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.

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