Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.11

Vasily Rudich, Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization. New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp. 391. $74.95. ISBN 0-415-09501-8.

Reviewed by Joy Connolly, University of Washington,

Vasily Rudich's Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization, the companion volume to his 1993 study of political resistance to Nero, is concerned above all with the heavy personal cost exacted from dissident aristocrats under Nero's repressive and vengeful regime.1 For such men, paying the ultimate price of death was "victory and not defeat" (106): death offered them not only permanent escape from a Rome terrorized by an unpredictable and brutal emperor, but an opportunity to appropriate the extravagant theatricality of the age for their own dissident purposes. The three men under consideration in R.'s book orchestrate their deaths with a peculiarly distinctive (and tragic) flair. Seneca gives a self-righteous but poignant deathbed speech, intended, Tacitus says, for the entire community (velut in commune disseruit, Annals 15.62). Lucan bravely recites a description of a dying warrior, taken from his own Bellum Civile (Ann. 15.70). And Petronius performs a bitter mockery of death, after sending the emperor a list specifying the names of his sexual partners and the unusual forms of their debaucheries (Ann. 16.19).2 According to R., the staginess of their suicides magnifies the emblematic corruption of the Neronian age.

But even worse than the transient moment of death, in R.'s view, was the interminable "nightmare" of life under Nero, which was distorted by dissimulatio, the concealment of true feelings beneath a show of false sentiment. R. traces the discourse of dissimulatio from its first appearance in public and private discourse during the final implosive decades of the Roman republic, its increase in intensity as Augustus consolidated his power behind the fiction of senatorial authority, and its final constitution of the "characteristic mentality" of the first-century imperial aristocracy (3ff.). For critics of the Julio-Claudian autocracy during and after the reign of Augustus, the clash of dissident convictions with family responsibilities, personal ambition, or simple fear transformed life into a daily play in which they were forced to act out their loyalty to the emperor, but without the luxury of a backstage dressing room in which they could express their frank opinions without fear of reprisal. The show never stopped: consequently, its players suffered from deep political malaise and mental anguish, "a sort of socio-political schizophrenia" (4).

Dissimulatio is schizophrenic because it fosters a split sense of self, moral conscience versus hypocritical flatterer, and because the long-term habituation of two contradictory sets of practices ultimately effect a confusion of truth with fiction, content with style, or, as R. puts it, "matter" with "manner." In such besieged circumstances, while politics atrophies, literary discourse acquires a coloration both radical and unique. Poetry and prose -- Senecan sententiae, the obscurities of Lucan and Persius, the perverted and inverted world of the Satyricon, even Tacitus' idiosyncratic style -- emulate the pretense, hypocrisy, and sacrifice of plausibility that reign everywhere in Rome, from the senate to the private household. From R.'s perspective, the rhetoricization of discourse is emphatically much more than an innocuous issue of literary history. The "slow and secret poison" of the era's discursive doublespeak deals "a major blow to virtue ... it is hardly an overstatement to suggest that its emphatic relativism contributed much to the final breakdown of values and the pervasive moral corruption of the age that our authorities unanimously lament" (6-7). Here R. agrees with those critics of imperial literature who adduce social or political factors to explain its rhetorical (and therefore corrupt) nature, from the elder Seneca to Tacitus to Edward Gibbon.3 In short, in an age when every act of communication operates on (at least) two levels, when self-conscious mannerism edges out sincerity, the self disintegrates amidst its own deceits. Hence R.s choice of subtitle, the price of rhetoricization.

Given R'.s enormous distrust of dissimulatio in all its incarnations, it should not come as a surprise that one of the book's greatest strengths is its frankness of purpose. Well aware that he is writing at a time when postmodern methodologies of various stripes valorize linguistic ambiguity and reject authorial intention as a valid basis of literary analysis, R. establishes his own position with forthright clarity. He has no intention of deconstructing Neronian literature, but rather of devising a critique of the deconstructionist endeavor. Deconstruction, "ahistorical and devious" in R.'s opinion, views language as a medium that simultaneously promotes and defeats itself, at once "the means of rhetorical operation and the cause of its failure" (260 n. 30). More pertinently, it denies the authority of the individual authorial voice, which forms the linchpin of R.'s approach to critical analysis. In the eyes of a postmodernist, he believes, "any discourse necessarily subverts itself, which makes an inquiry into its author's political attitudes inconsequential" (108). By contrast, his task is one of "historical psychology," and, accordingly, he treats the literary text as his analysand (2).

From this point of view, the text is a product of the specific biographical moment at which it was produced, and a reliable indicator of the author's thoughts: analysis of Seneca's writings, for example, allows R. "to test the limits both of his political traditionalism and of moral pragmatism ... [and] to explore the peculiar dynamics of his creative psyche" (19). Only by virtue of the multiplicity of the signifying field is the text "larger than the personality of the artist" (198). Here the reader-oriented approaches of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michel Riffaterre, Stanley Fish, and especially Wolfgang Iser provide R. with useful interpretive models, after some modification (257).

R. employs both writer- and reader-based approaches in order to explicate the rhetoricization of discourse in Seneca, Lucan, and Petronius, each of whom is the subject of a single chapter. Analyses of personal character and belief systems, as they are revealed in each writer's work, begin and end each chapter. Interpolated amongst them are extensive discussions of the broad range of philosophical and political interpretations available to the Neronian (or, in the case of Seneca, Claudian) audience, depending on his or her political stance. The modern reader with a theoretical bent will find the 102 pages of notes to be indispensable, since it is here that R. locates his remarks on methodology and critical theory.

R. is a keen and appreciative reader of Tacitus, and the character judgments that he passes on his three subjects tend to jibe with those expressed in the Annals. As in Tacitus, Petronius receives a more sympathetic treatment than do Seneca and Lucan: R. concludes that "it requires only a stretch of the imagination to visualize this singular individual penetrating Nero's inner set by pretence at vice, in order coolly to observe and eventually satirize their bizarre or shallow pursuits" (189). By contrast, the defining moment of Seneca's life is his youthful decision not to commit suicide, for fear of distressing his parents (Epist. 78.2): at this point, "the thought of death entered his consciousness, never to leave it again" (27). Having accustomed himself to the idea of dying for his principles at an early stage, R. argues, Seneca then spent most of his life trying to evade the issue, aided by the political and literary strategies of dissimulatio. Composing tragedies, for instance, furnished Seneca with an outlet for his deeply rooted anxiety and despair (283 n. 137), just as writing the Consolatio ad Marciam allowed the author to "release his accumulated frustration and exorcise his demons" (27). As for Lucan, his anti-Caesarean politics, immaturity and artistic temperament created a recipe for disaster. "His adventurous spirit happened to be mingled ... with the desire to shine and the irresolute perplexity of a frail poetic temper -- an unhappy fusion in one who wished to survive in the time of terror" (185).

Aside from dissimulatio, the theme that links the three figures is their perception of the decline of the mos maiorum; those interested in the Roman construction of class and the aristocratic self should appreciate R.'s remarks. Otherwise, organizational structure is provided by R.'s tight psychological focus in the chapters, each of which is filled with acute literary insights written in a flowing style. Constraints of space permit me to mention only a few highlights here. R. is particularly skillful at tracing the undermining of personal integrity effected by dissimulatio in some of the more convoluted trajectories of Seneca's philosophical essays, especially the Consolatio ad Marciam (28-34), the de ira (83-87), and the de vita beata (88-96). The incoherence and internal contradictions of Seneca's Stoicism (evident, for example, in the excessively violent language of the de vita beata, in direct opposition to the advice tendered in the de ira) are explained as products of the self-defeating character of dissident life (96). R. points out linguistic parallels between the Apocolocyntosis and the Consolatio ad Polybium against the backdrop of Seneca's relations with Claudius, arguing that the former functions as a palinode of the latter (41). And the pessimistic inconsistencies of Seneca's vision of humanitas (74-7) and of his representation of the rex iustus (56-72) are placed in the context of the philosopher's ambivalent attitude toward his responsibilities to the emperor and the state.

Lucan, too, is well served by R.'s focus on the schizophrenic aspect of dissimulatio in the Bellum Civile. Carefully avoiding the temptation of labeling Lucan as either a genuine or a sham republican, R. focuses instead on the poet's tortured preoccupation with the contemporary disintegration of virtus and the mos maiorum. Lucan deploys republicanist language and imagery as a means of passionate self-expression, he argues, rather than as a serious call to insurrectionist arms.4

In the chapter on Petronius, R. follows the ideological footprints of the Arbiter's critique of Neronian rhetorical discourse from Encolpius' speech against the schoolmasters to Eumolpus' mini-epic. After extended analysis of the latter, R. concludes that it constantly teases the reader into reading "the opposite of what it seems to mean" (237). Petronius' predilection toward self-irony, "one of the few weapons at his disposal against fear and anxiety," also permits R. fruitfully to explore the political implications of writing in a polyphonic style (196ff.)

The insights R. offers into the psychological worlds of the three writers are articulate and thoughtful, drawing on his extensive knowledge of the period's literature and culture and paying scrupulous attention to the text. They will intrigue any reader of Neronian literature, from the advanced undergraduate to the scholar. Those interested in psychological reconstruction of the type practiced by Gordon Williams, Miriam Griffin, and other scholars of first century Rome will particularly welcome R.'s contribution.5

Still, the parts of his book that adopt the strict biographical approach are less stimulating than R.'s discussion of the range of contemporary readers responses to Neronian texts. His clearest departure from the reader-response models I mentioned above lies in a strong differentiation of two types of literary discourse: the rhetorical, which emphasizes manner over matter, and the extra-rhetorical, which makes possible "true communication" of factual and ideological content across cultures and centuries (8ff.). Of the latter, he identifies two types: non-rhetorical discourse, which connotes the literal meaning of the speaker, and counter-rhetorical discourse, which calls into question the relations among textual content, author, and audience. Read counter-rhetorically, certain themes become loaded with meaning, "politically markiert": for example, a tale of a mythical tyrant would invite comparison with a contemporary ruler (11). This is precisely the outcome feared by Maternus' friends in Tacitus' Dialogus, who warn him that even if an author's intention is good, he lives in constant danger from the interpretatio prava of suspicious or unfriendly readers (Dial. 3). One never knew when one's work might be interpreted (in)correctly; and protestations of innocence were usually, and frighteningly, ineffective. In this interpretive world, high tension marks every aspect of the relations between text, author, reader, and culture. The main problem, as R. notes, is one of control: neither the author nor the state can master or limit the endless spiral of textual meaning, the "uncontrollable subtext" in every text (11). Here R. briefly invokes his personal experience as a Soviet dissident to illustrate the complexities of writing under a repressive regime, saying that "uncontrollable subtext" was "the actual formula used by a Soviet censor who in 1968 banned my article on the reign of Claudius from publication in a minor scholarly journal" (261, n. 34). The uncertain political atmosphere of Neronian Rome placed every work of literature in a similarly precarious counter-rhetorical state.

Generally speaking, postmodernity valorizes rhetoricization. This, in my view, is the driving impulse behind R.'s description of the deleterious effects of rhetoricization on Neronian aristocrats and their society. As a result, his book deserves to be placed in the larger context of the current postmodern debates surrounding the validity of the self, the authority of literary authorship, moral and intellectual relativism, and the function of political ideology in texts. I wish, then, in view of the contributions he makes to these issues, R. had devoted some of his main text (as opposed to the notes) to unpacking some of the preconceptions that he brings to his readings. For instance, he complains that scholars today are "infatuated with language and discourse for its own sake," a sign of potential cultural malaise on a grand scale (256). But must rhetoricization always lead to a corrupt and corrosive divorce from reality? Writers marginalized by gender, class or ethnicity have argued for at least the last two decades that the subversions and deceits characteristic of rhetoricized techniques like dissimulatio offer potential pathways of resistance to dominant ideology. Further, R. seems to conceive of oppression as a a distortion of the self (and hence of speech); its overthrow, he implies, should result in the self resuming its natural, undistorted form. But, in the words of J. Dollimore (in a book fortuitously titled Sexual Dissidence), "can we speak of, and know, a time when the self was ever free? Can we speak meaningfully of a 'natural' or 'liberated' political state of being?"6 These are, by now, long-standing controversies, to which, I think, R. could have offered a useful theoretical and cultural perspective.

However, he does provide an engaged and engaging discussion of literary production under Nero, one which unequivocally delivers on the promises set out in its introduction. Within those parameters, it deserves careful reading. Beyond them, it may well provoke questions of the sort I have tried briefly to articulate here. In either case, Dissidence and Literature under Nero has much to recommend it.  


1. V. Rudich, Political Dissidence under Nero: The Price of Dissimulation. Routledge: 1993.  

2. As R. correctly notes, Petronius' list is a travesty of the wills that regularly named the emperor (or, under Nero, Tigellinus) as beneficiaries (253). With regard to the theatricality that dominated the discourse of the self under Nero, see S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience, Cambridge: 1994, which takes up similar questions using a very different approach.  

3. E. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Allen Lane, 1994 (orig. Strahan 1776). Gibbon's famously moralistic image of the poisoning of imperial Roman culture is parallel to R.'s: "With the Neroian [sic] dissidents we share, although by no means for similar reasons, the bitter experience of living after virtue, that is to say, at a time of disappointment in the inherited set of values, a condition which tends to transform the complexities of human life into ambiguities of language and thus further to problematize the relationship of rhetoric, politics, and ethics" (256).  

4. Compare J. Masters, "Deceiving the reader: the political mission of Lucan Bellum Civile 7", in Reflections of Nero, ed. J. Elsner and J. Masters, London and Chapel Hill: 1994. "The poem itself is too radically irresponsible for it to have been intended as any kind of manifest for rebellion" (171).  

5. G. Williams, Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire, Berkeley: 1978. M. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty, New Haven: 1984; J. D. Bishop, Seneca's Daggered Stylus: Political Code in the Tragedies, Konigstein: 1985; J. P. Sullivan, Literature and Politics in the Age of Nero, Ithaca: 1985.  

6. J. Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence, Oxford: 1991.