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date: 02 December 2022

careers, poetic, Latinfree

careers, poetic, Latinfree

  • Joseph Farrell

The idea that a writer’s works form the record of a clearly defined career is a familiar but relatively understudied aspect of ancient literary history. In Greek literature, relevant motifs appear already in Homer (in the Iliad, Achilles’ self-referential singing of klea andron (9.189) in combination with Telemachus’s defense of Phemius’s novel, post-Iliadic theme in the Odyssey (1.345–352), and Hesiod (initiated by the Muses at Theogony 22–34 and at Works and Days 650–662 previously victorious—with Theogony?—in a singing contest at the funeral games of Amphidamas). But thinkers of the archaic and classical periods generally considered a poet’s work in a single genre as an expression of his immanent character, and not as the result of a career choice. Beginning with Thucydides and Xenophon, however, retired military men and politicians establish a normative career pattern in the genre of history. But in the Hellenistic period, as poets cultivate expertise in many genres (polyeideia), the career motif begins to come in to view. Callimachus, outstandingly, collected his major poetry in an edition that deliberately presents itself as his “life’s work.” Individual poems appear, however, not in chronological or any other obvious order, but as a varied ramble that moves “up and down” through multiple genres imagined as a rolling literary landscape (fr. 112 Harder).

The earliest Roman poets practiced polyeideia (tragedy, comedy, epic, hymn) while putting themselves in service of the state, but it was Ennius in his Annales who evidently drew a parallel between his own latinizing of the Greek Muses and the triumphal importation to Rome of an Ambracian cult of Hercules of the Muses by his patron, M. Fulvius Nobilior. It may also be that Ennius’s movement from various forms of poetry (and prose) to epic is modelled on the political cursus honorum of the patron class, although his production of the tragedy Thyestes in 169, the year he died (Cicero, Brut. 78), suggests that no firm generic hierarchy was yet in place. A reaction to Ennius can be seen in Terence’s alleged cooperation with Scipio and Laelius in composing his comedies (Adelph. 15–21; Suet., vita Ter. 3). Lucilius and Catullus later represent poetry as a freely chosen alternative to any official career, the latter having tried and then evidently rejected a governmental career. A complex oscillation between active engagement and retired contemplation informs the political and literary careers, and the strategic fashioning thereof, by Cato the Elder, Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Seneca the younger, both Plinies, Tacitus, and others.

The simplest, most familar, and in some sense ideal career pattern is that of Vergil, in whose works ancient critics discerned traces of a self-conscious “ascent” through the tria genera dicendi, from short-form to long-form poetry and from trivial to serious themes, with increasing political commitment over time. But Vergil’s contemporaries were already fashioning their own “vertical” career trajectories, often in complex distinction to his. Thus Horace pursues ever greater literary distinction—pretending that his earliest work, the Sermones, is not even poetry (1.4.39–42) before rivaling Archilochus in the Epodes (6; cf. Epist. 1.19.23–25), and claiming parity with Sappho and Alcaeus in the Odes (1.1.33–34, 3.30.10–13; cf. Epist. 1.19.26–31). Higher literary achievement confers standing to address themes of public importance, something Horace largely avoids in the Sermones (as in his discreet account of a diplomatic mission to Brundisium, 1.4), but allows himself occasionally in the Epodes (4, 7, 9, 16) and frequently in the first collection of lyrics (Odes 1–3), most impressively in the “Roman Odes” (3.1–6). This collection ends with Horace directing his own coronation as laureate (3.30.14–16), a gesture officially endorsed when Augustus invited Horace to compose a hymn (Carmen saeculare) for performance at the Secular Games in 17 bce. But Horace’s ascent is less linear than Vergil’s, and (ostensibly) less ambitious: putatively “unpoetic” and disengaged works alternate with more elevated and civic-minded ones (so, Sermones 1: Epodes; Sermones 2: Odes 1–3; Epistles 1: Carmen saeculare). In his final decade, Horace produces three more Epistles, longer than any in book 1 (one even addressed to Augustus himself) and a fourth book of Odes, mixing public with private themes while pretending to be mainly love poems (4.1) and explicitly eschewing Pindaric ambition (4.2; cf. 9.5–8)—that is, implying that Horace is content “merely” to have earned comparison to Alcaeus and Sappho, while nevertheless expressing pride in his own accomplishments, particularly the Carmen saeclulare (4.6). Horace thus fashions for himself a career of increasing distinction founded on service to the state, but eschews explicit ambition, so that periodic withdrawal into a contemplative angulus assumes a defining role.

The elegiac poets follow Catullus in representing themselves as rejecting an official career, whether military (Tibullus, passim; Propertius, 1.6, etc.) or administrative (Ovid, Trist. 4.10.33–40, etc.), in favor of service to love and poetry. In doing so, they effectively “withdraw” from public life more completely than Horace, who had actually fought at Philippi before launching his poetic career (Odes 2.7). Nevertheless, again like Horace and Vergil, they take greater interest in Roman themes later in their careers, although Tibullus and Propertius leave few traces of an actual curriculum vitae. It is Ovid who most inventively fashions an elegiac career that transcends generic constraints. Like Vergil in epic, Ovid “ascends” in elegy from “playful” erotic indulgence in the Amores to more “serious” erotic instruction in the Ars amatoria to “weightier” aetiological research in the Fasti (a direction already taken by Propertius in book 4). At the same time, the Metamorphoses is an epic masterpiece more surprising than Vergil’s, because requires Ovid to cross metrical as well as generic boundaries. In a further gesture towards polyeideia, Ovid also takes his bearings from Horace, engaging directly at the very end of the Metamorphoses (15.871–879) with Horace’s self-coronation (Odes 3.30.14–16). Again like Horace, Ovid varies his relentless Vergilian ascent with detours into epistolary verse (elegiacs, not hexameters), first in the Heroides (of uncertain date, but at least some poems are early: see Amores 2.18.18–40) and later in the Tristia, which are virtual epistles, and the Epistulae ex Ponto, which are explicitly so. A further, ironically Horatian element of these exilic collections is Ovid’s self-representation as having been forced into an unphilosophical angulus at the ends of the earth. In one poem (Tristia 1.7) he even orders the removal of his laurel crown, thus casting the project that follows his masterpiece—like Horace’s, an epistolary one—as an inversion of Horace’s laureate career after Odes 1–3. In the same poem, he describes an effort to burn the Metamorphoses before leaving Rome, thus simultaneously representing his exile period as a Vergilian afterlife manqué (cf. Serv., in Aen. praef. p. 2.28–30 Harv.).

In subsequent reactions by Lucan, Martial, Statius, and other poets, and in ancient scholarship devoted to them, Vergil’s canonical works long remain the principal point of reference (Serv., in Aen. praef. p. 4.75–83, ed. Harv.; cf. the image of the rota Vergilii in John of Garland, Parisiana poetria 2.87–123; Ziolkowski and Putnam 2008: 744–50; cf. 452, 624), with even the spurious juvenalia (now collected as the Appendix Vergiliana) coming into play (Suet., Vita Lucani 1). By the early modern period, ancient patterns and motifs are combined to produce three major career types, those of the laureate, the professional, and the amateur. More is involved than seeing Petrarch, Spenser, Jonson, Marlowe, or Milton as following a single trajectory from start to finish; career patterns are better understood not as stereotypical identities permanently assumed but as components of a dynamic rhetorical system in which not only similarity but contrast, combination, and provisional alignment or opposition all have their place. Career criticism is thus a notable instance in which reception studies have illuminated unfamiliar aspects of classical literary history, where considerable evidence awaits sympathetic exploration.


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  • Cheney, P., and F. de Armas. European Literary Careers: The Author from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
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