Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.54

Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, Staging Memory, Staging Strife: Empire and Civil War in the ‘Octavia’.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 229.  ISBN 9780190275952.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Tom Geue, University of St Andrews (


Slowly but surely, Anglophone scholarship has come round to Rome’s only child of a praetexta tragedy. This anonymous orphan will still – always – struggle in an author-centric world. But the nurturing environment of monumentality1 required for a promising adulthood of deep reading is now very much secured. That said, Octavia was still desperate for more TLC from that special something: the sensitive, dedicated monograph.2 Ginsberg has made the play’s life that much easier.

Staging Memory, Staging Strife is a risky book, but the pickings are richer for it. Civil war is Ginsberg’s master theme, worth more than its weight in subtitle (‘empire’ perhaps plays more of a bit part). This story of Nero’s divorce of Octavia, plus popular backlash, is not just chock-full of violence and conflict in the present, but also retrofitted with triggers of past strife. Many would stop there; some haven’t. Buckley 20123 (which Ginsberg relegates to footnote zone as appearing ‘too late’) anticipated some of the claims here. The risky part is that Ginsberg goes further. She reads the play as a kind of intertextual tour-de-force, an artefact not just fossilizing a general Roman neurosis but specifically, deeply engaged with the ‘civil war’ texts knocked up under (or near, or even by) the Julio-Claudians: Virgil Aeneid and Lucan Bellum Civile are the predictable stars, but Augustus Res Gestae, Propertius, Horace, Seneca De Clementia all get strong look-ins.

Ginsberg’s modus operandi is hard-core, full bore intertextualism. On the ground, this means pinning a host of verbal echoes, and fanning out each time to track the bigger interpretative ripples of the repetition. But this isn’t just the 90’s Scuola Normale and friends doing their thing with a fine-toothed comb (though it is that, more on which below). Ginsberg’s twist is to bring the booming ‘cultural memory’ moment (of which she is a leading light) to bear on a text frankly made for it. The upshot is a glorious marriage of old-school intertextuality (microcosmic, focussed, ‘literary’) with the new(ish) approach of memory studies (macrocosmic, broad, ‘sociohistorical’). The fine offspring shows off just how important literature can be in the big game of fashioning, sealing, qualifying, overwriting, or jiggling political memory.

Ginsberg spends the introduction laying out and bolstering her aforementioned choice methods: intertextuality and cultural memory. So much a part of the Latin establishment nowadays is intertextual reading, I was a little shocked (and then strangely refreshed) to see an active (historicist) case made for it. Ginsberg conscientiously collects evidence for Roman reading habits approximating our own insane attention to minute intertextual effects. To be fair, the case might not be so superfluous in this context, where the spectre of performance-critic scepticism might ruin the party before it begins. ‘Seeing on the page is one thing, hearing it in the audience another’ – so might go the criticism (which Ginsberg confronts along with the vexed question of the play’s performance at the end of the introduction). Ginsberg makes the good point that the Octavia hasn’t wanted for intertextual attention, but that the attention has been monopolised by the shadow of Seneca (which Ginsberg will nobly escape). Turning to her second frame, Ginsberg then gives a short crash course on cultural memory in the humanities. She drops her own work in the line of ‘literary memory studies’, a sub-field probing both how literature shapes the memory of the past, and how literature itself gets folded into an object of memory (p. 11). For Ginsberg, all texts (especially the cultural heavy-lifters like Virgil and Lucan forming the scenography of the study) are complex repositories of cultural memory – and so whenever a text is ‘remembered’ in the heat of an intertextual moment, we are also stoking the coals of how that text remembers (as well as what it remembers). Crucially, this means that intertextuality in the Octavia lays bare the mnemonic pathways of its ‘source’ texts, and often grates them against each other.

The book eats, breathes, and sleeps civil war. This governing theme works well to lock the chapters into a satisfying story, which roughly unfurls in synchrony with the march of the action itself. Chapter 1 trains on discord ‘within the imperial house’, keeping close watch on Octavia’s opening scene and the chorus’ follow-up on Agrippina’s death. Ginsberg takes her cue from the play’s most glaring (and uncontroversial) allusion: Octavia channelling Lucan’s Pompey (magni resto nominis umbra, Oct. 71; stat magni nominis umbra, Luc. 1.135). Ginsberg goes well beyond the tag to colour both Octavia and Agrippina in the tones of Pompey, which makes for a domestic struggle of Pharsalan proportions; she then turns from Lucan’s loser to Virgil’s losers (past and future), to make the case for Turnus, Aeneas, and Dido as variously lurking behind the same imperial women.

Ginsberg next follows the plot to see what the men have to say and remember. Chapter 2 brilliantly reads Seneca’s advice to Nero as not just a rehashing of the De Clementia, but an attempt to mirror a bleachy-clean Augustus to the current prince with partisan texts like the Res Gestae. Seneca loudly glosses over the violence of early Octavian in silence, but betrays intertextual memories of triumviral strife despite himself; and Nero, careful listener/reader that he is, easily steps into the glitch. Chapter 3 nicely shows us how he does it: in Ginsberg’s expert hands, Nero’s response to Seneca negatively corrects Seneca’s rosy picture of princeps the first. Nero makes use of a very different intertextual palette of Lucan, Propertius, and Virgil, to paint the foundations of pax et princeps red; Seneca’s saintly Augustus, and merry reading of history, is chucked in the bin, and replaced by a compelling monster of a precedent for rule.

Chapter 4 moves outside the vexed intrafamilial Julio-Claudian relationships (brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, and forebear forms of all) to Nero’s relationship with the Roman people. The play takes care to stage the civil contagion spreading to popular riots; Ginsberg shows how these uprisings take on tones of programmatic civil war passages in the Aeneid, the Bellum Civile, and Horace’s Odes and Epodes, to bring Neronian Rome into the ambit of late Republican tumult, and vice versa. Chapter 5 – a real treat – makes civil war pay real dividends for a key interpretative crux of the play: the number of choruses (one, two…three?) and the attribution of which lines to which. Ginsberg stages a top reading of a ‘bifurcated’ chorus as a structural reflex of the play’s civil fissuring. She mines each choral ode for yet more layers of civil war intertext (e.g. Sallust Catiline, Livy, more Lucan, Lucretius), and wages some quiet iconoclasm on the standard romanticised view of the chorus in the scholarship – no glorious Republican shadow for Ginsberg, but rather a fractious, fickle lot, marred by the blood on its own hands. A fine epilogue finally stakes out a position on the Octavia’s date; Ginsberg locks and loads a host of good evidence to run the play particularly well in the context of early Flavian Rome, when the civil strife of 69 was very much still pumping through the Vespasianic nervous system.

There is no doubt this book adds a lot. The cultural memory string to Ginsberg’s bow is there, and important, and a major part of the contribution; nevertheless, in its more pedestrian intertextualist idiom, the monograph sometimes threatens to become a swampish verbal echo chamber. Ginsberg is an imaginative reader of intertextual contact points, and she usually (but not always) dances well between the concrete ‘echo’ and the abstract, fancier claims regarding textual memory. Her approach is to quote a snippet of Octavia, followed by a snippet of intertext (or vice versa), and underline (then unpack) the overlapping language. But the underlines, so confidently implying equivalence, often don’t quite live up to the job. (I convey underlined words/phrases with vertical lines). For example, stressing |clementia| (Oct. 835) despite its absence from the Ovidian comparandum (p. 44); |infelix amor| (613) looks close to Aen. 1.749 (|infelix| Dido, longumque bibebat |amorem|) only with a bit of squinting/formatting magic (p. 56); |Inuidia infelix…metuet| (Georg. 3.37-8) vs. |Inuidia tristis…cessit| (Oct. 485-6) is pushing it for resemblance (p. 78), as are ille |regit| dictis |animos| (Aen. 1.153) vs. quis |regere| de|mentes| ualet (Oct. 866; p. 138-9) and |memores pristinae uirtutis| (Sall. Cat. 68.11-12) vs. nostri sumus im|memores|…uera |priorum uirtus| (Oct. 288-91; p. 145)). Alternatively, the ‘echo’ falls fairly flat, all too faint on deaf ears, because it involves a pretty anodyne collocation of a couple of unremarkable words, indeed sometimes just one: e.g. cedere fatis (p. 29); premere dolorem (p. 47); merui (p. 52); quid moror (p. 55); terra marique (p. 71-2 – even with Ginsberg’s awareness of the potential objection; cf. p. 118); petit Nilum (p. 104); attonitam (p. 127-8); quis furor (p. 129). Or again, the echo is flattened into a simplistic badge of alliance (e.g. just because Agrippina says |nominis magni| uiros (641), it doesn’t quite make her into a Pompeian shadow of a great name herself (p. 36)). Conservative scholars may well want Ginsberg to have come cleaner on her criteria for what constitutes a meaningful verbal echo, and will probably say that, according to more responsible filters, a good lot of Ginsberg’s examples are out.

The book’s biggest shortcoming is the translations, which are at best stiltedly literal (at worst, they read like ‘translationese’ knocked together on the spot). These examples give a flavour: ‘To save citizens who threaten the princeps and fatherland, citizens swollen with pride in their famous lineage, what insanity when with a single word I am allowed to order the deaths of those I suspect.’ for seruare ciues principi et patriae graues, / claro tumentes genere quae dementia est, / cum liceat una uoce suspectos sibi / mori iubere? (Oct. 495-8; p. 90-1); ‘and to yours, Danae, to whom once he flowed down in yellow gold as you wondered at him’ for et tibi, quondam cui miranti / fuluo, Danae, fluxit in auro (771-2; p. 154-5); funerea Roma (Oct. 824; p. 43) becomes ‘funereal Rome’; nec totiens propriis circum oppugnata triumphis / lassa foret crinis soluere Roma suos! goes ‘nor would Rome, besieged on all sides with her own triumphs, be so often exhausted from loosening her own hair.’ (Prop. 2.15.45-6; p. 93) – as if Rome were just beat from letting her hair down.4

Those are fairly superficial smudges on an otherwise high calibre debut of great intellectual worth. Ginsberg has shown us in dazzling style how Octavia makes an important intervention into the cultural memory of the principate by staging a war of recollection, and thrashing it out in an intertextual argot every bit as sophisticated as the Julio-Claudian phantoms it conjures. Octavia, and Ginsberg, deserve all the reading they will get.


1.   Two extensive commentaries: R. Ferri (2003), Octavia: A Play Attributed to Seneca, Cambridge; A. J. Boyle (2008), Octavia: Attributed to Seneca, Oxford.
2.   On top of the groundbreaking P. Kragelund (1982), Prophecy, Populism and Propaganda in the Octavia, Copenhagen; and now Kragelund (2016), Roman Historical Drama: The Octavia in Antiquity and Beyond, Oxford.
3.   E. Buckley (2012), ‘Nero Insitiuus: Constructing Neronian Identity in the Pseudo-Senecan Octavia’ in A. Gibson (ed.), The Julio-Claudian Succession: Reality and Perception of the Augustan Model, Leiden, 133-54.
4.   The issues aren’t only stylistic. Here are a selection of omissions and errors, with a fuller list reserved for the blog: paret (Oct. 228, p. 37), manu (Luc. 1.667, p. 126), diu (Oct. 798, p. 132), the crucial partu (279, p. 143), all untranslated; quod nomen (490, p. 76) taken as ‘your name’ rather than the title parens patriae (reprised at p. 117); Antoni (Luc. 10.70-1, p. 106-7) taken as genitive instead of vocative (and uaesani taken with Antoni, rather than amoris); feris uulneribus (Oct. 525-6, p. 107) translated ‘by so many wounds’; cessare confused with cedere at 674 (p. 150). Typos are fewer: I spotted ‘our memory Augustus’ > our memory of (p. 65); decent > descent (p. 107, n. 42); throws > throes (p. 111); if ground > if I ground (p. 111); indepted > indebted (p. 144, n. 8); epiglogue > epilogue (right hand header, p. 183-93); the the > the (p. 192, n. 62).

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