Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.14

Michel Serres, Rome: The Book of Foundations. Trans. Felicia McCarren. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991. Pp. 282. ISBN 0-8047-1867-9.

Reviewed by Chirstina S. Kraus, New York University.

This is a book about beginnings: the beginning of Rome in particular, and of society and knowledge in general. It is not an easy book. S[erres], who holds a chair in the history of science at the Sorbonne, is a prominent and prolific philosopher who has written on subjects as diverse as Lucretius and Zola.1 But whatever Rome's merits as philosophy I was skeptical of its usefulness to a student of Roman historiography. I was, of course, wrong. S.'s meditation on the Ab urbe condita (primarily on sections of Books I and II) is intensely personal, at times infuriating, and one of the most thought-provoking pieces of writing on Livy to have emerged in the last decade. (It was originally published in French in 1983; S.'s difficult, strikingly poetic prose has been limpidly translated by Felicia McCarren.)

Rome proceeds slowly and carefully as S. feels his way through the AUC. Rather than offering a critical reading -- a metalanguage -- that analyzes the text from a distance, S. interweaves his exegesis with paraphrases, quotations, and echoes of Livy. He does not read the text for us but allows us to read it ourselves by presenting it from different angles, suggesting a series of possible and interdependent readings. S. is especially interested in a kind of set theory (he is a mathematician by training), specifically, in the way groups form. Accordingly, he explores not the orderly structures that are habitually considered the proper object of critical discourse, but chaos, unreason, and the space where disorder and order meet, which S. identifies as the moment of foundation: where fluid (fundere) turns to stone (fundare) and noise to language (241), where Rome ceases to be a random multiplicity and becomes a city.

S.'s lyrical discourse proceeds by juxtaposition and metaphor, especially aural and visual ones (evocations of noise, light, and fluidity are especially frequent). Two images recur throughout Rome: the black box and the white box. The black box is Cacus' cave, into which all tracks lead: of the oxen, of Hercules, of Cacus, of the shepherds who try to rescue Cacus; whose floor is crisscrossed with an infinite number of tracks, an "ichnography" of the possible, the raw material of history before a particular narrative follows one of the traces. In the black box there is also noise -- the lowing of the oxen, the victory cries of Hercules, the death cries of Cacus -- and confusion and above all, murder, the quintessential founding gesture of Rome. The white box, on the other hand, is the blank ("blanc") space with no defining parts, no determining marks, the silent, trackless, definitionless space that is the pendant to the cave. It is the river Albula before Tiberinus dies in it, giving it a name and pulling it into history; the white-robed vestal Rhea before she is violated by Mars; the city Alba whose people are divided and murdered by Romans (Horatius divides and slaughters the trio of Alban Curiatii; Tullus divides the traitorous Mettius Fufetius who cannot distinguish between enemy and friend). The black box is the object, the res, that absorbs all possibilities; it is Rome, which ceaselessly repeats its foundation and never stops killing. Its white counterpart reflects all possibilities; it is the joker, the blank element that can take on any meaning and that consequently triggers change, bifurcation, movement (32-6); it is the element of total capability which "is in Rome as the potential is in power" (47).

S. connects the two boxes to our theories of scientific knowledge, which use the language of light and exposure. He contends that when you open the black box, when you unravel the tracks or expose the bodies, you are left not with truth but with the blank white, something without meaning (71-6). Reason and logic, far from being the only way to uncover truth, depend on concealment and exclusion, as history depends on interpretation -- events of themselves are only so many crossing tracks, until one narrative thread is chosen. S. approaches the text and the world by listening to all the possible kinds of explanation -- myth, history, poetry, science -- and tries to understand their relations to one another.

It makes sense that building a structure takes more skill than tearing one down, that Penelope weaves in the daylight but can only dissolve -- analyze -- her work at night (79-80). S.'s analogies for the process of criticism are particularly revealing if one thinks about the critical tool most frequently applied to the AUC, the division of its narrative into its constituent parts (Claudius, Valerius, Polybius, etc.). This undoing of the AUC's narrative threads is a task which has produced, to my mind, a Livy who is a true blank: an empty space, characterless, whose worth lies primarily in the histories of others that he has woven together, Ariadne-like, into a textile that must be destroyed in order to be read. S.'s constructive approach to the text has much more to offer.

As Rome repeatedly founds itself on murder, it does so by constructing a collective, a multitude centered on a single sacrificial victim (S. is much influenced by Girard's scapegoat, around which the community constitutes itself). Chapters 3 and 4, on empire and suffrage, explore the nature of the collective and its relationship to the sacrificial object that provides its identity. Empire, which S. images as the diasparagmos of Romulus (he tentatively derives imperium from pars), is the sharing of power into parts, the guilty division of the king's body; suffrage, election by acclamation, is the lapidation of Tarpeia, the hurling of thousands of bracelets -- or voices/votes -- onto the victim. In either case, the violence that destroys the object allows the collective to divide itself from the disorder that characterized it when it was pure multiplicity. Not only human societies but human sciences are formed this way: the act of exclusion, the constitution of a group by means of the scapegoat, is what begins history, politics, language -- any ordered system (107-108). Each system is only stable while it has confidence in its central object (113). When it loses that confidence kings are killed, the plebs revolt, a new collective is formed.

Chapter 5 considers this violence, focusing on the philosophical concept of the excluded third and on the interplay between the concepts of hostility and hospitality. In Livy's text boundaries are slippery, hospites and hostes can easily change places. S. contrasts the episodes in which one finds this slippage between host and enemy (the Sabines, Sextus Tarquinius, Coriolanus) with those in which one does not (the massacre of the Fabii). In the former he again sees the joker, the blank element that facilitates change; in the later, an end of freedom and death. Rome owes its strength to its "composite multiplicity": "Rome is a fabric of others ... it is an ichnography. Divide it and it is still Rome; a mixture can be divided without ceasing to be a mixture, and it can grow for the same reason...." (151). Each of the jokers, however, must be excluded for the city to refound itself. Mars demands a choice between hostis and hospes. This state of opposition between the principles of incertitude and of exclusion (148) reappears in Chapter 6, which explores the relation between war -- a homogeneous state that "produces classification" (198-99; one is reminded of the classical theory of the metus hostilis) -- and plague, a nonstandard state in which the community risks exstinction from a blurring of identity (e.g., between carriers and non-carriers). The Roman solutions for the plague of 365-64 (a lectisternium, or communal feast, followed by the introduction of ludi scaenici) lead S. to connect the idea of the spectacle with that of violence. The origin of spectacle is also a founding act, the origin of representation a political foundation (214): the aim of both visual and verbal representation is to eliminate difference, to isolate meaning either by projecting the community onto the form of a single actor (the hero in a single combat, the dancer in a sacred ludus), or by "play[ing] hide-and seek" with words which can hide similarities, drawing frontiers and making separations (227). In these difficult and at times opaque chapters S. describes war and ritual as two further means of stabilizing multiplicity, two founding acts that find a theoretical analogue in the activity of the historian (182-83).2

In the last chapters S. uncovers again the foundation of Rome: "in every case the dynamic goes from a multiple ensemble to a confused collective and from there, via some circumstance, arrives at unity." This movement is "a description of the social contract," and Livy "displays a conceptual loyalty that philosophy forgets to practice ... Livy's objects carry their shadows with them -- they are black boxes, a cavern, a wood, dark figures ... they make us simultaneously see the thing, the dynamic of the thing, and the misunderstanding in which our understanding of the thing is immersed ... Livy is sharper, more supple and subtle in the epistemology that his story implies than a philosophy or theory that plays at clear ideas. He shows us simultaneously the thing and its shadow: the origin, the murder, and its re-covering" (232-33). S. ends with a beautiful evocation of the reaping of the Campus Martius that led to the creation of the Isola Tiberina ("In the Field: Multiplicity at Peace"), the only founding that relies on "fusion and diffusion" as the unwinnowed wheat collects in the river to form the island (269). It is here, in the foundation without a corpse, that S. finds "the real": "The sun, the harvest, the sand. With the unities dissolved, the multitudes appear" (274).

S.'s reading, which listens to the many possible meanings latent in the Latin text, uncovers some of the most important themes in the first books of the AUC: the conflict between groups and the relationship of the group to the individual (what S. calls "the capture of the multiple by the single," 237); Rome's struggle for identity as it absorbs things as disparate as the Sabines and Etruscans, Greek philosophy and its own Trojan ancestry; finally, the task of building the city, which engaged Rome in continual gestures of re-foundation and saw it ceaselessly juxtaposing legendary time and exemplary figures with the real present. Livy's Urbs is built from paradigmatic, interconnected scenes and figures; history repeats itself throughout the AUC, which becomes itself the intersection between non-revertible and revertible time. Camillus is the historical figure but he is also Romulus, Scipio, and a model for Romans still to come; Manlius Capitolinus is also Spurius Maelius, Catilina, and Remus to Camillus' Romulus.3 Or, as S. puts it, "history is a knot of different times" (268). Livy's city is more real, more lasting than the Rome about which he wrote, and ultimately more useful in teaching us about how societies begin and how they work in times of war. S.'s urge to discover the foundation springs from his belief that philosophy now needs to learn how to avoid the ancient repetitive violence of founding, to escape the situation in which the eternal return and historical time meet, where "the time of invention is mixed with the time of repetition" (108, 116). S. reads Livy as Livy wanted to be read: to learn how to imitate, and how to avoid, the past.


  • [1] I am indebted throughout to B. Latour's self-described user's manual to S.'s philosophy, "The Enlightenment Without the Critique: A Word on Michel Serres' Philosophy" in J. Griffith, ed., Contemporary French Philosophy (Cambridge 1988) 83-97.
  • [2] There are connections here with current Livian scholarship, e.g., A. M. Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livy's History (diss. Berkeley 1991).
  • [3] On these and related issues see, e.g., G. B. Miles, "The Cycle of Roman History in Livy's First Pentad," AJP 107 (1986) 1-33; T. J. Luce, "Livy, Augustus, and the Forum Augustum" in K. A. Raaflaub and M. Toher, edd., Between Republic and Empire (Berkeley 1990) 123-138.