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date: 29 March 2020

inconsistencies in Latin literature

Summary and Keywords

In the context of Latin literature, inconsistency is most often invoked to mean self-contradiction: for example, in the second Georgic, Virgil declares that Italy is blissfully free from snakes, but in the following book, snakes pose a deadly threat to the Italian farmer and his animals. Inconsistency, however, can also describe general ambiguity, lack of unity, factual inaccuracy, and incoherence of almost any kind. A number of historically contingent factors affect how readers recognize and respond to inconsistencies. Ancient criticism of the Homeric poems and the Aeneid often considered inconsistencies flaws, and this tradition has influenced modern thinking about the topic. From the late 20th century onwards, critics have frequently viewed the creation of inconsistency as a deliberate authorial strategy: the reader is exposed to two different realities, and the resulting tension contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. The apparent receptivity of Roman literary culture to inconsistency may imply a worldview that had more in common with quantum mechanics than an Aristotelian universe dominated by the law of non-contradiction.

Keywords: inconsistency, contradiction, ambiguity, ancient scholarship, literary criticism, Latin literature, Catullus, Virgil, Aeneid, Lucretius

Ancient Approaches

Most ancient critics (see literary criticism in antiquity and poetic unity, Greek) privilege unity and coherence in literary production and tend to treat inconsistency as a flaw.1 Thus the discussion about Simonides in Protagoras begins with criticism of a contradiction (Pl. Prt. 338e–339d), and in an influential passage full of its own interpretive difficulties, Plato has Socrates suggest that speeches (and perhaps all texts) ought be composed in a unified way, like the bodies of living creatures (Pl. Phdr. 264c). At Arist. Poet. 25 (1460b–61b), Aristotle demonstrates the practice of finding a suitable resolution (lusis) to a scholarly complaint about a perceived fault in Homer (problēma), and among the faults are various inconsistencies. But Aristotle is far from rigid: he argues that many inconsistencies are only apparent (e.g., they might be due to the false presuppositions of the critic), and he actually declares that impossible narratives are not to be censured if they increase the amazement of the audience (e.g., Achilles’ pursuit of Hector). Subsequent scholars employed Aristotle’s question-and-answer format.2 The fragments of Hellenistic scholarship interrogate numerous inconsistencies, especially in the Homeric poems, and the proposed resolutions range from athetization to nuanced readings based on the principle of focalization.3 Ancient Latin scholars modelled themselves on their Greek predecessors, and many critics of the Aeneid in particular sought out and faulted inconsistencies with a similar zeal.4 Although both traditions tolerated minor inconsistencies, the general rule remained that no author would wish to be inconsistent, and that any discrepancies should be resolved, if possible, or that the offending passage should be marked as such.

Modern Approaches

The ancient approach to inconsistency influenced the debates between analysts, unitarians, and neo-analysts over the composition of the Homeric poems, and this controversy has shaped the way scholars approach inconsistency in Latin texts.5 But the ancient tradition itself served as a direct model for 19th- and 20th-century scholars, who eagerly tracked down and criticized inconsistencies, often in an effort to identify an author’s sources or in the belief that they could improve a text riddled with problems. Although their values and goals are generally different, 21st century scholars still operate under the (often unacknowledged) influence of the ancient critic’s obsession with inconsistency. While some inconsistencies remain resolvable (e.g., they are only apparent) or can be attributed to the accidents of transmission, modern critics frequently adopt methodological approaches that differ from those of their forebears.

The most common approach, especially in the study of Latin poetry, is to accept inconsistent passages as legitimate/authorial and to attempt to make sense of the text as it stands. This might mean that a particular author simply has a relatively high tolerance for ambiguity or contradiction, for whatever reason, and that no thematic conclusions are to be drawn from individual discrepancies. Thus Plautus does not appear to put a high value on consistency in staging, and Lucretius seems to produce inconsistencies because he adopts traditional ways of speaking, especially about the gods, that conflict with the strict tenets of Epicureanism.6

More frequently, it is argued that a given author has intentionally embedded a particular inconsistency within his text and that the resulting tension is meant to convey essential information and/or to contribute in significant ways to the meaning of the larger work.7 A well-known example comes from poem 64 of Catullus. The poem begins with the launch of the Argo (see Argonauts), which Catullus characterizes in multiple ways as the first ship (e.g., illa rudem cursu prima imbuit Amphitriten, “it was the first to stain the inexperienced sea with its running,” 64.11). On that voyage, the sea-nymph Thetis and the Argonaut Peleus are said to have fallen in love, and the scene soon shifts to their wedding. Before long, the poet directs the reader’s attention to the coverlet on the marriage bed. Among the images of ancient men (haec vestis priscis hominum variata figuris, “this coverlet, adorned with the figures of men of old,” 64.50), we encounter Theseus and his swift fleet in the process of abandoning Ariadne (Thesea cedentem celeri cum classe, “Theseus departing with his swift fleet,” 64.53). The attentive reader immediately asks: So, was the Argo actually the first ship, or were people sailing long before? Despite attempts by some to emend or simply to explain away the inconsistency, it has been plausibly argued that Catullus is alluding to a Hellenistic debate about the relative chronology of Theseus and the Agonautic expedition.8 At the same time, by alluding to or actually following incompatible mythological variants (i.e., the Argo was the first ship, the Argo was not the first ship), Catullus exploits an established Hellenistic literary technique (see Hellenistic poetry at Rome).9 At a broader interpretive level, the incorporation of these incompatible mythological variants into the text undermines the authority of the poem’s speaker and confuses the reader’s sense of time, making it difficult to distinguish one historical period from another. This move helps establish the poem’s central themes of treachery and deception and prepares the reader to start questioning the legitimacy of the poem’s exuberant contrasts between (virtuous) heroic past and (morally suspect) present, an end toward which numerous other elements in the text also tend. In other words, we can view the conspicuous inconsistency at the beginning of the poem as contributing to a reading of the poem as a whole.10

The embrace of inconsistency as deliberate authorial strategy is due primarily to the impact of New Criticism, which made ambiguity a virtue that enriches rather than spoils a work of literature, and the widespread influence of the so-called Harvard School of Virgilian criticism, which found ever more competing and irreconcilable “voices” in the Aeneid.11 This approach, however, is open to the charge that we can never, in fact, access an author’s intentions, and so there is no way to decide whether an inconsistency is deliberate or unintentional. It can always be maintained, and both ancient and modern critics have maintained, that the author would have removed the inconsistency if someone had pointed it out, if he had not died, if exile had not gotten in the way, etc. Moreover, this approach runs the risk of assuming that authors can control the ambiguities in their texts and how they will be received and that all audiences react in the same way to the same inconsistencies.

Such assumptions come under fire from proponents of deconstruction and reception studies. A deconstructionist perspective views language as inherently unstable and, as a result, sees inconsistency as an inevitable part of any text. Reception studies treats inconsistencies as generated over time by different groups of readers in different historical contexts. Some authors, such as Lucan, lend themselves readily to a deconstructionist approach. Reception studies has revealed that social and historical factors play undeniable roles in determining what counts as inconsistent or as significantly inconsistent enough to warrant discussion.12 Still, many critics are reluctant to let go of authorial intention, and the once widespread critical ban on discussing intentionality seems to have been relaxed.

Even without adopting all the theoretical commitments of reception studies, it is essential to recognize that numerous historically contingent factors affect how critics register and interpret inconsistencies. Such factors include the cultural prestige of an author or text; one’s general assessment of an author’s skill or ability; what the critic knows (or thinks she knows) about the author’s method of composition; and the critic’s familiarity with and preconceptions about the genre in question. If a reader takes for granted that Virgil is a consummate artist and regards the Aeneid as an epic masterpiece, she is likely to view inconsistencies as deliberate authorial creations and to treat them as loci of significant meaning. Inconsistencies in Livy, by contrast, are generally taken to show the historian’s inability to successfully integrate his disparate sources, or they are thought to reflect a fog of authorial confusion in the midst of a sprawling and unwieldy undertaking.13 The case of Cicero’s dialogues well-illustrates how attitudes continue to shift. Traditionally, such inconsistencies have been attributed to hasty composition, imperfect revision, and/or careless handling of Greek texts.14 Gurd, however, has argued that Cicero in fact had no interest in composing flawless, finished dialogues, and that this attitude was firmly rooted in Cicero’s broader social and political values.15

On the whole, inconsistencies in prose texts have received less sympathy and have been read as meaningful less often than their poetic counterparts.16 This is likely due to scholarly preconceptions about specific genres. A tacit assumption, for instance, may be that no self-respecting historian or philosopher would write inconsistently on purpose. By comparison with the state of mid-20th century scholarship, early 21st century criticism displays a heightened awareness of the extent to which historians and philosophers (to say nothing of authors working in other prose genres) can deploy the same meaning-generating strategies as poets (e.g., intertextuality and allusion).17 As scholarly interests and values change, critics become more willing to interpret, rather than excise or excuse, contradictions and ambiguities in a wider range of works.

Broader Implications

It should not be assumed that ancient authors strove to create unified texts that would adhere to modern standards of consistency.18 If an inconsistency can be interpreted or explained as part of a literary strategy within a given work, it is a reasonable inference it was designed by the author. This, in turn, implies that some ancient writers and readers were able to view not just works of literature, but history and even reality itself from multiple contradictory points of view. O’Hara has indicated that we might read such texts from the perspective of quantum mechanics, where a single body can be in two places at once and the same subject can both exist and not exist—a “both/and” way of reading rather than the “either/or” method that privileges unity and non-contradiction and that extends all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.19 Without invoking the same paradigm, other critics have drawn similar conclusions about the receptivity of the Romans to contradictions and ambiguity.20 Critical discussions about inconsistencies in Greek literature point in the same direction.21 Whatever individual critics make of particular inconsistencies, the cumulative evidence increasingly suggests that many ancient writers and readers were happy to live in a universe where the Argo both is and is not the first ship (Catull. 64.11, vs. 50–59), where Theseus both returns from the underworld and remains there for all eternity (Verg. Aen. 6.122 vs. 617–8), where the constellation Ursa Major exists before it has even been created (Ov. Met. 2.171–172 vs. 496–507).


Gaisser, Julia Haig. “Threads in the Labyrinth: Competing Views and Voices in Catullus 64.” American Journal of Philology 116 (1995): 579–616.Find this resource:

Gale, Monica. Myth and Poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Green, Steven J. Disclosure and Discretion in Roman Astrology: Manilius and his Augustan Contemporaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Gurd, Sean Alexander. Work in Progress: Literary Revision as Social Performance in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Henderson, John. “Lucan/The Word at War.” In The Imperial Muse: Ramus Essays on Roman Literature of the Empire: To Juvenal through Ovid, edited by Anthony J. Boyle, 122–164. Berwick, Australia: Aureal, 1988.Find this resource:

Horsfall, Nicholas. The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Kraus, Christina S. “Repetition and Empire in the Ab Vrbe Condita.” In Style and Tradition: Studies in Honor of Wendell Clausen, edited by Peter E. Knox and Clive Foss, 264–283. Stuttgart, Germany: Teubner, 1998.Find this resource:

Levene, D. S. Livy on the Hannibalic War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Lowe, Christopher. “Some Problems of Dramatic Space in Plautus.” Classical Quarterly 57 (2007): 109–116.Find this resource:

Lyne, R. O. A. M. Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Martindale, Charles. “Descent into Hell: Reading Ambiguity, or Virgil and the Critics.” Proceedings of the Virgil Society 21 (1993): 111–150.Find this resource:

Masters, Jamie. Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

O’Hara, James J. Death and The Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil’s Aeneid. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

O’Hara, James J. Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, and Lucan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Parry, Adam. “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid.” Arion 2 (1963): 66–80.Find this resource:

Volk, Katharina. “Manilian Self-Contradiction.” In Forgotten Stars: Rediscovering Manilius’ Astronomica, edited by Steven J. Green and Katharina Volk, 104–119. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Weber, Clifford. “Two Chronological Contradictions in Catullus 64.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 113 (1983): 263–271.Find this resource:

Zeitlin, Froma I. “Petronius as Paradox: Anarchy and Artistic Integrity.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 102 (1971): 631–684.Find this resource:


(1.) The only major study of inconsistency in Latin literature is James J. O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, and Lucan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007); cf. O’Hara’ Death and The Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil’s Aeneid (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); and O’Hara, “Trying Not to Cheat: Responses to Inconsistencies in Roman Epic,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 135, no. 1 (2005): 15–33. For the attitudes of ancient philosophers/literary critics to inconsistency, see O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, 18–23.

(2.) See Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginning to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 69–71. For general background, see scholarship, ancient, Greek.

(3.) See René Nünlist, The Ancient Critic at Work: Terms and Concepts of Literary Criticism in Greek Scholia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 11, 116–134; cf. 174–184. Instead of problēma, the term in the scholia is generally zētēma.

(4.) Such criticism of the Aeneid started at an early date: Hyginus (a freedman of Augustus, Suet. Gram. 20.1) censured inconsistencies in that poem and declared that Virgil would have fixed them if death had not gotten in the way (Gell. NA 10.16 = frr. 7–9 Funaioli). For general background, see scholarship, ancient, Latin.

(5.) Cf. O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, 8–10.

(6.) For inconsistencies in the staging of Plautus, see Christopher Lowe, “Some Problems of Dramatic Space in Plautus,” Classical Quarterly 57 (2007): 109–116. On inconsistency in Roman comedy more generally, see George E. Duckworth, The Nature of Roman Comedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), esp. 197–202. For Lucretius, see O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, 55–69; among earlier literature, see esp. Monica Gale, Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Manilius produces similar inconsistencies when he adopts familiar modes of speech that conflict with his overarching astrological worldview; see Katharina Volk, “Manilian Self-Contradiction,” in Forgotten Stars: Rediscovering Manilius’ Astronomica, ed. Steven J. Green and Katharina Volk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 104–119. For a different approach to Manilius, see Steven J. Green, Disclosure and Discretion in Roman Astrology: Manilius and his Augustan Contemporaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11–61; and Green, “Arduum ad astra: The Poetics and Politics of Horoscopic Failure in Manilius’ Astronomica,” in Forgotten Stars, 120–138.

(7.) This is the basic approach of O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic.

(9.) For the technique and its use by Roman poets, see O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, esp. 24–32, 47–49, 85–86, 114–118. Not infrequently, it makes sense to read an allusion to a mythological variant simply as a display of erudition or an acknowledgement of the existence of conflicting traditions and/or sources without further thematic significance; see e.g., Nicholas Horsfall, The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 79–94.

(10.) For attempts to make sense of the inconsistency along these lines, see e.g., Clifford Weber, “Two Chronological Contradictions,” 263–271, at 270; Julia Haig Gaisser, “Threads in the Labyrinth: Competing Views and Voices in Catullus 64,” American Journal of Philology 116 (1995): 579–616; and O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, 33–54.

(12.) For deconstructionist approaches to Lucan, see John Henderson, “Lucan/The Word at War,” in The Imperial Muse: Ramus Essays on Roman Literature of the Empire: To Juvenal through Ovid, ed. A.J. Boyle (Berwick, Victoria: Aureal, 1988), 122–164; and Jamie Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992). For reception studies, see esp. Martindale, “Descent into Hell”; and more broadly Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993). For the relevance of deconstruction and reception studies to the analysis of inconsistency, see Volk, “Manilian Self-Contradiction,” 107.

(14.) See e.g., Andrew R. Dyck (ed.), Cicero: De Natura Deorum 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2–4.

(16.) Critics of the novel (see novel, Latin) constitute a notable exception. See e.g., Froma I. Zeitlin, “Petronius as Paradox: Anarchy and Artistic Integrity,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 102 (1971): 631–684; and John J. Winkler, Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius’ Golden Ass (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), at 169–170, 218–219.

(17.) For intertextuality and allusions in Roman historiography (see historiography, Roman), see Levene, Livy on the Hannibalic War, 82–126; and more broadly Anthony J. Woodman, From Poetry to History: Selected Papers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 443 (general index) s.v. “allusion.” For philosophical prose working in the same way, see e.g., Richard Tarrant, “Seeing Seneca Whole?” in Seeing Seneca Whole: Perspectives on Philosophy, Poetry, and Politics, ed. Katharina Volk and Gareth D. Williams (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 1–17, at 1–5.

(18.) On the dangers of applying modern standards of consistency to more recent authors, see Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

(19.) O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, 20–23. O’Hara attributes the high valuation of poetic unity to the influence of Neoplatonic readings of Plato and Aristotle and the subsequent rise of monotheism and Christianity.

(20.) E.g., Laurel Fulkerson, “Servitium amoris: The Interplay of Dominance, Gender and Poetry,” in The Cambridge Companion to Latin Love Elegy, ed. Thea S. Thorson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 180–193, at 192; Horsfall, The Epic Distilled, 87–88; Patrick Glauthier, “Repurposing the Stars: Manilius, Astronomica 1, and the Aratean Tradition,” American Journal of Philology 138 (2017): 267–303. Cf. Dennis Feeney, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 161–163 on “The Wormholes of Virgil’s Fasti.”

(21.) Hellenistic poetry, in particular, exhibits many of the same features under consideration here; see O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, 24–32. For an extended treatment of inconsistency in the Homeric poems and tragedy, see e.g., Ruth Scodel, Credible Impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy (Stuttgart, Germany: B.G. Teubner, 1999).

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