Review: “Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature” edited by Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin

Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin, eds. Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature. Trends in Classics 132. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2022.

Documents are integral in a historian’s pursuits. But what precisely constitutes a document is not always clear. To this point, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris recently raised the question of what constitutes a social document. Such a question is pertinent to late antique scholarship because his theory can address “fundamental questions about the status of (physical) documentary objects, their influence on reality, and the role of subjectivity and intentionality in their creation and reception” (5). As such, this volume’s contributors engage with Ferarris’s theory as a means to interrogate documentality in Rome’s Imperial period. This volume, then, “explores the implications of Ferraris’s documentality for the study of life and literature in the Roman world on its own merits” (8) in light of Ferraris and his interlocutors’ most recent critiques. 

In this review, I first offer a thorough summary of the various contributions. Subsequently, I engage with specific chapters and consistent themes based on what I deem relevant. This review aims not only to summarize the contributions accurately and thoroughly but also to encourage 1) interdisciplinary conversations about documentality and 2) further engagement with this volume and Ferraris’s theory and his interlocutors. 

As per any introduction, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin (i.e., the editors) frame the volume through an overview of documentality’s history (e.g., Hayden White, John Searle, etc., up to Ferraris), examines the word “document” and analogs in ancient Greek and Latin, and outline the broad historical context of documents in the Roman Empire. After summarizing all contributions, the editors identify the various contributions’ goal: to “address the materiality, authority, use, and literary interactions of Roman documents, examining different modes of documentation from the early Empire into Late Antiquity” (27). 

In chapter 1, John Bodel examines the role of documents for identity in the early Roman Empire. Based on two example cases, Cicero, and various imperial changes of three centuries, he shows that “classical antiquity never fully emerged from the oral stage of documentary development in which written declarations depended upon witness verification for validity” (53). In doing so, he challenges documentality theorists claiming that a society’s shift toward documents is a part of a given historical, evolutionary process fluctuating through time. Instead, Rome appears not to have engaged in the process as documentality theorists outline. 

In chapter 2, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne examines how school copying exercises in the first four centuries CE shift ultimately aim for the texts to be stored in memory. With this observation established, she highlights how defining documentation in Ferraris’ terms, that is, the modern sense, does not necessarily map clearly onto Imperial period school texts, especially since the late Roman pedagogy aimed to “eliminate the necessity of the trace [i.e., the trace being a key aspect for Ferraris’s interlocutor E. Terrone] entirely” (70). Finally, after reflecting more broadly on “the practices of copying and memorization in literary education” during the Roman period, she concludes that school copying exercises are intentional traces that “contribute to the construction of intellectual identity and social reality in the Roman Empire” (75). Therefore, “the documentary trace provides a useful model with which to analyze ancient sources that do not conform to the definition of documentation in the modern sense of the word” (59). 

In chapter 3, Karen ní Mheallaigh, a specialist in ancient fiction and the ancient scientific imagination, explores what fiction tells us about ancient documentality. To do so, she suggests that Lucian’s True Stories challenges the real–fiction divide by preoccupying his text “with the details of a document’s material nature [to increase] in direct proportion . . . anxiety about its authenticity” (82), to create “the mere whiff of a possibility that the document might actually exist” (83) and to make “these fictions all the more exciting” (83). Examining three instances of documentality in Lucian’s True Stories,  she concludes that Lucian’s treatment shows documents as a place where “the potential for deception is always lurking” (101). As such, Lucian’s representation of documents challenges the extent to which fiction can be documentary and documents can be fictitious. 

In chapter 4, Inger N. I. Kuin examines Lucian to show how “Lucian’s manipulation of epigraphic objects in his imaginary worlds indirectly shows us something about the everyday experience of living with such texts, both from the perspective of those who could read them, and from the perspective of those who could not” (110). Similarly to Mheallaigh, she suggests that Lucian shows “documents are always duplicitous and unverifiable,” thereby rendering the literate and illiterate, who trust their authority, “profoundly vulnerable” (129). 

In chapter 5, Pierre Schneider investigates the extent to which documents were building blocks for ancient geographical knowledge. From a modern perspective on documents, such knowledge was based on documents; however, from an ancient perspective, Schneider shows that ancient geographers “assigned a certain degree of truth and reliability” (149) to different sources (i.e., they did not conceptualize the “‘neutral’ conception of documents as a certain quantity of information recorded and stored” (149). 

In chapter 6, Sjoukje M. Kamphorst draws from documentality theory to show how inscriptions, in particular, monuments, served to coordinate and align cities through a monumental referencing “the decree [that] can be considered iterations of the original act” (162), “anchors of shared knowledge and practice” (164). By the Imperial period, though, Kamphorst shows that such monumental documents began to connect cities to the Roman emperor, thereby enabling cities to become “a constituent part of the new imagined community of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean” (170). With this addition, the original purpose of fostering city relations through monumental inscriptions became less powerful.  

In chapter 7, Scott J. DiGiulio uses Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae to understand “how at least one ancient reader approached reading different material in the Roman empire” (181). Through examining Gellius’s use of epistolaries, monuments and inscriptions, and even instances where documents’ legitimacy is problematized, Gellius aims primarily to document the Latin language. As such, DiGiulio shows that Gellius’s documentary conception differs from Ferraris and that of modern historians. 

In chapter 8, Jean-Luc Fournet challenges the line between literature and document by showing how various epistolary texts and petitions served not as documents but rather as textual exemplars, models for good writing.  

In chapter 9, Yasmine Amory how the role of orality in late-antique letters fits within Ferraris’s documentality frame. First, she highlights how some letters reflect “the unavoidable loss of the oral message that frequently accompanied the written text” (236). Second, she shows how messengers functioned as a sort of living letter accompanying the physical document. Further complicating the picture, she also demonstrates that some letters and oral messages served as small literary pieces for recipients, further blurring the boundaries between documents, literature, fictitious accounts, and the living letter accompanying letters. 

In the epilogue, Mireille Corbier examines how a particular tabula can exist in different contexts at different times. As such, the document takes on different significances, as well as how we or others classify the document.  

What makes Documentality a notch above other edited volumes is its organization. Whereas other volumes often read like disparate academic articles, the editors carefully weaved this volume’s contributions into what feels like a coherent, consistent, well-structured volume. Each chapter references others consistently and well, thereby interacting with each other; the fundamental issue is addressed in each chapter (i.e., documentality via Ferraris and his interlocutors); each chapter clearly theorizes on notions of documentation: these various aspects result in a united, coherent volume that I enjoyed reading beginning to end. 

Additionally, while Documentality is beyond the scope of what I typically read, the volume nonetheless provides a helpful template for engaging with theories of documentality in other fields. In recent discussions with biblical and religion scholars, this book has come to the forefront of conversation precisely because the theory of documentality is playing an important role in ongoing scholarship; however, these folks have not realized that classics scholars are just now exploring this new(ish) theory of documentality. Therefore, I look forward to seeing how this volume shapes conversations in analogous scholarly fields. 

Thus, I recommend reading Documentality, at the very least the introduction and specific chapters related to your interests. And while I could quip with minor points in individual chapters (or should I say documents?), such criticisms would not take away from the volume’s overall strengths: coherency, consistency, strong engagement with an important theorist, and generally interesting, engaging discussions and arguments. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s