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date: 16 October 2019


Summary and Keywords

Intratextuality is a critical term used to explore the relationship between the parts and the whole in texts, including issues of unity (and disunity), the relationship between digressions and their surroundings, interactions between disparate parts of texts (such as ring composition), juxtapositions that may reflect surprisingly on their neighbours, or any structural issue within a single work of literature. Intratextual approaches may also be interested in ways in which the activity of a reader affects response to the text, for example by dividing it into mental “paragraphs.” Crucial to intratextual reading is that all these relationships be interpretable.

Keywords: theory, intratextuality, paratextuality, reader response, criticism, unity, narrative

Intratextuality is a term developed in the 1990s to describe and theorise the relationship between the parts and the whole in classical texts. Although its roots go back at least as far as Aristotle’s discussions of literary unity (Poetics 1451a), the modern and explicitly theorised consideration of intratextuality arose out of the blossoming of literary theory in Classics during the final quarter of the last century, through interactions with post-structuralism, reader-response criticism, narratology, and especially intertextuality.1 An intratextual reading might be concerned to argue for some form of unity (see Poetic unity, Greek) within a text (which might be a creative disunity); to analyse the meaningful relationship between digressions and their main text (such as mythic narratives in didactical poetry, paradigmatic stories in epic, or ecphrases, and other descriptions that apparently deviate from the central drive of the work); to explore parallels between passages, scenes, images, or marked vocabulary, in disparate parts of texts, of which the well-known “ring composition” is a classic example; to draw attention to juxtapositions which may reflect surprisingly on their neighbours; to analyse the poetry book, in genres such as elegy, lyric, and satire, as units whose parts may be connected in ways other than by linearity. In addition, intratextual approaches to texts may be interested in ways in which the activity of a reader affects response to the text. For example, a reader will necessarily divide up any text beyond the tiniest into mental paragraphs for the purposes of consumption, a process begun in modern editions by the interpretive work of editors and continued by traditions of scholarly reading. There can be, however, interpretative gains in making new and unusual connections and divisions within the linear stream of a text. Crucial to intratextual reading is that all these relationships be interpretable. Just as not all source criticism is intertextuality, so structural connections and distinctions within texts become intratextual when they contribute to interpretation.

Critical work that makes explicit use of intratextual techniques and terminology is most common in Latin poetry. The 2018 work of Harrison, Frangoulidis, and Papanghelis, for example, is devoted entirely to intratextuality in Latin literature, predominantly poetry.2 Oliensis explores the self-reflexive citation of the text of Virgil’s Aeneid, especially of its opening lines, elsewhere throughout the epic.3 She argues convincingly for interpretative point in verbal repetitions such as the echo of arma uirumque (“Arms and the man,” Aen. 1.1) in the description of the wrecking of the Trojan Orontes’ ship during the storm scene, later in Book 1, where arma uirum (“the arms of men,” Aen. 1.119) are seen scattered over the waves, together with identification of further echoes of the opening lines. Supported by both Lucretian atomic and Horatian poetic theories, Oliensis reads the passage as one among a series throughout the poem, not only of attempts to begin but also of risks of premature ending.

Closely related to intratextuality is paratextuality, a paradigm developed by Genette to explore and theorise the contribution to literature made by such framing materials as titles, dust jackets, preliminary announcements, prefaces, and other contributors to the penumbra of the text.4 It is again in Latin (as opposed to Greek) studies that the paratext has made its initial impact, in a collection of essays, most of which could equally well be described as intratextual.5

Understanding of the Roman poetry book as an interpretable whole is one of the ways in which intratextual approaches have contributed also to the reading of Latin prose.6 Gibson explores the interpretive effects of different ways in which ancient letter collections have been constructed at different times in their history.7 Another example of how intratextual insights from poetic scholarship, such as O’Hara on inconsistency, have fruitfully informed the study of Latin prose comes in van der Berg.8 This article addresses the challenges of reading the multiple points of view in TacitusDialogus de Oratoribus by describing the close associations, and resultant inconsistencies, between two passages about oratorical apprenticeship (2.1 and 34.1–2), to call into question the narrative of decline.

Although intratextual terminology has been less commonly used by Hellenists, much work on Homeric narrative is concerned with issues at the core of intratextuality, as shown, for example, by Martin, while Hesk uses both the terminology and the basic intratextual practice of reading two separate passages together to shed light on the Homeric-heroic practice of flyting.9 Alden’s work on what she designates para-narratives uses different but related language to explore intratextual issues in the relationship between the core narrative of the Homeric poems and paradigmatic digressions such as the story of Meleager, told in the attempt to persuade Achilles to accept reparation from Agamemnon, the detailed relevance of the scenes on the shield of Achilles, and the songs of Demodocus, as reflections on the wider Odyssean narrative (for example, in the punishment of adulterers).10 The central intratextual issue of the nature and value of literary unity has long played an important role in the study of Pindar’s odes, the complex structures of which have received very different interpretations and evaluations depending on the critic’s expectations of unity.11 More widely, Heath’s work on Greek poetics is a landmark study in the appreciation of the complexities of unity.12 It foreshadows more recent work on poetic books and collections, in which it has been shown that organisational strategies other than chronology are at work in the construction of meaning. The role of the material text in the construction of meaning is the place where textual, paratextual, and intratextual concerns combine, as recently explored in the case of Pindar by Phillips, who considered the effects of reading the odes in the form and context produced by Hellenistic editors.13 This enabled, for example, Ol. 1 and Pyth. 1 to be read “both as performance poems and as the first poems in their respective books” (ch. 3), Ol. 14 as a final poem (ch. 5), and Pyth. 12, not only also as a closural poem, but additionally in its juxtaposition with Pyth. 11, in keeping with the pairing of poems which has become widely understood as productive of meaning in both Greek and Roman poetry books (ch. 6). As in Roman studies, so in the treatment of Greek prose appreciation of the semantic import of position (juxtaposition and otherwise) has been a growth area.14 Rosenmeyer, discussing Greek pseudonymous letter collections, shows how the “genre delights in playing with all possibilities: twisting time, showing a Jekyll and Hyde in two letters written to different addressees, leaving the reader with gaps she can fill only with her own imagination.”15 Although these works do not use the terminology of intratextuality, their concerns show a family resemblance to the theory. An explicitly intratextual reading of Greek prose, in the form of Plato’s Symposium, is provided by Henderson.16

Intratextuality is used extensively, in a manner similar to its classical usage, in the criticism of other literatures, ancient and modern, and even in the study of non-literary material, including big data. It is worthwhile to be aware that, in some forms of Christian theology, the term has acquired a different meaning, in addition to the standard literary usage of both intertextuality and intratextuality in the study of biblical texts. In this additional, specific usage, intratextuality expresses the notion that the biblical text “supplies the interpretive framework within which believers seek to live their lives and understand reality.”17 The terminology has in turn been taken over by psychologists of religion, where it has been developed into the Intratextual Fundamentalism Scale.18


Fulkerson, Laura, and Tim Stover, eds. Repeat Performances: Ovidian Repetition and the Metamorphoses. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Harrison, Stephen, Stavros Frangoulidis, and Theodore D. Papanghelis, eds. Intratextuality in Latin Literature. Trends in Classics. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018.Find this resource:

Jansen, Laura, ed. The Roman Paratext: Frame, Texts, Readers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

O’Hara, James J. Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan. Roman Literature and Its Contexts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Oliensis, Ellen. “Sibylline Syllables: The Intratextual Aeneid,” Cambridge Classical Journal 50 (2004): 29–45.Find this resource:

Sharrock, Alison and Helen Morales, eds. Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:


(1.) See Alison Sharrock and Helen Morales, eds., Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), esp. 1–4, and 4n.8 on the term. Also see Alison Sharrock, “Intratextuality: Texts, Parts, and (W)Holes in Theory,” in Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations, 1–39.

(4.) Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

(5.) Laura Jansen, ed., The Roman Paratext: Frame, Texts, Readers (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

(6.) Gregory Hutchinson, Talking Books: Readings in Hellenistic and Roman Books of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(7.) Roy Gibson, “On the Nature of Ancient Letter Collections,” Journal of Roman Studies 102 (2012): 56–78.

(8.) James J. O’Hara, Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Christopher van der Berg, “Intratext, Declamation, and Dramatic Argument in Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus,” Classical Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2014): 298–315.

(9.) Richard Martin, “Wrapping Homer Up: Cohesion, Discourse, and Deviation in the Iliad,” in Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations, ed. Alison Sharrock and Helen Morales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 44–65; and Jon Hesk, “Homeric Flyting and How to Read It: Performance and Intratext in Iliad 20.83–109 and 20.178–258,” Ramus 35, no. 1 (2006): 4–28.

(10.) Maureen Alden, Homer Beside Himself: Para-Narratives in the Iliad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), ch.3 and 7; and see Maureen Alden, Para-Narratives in the Odyssey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), ch.7.

(11.) Malcolm Heath, “The Origins of Modern Pindaric Criticism,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 106 (1986): 85–98.

(12.) Malcolm Heath, Unity in Greek Poetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

(13.) Tom Phillips, Pindar’s Library: Performance Poetry and Material Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(14.) Kathryn Gutzwiller, ed., The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(15.) Patricia Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), quotation at 229–230.

(16.) John Henderson, “The Life and Soul of the Party: Plato, Symposium,” in Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations, ed. Alison Sharrock and Helen Morales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 287–324.

(17.) Michael Higton, “George Lindbeck and the Christological Nature of Doctrine,” Criswell Theological Review 13, no. 1 (2015): 47–61, at 50.

(18.) Hamdi Muluk and Nathanael G. Sumaktoyo, “Intratextual Fundamentalism and the Desire for Simple Cognitive Structure: The Moderating Effect of the Ability to Achieve Cognitive Structure,” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 32, no. 2 (2010): 217–238.

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