You are here

Neoteric Questions

Jesse Hill

University of Toronto

Scholarship on Neotericism – that late Republican literary thing that Catullus is supposed to have been associated with – has been bedevilled with uncertainty. Were the Neoterics a tight-knit school of poets who broke from the earlier Latin tradition as, e.g., Lyne 1978, Schmidt 1996, and Johnson 2007 have thought? or was Neotericism instead a messy and wide-ranging literary movement (Alfonsi 1945, Bardon 1952, Hollis 2007)? or should we rather, like the sceptics Courtney 1993, Lightfoot 1999, and Stroup 2010, doubt that the thing existed in any form, throwing scare quotes around “Neoteric” and cognates whenever we are driven to write them?

This paper proposes a model for answering those questions that harmonises, I hope, some of the best of what the above scholars have written on the subject. Building on the treatment of movements and schools in English poetry (Jarrell 1980, Burt 2009), I argue (1) that the term Neotericism, whether or not it was used as such in antiquity, usefully describes a literary development that did in fact emerge in the late Republic, perceptible both to us and the Romans (Cat. 95, Cic. Or. 161, Suet. De gramm. 16.3), and (2) that we can and should conceptualize this development as both movement and school. It is the former – an elastic and dynamic literary movement: the Zeitgeist of the late Republic – in, e.g., Cicero’s Aratea and Lucretius’ De rerum natura, works which, in their hyper-Alexandrianism, allusive creativity, and central aesthetic goals, have less in common with the poetry of the 2nd century BCE than they do with the poetry that is usually called “Neoteric” (in drawing attention to these poems’ Neoteric qualities I follow many scholars: Alfonsi 1945, Courtney 1993, Kenney 1970, King 1994). And it is the latter – a unified school – in the tightly bound network of poets active in the 50s (at minimum: Catullus, Cinna, and Calvus), friends who wrote the same kinds of ultra-erudite, inward-facing verse, in a mannered style so identifiable as to be closely imitated (Verg. Georg. 4.453-529; Ciris) and parodied (Cic. Att. 7.2; Pers. 1.93-5).

My paper claims, therefore, that the Neoteric Zeitgeist, discernible in most of the Latin poetry of the late Republic, found a particularly concentrated manifestation in the Neoteric school of the 50s: Catullus, Cinna, and Calvus pushed the tendencies of their age to an extreme. This model makes the most sense when we realise that Neotericism was not, as Anglophone critics of the 20th century so firmly believed, a violent break from earlier Latin poetry, effected by the sudden advent of Parthenius at Rome (an aetion already well criticized by Crowther 1976 and Lightfoot 1999); it was rather an evolutionary phenomenon, a stage in the long process of Hellenization – or rather, Alexandrianization – that had been affecting Latin poetry at least since Ennius, dicti studiosus (Ann. 209), set pen to papyrus. Catullus, Cinna, and Calvus, then, did not just push the tendencies of their age to an extreme – but the tendencies of the Latin tradition itself.

Not only does this paper thus introduce an evolutionary model for understanding Latin literary history that legitimizes and reconciles apparently disparate perspectives, allowing us, in effect, to have our cake and eat it too (Neotericism defines both movement [i.e., a loose and diverse unity of poets of the same era who share many of the same tendencies] and school [i.e., an in-group of poets intimately connected by social and literary ties]); it also invites us to reconsider the relationship of the Neoteric school to the poets of the earlier Latin tradition. For when the poetics of Catullus are seen as a development of, rather than an aberration from, that tradition, the antagonism that many critics have read into his allusions to Ennius, for instance, seem far less comprehensible. The approach of Zetzel 2007 might well be worth pursuing further.

Session/Panel Title

Latin Poetics and Poetic Theory

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy