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Latin Voices

What is easily lost in Latin’s silent centuries-old imprisonment in books and on stone memorials is the very thing which made it so special: its voice.

Classical Latin ‘literature’ was in its day a treat for the ear. Even those who could afford to learn to read heard poems of Virgil and Ovid read aloud. Indeed the widespread view that poetry was limited to an educated elite and confined to readings in private houses now faces a re-appraisal thanks in no small part to TP Wiseman’s excellent The Roman Audience (Oxford 2015), where he argues that poetry was presented to wider audiences.

Caution too is needed with the longstanding distinction between ‘oral’ poetry of pre-classical Greek and the later ‘literary’ creations of poets like Virgil. We think of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as oral epics, because they very nearly are. They are the closest we get to oral poems of that time; but they are in fact pioneering triumphs of a literate society, if drawing on an oral tradition from the world around them. And Virgil’s Aeneid, the fruit of a poetic culture at ease with scrolls of papyrus and the study of letters, is a good deal more oral than we might think.

Roman literature did not start from cold in the 3rd century BC as some have suggested. It was already well warmed up by the previous and concurrent oral tradition of dramatised storytelling. A tantalising glimpse of an ancient poet at work (and a singer and story-teller) comes from Dio Chrysostom. He describes a scene in the Hippodrome: “I remember seeing a number of people in one place, each one doing something different: one was playing a flute, another dancing, another juggling, another reciting a poem, another singing, and another telling a story or myth; and not a single one of them prevented any of the others carrying out his own business” (Discourses 20.10).

What makes a poet literary is not so much that he is read whereas a storyteller is heard, but that his performance is recorded on papyrus, and then able to be repeated, or studied, with a claim established to authorship. The oral storyteller on the other hand is beyond our radar; his work has not been preserved. Even so, his popularity was not limited to ordinary folk: Suetonius tells us that Augustus would summon a storyteller at night if he could not sleep (Aug.78).

It is easy to see why Augustus wanted poets on side if their work was appreciated far beyond the few who obtained a papyrus copy. And it explains why there were no published female poets, or very few. Seldom would a woman appear in public to give an address of any kind.

George Sharpley 2017

Opera singer Matthew Hargreaves reads from Virgil's Aeneid

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