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Latinity and Literary Society at Rome.

Latinity and Literary Society at Rome. By W. Martin Bloomer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Pp. viii, 327. $39.95.)

Having made his mark with Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility, the author now attempts a complex and subtle investigation of the relationship of language and society in Rome, or more properly, of the language of society and the society of language. To demonstrate how the inconsistencies and oppositions of Latinity--"Latinness"--affect and reflect a changing Roman society, Bloomer resorts to a range of authors and genres. These are chiefly Varro and etymology, Phaedrus and fable, Seneca the Elder and rhetoric, Tacitus and history, and Petronius and novelistic melange. This full plate is one of a few problems with an otherwise scholarly and insightful effort; for given that most ancient historians and classicists are likely not very conversant with the first three sources, one does not find an easy way through this book without first reviewing all the target texts. Furthermore, because the introductory consideration of "just whose Latin this was, anyway" is so thick with clues and caveats, the author might better have plunged promptly into his discussion of old Cato's desire to shape Latin into a common language for freeborn republicans.

Bloomer examines "the social fiction behind the claims for cultured language at its Western, Roman beginnings" (6). He argues how slaves, freedmen, and arrivistes, as both authors and characters, used literary-rhetorical language and style to assert their individuality and rising class against the established society. When political oratory lost its place in the Empire, otiose rhetorical declamation became an uncensored outlet. Seeking entree to the literati, the freedman Phaedrus obliquely justified the underdog against those who were more powerful. Critical of coarse freedmen assuming wealth and power, Petronius exposed their base mercantilism and cultural illiberality with, for example, terms like sestertiarius homo. Bloomer's discussions of Varro and Tacitus are more involved. Varro, in his pursuit of etyma, not only traces cultural history but exalts anomaly, thus opposing the grammatici, who by analogy would regularize the language, that is, make it common and wrest it from the aristocracy. Tacitus, in his treatment of Tiberius, shows how silence or a mere turn of phrase can force behavior. Indeed, whereas Livy is concerned with actions, Tacitus gives us words, reactions to them, and the restraint from both.

Bloomer's own prose could bear some of his deconstruction. He wields a handsome but occasionally overwhelming lexicon; he provides abundant, useful excerpts, frequent restatement, and ample elaboration, but his style tends to be very concentrated, and many passages stubbornly require rereading. At times the exposition is elusive, and in the woods of some paragraphs one begins to wonder whether he has lost sight of his theme, which is inadequately suggested by the rifle. Also, although from the start he matches the Latin with excellent translations, inexplicably in the last chapter, he leaves many of Petronius's quotations in the original a minor point, but an inconvenience for some readers. Notwithstanding, the 60-odd pages of worthy notes lend genuine assistance, and the dosing pages draw his themes together, or at least ease into a reprise of the introduction.

E. N. Genovese

San Diego State University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Genovese, E. N.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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