Classical Genre in Theory and Practice
It was once believed that the ancients invented and perfected certain genres and that the works they left might serve as models for later writers. Today belief in ideal patterns is a distant memory, and our interest in genre takes other forms. Classicists, by engaging with the specific problems presented by Greek and Roman literature and with the speculative discourse taking place throughout literary studies, have developed very different approaches to genre from the ones that prevailed in the past; but outside of classics, it appears that a traditional (and, now, outmoded) conception of the role that genre plays in classical literature continues to hold sway. This conception has a distinguished pedigree, and in fact derives from classical genre theory. But the practice of ancient writers was much more sophisticated than anything that classical theory could account for, and it is mainly on this practice that classicists now base their understanding of ancient ideas about genre. In this essay, I will briefly run over some familiar aspects of classical genre theory, but will be mainly concerned to illustrate how attention to the practice of ancient writers has led to an outlook on Greek and especially Roman literary genres that is very different from the traditional story and that has much more to contribute to the contemporary discourse about genre.