Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.07.06

Thomas Habinek, Alessandro Schiesaro, The Roman Cultural Revolution.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. xxi, 238.  ISBN 0-521-58092-7.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Katherine O. Eldred, Northwestern University (
Word count: 4242 words


Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Thomas Habinek, Florence Dupont, Alessandro Schiesaro, Ellen Oliensis, Eleanor Winsor Leach, Elaine Fantham, Andrew Feldherr, Barbara Kellum, Philip Hardie, W. Martin Bloomer

Reviews such as this one present logistical difficulties to the reviewer. How does one write a short (enough) review of a collection that tackles a massive subject -- culture in the Augustan age -- using a complex field of analysis only now making inroads in classical scholarship -- cultural studies? (One answer seems to be "slowly," and this reviewer apologizes to the editors and the authors for the lateness of her review.) The Roman Cultural Revolution takes both small and great steps towards bringing the aims of cultural studies into classics, especially the notion that different types of cultural products -- history, architecture, poetry -- may be productively analyzed using the same tools, and that the high walls between disciplines are not insurmountable. In this way the collection advances the argument for interdisciplinary approaches to the ancient world perhaps more than the argument for importing "cultural studies" into classics (although clearly, there is overlap between the two aims).

In a nutshell, these studies try to shift the focus of inquiry from the socio-economic to the "cultural," setting themselves apart from previous, though important, texts such as Zanker's1 that treat culture as "derivative of and secondary to political power" (xx). The editors conceptualize this effort as an answer to Syme's Roman Revolution: culture is integral to power shifts, not secondary to them. A mission statement may be found on p. xx of the introduction: "we seek to make use of a social scientific framework in which culture is understood as a dynamic process consisting of various intersecting practices and discourses."

Does this volume reach its aspirations? In a word, does it "work"? As with any blueprint for change, yes and no. Unquestionably the volume will be influential in the effort to bring cultural studies into the classical fold. The editors and participants have made laudable efforts to reverse assumptions that cultural artifacts are products of socio-political circumstances. In this effort, however, many issues fall by the wayside, the most important of which is the role of gender (on which, see below). Some will take issue with the extent to which any "social scientific framework" is used; such a framework is clear in certain essays but entirely missing in others. The book is a map, marking the position of cultural studies in classical scholarship and pointing out necessary directions for future research. Like any map, it can but point the way.

The Roman Cultural Revolution consists of two parts: in the first, three essays on the process of cultural change, and in the second, seven essays on specific texts and artifacts. The essays cover poetry, prose, architecture, oratory in the Augustan age. In this review I will spend some time dissecting the introductory essay of Wallace-Hadrill, as it appears to serve as a locus of authority for the volume: it is referred to in nearly every paper, and W-H's formulation of the revolution seems integral to the conception of the collection. Thereafter I will glance at each paper, and finally offer a set of questions that this volume raises.

W-H's is an ambitious essay, suggesting that "the crisis of the Roman Republic is a crisis of authority through which the social structure is constructed" (11). He begins by taking apart Syme's argument of a Roman revolution in order to shift emphasis from Syme's primarily social conception of the Roman Revolution to alternative models, in this case, the model of a cultural revolution. Immediately, however, W-H asserts that the modern category of "culture" cannot be imported anachronistically into Roman society, and suggests we search for a category that is compatible with modern conceptions, but exists within the Roman framework (7-8). The Roman understanding of the "change" or "revolution" in the Augustan age is one of a corruption of mores; the idea of mores, as Edwards has demonstrated,2 is part of a larger Roman politics of immorality. Understanding the Roman cultural revolution, W-H concludes, cannot lie in "the appropriation of Roman moralizing theory," because whatever we have of that theory is from the winning side, and would therefore be a "poor basis" for ascertaining a "common transforming impulse" in the Roman cultural revolution (10-11). He then moves on to consider his own construction of the cultural revolution in the Augustan age as the relocation of authority (11).

If W-H's rhetorical strategy sounds confusing in this summary, that's because it is: it is unclear why W-H rejects the notion of analyzing mores, other than setting up a Roman conception of "cultural" analysis only to knock it down. This reader at least cannot see how focusing on a "relocation of authority" concentrates any less on remainders from the winning side than concentrating on the politics of immorality. And surely Roman mores were used as a tool of authority, as much or more so than the examples W-H proceeds to give. The answer for changing focus seems to lie in W-H's search for a theory that accounts for a "cultural" change in all social structures in Roman life, a theory he sees in the relocation of authority from the Republican ruling class to Augustus.

W-H explores four examples in support of this thesis: tradition, law, time and language. In these four areas he posits a shift from local knowledge to a universal knowledge necessary for control of the Empire to exist. These shifts in knowledge and authority find their roots, W-H argues, in the advent of a universalizing Hellenism. Augustus, so the argument goes, took advantage of increasing specialization to solidify his own authority by institutionalizing a "set of practices that defined what it meant to be Roman" (20).

W-H's arguments work beautifully for the "official" areas he investigates, e.g. the reforms of Caesar and Augustus place the calendar in the hands of the mathematicians, beyond political or religious control (of anyone except themselves, 16-18). But several questions spring to mind. First, this shift from local to universal knowledge, in order for control of Empire to exists seems to drive the so-called cultural revolution right back into the arms of Syme's socio-political revolution. Second, in his reliance on Hellenism to "explain" the roots of these shifts, W-H portrays a Hellenism that acts upon Rome, rather than a Rome that had some active part in its own universalism, and thus risks claiming that Hellenism doomed the Republic. (This may well be true, but it is a topic of some debate).

More to the point, I am not convinced that this "relocation of authority" can be seen "throughout all social structures in Roman life," and here I think specifically of women. It is true that Augustus attempted to implement his infamous social legislation, but failed. Is there a shift in the locus of a matron's authority? What about the Vestal Virgins? Certainly Augustus tried to use the authority of the family (and religion) in support of his own auctoritas, but I believe we are far from understanding the role gender played in such relocations. The lack of gender as a specific issue in uncovering or articulating a Roman cultural revolution is glaring here. Moreover, culture in this analysis still works in the service of politics, though it must be said that in the areas of time, tradition, language and law, W-H demonstrates unquestionably that politics may be defined and refined through culture. We are ultimately left with a "which came first -- the culture or the politics" question.

In an attempt to understand sexuality in the Augustan world, Habinek turns to Milligan's work on sexuality in the city.3 This work claims that larger social forces generate "sexuality," that the "flux and atomization characteristic of modern cities ... are preconditions of sexuality" (24). Not surprisingly, the explosive growth of Rome in the Augustan Age suggests we can start to explore the concept of "pre-sexuality" (a nod toward Foucault, Halperin, Winkler and Zeitlin4) in the Augustan revolution. Such an inquiry applies to modern questions as well; in H.'s words, "is sexuality to be understood as a product of modernity, of cities, or of factors that happen to be manifest in both? Can we expect the current configuration of sexuality to persist ....? [A]re ... cities, with the interpersonal encounters they necessitate, an essential precondition?" (26)

To make his argument, H. pursues a division between "embedded" and "disembedded" system of sex and gender in late Republican and Imperial Rome, traced through the fundamentally conservative Latin elegiac. (H. claims this process is relevant to the kind of co-option of technical discourse W-H sees as characteristic of Augustus' reign [41].) Simply put, "[f]or Catullus, sex is embedded in a network of political, economic, regional, and affective relationships, while for Ovid it is not" (27). Whereas Catullus' sexual relationships are all embedded in political, social and economic networks (26), Ovid's beloved in the Amores has been disembedded to such an extent from such relationships that she is virtually one-dimensional (28).

H.'s arguments trace the development of such disembedding in the history of elegiac poetry. His approach has much to recommend it, and he succeeds in offering an intriguing reading of a vexed topic, together with a model of social-theoretical applications to Latin literature. This reader's problem with H.'s paper lies in his disregard of Sulpicia, a figure whose poetry has much to say on the topic of sexuality in the burgeoning city of Rome. Ultimately, because of this disregard, H.'s fascinating reading seems only be relevant to male, or "normative" sexuality; again, gender appears to lose heavily in this debate over a Roman cultural revolution. Despite the difficulties of identifying "the author" of the Sulpician elegies, these poems ought not to have been overlooked in the argument over construction of sexuality, especially for claims such as "Ovid invents the category of the heterosexual male" (31). Surely Cerinthus might have a word to add?

Dupont's essay addresses the revolution of oratorical practice between Republic and Empire, "the transition from an (sic) public discourse that is oral to a public discourse that is written" (45). This transition, D. argues, is manifest in the rise of recitatio in the Empire, and the ways in which recitatio replaced oratio as a rite of passage "constitutive of noble identity under the Empire" (55). D.'s appealing reading suggests that public discourse moves from the open spaces of Rome's religious and political past (oratio) to the "closed" spaces of Augustan Rome, from the public performance of oratio to the restrictions placed on movement and gesture in the private performance of recitatio, and that the openly political discourse of oratio is re-routed into a more "literary" recitatio, reflecting the narrowing of political power onto the figure of the princeps.

Tracing this development, however, proves somewhat troublesome: D.'s sources are all late -- Pliny and Persius, for the most part -- and missing entirely is Tacitus' Dialogus. By the time of Trajan, then, the process she examines seems complete, but it is more difficult to retroject such a process into the Augustan age, and precisely how her thesis "applies" to that Roman cultural revolution remains unclear. How, for instance, does the (a)political subtext of a recitatio change if the emperor is the recitator, e.g. Nero, or in the Res Gestae? How do Cicero's speeches, first performed publicly and then written -- occasionally not performed at all -- affect this perception of a shift between oratio and recitatio? (And how might the growing technology of copying books affect the shift between oral and written?)

D.'s essay closes part one of the volume, titled "The Transformation of Cultural Systems." Much of the social-scientific framework advocated by the editors occurs in these three essays. In part two, "Texts and Contexts," scholars turn their attention to specific cultural artifacts.

Schiesaro examines "the problem of knowledge -- where, how and especially why it can be obtained" (63) in his essay on Virgil's Georgics and that poem's interactions with Lucretius' DRN and Hesiod's Works and Days. Virgil's didacticism differs from his immediate predecessor in Virgil's "active presence of the gods," emphasis on the values shared in the community ("personal goals can be attained only in a social context") and "a model of life that privileges active labor rather than contemplative reflection" (65).

S. begins his analysis with the epyllion of book 4, demonstrating the problems of the search for knowledge within this episode. He then draws an analogy between Cyrene's interactions with Aristaeus, and the georgic poet's instructions to the farmer in the poem (65): knowledge in the Georgics, S. argues, is a divine possession, and the bestowing of knowledge on mortals by the gods illustrates the complex power relations inherent in knowing or not knowing (67). Only the poet, who mediates between human and divine, manages to overcome the "otherwise inseparable chasm" separating men and gods (67).

Oliensis offers a new reading of Horace's shift of satiric subject matter from Satires 1 to 2: she argues that this change registers Horace's anxieties about the way his own social ascent would be read in this age when the illusion of traditional meritorious ascent could be ill maintained (90). In the self-portrait of the artist of book 2, Horace displaces his autobiography onto the surrogate-characters of Satires 2 in pieces; all are victims of misfortune who turn to satire to better their lots and "get even" (93); all are speakers of inferior status addressing someone of superior status, analogies to Horace's own relationship with Maecenas in Satires 1. In spite of re-writing his position as the "upwardly mobile satirist of book 1" (96), however, Horace nonetheless exposes the problem of his reversal of fortune and marks his own awareness of the charges that could be made against him (98). O. ends the article with an inquiry into the relation between the art of satire and the art of dining.

Leach seeks "traces of Augustan Rome in the landscape of [Horace's] Odes 1-3" (105) and offers a "revisionary reading" (title) that asks about the physical influence of an Augustan cultural revolution on the poems. There is largely an absence of description in the Horatian Odes, especially in comparison with Propertius (though why this should be surprising is not addressed, 105). Leach argues that there is an "identifiable presence of an Augustan Rome in the poems" (106), not in descriptions of Augustan monuments but rather in the construction of a "contemporary Roman environment" (106), specifically by means of the centrality of Empire, the Republican character presented, and the personal environs of the addressees (106). As readers we are called upon to "decipher" the message of Horace's selective representation (107). The political implications of Horace's allusions point ultimately to the advantages of being Roman during the Augustan age (especially if one has received Augustan clementia, 111). L. concludes with the suggestion that Odes 2 appropriates the dramatic shape of a symposium (119).

This physical interpretation of Horace's Odes is placed next to Fantham's essay on images of the city in Propertius' elegies. Propertius' poems are witnesses to the process of living in Rome in the years after Actium, when Augustus caught his fever of building and the city resembled an extended construction site. F. suggests that "the poetic city Propertius creates is a nostalgic counterpart of Augustus' physical creation of the new monuments" (124). Do Propertius' images of the old city discredit Augustus' new look? Not necessarily, since the land for which Propertius pines -- green woodland, unspoiled by building -- did not exist in Propertius' time. Precisely why the poet yearns for the "natural innocence of the unpopulated pre-urban community" is not a question F. asks, however, and the answer to this very important question must affect our reading of Propertius' disavowal of his urban surroundings, and whether or not the poet's images are as benign as F. seems to argue.

Feldherr's fine essay matches the Augustan consolidation of political control over the Roman world with "another similarly ambitious attempt at creating a unified and comprehensive picture of the totality of the Roman state" (136), that is, Livy's monumental history of the Roman people. The new sense of being Roman generated by Livy's narrative, a new sense of civic identity, is revealed above all in "the tension between family and state as loci of loyalty and affection" (138). Livy's portrait of the Tarquins in the early books is directly opposite to that of the ideal Roman citizen, and the primary characteristic of the Tarquin regime is the over-privileging of family against the State. Brutus is the first to make the "conceptual leap" of applying the vocabulary of family to larger communities, as he kisses the earth, his "mother." The second half of F.'s article explores the way in which Livy brings together the competing spheres of individual and state in genres of public display. Particularly insightful is F.'s reading of the Rape of Lucretia, which begins as a drama, but is taken over by Brutus and changed into a public sacrifice meant to engender the Republican sense of civic identity in its audience (146-48).

One of the few essays to explicitly tackle gender in the "Roman Cultural Revolution" is Kellum's, which explores "the inter-relatedness between gender and power as key to an understanding of the monuments of ancient Rome" (158). K. sees a "gendered discourse" on the temples of Augustan Rome between, for instance, the series of plaques depicting two maidens juxtaposed with "their masculine counterparts, Apollo and Hercules, locked in contest over the Delphic tripod" (158). This gendered discourse might often point out fratricide and civil war (e.g. the Danaids, portrayed on their wedding night), thinly veiled and made acceptable by "the gender difference of the opponents" and used toward Augustan ends (161). To support this argument K. analyzes in detail the Forum of Augustus with its Temple of Mars Ultor (dedicated in 2 BC). She argues that the Forum was a "sexually charged, gendered masculine environment" (165), going so far as to suggest that the architectural plan of the Forum resembles a phallus (170) and finding in that resemblance the same apotropaic significance of other phallic representations in the Roman world.

An innovative and intriguing reading to be sure, but K. appears to collapse "sexual" imagery and "gender" imagery in the second half of the essay, leading to some confusion. Are we to read sexual imagery and gender imagery as similar or the same? This very issue has provoked heated debate in feminist theory. The "ubiquity of the phallus" (170) that K. claims is unique to Rome and not matched in modern culture can (and should) be contested; our modern age might not match Rome with pictorial images qua phallus, but phallic symbols are indeed ubiquitous: witness the Sears Tower. More dissatisfying is the binary opposition into which K.'s reading ultimately slips; though she rightly claims that gender can undo the fixity of binary absolutes, e.g. male and female, high and low, official and private (181), her own analysis of the Forum seems to fall back on those same binary oppositions. Nonetheless, K. provides a fascinating look at monumental architecture in the Augustan age, and has chiseled out space for work of this nature.

Hardie's essay explores questions of authority in Ovid's Metamorphoses 15. H. finds that "the prince of poets foist[s] on his master a poetics of principate" in the final book of the Metamorphoses. H. concentrates on the speech of Pythagoras, which looks back at Latin epic tradition and places Ovid at the end of its development, implying that Ovid and Rome (and Rome's rulers) have taken their rightful place at the end of a long succession (187). But Ovid's poetic analysis of legitimate succession is not without its darker implications, as this strategy uncovers the textual and constructed authority of legitimization conferred on Roman power by the Roman epic tradition and by Roman imperial ideology (195). Representations of imperial ideology and representations of literary texts are suspiciously continuous (192), and the poet, of course, has control over language and words.

Closing the volume, Bloomer, in his own words, "would like to reunite the social and cultural strands so capably and usefully disentangled by W-H by focusing my attention on the institution of declamation ... and on the treatise of Seneca the Elder that promotes declamation as a status-enhancing cultural practice" (199). Seneca's task is to turn declamation, traditionally a school-room exercise, into the equal of Republican oratory. In this process the reader is introduced to declamation's "socializing" content, since declamation examines above all the categories and roles essential to defining the "new" imperial governing class: slave, master, father, son, adoptive child; proper social behavior and especially the resolution of conflict of social allegiances (212).

B.'s essay is a fitting conclusion for this volume. He asks and answers a question about "declamation" that may be asked in larger terms, with appropriate substitutions, about the whole of the Roman cultural revolution: "Why has what properly belongs to the schools and to oral instruction become literature?" (201). He answers that literature in the Roman Revolution is a "social institution, one that negotiates questions of identity and allegiance. ... [A] literate elite displayed and redefined crucial social fictions about the value and power of speech, the arrangements of status and authority, and the authoritative mouthpieces for these" (215). These "crucial social fictions" lie at the heart of the revolution, and the volume.

At the finish line, several questions strike this reader. First, and perhaps most important for the editors of a volume setting itself against Syme, is the difficulty of defining where and how the socio-economic (of Syme's revolution) is distinct from the cultural (of this collection). If we define culture pace Geertz as "the ensemble of stories we tell about ourselves," then how does the socio-economic story separate out from the cultural story? Do the authors in this book choose to focus only on previously neglected aspects of "culture," such as declamation and architecture, leaving aside the socio-economic aspect, such as the army and the Senate? This collection seems to want to show that Syme's socio-economic and the (larger?) "cultural" are inextricably intertwined, but in leaving aside certain questions of a socio-economic or overtly political nature, that integration for which the collection argues is left aside as well. We remain with an uncomfortable sense that "culture" and "politics" (or "economics" or "society") operate in their own, separate, spheres.

Related to this question of what "story" the collection tells is the division between the contents of the volume. The essays of part two addressing individual works and authors, engaging and often illuminating in their own right, mesh awkwardly with the first three essays in part one. The concept of revolution seems to necessitate a comparison, a before-and-after approach, as seen in Wallace-Hadrill's analysis of e.g. language, Habinek's exploration of sexuality in elegy, and Dupont's change from oratio to recitatio. But exploring a revolution becomes far more difficult when analyzing one work, and essays such as Fantham's and Leach's point out this difficulty. These are excellent readings of poems in the Propertian and Horatian corpuses, but where, precisely, is the revolution here? The same question might be asked of Kellum's essay, and Hardie's, and even Schiesaro's. An approach like Oliensis', which sees a revolution in the subject and manner of writing satire that goes part and parcel with a revolution in advancement, manages to negotiate this troublesome notion of "revolution" within one particular poet, using a before-and-after reading of Horace's first and second books of satires. Feldherr too finds a way out of this difficulty by looking at a specific revolution in a text, and the strategies by which the author portrays that revolution. Nonetheless, the problem of uncovering revolution in any one text is not solved in the course of the collection. If these essays are meant to be descriptive of a revolution, and not a revolution themselves, then we have bought back into Syme's portrayal of culture as derivative and secondary, a conclusion the editors emphatically deny.

Second, if this "Roman Cultural Revolution" finds its roots in a relocation of authority to (or under) Augustus, then why have we not been talking about "Roman cultural revolutions" all along? Is there a cultural revolution in the time of Sulla? Is it only because of the paucity of our texts from earlier eras that we do not inquire into potential revolutions before Augustus, or are these authors claiming that the Augustan Revolution is truly revolutionary? On the other hand, this formulation of a Roman cultural revolution seems to hold great promise for other, later ages, especially the Neronian age. Under Nero, what we would consider "authority" is projected blatantly through what we would consider a "cultural" lens. In the late Empire too, with the advent of a dominant Christianity, we might see a Christian Cultural Revolution.

Finally, as will have become clear, I reserve my most severe criticism for the short shrift gender receives in this volume. With the exception of Kellum's essay, gender as a category of analysis is missing, so that we may be forgiven for believing this collection addresses only some normative, masculine revolution. Gender is as much a part of that "set of practices that defined what it meant to be Roman" (20) as elegy or oratory. Furthermore, incorporating gender into certain arguments, e.g. Wallace-Hadrill's or Habinek's, might well have changed those arguments substantially. Because of the lack of specific gender analysis in the Roman cultural revolution, the portrait offered by this otherwise promising and intriguing blueprint for change in classical scholarship is rather more two-dimensional than it ought to be.


1.   Zanker, P. 1988. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Trans. H. A. Shapiro. Ann Arbor.
2.   Edwards, C. 1993. The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge.
3.   Milligan, D. 1993. Sex-life. London and Boulder, Colorado.
4.   Foucault, M. 1978. The History of Sexuality. New York; Halperin, D.M., Winkler, J.J., and Zeitlin, F.I. eds. 1990. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton.

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