Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.26

W. J. Dominik, J. Garthwaite, P. A. Roche (ed.), Writing Politics in Imperial Rome.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2009.  Pp. xii, 539.  ISBN 9789004156715.  $249.00.  

Reviewed by Fábio Faversani, Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto (

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

Writing Politics in Imperial Rome is an important contribution to an expanding (and already large) field of research: the relationship between literary culture and politics in early imperial Rome. The contributors address different topics within this field, dealing with a variety of authors and following different approaches. The chapters collected here examine various issues that became central to Roman literature with the advent of the Principate, such as double speech, dissimulation and censorship, as well as the different strategies employed for praising or criticising political leaders (especially emperors). Topics such as aristocratic behaviour, the circulation of literary texts, and the role of reading in the creation of meaning, are discussed in a number of chapters. The book is dedicated to the analysis of 23 ancient authors, in 21 chapters. After two introductory chapters, the content is organized in a roughly chronological order.

The first introductory chapter, written by the editors, presents the general purpose of the book: “The essential thesis of Writing Politics in Imperial Rome is that political debate is a continuous, multidimensional, and fundamentally important aspect of the literature produced in virtually every genre and period at Rome and within the boundaries of the Roman empire.” (p.1) The chronological limits adopted by the authors for discussion, c. 50 BCE to c. 120 CE, are arbitrary, and do not correspond with usual conceptions of ‘Imperial Rome’. Furthermore, as the editors note, the book adopts a ‘catholic definition’ of the term ‘politics’. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to providing a brief introduction for each individual contribution. The second introductory chapter, “Writing imperial politics: the social and political background”, by Steven Rutledge, discusses the idea that freedom of expression disappeared with the advent of empire. Free speech and the limits of censorship are considered in two types of situation, the debates in the Senate and literary production. One of the important issues raised by the author is that the restriction of libertas was not necessarily connected to a specific emperor; it was rather a structural development. As he reminds us, the persecution of authors was an inefficient way of restricting ideas, as banned works seldom disappeared completely. Political persecution aimed at building consensus by seeking support for the persecutor. There was room for opposition, but this was limited by the social position of those who disagreed as well as by the harshness of their opinion and the contexts in which criticism was voiced. The problem of libertas is therefore placed in the context of aristocratic dignitas. As Rutledge observes, “the Roman cultural system protected the ruling class’s dignitas” (p.41).

The following chapters analyse specific problems associated with different authors. It would be impossible to do justice to the range of topics covered and approaches followed in this book. In what follows I will give a brief survey of each chapter, before I conclude with a few general observations. In chapter three (“Lucretius and the first triumvirate”), John Penwill discusses the ideas of Lucretius in De rerum natura in the context of the political behaviour of the first triumvirs. Jon Hall, in chapter four (“Serving the times: Cicero and Caesar the dictator”) deals with the tension between Caesar and Cicero, especially with regards to the imposition of censorship over freedom of expression expected by the latter, but never really pursued by theformer . William J. Dominik (chapter five: “Vergil´s geopolitics”) discusses the relationship between nature and politics in Virgil. Robin Bond studies the relationship between Horace’s work (particularly his ‘independence of spirit’) and the changing political scenarios that were shaped by the civil war, in chapter six (“Horace´s political journey”).

The work of Livy is analysed by Matthew Roller (chapter seven: “The politics of aristocratic competition: innovation in Livy and Augustan Rome”) as an insight into the new arenas available to aristocrats competing for glory, in the context of Republican traditionalism. Roller offers a valuable discussion of the different modes of distributing power under the new regime. Marcus Wilson shows, in chapter eight, that elegy as a genre resisted the celebration of political leaders. Poets kept their distance from important men in the same way as they did to their loved ones, turning all of them into literary constructs. A scriptus patronus, or a scriptus princeps, corresponded to a scripta puella. Gareth Williams, in “Politics in Ovid” (chapter nine), suggests that Ovid’s relationship with the political world was not pro- or anti-Augustus. The poet’s attitudes were as changeable as the environment in which he lived. Chapter ten (“Borrowed plumes: Phaedrus’ fables, Phaedrus’ failures”, by Victoria Jennings) studies the means through which Phaedrus might have expressed overt criticism under the Principate. However, the fact that he was persecuted by Sejanus and that his work was not appreciated in later periods might suggest that his was a failed attempt.

James Ker (chapter 11: “Outside and inside: Senecan strategies”) considers Seneca and his position as an ‘outsider-insider’ in relation to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In De clementia, in particular, Seneca sought to create a mirror-relation between Nero and the body politic, through the “specular” function of his writing. This chapter contains a very good synthesis of the new challenges involved with writing in the Principate (p. 255-256). Chapter 12 (“Primitive politics: Lucan and Petronius”, by Martha Malamud) analyses the issues of food consumption and architecture in Lucan and Petronius, and their relationship with a moralistic view of Roman history. The past, as shown by these authors, was modest and virtuous, whereas the present and the future are increasingly luxurious and morally fragile. “Visions of gold: hopes for the new age in Capurnius Siculus’ Eclogues” (John Garthwaite and Beatrice Martin) supports the Neronian dating of these poems. According to the authors, Calpurnius Siculus juxtaposes the universal and the particular. Whereas the new times are initially seen as beneficial, bringing peace and harmony, a fractious and fragmented pastoral world dominates in the end.

Steve Mason, in chapter 14 (“Of despots, diadems and diadochoi: Josephus and Flavian politics”), shows how Josephus raised the issue of the freedom and stability of governments and their aristocracies. In this way, Josephus was able to associate the Roman and Jewish aristocracies, uniting their destinies. Andrew Zissos (chapter 15: “Navigating Power: Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica”) argues that, although the geography and chronology in which the action in the Argonautica is set are distant from imperial Rome, Valerius Flaccus mirrored the social context of this period in the poem , creating the image of ubiquitous tyrannies based on military power, weakened aristocracies, and disinterested populations. “The ivy and the conquering bay: Quintilian on Domitian and Domitianic policy” (chapter 16), by Paul Roche, analyses to what extent Quintilian’s praise of Domitian can be read as ironic or satirical, as it focuses on elements (literary talent and military leadership) that were obvious weaknesses of this ruler. Rhetorically, however, Quintilian made sure that he would not be accused of criticism, increasing his power to praise/criticise the emperor in this way. The relationship between Statius and imperial power is the subject of Carole Newlands, in chapter 17 (“Statius’ self-conscious poetics: hexameter on hexameter”), especially Siluae 1.5, 3.2 e 3.5. Literary and socio-political criticism are closely connected in these poems, and they might be used for the critical reading of the Thebaid and the Achilleid.

Basing his analysis on the distinction between poet-persona and author-persona, John Garthwaite observes that both Martial and the emperor were characters in the Martial’s epigrams (in chapter 18, “Ludimus innocui: interpreting Martial’s imperial epigrams”). Consequently, the poet’s praise and criticism should not be taken at face value. However, we should not exclude the possibility that at least one of Martial’s personae could express his own conceptions (“a compromising truth with a laugh or a compliment”, p.427). In chapter 19 (“Reading the Prince: textual politics in Tacitus and Pliny”), Steven H. Rutledge discusses the various ways in which texts were seen as time passed. Literary works were read in different ways according to the political context, creating the possibility of future problems for their authors. Based on this perspective, the author observes provocatively that “if we were delatores, we could surely find a case against both [Tacitus and Pliny] in their texts for subversion.” (p.446) David Konstan, in chapter 20 (“Reading politics in Suetonius”), observes that we must have an ‘engaged reader’ in mind when studying these imperial biographies: they were written with the issue of the control and interpretation of information by the readers in mind. In chapter 21 (“Juvenal: zealous vindicator of Roman liberty”), Martin M. Winkler analyses the satirical mechanisms employed by Juvenal (concentrating on Sat. 1, 4 and 5) in criticising the emperor, the aristocracy, and the system of government of his own time.

As this brief overview confirms, the chapters of this book are not ordered by any strict conceptualization of politics or literature. In this sense, the very act of writing can be defined as political action, and literary texts become important political players in themselves. Such a broad perspective, whilst allowing each contributor to explore different aspects of different authors, makes it impossible to form a general picture of the relationship between the unique literary culture of the early empire and political life. The chapters under review also point to the risks of over-interpreting texts at a time when ancient authors expressed their thoughts in a coded way. Writing Politics in Imperial Rome will appeal to graduate students and researchers in general, especially as a stimulating introduction to a variety of approaches and an extensive bibliography. Anyone interested in the possibilities and limits for studying the different layers of writing in imperial texts, and the many possibilities offered by reading them will find the chapters collected here of great interest.

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