding of spaces – landscapes, buildings, voyages, rooms – which are no longer knowable by any other means. At the same time, our understanding of cultural expression is often enriched by our ability to comprehend it in spatial terms.

We invite graduate students working in any area of Classical studies (such as literary criticism, history, archaeology, science, philosophy, social history, and philology) to submit papers exploring the various means by which space was represented in antiquity. How was space conceived, constructed, and defined in the Greek and Roman worlds? How were differences in spaces and places articulated? How was their use represented?

Some further possible themes to explore include:

-Abstraction: How is space conceptualised in ancient sciences such as geometry, astronomy, geography, and astrology?
-Scale: How do cartographic or proto-cartographic representations negotiate issues related to the size of the subject? (The microcosm and the miniature.)
-Rhetoric: How do the spaces and places invoked function in discourse? How do particular ritually, historically, or mythologically relevant places resonate in various genres?
-Mobility: What is the effect of movement through space? How do travel and representations of real or imagined journeys articulate differences and universalities? (Ethnography, alterity, regional specificity.)
-Polarities: What frequently appearing dichotomies are built on spatial concepts? (Public & private, home & away, liminal & centripetal.)
-Formalities: What formal techniques do poets, painters, and other ancient artists employ to represent and construct space and places? (Ekphrasis, pastoral, space as literary trope.)

We ask that abstracts of no more than 300 words be submitted as email attachments (.doc/.pdf) to utoronto.grad.classics AT gmail.com no later than January 21st, 2013. Papers will be allotted 20 minutes, plus 10 minutes for discussion.

CJ Online Review: Pullen, Nemea Valley Archaeological Project I

posted with permission:

Nemea Valley Archaeological Project Volume I: The Early Bronze Age Village of Tsoungiza Hill. By Daniel J. Pullen. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2011. Pp. xxxix + 1047. Hardcover, $150.00. ISBN 978-0-87661-922-3.

Reviewed by Erika Weiberg, Uppsala University

This volume succeeds in the full integration of all material from the Early Bronze Age (EBA) periods on the Tsoungiza hill, located in the district of Corinthia in the north-eastern Peloponnese. It is the final publication of the excavations by James Penrose Harland in 1926–1927 and the re-excavation and extension of his work by the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP) in 1984–1986, as well as of the work done by Pullen (in collaboration with Robert Bridges) under the scepter of University of California at Berkeley (UBC). The result is a highly detailed and comprehensive publication (the first of a scheduled pair, the second concerning the Middle and Late Bronze Age occupation at Tsoungiza, being in preparation).

The archaeological and environmental frameworks are outlined in Chapter 1 (Introduction) and are followed by a presentation of the scanty remains from the Neolithic period (primarily Final Neolithic, FN; Chapter 2). Also the EH I period (Chapter 3) was most likely a “small-scale affair” (51), with no preserved architecture and the analysis based instead on the material from a number of pits and a cistern. Being mostly representative of late EH I habitation, however, the results work well with the results from the following EH II Initial period (Chapter 4) in giving valuable evidence of the so far little known EH I/II transition. Most interesting is the short discussion on the potential transitional character of EH I Pit 32 defined by the “odd combinations of EH I fabrics with EH II surface treatments” (55f., 89f.). The bulk of the material from the EH II Initial period derives from the so called “1982 House A” (to distinguish it from the chronologically later House A excavated by Harland). The structure stood isolated and the rich material, consisting of a large amount of pottery, especially small bowls, numerous fire dogs and terracotta whorls indicate a non-domestic use and on-site consumption of meat.

As noted by Pullen, “the differences between the EH II Initial period and the succeeding EH II Developed period are not great at first” (200). This transitional phase, preceding the full introduction of the classic EH II sauceboat, is evident both in the 1982 House A, and in Pit 56 assigned to the EH II Developed phase 1 (254f.) with its remarkable deposit of an assemblage for eating and/or drinking, long since on display in the Archaeological Museum of Nemea. The term EH II Developed (Chapter 5) is in part used to indicate the lack of a Late phase at Tsoungiza, but also to emphasize the completed introduction of classic EH II traits. Of considerable interest is the detailed account of the context relating to the monumental House A on the crown of the hill due to both its chronological and geographical relevance for the development of the so called corridor house architecture of later EH II. The discussion is the latest, but most likely not the last, in the debate on this specific type of architecture. This reviewer finds especially thought-provoking the suggestion that the early presence of an open court, which could in some sense have guided the somewhat awkward location of House A over a sharp rise in the ground, giving this open area potential precedence over any nearby structures (268, 281; with reference to similar histories at nearby Lerna).

The analysis of the EH III period (Chapter 6) relies to a very large extent on the documentation of Harland, as little remained to be re-examined by NVAP. EH III at Tsoungiza consisted of a densely built community of primarily domestic nature spanning most of the EH III period. The lack of good stratigraphic sequences, however, means that the chronological designations are heavily dependent on the pottery sequences established by Jeremy Rutter for Lerna IV. Based on the fact that that the Lerna material was extensively weeded at and after the time of excavation, while all was retained at Tsoungiza, some interesting comments on similarities and differences could still be made (such as the much lower frequency for drinking vessels at Tsoungiza than at Lerna, and the very high frequency of pattern-painted pottery at Lerna).

Among the figures and ornaments (Chapter 7) the human figurines and yoked oxen stand out, the latter already often discussed in relation to agriculture and societal complexity. Chapter 8 on textiles includes a detailed discussion of mat- and textile impressions and the interesting new suggestion of the enigmatic terracotta anchor-shaped objects being used as suspended distaffs for holding the unspun fibers while spinning in specific locations. Spindle whorls are especially numerous, and in all, textile production is credibly presented as having been a common activity at Tsoungiza. In comparison, the miscellaneous finds in metal, stone and bone (Chapter 9) are meager (the already well-known lead seal the extraordinary exception), and the chapter comes out as a somewhat awkward, but perhaps necessary, interlude between the two preceding and the three following chapters.

Chapters 10–12 present the chemical and lead isotope analyses (by Maria Kayafa, Zofia Stos-Gale, and Noel Gale), the chipped stone industry (by Anna Karabatsoli) and the ground stone tools (a preliminary report, by Kathleen Krattenmaker). All three chapters include findings that are interpreted as indications of Tsoungiza as a geographically isolated settlement: no copper from the Cycladic islands, only already partially reduced obsidian cores recovered, and a low number of andesite objects. These results stand somewhat at odds with the early introduction of other features, such as the seal and incipient monumental architecture and this seems an interesting avenue for further research.

The two final specialist chapters, 13–14, deal with the faunal remains (by Paul Halstead) and the palaeoethnobotany (by Julie M. Hansen and Susan E. Allen). Although both materials are of moderate size, in combination the two chapters present most informative and detailed analyses of subsistence practices at Tsoungiza. Both faunal and botanical remains indicate an economy based on small-scale mixed farming. Evidence suggests on-site butchering, food preparation and consumption by both small-sized and large scale social gatherings, and a diet that beyond meat consisted primarily of barley and lentils, with addition of high percentage of figs and of acorns. There are further interesting observations made regarding tool marks on bones and a most usable appendix on species of plants remains from FN-EH III Tsoungiza.

Pullen’s research on social organization and socio-economic complexity is evident in interpretative passages and longer discussions throughout the book, and makes for an interesting read. The Tsoungiza material proves to be a valuable and much needed source of information on chronological grey-zones and a tool for visualizing the workings of cultural transformations. Although a more synthesized discussion on chronology would have been helpful, the specific clarifications by Pullen makes clear (Chapter 15: Conclusion, and elsewhere) that the Tsoungiza material, unfortunately, cannot help to clarify issues of the FN/EH transition, nor that of the EH II/III transition. It is rightly emphasized instead that the two chronological transitions that have been helped are those of the EH I/II transition and the earlier phases of EH II.

The publication of the EBA village on Tsoungiza hill holds a richness of information (prolifically illustrated and above all tabulated, including appendices and concordances) that is likely to inspire in turn many further works on the nature of the EBA societies for decades to come, for many types of specialist and interpretative scholars alike. With the information presented in this publication there is at present not so much to suggest that early EH II Lerna and Tiryns, despite being located on the coast, were significantly better placed or supplied than Tsoungiza, or necessarily hierarchically superior.