Ancient Literary Criticism
Ancient Literary Criticism
by Casper C. de Jonge
Throughout Antiquity, Greeks and Romans interpreted, analyzed, and evaluated the texts of poets and prose writers. They formulated ideas about the nature of poetry, its effects, and its function in society. They also developed theories on the effective composition of prose texts, and they commented on the style of orators, historians, and philosophers. All these different activities can be summarized in the notion of “ancient literary criticism.”
Literary criticism was not a separate discipline in Antiquity. Greek and Roman ideas on what we call “literature” (i.e., poems as well as texts of oratory, history, and philosophy) are found in many different kinds of texts (dialogues, epistles, treatises, commentaries, poems) that were produced in various intellectual contexts. Four of these contexts are relevant, in particular: poetry, philosophy, rhetoric, and scholarship. From its beginnings in the Homeric epics, Greek poetry reflected on its own nature, value, and function.
Latin poetry was concerned with similar issues: Horace’s Ars Poetica is both a poem and one of the most influential texts of ancient criticism. Throughout Antiquity, poetry provoked all kinds of responses from philosophers. On the one hand, the relationship between poetry and philosophy was framed in terms of a conflict between competing traditions: Xenophanes notoriously objects to the poets’ presentation of gods, and Plato problematizes the mimetic nature of poetry in his Republic. On the other hand, philosophers made extensive use of poetic forms and developed theories of poetry: no critical text from Antiquity has been so influential as Aristotle’s Poetics.
Rhetoric is another ancient discipline that is closely connected with literary criticism. In Greek and Roman teaching, students were continuously stimulated to read, study, and analyze the classical texts from the past, which formed the models of stylistic imitation and emulation. By consequence, the rhetorical treatises composed by such teachers as Demetrius, Dionysius, and Quintilian include numerous evaluative observations on specific passages of classical prose and poetry.
Finally, there is the tradition of ancient scholarship that came to flourish in the Hellenistic period, most famously in Alexandria and Pergamum. The commentaries of Alexandrian scholars contained observations on literary (stylistic) aspects of the classical texts, which partly and indirectly survive in collections of scholia. This article offers a basic orientation to the study of ancient literary criticism. It lists general historical overviews, introductions to ancient criticism and related disciplines (rhetoric, philosophy, ancient scholarship, aesthetics), essential literature on the most influential critics and schools of criticism (including translations, commentaries, and studies), as well as important discussions of some general issues and concepts of ancient literary criticism.
Several surveys present a chronological history of ancient literary criticism from Homer to Late Antiquity. Kennedy 1989 includes contributions by a number of specialists who discuss a great variety of texts from Homer to the Neoplatonists and the Church Fathers. It is the successor ofGrube 1965, which is, however, still a very readable handbook and an excellent starting point for beginning students. The two volumes of Atkins 1934 are in many respects outdated, but they contain useful observations on specific critics. Russell 2012 is a very succinct account of the history of criticism in three pages. Fuhrmann 1992 concentrates on the criticism of poetry in three canonical authors, viz., Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus. There are several surveys that focus on a specific period. The archaic and classical periods of Greece are discussed in Ford 2002, with a focus on the social contexts of early Greek criticism. D’Alton 1962 presents a separate survey of Roman criticism for those readers who are mainly interested in Latin texts. The chapters on Antiquity in Habib 2008 are especially interesting for readers who approach the ancient texts from a modern critical perspective. Two recent monographs present a series of case studies in the Greek tradition. Hunter 2009 opens up new perspectives by drawing fascinating lines between various classical texts. Halliwell 2011 is a nuanced discussion for more advanced readers, as it argues that the poetic views of many critics are more complex than most traditional surveys suggest.
Atkins, J. W. H. 1934. Literary criticism in Antiquity: A sketch of its development. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.E-mail Citation »
The two volumes deal with Greek criticism (starting from Aristophanes) and Greco-Roman criticism, respectively. Although in many respects out of date, this survey contains valuable discussions, including interesting juxtapositions of Greek and Roman critics (Philodemus and Horace; Tacitus and Demetrius).
d’Alton, J. F. 1962. Roman literary theory and criticism. New York: Russell & Russell.
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Whereas most surveys treat both Greek and Roman critics, this account focuses on Latin texts. It contains a useful discussion of Cicero as critic, but it pays insufficient attention to the Greek critics of the Roman Empire.
Ford, A. 2002. The origins of criticism: Literary culture and poetic theory in classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.E-mail Citation »
This excellent discussion emphasizes the social contexts of early Greek criticism, which originated in the evaluation of song performance. In the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, formal poetics gradually emerged, through the efforts of Alcidamas, Isocrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle.
Fuhrmann, M. 1992. Die Dichtungstheorie der Antike: Aristoteles, Horaz, “Longin”; Eine Einführung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.E-mail Citation »
This informative introduction to ancient poetics concentrates on three classical texts: Aristotle’sPoetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Longinus’s On the Sublime. This is the revised second edition (the original edition of 1973 contains a second part on the modern reception of Aristotle’s Poetics).
Grube, G. M. A. 1965. The Greek and Roman critics. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.E-mail Citation
This is still an excellent overview, elegantly written and accessible to readers who do not have knowledge of Greek or Latin. Grube offers informative introductions to all relevant critics and their theories, avoiding too much technical detail.
Habib, M. A. R. 2008. A history of literary criticism and theory: From Plato to the present. Malden, MA: Blackwell.E-mail Citation »
This general survey includes three chapters on ancient criticism. Informative introduction for readers who are interested in the influence of ancient critics on later periods.
Halliwell, S. 2011. Between ecstasy and truth: Interpretations of Greek poetics from Homer to Longinus. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.E-mail Citation »
Halliwell examines the approaches to poetry in Homer, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Gorgias, Isocrates, Philodemus, and Longinus. The tradition of poetics shows a continuous dialogue between two perspectives on poetry, one emphasizing its emotional impact, the other one its cognitive value.
Hunter, R. 2009. Critical moments in classical literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511729997
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A series of close readings, including innovative discussions of Aristophanes, Frogs and Longinus,On the Sublime, Plutarch, How to Study Poetry, and Dionysius, On Imitation. Not an exhaustive survey, but an exploration of fascinating relationships between ancient texts and themes.
Kennedy, G. A., ed. 1989. The Cambridge history of literary criticism. Vol. 1, Classical criticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.E-mail Citation »
This is a useful historical survey, covering all periods from Homer to the Church Fathers. Although some chapters are outdated, the volume remains indispensable for students and scholars working on ancient criticism.
Russell, D. A. 2012. Literary criticism in Antiquity. In The Oxford classical dictionary. Rev. 4th ed. Edited by S. Hornblower, A. Spawforth, and E. Eidinow, 844–845. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199545568.001.000
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A very brief historical survey of criticism from Homer and Hesiod to Proclus. A good starting point for readers who need to find their way into the field.
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