Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.25

Damien Nelis, Manuel Royo, Lire la Ville: fragments d'une archéologie littéraire de Rome antique. Scripta antiqua, 65.   Bordeaux:  Ausonius Éditions, 2014.  Pp. 303.  ISBN 9782356131157.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrew Feldherr, Princeton University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

Halfway through her analysis of Cicero’s rhetorical use of topography, Claudia Klodt compares the absent presence of the recently destroyed Curia in the Pro Milone to the emotions evoked by the Twin Towers, which she describes as “anxiety about safety and hurt national pride”. This example reveals the potency of this volume’s subject but also that subject’s subtleties and difficulties. Those who lived in New York in September 2001 experienced the cataclysmic transformation of the urban topography in many different ways. My own recollection fixes on the silent mourning that seemed to turn even national symbols, like the flag draped over the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, into monuments of a collective grief. Not, or not only, an anxiety about safety (though the vexatious run on diapers and drinking water at our local market bore witness to that as well), but an experience of sorrow with the apparent potential to create communities that transcended national identity rather than affirming national pride. Few will dispute Klodt’s summary of what this space has come to mean in hindsight. But assenting to her interpretation of the lost cityscape involves as much the rejection as the affirmation of memory. I make this point in part to suggest the difficulty of recovering meanings in a landscape two hundred times more temporally distant than the World Trade Center. But I want to focus more on the mental distance to be overcome between individual memory based on the experience of place and a representation that at once affirms and creates its collective significance. And the traffic through this conceptual space moves in two directions: it may be—cognitive science would say “must be”—that what I present as memories are nothing more than newly constructed responses to the provocation of Klodt’s claim. Such responses, innumerable, inexpressible, and thus doubly unrecoverable, provide the metaphorical population for the cityscapes reconstructed through the “Fragments of a Literary Archaeology of Ancient Rome” collected in this book.

Nelis and Royo’s title suggests two different ways of reading the city through its representation in literature. In one, the city itself comes first, and texts give us the means to “read it” by providing evidence about topographical features and their functions. The second highlights the capacities of these same texts to build their own symbolic landscapes through the evocation of monuments so that works of literature each project their own readings of the city. The distinctive emphasis of this collection lies in the linkage between the two processes. It aims not to “describe the different ‘literary portraits’ of the city traced by Latin authors” but rather “to explore the conditions of operation for [a given author’s vision of Rome] and to investigate, in relation to its historical and political context, how this vision is constructed and what connects it with the ‘real’ space of the city,” (p. 10). Articles in the first section ““seek to combine rhetoric, historiography, and ‘real’ topography”; “the second devotes itself to the memory of origins and to the staging of an imaginary landscape, and in practice makes use fundamentally of poetry.” As the somewhat ex post facto nature of these rubrics reveals, this is a collection that gets unity from its subject rather than its methodology: the individual contributions display the variety of questions and approaches that can bring historical and represented topographies into dialogue. The proportion of papers that persuade, even inspire, on their own terms stands quite high; indeed, several deserve to become points of reference for future work.

Before surveying the volume’s own topography more closely, one aspect of its organization calls for comment: all the papers in the first section treat prose works; all those in the second poetry. The editors themselves disclaim the intention of using literary form as an organizing principle, and the first half contains several path-breaking discussions of how prose works re-fashion as well as represent space. But lest readers draw the inference that prose texts cannot “stage” a landscape as poetic ones can because of some self-evidently closer connection to reality—that they primarily describe real landscapes while poets re-imagine them—let me pause to decry such a notion. By the criteria given above there is no more ‘poetic’ author than Livy, and it was his “Written Rome” as much as any other that put topography on the scholarly map for Latinists (See Mary Jaeger, Livy’s Written Rome. Ann Arbor, 1997.). Certainly generic expectations affect how a reader sees a landscape through a text. But histories and speeches are also texts and as such inevitably partake of the same capacity to impose new conceptions of reality on their audience.

Section one begins with two very different sorts of literary archaeology. Michel Aberson gives a micro-level examination of how Livy represents specific historical monuments within his work. He shows, for example, that in the vast majority of cases Livy allows his readers to locate the monuments he mentions within the urban landscape by including some reference to their location. The major aim of his contribution, though, is to trace the sources of the topographical information Livy provides by connecting the position and terminology of such notices to different kinds of evidence, such as annalistic records, funerary and triumphal commemorations, and dedicatory inscriptions. But the significance of Aberson’s research extends beyond Quellenkritik: if Livy’s language evokes such sources rather than just relying on them, it gives his representation of monuments a particular transparency to the physical and historical presence of the monuments themselves. As a contrast to Aberson’s excavation of the pathways of representation, Michel Tarpin’s focus is on recovering the historical reality behind them. He aims to debunk the idea that compita and vici “define the topographical organization of la basse plèbe” (p. 41) as the product of Ciceronian rhetoric. But he concerns himself far less with Cicero than with revealing his own exceptionally complex picture of the historical relationship between compita and vici and its development over time.

Cicero comes back into the limelight in the next two articles. Anne Vial-Logeay considers all the genres of Cicero’s literary production in analyzing his “invention of a political landscape.” Distinctive to her approach is the search for ideological, rather than purely formal or rhetorical, explanations behind Cicero’s modes of describing the city. In the De Re Publica, for instance, she observes an opposition between the city viewed rationally, as Romulus planned the site of Rome, and the aesthetic attractions of foreign cities. While Rome was designed to last, the very beauties of Athens and Syracuse are markedly ephemeral. Vial-Logeay connects this difference in turn not just with Cicero’s concentration on functions, especially political ones, rather than appearances in his actual descriptions of Rome, but also with the distinction he draws between the civic and natural patria in the De Legibus. Cicero’s representations of Rome ultimately become a way of performing his own social and political connections to his new patria. This represents more a sampling than a summary of a standout article, one that provides a sophisticated and thought-provoking treatment not just of Cicero’s conceptualization of space, but of the ideological aspects of urban topography in the late republican period as a whole. Klodt’s contribution makes an excellent complement by zeroing in on how Cicero deploys the representation of landscape for practical rhetorical ends. Her interest lies precisely in the play between real and represented cityscapes, between the physical spaces present to the audience of an oration delivered in the forum, and the topographies verbally constructed by the orators. The two speeches that form the core of her argument, the Fifth Verrine and the Pro Milone, introduce a new question, for of course neither was actually delivered. Does the emphasis on the ruined Curia in the latter speech perhaps show Cicero working extra hard to create the impression of a performance that never really took place?

The first section closes with an article whose medial position signals its centrality to the volume’s theme: Jocelyne Nelis-Clément and Damien Nelis treat epigraphy as an important tertium quid in the dichotomy between reality and written representation, observing that the proliferation of inscriptions during the Augustan period made the physical city a written one at the very same time that poets (and historians!) were developing more ambitious and explicit efforts to re-construct the places of the city through words. The authors begin with a treatment of inscriptions themselves as texts whose meanings affect and are affected by their place in a physical landscape. They then consider the particular kind of inter(extra?)textuality that develops when literary works, like Ovid’s Fasti, come into dialogue with monuments and their inscriptions.

Part two signals the shift from “archaeology” to “literary” with another intellectually ambitious contribution. Manuel Royo finds an essential difference between places and specifically literary representations of them in their relation to temporality. He relates the construction of a spectator viewing and organizing space within the text to the actualization of specific layers of time evoked by monuments as lieux de mémoire. The literary creation of perspectives and itineraries can trace particular historical and mythical associations of and among monuments that construct a “visionary” landscape, making the city itself into “the paysage historique we know it as” (p. 180). Although she does not explicitly refer to Royo’s arguments, and does not put as much emphasis on time travel, Alison Keith’s discussion of the representation of the city in elegiac poetry demonstrates how the ideological priorities of genre reveal themselves through implicit perspectives on and itineraries through the city. The erotic elegies of Tibullus and Propertius describe visual manifestations of Roman conquest within the urban landscape at once to signal how the poetry “participates in the larger Roman imperial projects that the genre characteristically occludes” and (perhaps in tension with this aim?) “un-obtrusively foster[s] pleasure in the spoils of conquest on display in the city” (p.192).

The master builder Ovid provides the subject for the next dyad. Hélène Malochet-Turquety brings welcome attention to the image of the Roman city that emerges from the Metamorphoses. But in her efforts to find a symbolic topography opposing the Palatine and Capitoline, she bases too elaborate an argument on what are largely passing references in the poem. Reality strikes back with Joseph Farrell’s analysis of Amores 3.13’s anomalously unelegiac account of the festival of Juno at Falerii. Farrell re-imagines an actual journey to the site of this festival and plays this off against the conventional metapoetic landscapes in the elegy. He then uses the mismatch between real and poetic journeys as a clue to highlight similar inconcinnities in the poem. Thus the apparently seamless connection of ancient Etruscan Falerii to a charming and morally improving country festival masks the long and violent history that led to the eradication of the old city, whereas the journey itself reveals it. A corresponding disconnect at the poem’s ending further affirms Farrell’s approach; for there a similarly anomalous mythical journey separates the festival’s contemporary associations from its beginnings. It turns out that the city’s founder, Halaesus, fled from Juno’s own Argos after the murder of Agamemnon, linking Juno’s festival and Falerii’s (not so) “fortunate walls” to the end of a famously unharmonious marriage.

The last article in section two takes us back to Rome, but away from the collection’s chronological center in the Augustan period. Michael Dewar gives a fascinating thick description of Martial’s account of his friend Julius Martialis’ villa on Monte Mario, showing how the building’s actual place in the urban landscape summons up both the practice and ideology of poetic patronage. The French translation of a magisterial essay by Catharine Edwards on ruins as a motif in Latin literature provides an ideal conclusion for the volume. If on the one hand ruins signify the end of cities, since we now perforce see Rome as ruins, to imagine the Romans themselves as viewers of ruins provocatively juxtaposes our gaze back at the classical city onto that of the Romans looking forward to see themselves in the mirror of their destruction.

Table of Contents

Damien Nelis and Manuel Royo,
La Ville entre espace littéraire et topographie réelle: p. 9
1. Rhétorique et espace historique
Michel Aberson, Des lieux, des dieux, des marques de mémoire : Tite-Live et les monuments de Rome: p. 17
Michel Tarpin, Vici, compita et “plèbe” à Rome : rhétoriques, société et topographie: p. 41
Anne Vial-Logeay, La topographie de Rome chez Cicéron : quelques remarques sur l’invention d’un paysage politique: p. 65
Claudia Klodt, Place as Argument. Roman Topography in Rhetorical Strategy: p. 85
Jocelyne Nelis-Clément and Damien Nelis, Poésie, topographie et épigraphie à l’époque augustéenne: p. 125
2. Mémoire des origines et topographies poétiques
Manuel Royo, “Un sacrifice pâle et un lieu d’herbe” : l’espace et le temps dans les descriptions poétiques de Rome: p. 161
Alison Keith, Roman Topography and Imperial Geographies in Latin Elegy: p. 183
Hélène Malochet-Turquety, Rome dans les Métamorphoses d’Ovide : du Palatin et du Capitole: p. 195
Joseph Farrell, The Poet in an Artificial Landscape: Ovid at Falerii (Amores 3.13): p. 215
Michael Dewar, Sleep, noise and friendship: the villa suburbana of Julius Martialis: p. 237
Catharine Edwards, Imaginer les ruines dans la Rome antique: p. 257
Index des matières: p. 275
Index des sources: p. 287
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