Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.06.22

Jonathan Sachs, Romantic Antiquity: Rome in the British Imagination, 1789-1832. Classical Presences.   Oxford University Press:  2010.  Pp. x, 304.  ISBN 9780195376128.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Nora Goldschmidt, Magdalen College, Oxford (

Table of Contents

We have tended to assume that Rome largely disappears from the Romantic imagination. While the early and middle eighteenth century -- the so-called 'Augustan age' of English literature -- revered Rome and its writers, for Romantic Britain it was Greek rather than Roman antiquity that seems to have taken centre stage. Grecian urns (or vases), Greek myths, Greek places and Greek political structures captivated the Romantic imagination.1 In Shelley's words, 'we are all Greeks' (preface to Hellas). In his new book for the Oxford 'Classical Presences' series, Jonathan Sachs seeks to redress this balance in our perceptions of classical antiquity in the Romantic period. Particularly when it comes to the politically engaged writing of the period, it was not so much Greece, Sachs argues, that shaped the thought of writers in this historically fraught period. Literature in particular, Sachs' focus, uses republican Rome as a space to re-interrogate political modernity.

The book is divided into three parts, each comprising two chapters. Part I deals with political writing and the Jacobin novel, Part II with poetry, and Part III with drama. Part I, 'Political Writing and the Novel', examines the controversy surrounding what is generally seen as the single most important event in the period to shape British political thinking: the French Revolution and its aftermath. In Chapter 1, 'Rome and the Revolution Controversy', Sachs examines the presence of Roman republican tropes in 'the Revolution Controversy' -- the British debate over the French Revolution from 1789-17352 -- by looking at the work of two of its most important figures, Edmund Burke (who effectively began the Revolution Controversy by supporting the monarchy in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)) and William Godwin, author of Political Justice (1793). Both authors, Sachs argues, looked to Roman exempla for models which could be applied to the present, a habit of thought that Sachs sees as rooted in the eighteenth century.3 In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke, Sachs shows, compares the French Revolution with the Roman example of the Catilinarian conspiracy, partly in order to appeal to his aristocratic readers, while positioning his opponents with the scorn that is traditionally heaped on the exemplum malum of Catiline (and in the process aligning Burke himself with Cicero). Godwin, by contrast, uses Roman exempla 'in a manner that attempts to open up future possibilities' (p.75): whereas in ancient Rome the virtues of selfless benevolence exemplified by figures like G. Mucius Scaevola were confined to one elite group, Godwin believed that in the modern eighteenth century, with the benefits of knowledge and a liberal education, these could be extended to all (p.72).4 This discussion could have been interestingly informed by recent work in Classics on Roman exemplarity:5 some of the things Sachs argues that Burke and Godwin were doing with exempla had already been done in ancient Rome. Cicero, for instance, already self-consciously created Catiline as a new exemplar within traditional discourse in order to establish precisely the power-play that Burke then appropriates.6 Similarly, Godwin has an interesting precedent in Cato, who seems in his Origines to have used exempla without names in order to make the mos maiorum that they embodied the property of all the Roman people, not just of the elite families with which they are associated, and thus, like Godwin, empowers the common people.7 Chapter 2, 'From Roman to roman: The Jacobin Novel and the Roman Legacy in the 1790s', moves to the Jacobin novel (novels written around 1790-1805 by British radicals who supported the French Revolution) and argues, in part, that these novelists responded to the common accusation that the novel contained moral dangers for its readers by treating the genre as an agent of social change.

Part II, ' Poetry', much of which has appeared in article form, develops Sachs's idea of what he terms ' republican poetics' (p.41). Chapter 3 deals with Byron, a defender of Pope and scorner of Keats, for whom the image of Rome was one of decline; Sachs here offers a nice reading of the ruins of Rome in Byron's presumed semi-autobiographical poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Chapter 4 moves on to Shelley, perhaps the most politically engaged poet of the period. In an interesting contribution to the study of Shelley' s relationship to antiquity, Sachs argues that although Shelley did indeed continually turn to an often-idealised Greece, as many have argued, nevertheless Rome had an important place in his thought. In particular, Sachs avers, Shelley used Rome as an imaginative space to evaluate modern European history, which the negative aspects he found in the Roman Empire could better help him to see. By 1819, with the perceived failure of the French Revolution, the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of despotic governments throughout Europe after the battle of Waterloo, as well as the crackdown on radical movements in England, Rome seems to have offered Shelley a model of failed revolution, a falling-off from the Greek example when 'the impulse toward liberty gives way to tyranny, despotism, and institution-building' ' (p.172). As Sachs argues, however, there is a distinction between republic and empire in Shelley's thinking about Rome, and the same corrupt institutions also unwittingly contain and preserve the seeds of the past that might have been.

The final part, Part III, draws on recent developments in the study of British Romanticism to deal with drama. This, for me, is the most successful part of the book. There is always a particular frisson between drama and politics, whether in an ancient or modern setting.8 In terms of Classical Reception Studies, Sachs' work in this part of the book provides a genuinely interesting Roman counterpart to the kind of things that are being done in the field on the performance and adaptation of Greek plays. Chapter 5, ' Rome-antic Shakespeare: Coriolanus on the Stage and Page, 1789-1820', despite the pun in the title, is riveting. Sachs compares different presentations of Coriolanus on the stage within the contemporary political context, which included active movements to reform parliament and expand the voting franchise during a period of food shortages caused by prolonged war. Sachs singles out reprisals of the role of Coriolanus by two of the period's most famous actors, John Philip Kemble (who played Coriolanus many times between 1789 and 1817) and Keats' favourite Shakespeare actor, Edmund Kean, who played the role in 1820 in what looks like a deliberate challenge to Kemble's much-praised productions. While Kemble used the play to recommend the rightness of patrician rule -- emphasising Coriolanus' aristocratic character in a production whose scenery deliberately reflected the marble splendour of the Roman empire -- Kean, by contrast, returned the scenery to the mud huts of early Rome and deliberately contrasted his Coriolanus with Kemble's aristocratic interpretation of the figure. As William Hazlitt observed (a contemporary reader who, as Sachs well points out, consistently read Coriolanus in terms of the politics of the period), Kean, in sharp contrast to Kemble, is ' not of the patrician order; he is one of the people, and what might be termed 'a radical performer' (p. 216).

Chapter 6, 'What is the people?: Rome on the Romantic Stage after Kemble' is a fascinating account of what Sachs terms 'the Roman revival' in the theatre of the period. Effectively, people were composing and performing new Roman fabulae praetextae. One of the most popular of these (again played by the actor Robert Kean) was Brutus by John Howard Payne, first performed in 1818. The play was popular in the period: Kean performed it more than fifty times, and it became a stable part of the repertoire of the Theatre Royal. Sachs' main interest in this play is how the story of Brutus allowed audiences an ideal opportunity to reflect on the key issue of regicide after the French Revolution without making potentially dangerous direct references to recent events. Again, Sachs might have illuminated this part with a Roman parallel: he does not mention it, but Accius' late second-century BC play Brutus, whether on stage or on paper, might well have played a similar role in Rome. Cicero reports that in productions of earlier Roman drama in the late republic, specific lines were given contemporary political relevance by the actors or the audience. This or its like is not necessarily just a late-republican phenomenon. In Augustan Rome, at least, Accius was still read if not performed.9 In the end, it may well be that Romantic writers found themselves again repeating precedents in the politicization of the stories they used which their Roman predecessors had in fact already set.

To conclude, Sachs deals with really intriguing material in interesting ways on the British reception of Rome in the period. Educated in the English departments of Cambridge and Chicago and now Professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal, he has a range within English literature that is detailed and wide and an enviably thorough knowledge of the period. Yet he situates his audience and critical hinterland almost exclusively within the disciplines of English and Romantic Studies. The book's terminology and assumed knowledge appear to be largely aimed at readers in these disciplines. For instance, we are told in simple terms the famous story of Scaevola (p. 67), and directed to the relevant page number in the Loeb translation of Livy (p. 67, n.34, Sachs' custom with all Latin quotations), which is not a bad thing in itself, but, by contrast, readers are given no help with, for instance, the meaning of terms like the 'Jacobin novel' or the 'Revolution Controversy'. Similarly, the book's contribution to, and place within, the study of British Romantic literature and culture is made abundantly clear. But in many places the argument, too, could have benefited from more engagement with works of Classical scholars on ancient Rome, or contributed more deliberately to the study of literature and drama on Greek and Roman themes within Classical Reception Studies. Given the series in which Romantic Antiquity is published, it would be interesting to know more about what kinds of contributions Sachs or his editors want the book to make to the burgeoning discipline of Classical Reception Studies, which this series has a potentially crucial role in helping to shape.10


1.   E.g., D. Ferris, Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press 2000), and J. Wallace, Shelley and Greece: Rethinking Romantic Hellenism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).
2.   As defined by Marilyn Butler in Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p.1.
3.   Though looking to Roman exemplarity was also an important habit of thought in the Renaissance: see, e.g., T. Hampton, Writing from History: The Rhetoric of Example in Renaissance Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) and J. Lyons, Exemplum: The Rhetoric of Example in Early Modern France and Italy (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1989).
4.   Godwin interestingly used the pseudonym 'Mucius' in a series of letters to the Political Herald and Review in 1785-6 (discussed by Sachs on pp. 66 ff.).
5.   E.g., F. Bücher, Verargumentierte Geschichte. Exempla Romana im politischen Diskurs der späten römischen Republik, Hermes Einzelschriften 96 (Stuttgart, 2006); J. Chaplin, Livy's Exemplary History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); U. Walter, Memoria und res publica. Zur Geschichtskultur im republikanischen Rom (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Antike, 2004).
6.   Bücher (cited above), pp. 310-15.
7.   Cf. W. Blösel in B. Linke, and M. Stemmler, eds., Mos maiorum. Untersuchungen zu den Formen der Identitätsstiftung und Stabilisierung in der römischen Republik, (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000).
8.   In general, see, e.g., Z. Hübner, Theater and Politics (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1992) and G. Szanto, Theatre and Propaganda (Texas: University of Texas Press, 1978).
9.   It is possible that audiences may have seen his play (mis-)read behind the figure of Brutus in the famous parade of heroes in Virgil's underworld (Aen. 6.817-23), among the other references to early republican literature in that passage.
10.   The book is well-produced, with welcome illustrations contributing evidence to the stagings of Coriolanus that Sachs discusses in Chapter 5. I did not spot any errors.

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