This chapter explores biographical receptions of Greek and Roman poets in the twentieth century. Classical scholarship has now begun to recognize ancient biography as a creative mode of reception in Antiquity. In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, reading the texts of Greek and Roman poetry for the lives of their authors has been an especially rich and multifaceted mode of reception, providing for many readers a means of grappling with the ancient texts within the changing cultural landscape of modernity. Yet, unlike the medieval and early modern traditions of literary biography, in the twentieth century, academic and creative Lives have tended to part company. When it comes to Greek and Roman poets, though a few full-length literary biographies that still attempt to claim factual status have been produced, conventional narrative biographies that aim to set out the ‘facts’ are generally only found in isagogic contexts such as introductions to texts and translations, or textbooks of literary history. Moreover, partly because modern authors are acutely aware that there are few ‘facts’ beyond the poets’ works themselves on which to base their material, and partly as a broader consequence of modern preoccupations with fragmentation and the limits of knowledge, creative life-writing about the ancient poets in this period is found more frequently in ludic snapshots rather than full-blown narrative biographies.
The present paper focusses on the oldest version of the Alexander Romance (the so-called alpha recension). It is a composite work, made of heterogeneous elements whose combination generates tensions in the portrayal of the protagonist, Alexander. His presentation is multifocal: making use of letters, speeches, and dialogues, and multiplying the points of view, the narrator constructs a kaleidoscopic image of Alexander which is that of an actant rather than a character. Nevertheless, the emphasis put on Alexander’s singularity and exceptional destiny gives the Romance its consistency. The prevalence of an entertaining prospect implies a redirection of biographical tools for the benefit of fictitiousness.
This chapter discusses ancient biographies of statesmen. What is the nature of ancient political biography? It is the description of the life and deeds of a significant political player of the recent or far past, individually told or in a series, with the intent of edifying the readers. This means that such a work often has an encomiastic, or at any rate evaluative cast, and may even employ certain acknowledged untruths in order to bring out the characteristic significance of a given politician. This too is the aim with which intimate details or gossip are told: so as to convey a clear image of what kind of man Solon, Demosthenes, Augustus, or Nero was, and how this influenced his career and his deeds.
This chapter discusses ancient biography in the Italian Renaissance. One way to reveal some of the major trends and developments of ancient biography in the Renaissance is to examine the models chosen by Renaissance biographers. This approach not only illuminates the legacy of ancient biography, but also sheds some light on modern suppositions about ancient biography. Some of the models chosen will hardly be a surprise. Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars and the Augustan History provided a model for biography as a history of civic and military leaders. Jerome’s Illustrious Men remained a blueprint for biography as bibliography and as literary history. Yet humanists also found models in Cicero, Varro, and Pliny, all of whom are today rarely thought of as biographers. Moreover, Renaissance authors did not always take up what one might think of as their model’s characteristic features. The chapter considers how some of the major authors of Renaissance biography worked and reworked their models to suit new needs. It also addresses five sub-types of biography: collective biographies of historical figures; collective biographies of literary figures; individual and comparative biographies; collective biographies in dialogue form; and collective biographies with portraits.
This chapter examines presences of ancient biography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The popularity of biography in seventeenth-century Europe was mainly due to the numerous translations of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Conversely, Suetonius, whose Lives of the Caesars were extremely influential in the early modern period, was less read in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Meanwhile, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers contributed to the rise of literary and philosophical biography. However, the more life-writing is considered as a literary practice, the less its historical reliability is valued. If, in the seventeenth century, Lives were generally regarded as a historical genre, eighteenth-century philosophers criticized the historical interest of biography, at a time in which history began to be studied as a science more than as a pedagogical device.
This chapter examines the Arabic biographical tradition. The genre of biographical writing is a celebrated, multifaceted, and widely practised field of Arabic literature. Basic forms of biographical compilation can be shown from the first century of Islam (seventh century), initially orally transmitted and later in writing. The Arabic biographical tradition was mainly developed from within Islam, to which it owes its noticeable character. It probably originated from the earnest aspiration of generations following the initial period to preserve knowledge about the central figures of that era. For that reason, biographical transmission, initially, was a highly religion-orientated discipline. Nevertheless, or perhaps even due to this stimulus, there developed a huge field of different biographical genres and specialized life-writing.
S. Peter Cowe
Recognizing Hellenism and Greek as the hemispherically dominant culture and language of late antiquity, this chapter applies a dynamic model to chart the incremental Armenian reception of such trends over the fifth–eighth centuries. Acknowledging the contemporary affinity between elite literacy and Christianity’s regional integration, it analyses the resulting bifurcation in Armenian society and literature whereby Persianate aristocratic epic persists in an oral verse repertoire, while the novel written medium largely in prose propagated by a new literate class not only appropriates all the ecclesiastical genres but reconceptualizes the Armenian worldview within a Christian dispensation from a Greek cultural ethos. Adopting the trivium and quadrivium from Antioch and Alexandria, scholars replicate lay schools in Armenia and contribute to those disciplines by their commentaries. Elaborating an indigenous theological literature in continuity with Syria and Egypt, Armenians defend it in dialogue with Constantinople as the eastern Mediterranean littoral enters into the Umayyad Caliphate.
S. Peter Cowe
This chapter discusses the diverse Armenian biographical material, which was transmitted directly or indirectly in written form and hence dependent on the existence of a writing system. Particular historical forces converged to realize this project as part of a process to diffuse literacy in Southern Caucasia in the early fifth century. Initiated primarily as a means of advancing the cause of Christian proclamation and solidarity in the region, the movement to inaugurate a literate tradition inspired the participation of pluralist trends in Armenian society to employ the medium to engage in dialogue on issues of collective identity and values. By the end of the Umayyad era, that process of exchange resulted in the construction of a relatively connected master narrative of Armenian origins and the course of secular and sacred history that included a gallery of variegated portraits of the pre-eminent figures who shaped these developments, a selection of which will form the focus of the chapter’s discussion. The criteria for selection include literary significance, the prominence of the individuals portrayed, and the texts’ rhetorical impact on Armenian society, in both the religious and cultural spheres.
Michael Stuart Williams
This chapter explores the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo. Almost every author who writes on Augustine’s Confessions feels an obligation to insist that this difficult and complex work is not an autobiography. If the purpose of the Confessions as a whole is to turn the reader towards God, as it would appear from Augustine’s account, it seems no less clear that the means is through narrating Augustine’s own life in all its aspects, both good and bad. With this in mind, it has always been difficult to deny that the Confessions possesses, at the very least, a profoundly autobiographical character. Augustine offers an extended meditation of his life in more-or-less chronological order. If this is not the whole story of the Confessions, it is enough all the same to suggest that there may be value in approaching it as autobiography. Such an approach must begin by acknowledging that ‘autobiography’ is an elusive category, no less than is its parent ‘biography’.
Matthieu de Bakker
This chapter argues that authorial comments are an important tool of Thucydides’ historiographical strategy. As the comments interrelate with the longer authorial essays, the surrounding narrative parts of the Histories, and the speeches of its actors, they guide the reader in interpreting rich, complex text. Authorial comments are typically found at the opening of episodes or at the introduction of characters, and thus often create a frame for evaluating subsequent passages. When comments are asides, they may concern topics distant from Thucydides’ focus, like divination and early Greek legend. Although pushed to the fringes of his work, these topics display significant relations to contemporary events. Finally, the frequency of authorial comments increases in Book 8, the narrative of which points to a growing fragmentation of the Hellenic world, and needs more authorial guidance to remain understandable.
Adam M. Kemezis
This chapter focuses on Philostratus’ Apollonius. It begins by examining Philostratus’ explicit rhetorical claims and his curiously ambiguous narrative stance, before moving on to the anecdotal and doxographical material, and the overall characterization of the hero. The chapter then considers some key thematic strands of the work that seem to stretch normal generic parameters, these being its focus on foreign exoticism, Greek antiquarianism, and Roman political history. In all of these cases, the interplay between Philostratus’ stated aims and his grandiose means reveals much about the kinds of cultural work that biography could do in Antiquity. The Apollonius announces itself as a self-contained sort of work, neatly defined by the scope and extent of a single human life, and that rhetorical position is never fully abandoned. Much of the rest of the text, however, will sorely test the limits of biographical form as its author strives to display his own consummate skill by piling the largest conceivable variety of Hellenic cultural topics into the life story of one man and creating an outrageously over-sized literary hero whose story is capable of bearing such a weight.
This chapter surveys the genre normally referred to by Egyptologists as ‘biography’ or ‘autobiography’, comprising texts, often inscribed on stone monuments, which recount, in various forms, events in a non-royal person’s life and/or aspects of their moral character. Such biographies are attested from the third millennium
This chapter addresses Tacitus’ Agricola and Pliny the Younger’s Panegyricus. At first glance, they have little in common. Both written early in Trajan’s principate, one is a short biography of Tacitus’ father-in-law, the other a long speech of thanks addressed to the emperor. However, they are also a complementary, contemporary, and directly connected pair of literary artworks. Tacitus marshals the resources of a long biographical tradition in his brilliant apology for the career of a quietist. Pliny for his part produces a striking account, at once humanizing and mythologizing, of an emperor whose scripted life finds significant origins in the pages of Tacitus. Between privatus and princeps, across biography and encomium, Agricola and Panegyricus together offer striking illumination of the possibilities for textualizing lives in Trajanic Rome.
Eusebius’ Life of Constantine is one of the oddest works of biography to survive from Antiquity. As such, its authenticity and genre have been much studied. But its literary qualities remain undervalued. This chapter reads it not as a stand-alone work, but as the climax of its author’s long history of biographical experimentation. It focuses in particular on the ‘episcopal equivalencies’—the two passages where Constantine is described as being bishop-like. These passages can only be properly understood when read against the backdrop of Eusebius’ construction of bishops in his earlier biographical writings.
This chapter studies direct and indirect influences of classical and late antique biographical forms and contents on Byzantine biographical writing. Both the main characteristics of Byzantine biographical writing and the richness of forms and contents become clear. The influence of the vita/bios on other (even non-biographical) genres and the concomitant biographization are noted. Biography has to be interesting, edifying, and entertaining. ‘Adventures’ are an important element as is the constant movement of the heroes. Indeed, a recurrent topic is the hero’s flight and other people’s pursuit of him. It is remarkable that there are so many biographies of people from the provinces who came to Constantinople for various reasons. Constantinople itself is an important point of reference in many biographies, as is the emperor or the patriarch. Education and learning, too, play a significant role. The specific characteristics of Byzantine biography, however, still remain vague. A lot of further scholarly work needs to be done before the art of biography can be properly understood.
This chapter reviews the campaign and battle narratives of Thucydides’ History. It discusses the structural role of campaign narratives in the History, and then focusses on the prologues, actions, and speeches of the campaign narratives themselves. It also takes several battle narratives under examination, asking what questions these battle stories answer and how they function in the larger narrative. Finally, the chapter engages with the question of how these stories related to their ancient Athenian audience, which was the very first audience, as far as we know, to be able to read accounts of the military events of a recent war.
Thucydides presents the words and deeds of individuals chiefly in terms of their importance for understanding the war. He characterizes leading actors through their speeches, indications of motivation, authorial comments, and the narrative itself. These techniques allow remarkable nuance, even ambiguity, of interpretation. This chapter examines the representations of Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, Brasidas, and Thucydides himself, highlighting the similar and contrasting traits that unite them. In Thucydides’ narrative, Pericles’ pride in Athens, refusal to yield to Sparta, and brilliant oratory lead Athens into the war. Nicias evaluates the expedition to Sicily with Periclean prudence, but his fear of a change in fortune and of the Athenian assembly lead to the expedition’s defeat. Alcibiades shares Pericles’ aristocratic background and strategic imagination, but his self-centeredness and contempt for customs twice cause the Athenians to lose trust. Through delineating these individual characteristics and behaviors, Thucydides clarifies the war's narrative.
Scott Fitzgerald Johnson
This chapter addresses Christian biography. The Christian biographical tradition is simultaneously fundamental to the early Church and also fundamentally different from Graeco-Roman biographical traditions. This difference emerges from the distinctive discourse of the canonical gospels. These foundational texts were not sui generis across the board in terms of form and genre, but their distinctive discourse and their devotion to narrative as a standard of orthodoxy, combined with their role as historical and theological authorities in the Church, gave them a paradigmatic status never held by Graeco-Roman—or even most Jewish—biographies in their own reception histories. The chapter traces this influence by means of comparison with various genres that arose subsequent to the canonical gospels and with direct reference to them: apocryphal literature, saints’ Lives, and miracle collections, among others.
This chapter highlights Coptic life-writing; identifying its various strands and forms can open new avenues for the analysis of Coptic literature. On the whole, the rise of the biographic that has been noted more generally for Late Antiquity is greatly felt in Coptic texts, perhaps even more strongly than in other languages as a proportion of the overall production. In many ways, the impulses of classical biography can be found in Coptic texts: they are used to define morality, provide examples, obtain adherence, persuade, justify, or legitimize. From the self-denying exemplum to the incredible superhero whose adventures inspired a mix of entertainment, suspense, and fear, the range of admirable individuals was broad. What brings all of those life stories together is their general lack of individuality in the characterization. The stress of these stories is on the authority embedded in a number of exemplary individuals, and the true source of that authority comes from conformity to a model and a set of received criteria. Accordingly, the genre is not at all introspective, despite the meta-discourse on introspection that pervades the ascetic biographies.
This chapter investigates the types of biographies which could be written through material objects, and the dynamic uses to which prominent figures could put the visual arts in their efforts at self-representation, using the Imperial Greek sophists as a case study. To what extent can one conceptualize these sorts of representation and self-representation as biography? From the perspective of the historian, physical monuments along with the texts inscribed upon them often allow one to write the life-histories of individuals who would otherwise remain unknown, omitted from the literary tradition. Yet the analogy also goes deeper. Monuments often work within the same sorts of categories and agenda which can also be seen in literary biographies. As with Favorinus’ statue, statues and their inscriptions could present individuals as exempla of particular sorts of values, designed to have a didactic function for their wider audience. The imagery chosen for portrait statues also situates these individuals within particular categories—as scholar, philosopher, or powerful civic notable.