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Biography, Portraiture, and the Birth of the Author

Thomas Hendrickson

This paper argues for a closer relationship between biography and portraiture than has previously been realized, in particular when the subject is an author. The relationship between biography and portraiture has been somewhat neglected, partly as a consequence of the disciplinary divide: classicists study biography, art historians portraiture. Analyses bringing both together are rare (though briefly Zanker 154-58). By viewing the two phenomena together, we get a better sense of how Romans constructed their idea of “the author,” and how they understood the relationship between author and text.

I argue that the biography and portraiture of authors arose from the same impulse: the feeling that the author was so important to understanding the text that one had to be invented even if he (or in a few instances she) did not exist as a known subject. In both biography and portraiture, an idea of the author’s character (usually arising largely, though not entirely, from his works) is translated into a particular medium through a set of conventional patterns: narrative-patterns for biography (on these see Kivilo), certain characteristic features for portraiture (on these see Zanker). During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, we find the rise and proliferation of biographies and portraits of authors. The trend is particularly interesting in light of the fact that nothing was usually known about the author’s looks or life. As Pliny the Elder wrote of portraits in libraries: “our desires give birth to the faces that were not passed down, as happens in the case of Homer” (pariuntque desideria non traditos vultus, sicut in Homero evenit, NH 35.9). Implicit in Pliny’s statement is an acknowledgment that the portrait does not yield the likeness of the actual historical author, and yet at the same time that it is greatly desired by readers who long to know “what someone (sc. the author) was like” (qualis fuerit aliquis, NH 35.10). In such cases, the author is a construction that arises from the text, but it adds its own value to the appreciation of that text.

An argument in support of this thesis can be found in the relationship between author portraits, biographies, and libraries. It is probably not a coincidence that libraries, like author portraits and biographies, first arise in the Hellenistic era. Within the Roman era, we see examples both of collections of biographies and of collections of portraits as a way to systematize the textual world of the library. Cornelius Nepos’ De Viris Illustribus, and Suetonius’, were almost libraries in miniature: a kind of capsule overview of who was in the library and what was important about them. Portraits in libraries, on the other hand, served to articulate a canon of established and principal authors. Hence we see repeated controversies over whose portraits are displayed in libraries. To give just one example, Tiberius insisted on including the books and busts of the poets Euphorion, Rhianus, and Parthenius in all public libraries (Suet. Tib. 70.2). Suetonius is critical of Tiberius for including his Hellenistic poets “among the old and outstanding authorities” (inter ueteres et praecipuos auctores, Tib. 70.2). Caligula threatens to remove from all libraries the books and busts of Livy and Virgil (Suet. Calig. 34.2)—and his grounds are largely stylistic.

Both the biographies of authors and their portraits arose from an experience with the text: they categorize the text, and express something fundamental about its character. The mode of expressing this evaluation was through a depiction of what the author was like, whether in looks or in life events. Although these evaluations arose out of the text, they had an independent value in the eyes of many ancient readers, and had their own roles in constructing and articulating the world of literature.

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The Social Life of Ancient Libraries

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