Photograph of Pantheon floor

Christopher Krebs’ 2018 Prentice Lecture

November 19, 2018

On the evening of Thursday, November 15th, Christopher B. Krebs, associate professor of Classics at Stanford, spoke on Princeton’s campus, delivering an engaging and energizing Prentice Lecture entitled “Classics As Crime Fiction: A Conversation with Caesar, Labienus, and Polybius.” Despite mother nature’s best efforts, the event was well-attended, and the Q&A period produced an especially lively discussion between Professor Krebs and the audience, engaging not only with Caesar, Labienus, and Polybius, but also with the very epistemological and ethical underpinnings of what we do when we do “Classics.”

Krebs began with a scene from Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” in which Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft exchange dazzling conjectures about the life and identity of a non-descript passerby for the benefit of their audience, Dr. Watson. Krebs invoked this scene to frame his talk with some meta-disciplinary reflections on what it is that philologists do, and what attitudes they assume with respect to their object of study, their peers, and the real or potential audience of non-specialists. Krebs proposed that philological inquiry is like Sherlock’s detective work in its conjectural positivism, in the way that it is enamored more with the pursuit of knowledge qua pursuit than with knowledge itself (what Krebs calls a “shadow paradox”), and in the fact that it is a recursive mode of inquiry whose conclusions are verifiable only by reference to a community of peers who participate in the same discursive regimes. In other words, philologists are Sherlocks and Mycrofts, sparring in the wit of our conjectures to satisfy each other of our correctness, and perhaps to dazzle and entertain an audience, with no recourse, whether through lack of inclination or lack of ability, to externally verifying our conclusions.

Having established this frame, Krebs pivoted towards a sort of problem of analytic criticism very much familiar to philologists of traditional training: Are all the words in the passages of the Caesar’s De Bello Gallico for which Caesar would have relied upon the reports of his commander Labienus Caesar’s own, or can we detect, through anomalies of diction or usage, traces of a Labienus’ voice? While recognizing the exaggerated zeal with which previous commentators have combed the text for anything un-Caesarian, Krebs focused on a select passage (7.57–62) and ultimately concluded that it is most plausible that Caesar did preserve at least some of Labienus’ language here when writing up his own prose version of the events in question and integrating them into the design of book 7 as a larger narrative. At this point, Krebs complicated matters further by adducing parallels for some of the language in the passage under discussion from Polybius (3.42–44), where the echoed phrases describe the tactics of Hannibal as he found himself in a similar military situation on his way through Gaul to Italy.

Krebs acknowledged that the two widely disparate sources discussed in his exercise in Quellenforschung might seem to pull in mutually exclusive directions: the echoes of Labienus might imply that Caesar’s Comentarii are best read, as they so often have been, as an enviably lucid, straightforward, and accurate write-up of a military campaign, while the echoes of Polybius imply that we should read this work as a more sophisticated, intertextual, literary exercise. Krebs suggests that we need not be forced into one lane when reading Caesar, and that his text can be at once a fair reporting of a campaign and a highly textured, literary artifact. Acknowledging as well that the supposed fragments of Labienus and the echoes of Polybius are ultimately speculative and can never be confirmed, Krebs returned to his frame, exhorting us to have at least enjoyed the Sherlockian detective work that goes into presenting such an argument, and, if we would-be Mycrofts have found his conjectures convincing, to accept them as valuable.

The author of this article is William Dingee, a PhD Candidate in Classics at Princeton.

(A recording of this lecture is available.)

back to top