Matthew Payne

Does Philhellenistic Anchoring of Early Roman Tragedy Unduly Influence Modern Editions of its Fragments?

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Does Philhellenistic Anchoring of Early Roman Tragedy Unduly Influence Modern Editions of its Fragments?

This project will examine the history of scholarship on fragmentary Roman tragedy. The fragments that survive to us were once part of a much bigger picture of tragedy on the Roman Republican stage, of which we now have a very incomplete grasp. With rarely more than a few lines from a play, the gaps are extensive. In contrast to Roman Republican tragedy, we possess a far more complete picture of Greek tragedy. We have complete plays and far more contextual knowledge about their theatrical performance. There are still plenty of gaps, and the number of complete Greek tragedies is still a small fraction of those that were produced and confined geographically to those originally staged in 5th century Athens, but, when compared with what we know about Roman Republican tragedy, we know far more about Greek tragedy.

Anchoring of Early Roman Tragedy

The question that this project sets out to answer is this: how has our far greater knowledge of Greek tragedy influenced our understanding of fragmentary Roman tragedy? What assumptions and biases have emerged over the history of scholarship on Roman Republican tragedy that have involved reading the fragments in a particular way and discounting other interpretations, or reconstructing the fragments in a way that goes beyond the immediate evidence, through importing context from and postulating similarities with Greek tragedies?

Why does scholarship on fragmentary Roman tragedy provide a good topic to probe? Firstly, though there is lots of information missing from the picture, the information from surviving fragments has often tempted scholars to reconstruct aspects of the whole play. For instance, possessing some fragments invites questions such as whether the fragments can be arranged in the order in which they might have appeared in the complete text, and what any reconstructed order might suggest about the plot of a play. Whether stated explicitly or not, comparison with plots of known Greek plays typically performs a crucial role in such reconstructions. Along with this, we have Roman tragedians and subsequent ancient authorities anchoring Republican tragedy to Greek tragedy, and in particular to 5th century Athenian tragedy. Taken together, it seems likely that scholarship on Roman tragedy has ended up anchoring research on the fragments to Greek tragedy in ways that go beyond the anchoring being done by the Roman tragedians themselves. In other words, how have scholars misunderstood the degree of innovation, or denied the possibility of innovation, because the way that they are reading the fragments is distorted by their contextual knowledge of Greek tragedy?

The scholarship on Republican tragedy offers us the chance to look across a scholarly tradition, and to see how assumptions and biases due to anchoring have arisen, endured or been rejected. Setting scholars within their cultural context, and seeing how this affects how they react to and interpret the anchoring cues in the fragmentary material, will avoid seeing these anchoring phenomena a-historically and without attention to nuance and context. My project will focus on the ancient reception of the fragments, such as by Cicero, Aulus Gellius and the grammarians, on the Renaissance reception of the fragments, on 19th century scholarship, particularly in Germany, and lastly, on the appearance of the fragments in vernacular editions in the 20th century.

I will be integrating interdisciplinary research that assesses psychological influences on information processing and making judgements. In particular, I intend to introduce up-to-date knowledge on the mental processes of reading – such as the importance of contextual information, the role of memory and particular psychological effects such as priming, which is where the mind cues itself from contextual information to recognise particular words. All scholarly engagement with the fragments begins with reading those fragments, but humans do not read in a neutral fashion. Nor do scholars make judgements about that material in a detached fashion, and so I’ll be incorporating the conclusions of research on aesthetic judgement. For instance, philhellenism is an overarching theme across this tradition, and I’ll be considering how that affects the situation in different times and places.

What are some of the aims for this project? First of all, using the anchoring paradigm to provide a fresh approach to the methodological problems of reading fragmentary texts. And beyond Classics, there is interest in the idea of the fragmentary and the fragmented – this project will contribute towards that wider theoretical issue. The project will also offer a probing of how anchoring effects can introduce blind-spots and unsubstantiated assumptions, and how these can persist through time. It will contribute to questions about how anchoring, as well as enabling introduction of innovation, can severely impair any retrospective investigation and how narratives and biases introduced by anchoring can endure long after the moment of innovation and the target audience have expired.