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the Complete Review
the complete review - classics

Beyond Greek

Denis Feeney

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To purchase Beyond Greek

Title: Beyond Greek
Author: Denis Feeney
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016
Length: 247 pages
Availability: Beyond Greek - US
Beyond Greek - UK
Beyond Greek - Canada
  • The Beginnings of Latin Literature

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting look at and analysis of a literary turning point

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 4/2/2016 .
London Rev. of Books . 22/9/2016 T.P.Wiseman
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/6/2017 Gregory Hays
TLS . 27/4/2016 Emily Wilson

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is written by the professor of Latin at Princeton University for other academics. However, his bold theme and vigorous writing render Beyond Greek of interest to anyone intrigued by the history and literature of the classical world." - The Economist

  • "Denis Feeney’s new book, Beyond Greek, on the origins of Roman literature, is very much in the mode of Father Brown, asking us to be amazed and puzzled by things so familiar that we do not bother to think about them. (...) Beyond Greek is structured a little awkwardly. (...) But Feeney is to be congratulated on his willingness to put Roman literary history in a big comparative context" - Emily Wilson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the title suggests, Beyond Greek centers on finding The Beginnings of Latin Literature developing out of ancient Greek literature, a progression that began with literary translation before taking on its own forms. Jürgen Leonhardt's Latin -- a fine companion- and continuation-volume -- similarly notes Livius Andronicus' pivotal role, the essential starting point of Latin literature, and Feeney's more detailed focus on the transmission and reception of (specifically Greek) literature in other cultures and what turns out to be the apparently unique Roman assimilation and adaptation of it proves to be a fascinating example of cultural development.
       Perhaps the most initially surprising of Feeney's observations is that:

The creation of a Roman literature on Greek models was not just a matter of time, something that was bound to happen sooner or later, but instead one of the strangest and most unlikely events of Mediterranean history.
       The key to a development of Roman/Latin literature was translation, beginning with Livius Andronicus' 240 BCE commission to: "translate an Attic script into Latin for a tragic performance of the Ludi Romani, the greatest Roman state festival" -- "a revolutionary moment", Feeney insists. He makes a good (and fascinating) case: we tend to take literary translation for granted nowadays, and the translation of literary works from one language to another (some more than others, but nevertheless ...) is so commonplace as to seem almost unremarkable -- but, historically, literary translation has often simply not taken place. He cites the example of contemporary multi-lingual India, where there have been -- certainly until very recently -- exceptionally few translations of literary works between vernacular languages (and even also into English), but in classical times the situation is even more clear-cut. Even as much Greek culture was exported or spread through the classical world, it is noteworthy that it seems no one thought to translate it -- with drama, for example, performed in the original (foreign) language, rather than the local one. Similarly, while other cultures also produced their own forms of literature -- epics and poetry, for example -- there are practically no examples of these being translated into other languages of the day (including into Greek and Latin). Translation was not unheard of, and there are certainly many examples of non-literary writing that was translated, but specifically literature (epics, drama, poetry) remained almost entirely untranslated, regardless of the language.
       This continued to later times, too: as Feeney notes, a huge amount of Greek writing was translated into Arabic in the "astounding two and a half centuries, from around 750 to 1000 CE":
Greek science, medicine, mathematics and philosophy were translated practically wholesale into Arabic. But there was no translation of "literature": no Homer, Sophocles, or Theocritus found its way into Arabic.
       The Roman example then is also all the more surprising because Greek was widely spoken (as Feeney notes, quoting Wiebke Denecke: "the Greco-Roman linguistic constellation was bilingual but monoliterate" -- in contrast to a constellation which also saw one literature built on the foundations of another, yet in an entirely different way, the "monolingual and biliterate" Sino-Japanese constellation (as Japanese readers could read Chinese text, even without speaking the language)), and thus perhaps hardly the most obvious candidate for literary translation, certainly no where as much as -- so we might imagine nowadays -- some of the truly foreign languages of the day (say, Persian).
       Remarkably -- but perhaps also essentially -- the whole first generation of groundbreaking literary translators were, to at least some significant extent, foreigners:
(T)he identity of the first participants in the translation project was fascinatingly complex, since none of them was born into the status of being a full Roman citizen; instead, they occupied the volatile interstices between the cultures of central and southern Italy, especially Greek, Roman, and Oscan.
       (Feeney also mentions the "striking asymmetry" of the non-Greek authorship of translations into Greek in the pre-Roman period: here, too, 'foreigners' were far more likely to have undertaken the task.)
       If far from a cultural vaccuum, it is worth noting that the (especially) cultural environment was a very different one in Rome than Greece (and elsewhere):
(I)t is striking how very different Rome of the middle Republic was, even from Greece, it its lack of public institutions of support for cultural activities. The dramas were virtually all staged as part of state-organized festivals, but the Roman state had no specific role in any other apparatus of support.
       So also, for example, there weren't even any public libraries -- certainly making for very different conditions, especially for: "the literary and artistic professionals who came to Rome".
       The time -- in 240 BCE -- seemed ripe, and Feeney properly notes the role adapting culture had:
Working systematically with Greek culture through the medium of translated Greek drama gave the Romans an extremely economical and powerful way of assessing their ever-changing relationship with Hellenic culture and reshaping their sense of national identity in the process.
       So also then a homegrown-literature developed on this foundation of translations:
The translated dramas in turn provided the momentum for an expanding torrent of experimentation in other Hellenizing literary fields, both in verse and prose, producing works that were no longer necessarily translations or adaptations of Greek originals, but that extended the range of writing practices in novel ways -- epic (following Livius; initial translation of Homer's Odyssey), history, oratory, satire, and literary history.
       Beyond Greek reminds readers of the fundamental place of Greek literature in Western literature -- truly the beginning of it all --, and shows its central role, and that specifically via translation, in the development of Latin literature -- itself, as Feeney demonstrates, an unusual, even exceptional, rather than predictable crossover.
       Even as we take translation and adaptation to be natural parts of the movement of culture across cultures, Feeney's book is a welcome reminder that it hasn't always been so (indeed arguably largely isn't so), and that such stimulating leaps are perhaps more the exception than the rule. Other examples relying heavily on translation from developed literary culture -- the sudden, rapid: "creation of a core for a new vernacular literature in English -- a process that took a scant generation, from 1370 to 1400", as well as the example of eighteenth-century Russian literature -- suggest what tremendous change is possible in the relatively short-term, but also how relatively unusual this sort of cultural appropriation and flowering has been.
       A work of literary history, the most interesting questions Beyond Greek raises are those about translation, and there is much material here that should be of concern and interest even to those solely concerned with modern translation and cultural transmission, in particular from an English-language point of view. While somewhat academic -- familiarity with the age is very helpful -- Beyond Greek is certainly accessible to the interested lay-reader. Best of all, it is a work of history that is not merely descriptive, but is actively thought-provoking, about matters that are still relevant, in only slightly different contexts, today.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2015

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Beyond Greek: Reviews: Denis Feeney: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Denis Feeney teaches at Princeton University.

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© 2015-2022 the complete review

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