K. Mawford u.a. (Hrsg.): Ancient Memory

Ancient Memory. Remembrance and Commemoration in Graeco-Roman Literature

Mawford, Katharine; Ntanou, Eleni
Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes
Berlin 2021: de Gruyter
Anzahl Seiten
320 S.
€ 109,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Bettina Reitz-Joosse, Classics, University of Groningen

The volume under review developed out of a conference for postgraduate students in ancient literature, held in Manchester in 2018 on the topic of "Memory and Commemoration". It contains chapters by early career scholars who aim to explore the workings of memory in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The volume mainly focuses on poetry, with a smaller role for prose texts. It is divided into four thematic sections, dedicated respectively to the mechanics of memory, collective memory, the memory of female literary characters, and the role of oblivion, and concluded by an epilogue. Although the chapters are of somewhat uneven quality, overall, the volume gives space to exciting young voices in the field and offers stimulating material for scholars of literature and memory in classical antiquity.

In their introduction, Mawford and Ntanou touch on well-known passages such as epic invocations of the muse (Musa mihi causas memora, Aeneid 1.8) or the monumentum aere perennius of Horace’s Ode 3.30, to show how intimately the genesis and purpose of poetry is tied up with memory in ancient thought. There is no single sustained question or problem that the volume addresses: rather, it opens a range of perspectives on the “vast tradition of striving towards, working with, and problematizing memory” (p. 4) in ancient texts. The editors combine this capacious theme with considerable methodological ambitions, namely to explore “the theoretical consequences of memory studies as a critical tool for delving into ancient literature” (p. 7) and specifically “to theorise a new approach to memory in Classics, informed by the interdisciplinary developments in memory studies” (p. 14). These ambitions of methodological novelty are only partly realized – perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the enormous proliferation of scholarship related to memory in the ancient world published during the last decades.1 After thirty years of sustained attention to memory, foundational work like Assmann’s and Nora’s from the 1980s and 1990s is now only ‘recent’ (p. 8) in the widest sense, and in their application of concepts from memory studies to classical texts, many of the chapters follow well-established lines of enquiry, for example in deploying insights from cognitive memory studies, or in their analysis of urban memoryscapes.2 However – and this deserves saying in our current academic culture – a volume that does not offer groundbreaking methodological innovations can nonetheless make a worthwhile contribution to the scholarly conversation. All contributors draw on strands of theory related to memory studies, and many offer stimulating analyses and access new layers of meaning in ancient texts. Some of the chapters also display a particular sensitivity towards the memories and recollections of individuals or communities traditionally marginalized in ancient literature and its study.

The first section is dedicated to the ‘mechanics of memory’: how did remembering actually work in the ancient world, and how can ancient texts help us understand this? Both chapters in this section deal with Roman drama: Papaioannou focuses on spatial and topographical recollection, arguing that Plautus and Terence comment on Roman urban topography in ways which would have resonated with their contemporary audiences’ memory of recent urban transformations. Haley analyses Cicero’s own memory of Accius’ Atreus through his use of quotations from the play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the actual ‘mechanics’ of ancient (literary) memory remain something of a black box3, but both chapters rewardingly discuss ancient ideas about the human ability to remember and the social and political dynamism contained in the essential uncontrollability of readers’ or audiences’ recollections.

The following section of the volume turns to ‘Collective Memory’. Kostecka’s paper deals with collective memory within a text: she offers a sensitive reading of divine experience in the Iliad, exploring the gods’ collective memory of a violent past and its relevance for the narrative present. Michalopoulos’ chapter on Ovid’s exile poetry might have fitted better into the sections about the mechanics of memory or oblivion, offering, as it does, an overview – and sometimes overly optimistic account – of resistance to oblivion and the consolatory power of memory in the exile poems.4 Cook and Cosgrave both explore the relationship between drama and ‘civic memory’. Cosgrave’s chapter rightly points to the contemporary relevance of the themes of captive-taking, ransoming, and enslavement in Plautus’ Captivi, although I feel that she could rewardingly have probed the ‘collectivity’ of her audiences’ memories further: (the descendants of) enslaved people would presumably have remembered the Punic Wars very differently from veterans of the Roman army. Cook’s chapter on Euripides’ Heraclidae, one of the stand-out chapters of the volume, argues that Euripides raises the question of how Athens’ glories should be commemorated, and puts tragedy into a dialogue of commemoration with the genre of the epitaphios (the funeral speech). The chapter makes an important methodological contribution to the volume as a whole, since it highlights and investigates the role of ancient texts as agents in memory formation, while many other contributions focus on textual reflections or representations of memory.

The third section of the volume is the strongest and most coherent of the volume, and turns to the memory of female characters, with a special focus on the relationship between memory and female agency. Mawford’s and Ngan’s papers work well together, both exploring the role that memory plays in shaping the literary character of Medea. Mawford traces a narrative arc through book 3 of Apollonius’ Argonautica, arguing that Medea is first manipulated by other characters through the use of memory and then regains some agency through actively curating her own future reputation and memory. Ngan’s paper picks up Medea’s story in Corinth, arguing that Medea first – unsuccessfully – attempts to manipulate the way in which others remember her, and then, having failed to do so, submits to memories of her own literary past, fully re-entering her role as a maximally transgressive character. Ntanou’s methodologically well-grounded chapter applies psychological insights into the dynamic quality of remembering to Ovid’s Galatea-episode. She sees Galatea’s recollection of Polyphemus’ song as an example of ‘discursive memory’, reconstructed in a particular communicative situation, and analyses her self-awareness in terms of ‘meta-memory’.

The final section centers on oblivion, and might have benefitted from being grounded in a clearer articulation of what constitutes (literary?) oblivion and how it functions. While Morrison’s chapter is a wide-ranging thematic exploration of forgetting in archaic and classical Greek literature, Hernández Garcés hones in on the lexicon of forgetfulness and forgetting in Herodotus’ Histories. Burke-Tomlinson’s chapter on the deviant ‘unforgettability’ of the myth of Pasiphaë attempts to complicate current notions about what is left hidden within the (meta-)poetics of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Richard Hunter’s epilogue on ‘Memory and its Discontents in Ancient Literature’ is the text of his keynote lecture given at the Manchester conference. Unfettered by footnotes or bibliography, Hunter offers some slightly meandering reflections on ancient texts concerned with memory and forgetting, arguing (inter alia) that the theme of memory in epic functions as a means by which texts invoke their own future reception.

Invariably, with such a broad topic, some potentially rewarding avenues are left unexplored. In particular, a volume that focuses specifically on literature might have engaged more with the dynamics of ‘mediation’ and ‘remediation’ of memory.5 I would also have been interested in a further exploration of the power imbalances implicated in the textual curation of individual and collective memories, in terms of, for example, class, ethnicity, or education. Nonetheless, colleagues working at the interface of memory studies and classical literature will find interesting leads to pursue in this volume.

1 Two large projects deserve special mention among the vast bibliography of ancient memory: Karl Galinsky’s Memoria Romana project (http://www.laits.utexas.edu/memoria/), which supported a host of individual articles and monographs and resulted in three edited volumes in 2014, 2015 and 2016 on memory in ancient Rome, and a British-French-Brazilian collaboration, the first product of which is Martin T. Dinter / Charles Guérin (eds.), Cultural Memory in Republican and Augustan Rome, Cambridge 2023, shortly to be followed by a further volume on cultural memory under the Roman empire.
2 On memory and cognition in ancient literature for example the work of Elizabeth Minchin (e.g. Homer and the Resources of Memory. Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey, Oxford 2001). On ‘memoryscapes’ and ancient texts e.g. Catharine Edwards, Writing Rome, Cambridge 1996.
3 Rewarding on this topic is Thomas Riesenweber, Literarische Erinnerung in der Antike, in: Christoph Michels / Clarissa Blume-Jung (eds.), Erinnerung. Studien zu Konstruktionen, Persistenzen und gesellschaftlichem Wandel, Paderborn 2018, pp. 185–239.
4 On ‘forgetting’ in the exile poems, see now also Verena Schulz, tenerorum oblitus amorum – Das ,Vergessen’ in Ovids Tristia und Epistulae ex Ponto, in: Gymnasium 126.6 (2019), pp. 567–591.
5 Cf. Astrid Erll / Ann Rigney (eds.), Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory, New York 2009. An example of the potential of such an approach for ancient literature is Thomas Biggs, War and Cultural Memory at the Beginnings of Latin Literature, in: Martin T. Dinter / Charles Guérin (eds.), Cultural Memory in Republican and Augustan Rome, Cambridge 2023, pp. 23–41.

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