BMCR 1995.11.04

Roman Literature and Ideology

, , Roman literature and ideology : Ramus essays for J.P. Sullivan. Bendigo, Australia: Aureal Publications, 1995. 269 pages. ISBN 9780949916129.

This Festschrift for J.P. Sullivan, who died in 1993, opens with an interesting personal memoir of the man, his career, and his personality by Boyle (pp. 6-11). Appended to this is an exhaustive and very welcome list of Sullivan’s publications and broadcasts (pp. 11-23). Eleven essays follow.

John Henderson, “Hanno’s Punic Heirs: Der Poenulusneid des Plautus” (pp. 24-54). This is a clever (and intentionally messy) treatment of an unpromising subject, the Poenulus (“when it is not being slatered, it is konstanly passed by”). It casts on Plautus’s least beloved play the light of a verbal pyrotechnic display: the specific density of its polyglot puns, embedded in tortuous sentences, is Joycean. This style of presentation is delectable for ten pages, cloying by the twentieth, and nauseating by the thirtieth. Style aside, Henderson makes valuable points about the subversive character of Plautus’s play, something unnoticed by critics preoccupied with exposing flaws in its plot structure and signs of maladroit use of sources. He contends that Plautus deliberately makes a mess of things (viz., plot and character conventions of New Comedy) to shake up his audience by challenging its expectations of the genre qua art form and qua social criticism. In particular, the automatic privileging of the father, patria potestas—the social reality that so dependably underlay the action of most Roman comedies—is here manifested in unexpected and subversive ways: “For once, ‘Dad’ plays the Handydandy messing about in the local knocking-shop, he helps a son who breaks and enters a brothel to steal one tart from a Jack of—Clubs, and a second from some loopy dealer. All so that pater can have for pay-off a well-stacked pair of bimbos and a toy-boy clambering all over him …. Testing the limits of the patriarchal family-structure and its halo of sanctimony, every home a harem of incest and emporium of sex, every father a Sheikh short of a ship of the desert” (p. 53). All in all, a daring interpretation, daringly expressed, of a neglected play.

Thomas N. Habinek, “Ideology for an Empire in the Prefaces of Cicero’s Dialogues” (pp. 55-67). Habinek examines the prefaces of De Oratore, Tusculan Disputations, De Finibus, and De Officiis to disclose a consistent and novel ideological agenda in Cicero’s musings on the function of rhetoric in Roman society. He offers an incisive demonstration that Cicero seeks to ensure the authority of a specific segment of the aristocracy by “the expropriation of the cultural capital of a conquered people, namely the Greeks” (p. 55), and that, in so seeking, he deprecates the practical political aspects ( utilitas) of rhetoric in favor of its grandeur ( magnitudo) as the true mark of distinction in Roman society. Cicero even flirts with the notion that eloquence per se confers authority beyond that derived from the rival field of military achievement. Furthermore, he “takes it for granted that Rome has supplanted Greece as the locus of authorisation in matters cultural” (p. 58). In co-opting the heritage of Greek rhetoric and philosophy, the Roman literati assume the role of beneficent guardians, assuring the safe transmittal of culture through succeeding generations. The cultivated language of the educated, right-minded intelligentsia that Cicero addresses lends it solidarity and empowers it “to formulate the unifying myths and protocols for society as a whole” (p. 65). Cicero in his rhetorical treatises invited readers, in both his own time and the subsequent imperial era, to countenance and support an ideology of culture as the preeminent means to social control and domination.

J.L. Penwill, “Image, Ideology and Action in Cicero and Lucretius” (pp. 68-91). “Images abound,” begins Penwill, in this astute counterpoising of image-as-ideological-icon (Cicero) and image-as-physical-emanation (Lucretius). Penwill argues that this is not just a matter of discrete semantic fields. Cicero in the De Re Publica, as elsewhere in his writing, holds up idealized figures from the glorious Roman past as (obvious) examples for contemporary politicians to emulate, but “he also invites us to see in them a reflection of himself as the author … applying his Greek philosophical learning to present an imago of Rome as the ideal state” (p. 72). Such an enterprise was foredoomed by the glaring disparity between idealized past and corrupt and debased present political realities. Lucretius, Penwill contends, applied a powerful philosophical solvent to the ideologically charged images fashioned by Cicero. For Lucretius’s elaborate presentation of the Epicurean theory of visual perception unveiled the true nature of things: images are mere physical emanations, indispensable of course to visual sensation, but, like all existent objects (sc. composed of atoms), undirected by any princeps deus or other controlling moral force. To see an ethical or political imperative in the images of past patriots is merely to engage in self-delusion: “We perceive the imagines of our ancestors (historical or literary) because our minds are ‘prepared’ to receive them …. The mind is creating its own home video show …. The dead tell us nothing apart from what we choose to put in their mouths” (p. 80).

Patrick Sinclair, “Political Declensions in Latin Grammar and Oratory, 55 BCE-CE 39” (pp. 92-109). Sinclair traces a sequence of change in rhetorical theory in works of Cicero ( De Oratore), Caesar ( De Analogia), and Seneca the Elder ( Controversiae, Suasoriae) that paralleled change in the rules of competition for social and political prestige in the transition from Republic to Empire. Cicero emerges as “an outspoken proponent of unfettered individual liberty for members of the ruling elite” (p. 92). The right sort of education secured what was an (eventually) almost automatic mastery ( consuetudo) of diction—elegantia—and thereby admission to political privilege and high social standing. Caesar, for his own political motives, espoused in his theoretical work, De Analogia, and actually displayed in his Commentaries, a plain style, “in which—unlike Cicero—an individual orator does not call attention to himself in order to increase his political power—which is to say, an orator’s ambitions and abilities should not challenge Caesar’s predominance” (p. 94). Such a program additionally gained Caesar the goodwill and support of provincials “by relieving their anxieties about ‘fitting in’ on the level of language skills” (p. 95). Augustus inherited and perpetuated these attitudes and policies, so that, already in Seneca, we see the new presumptions and prescriptions firmly entrenched and oratory institutionalized within the limits imposed by conditions of political life under the principate. The competition now is for approval and laudatory epithets ( primus, pulcherrimus) in an arena—formalized rhetorical debate—that posed no threat to the political authorities. From this vantage point, Cicero’s eloquence was an unattainable archetype, his spirit of libertas a cautionary model.

Maria Wyke, “Taking the Woman’s Part: Engendering Roman Love Elegy” (pp. 110-128). Wyke well achieves two goals: (1) a review of the influence of feminist gender theory on currently evolving critical views of Roman elegy, and (2) significant refinement of prevailing gender-oriented criticism of the genre. Wyke considers especially the meaning of the presence of the poetry of Sulpicia in the Tibullan corpus and the constitution of the narrative voice in Propertian elegy as effeminate in character. In a genre formerly (naively) thought to be “obstinately male,” Wyke sees the political or ideological implications of narrative feminization as proceeding from “the delineation of male sexual submission rather than female sexual dominance” (p. 119). In this, she differs Judith Hallett, whose essay “The Role of Women in Roman Elegy: Counter-culture Feminism,”Arethusa 6 (1973) 103-24, inaugurated the explication of gender play in Latin love elegy. Wyke concludes with reflections on the function of elegy as a social technology, an “institutionalised system of representation” that served to construct but also to defy (“interrogate”) traditional gender differentiation in a particular segment of Roman society.

Carole Newlands, “The Ending of Ovid’s Fasti” (pp. 129-143). Newlands begins by pointing out that the truth about political and cultural ideology in the Augustan era is complicated. Pace Syme and more recently (and more subtly) Zanker, Augustus should not be seen as “the autocratic controller of an essentially monologic ideology” (p. 129). Newlands backs up this contention by a careful, highly suggestive examination of the ending of Ovid’s Fasti, stressing the ambiguities of the reference to the Temple of Hercules Musarum. She shows that Ovid’s allusions to the restorer of the Temple, L. Marcius Philippus, his wife Atia, his daughter Marcia (wife of Paullus Fabius Maximus, Ovid’s great friend and Tiberius’s bitter enemy) problematize the passage by involving it in the dynastic complexities and perils of the time. We do not in fact have to do with bald praise for the imperial program of political, cultural, and religious renewal along approved ideological lines. Newlands also discloses uncertainties implied by Ovid’s intertextual resonance of closing passages in the Amores, Horace’s fourth book of Odes, Propertius’s fourth book of Elegies, and Ennius’s Annales (in their fifteen-book first edition). These lend a distinctly self-reflexive aspect to a passage that “provides a final demonstration of Ovid’s deep-seated ambivalence towards an ideological system that his poem both appropriates and resists” (p. 141). Newlands discerns unsettling intricacies in Ovid’s response to ideological pressures in the coy and cryptic ending of the Fasti.

Gareth Schmeling, “Quid Attinet Veritatem per Interpretem Quaerere? Interpretes and the Satyricon” (pp. 144-168). Schmeling begins by remarking on the power of the Satyricon to hold the reader, a function of Petronius’s “complete control of its language: the coercive strength of his rhetoric encourages the adventurous reader to carry though to the end, even if some of the subject matter is disturbing” (p. 144). Also coercive is the impulse to interpret (and to evaluate) that the work provokes. Schmeling presents a nifty historical sketch of critical response to the Satyricon from ancient times to the twentieth century, “a chronology of changing attitudes in [its] readers” (p. 151), attitudes typically both moralistic and highly subjective. More objective critics (he names Sullivan, Zeitlin, and Slater) have argued that the Satyricon is in fact very difficult to interpret and that “that difficulty is probably intentional” ( probably is nice). Schmeling elaborates on reasons for this circumstance and asks whether “the text of the Satyricon say[s] anything about interpretation or … interpreters” (p. 156). In the most original part of the essay, he examines scenes in which characters interpret language, signs, sounds, images, etc., through the exercise of one or more of their five senses. Though he provides many interesting explications here, Schmeling rather anticlimactically concedes that “examples of interpretation within the Satyricon do not seem to shed much light on interpretation of the Satyricon” (p. 164). He concludes with the good news that “partially successful approaches to interpretation” (p. 165)—all we can hope for—are no obstacle to an audience’s enjoyment of the work.

Martha A. Malamud, “Happy Birthday, Dead Lucan: (P)raising the Dead in Silvae 2.7″ (pp. 169-198). Malamud argues that Silvae 2.7, which merges “aspects of a consolatory poem and a birthday ode” (p. 170), engages in a profound intertextual dialogue about literary and ideological issues. Statius is not simply praising “his young, Roman, aristocratic, idealistic and manly predecessor” (p. 171). By her discriminating scrutiny of passages evoked from the Bellum Civile, Malamud shows again and again that Statius is preoccupied with Lucan’s text and particularly with Lucan’s own ambivalence about his goals and motivations in writing poetry. Allusions in Silv. 2.7 that might seem to be straightforward homage to Lucan are actually deliberately skewed to convey criticism and qualification. Statius is shown to be mindful of Lucan’s disturbing awareness that “writing about Caesar makes him somehow complicit with and analogous to Caesar” (p. 182). Ideology—even ideology eschewed—persists like a virus. Such is the dilemma faced by authors (Ennius, Vergil, Lucan, Silius Italicus) who set out to write history through epic. Malamud concludes with a judicious discussion of how Statius in the Thebaid is and is not able to write a different sort of epic; she focuses on the recusatio at Theb. 1.15-40 and the epilogue of the epic in Book 12—the latter neatly correlated with passages in Horace and Lucretius shown to be germane in unexpected ways.

D.P. Fowler, “Martial and the Book” (pp. 199-226). Fowler challenges the majority view among critics that, to be properly appreciated, Martial’s poems must understood to have appeared first in small collections or “brochures.” Peter White, a leading proponent of this libellus theory, has argued that only thus can we make sense of dedications and other allusions to the circumstances of presentation or publication that are odd or illogical in the context of the conventional published books of Martial’s corpus. Fowler devotes the bulk of the article (pp. 204-218) to a case-by-case rebuttal of White’s interpretations of individual poems. The persuasiveness of these counterarguments depends on the cogency of many discrete alternative interpretations (too detailed to rehearse here). Throughout, Fowler cautions against reducing the scope of the poems’ meaning to dimensions consistent with misguided assumptions about modes and motives of publication: “the poems are not logs of social relations, but texts which simulate and construct a social world whose textual evidence is brought before the reader at every turn” (p. 219). Taking the books of Martial to have been published in their present form, the reader will be better able to grasp and evaluate the poems’ textual richness and sophistication. Fowler concludes with interesting specific examples of how Martial fashions rather than simply reflects his world.

Martin M. Winkler, “Alogia and Emphasis in Juvenal’s Fourth Satire” (pp. 227-249). Alogia as in chapters 24-25 of the Poetics, where Aristotle discusses the importance of the irrational to the effectiveness of tragedy. Emphasis as in Book 9 of the Institutio Oratoria, where Quintilian discusses the rhetorical tactic of “inverting the surface meaning of what is being said toward its underlying hidden meaning” (p. 235). Winkler shows how Juvenal in his fourth Satire, on the ceremonial delivery of a fantastic gift-fish to Domitian, ingeniously sustains a protracted and intricate exhibition of the topos of the mundus inversus. He is especially good on language and imagery. Thus the adjective privatis at line 66 means both (on the surface) “private” or “personal” and (by rhetorical emphasis) “deprived” or “despoiled.” The fisherman who surrenders his marvelous catch thus simulates humility while insinuating disgruntlement. Domitian himself comes in for special (mis)treatment in the satire: he will devour the fish and in so doing take the bait; he must hurry lest the fish suffer literal rot (and his administration further, fatal, moral decay). “Even the manner of Domitian’s death is analogous to the eventual fate of his fish…. Domitian’s body was cut to pieces [Procopius, Anec. 8.13-20] …. Similarly the turbot … will eventually have been carved for dinner” (244). Winkler’s reliance on Aristotle and Quintilian for theoretical entree into the environment of purposeful double signification in Juvenal 4 is shrewd and productive.

A.J. Boyle, “Martialis Redivivus : Evaluating the Unexpected Classic” (pp. 250-269). This is “The First J.P. Sullivan Annual Lecture in Classics,” delivered in March 1994 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Sullivan was Professor for the last fifteen years of his life (1978-1993). In it, Boyle pays tribute to Sullivan for the success of his Martial: The Unexpected Classic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991) in restoring Martial to the canon of classics that reward serious scholarly study and literary critical attention. He traces the evolution of Sullivan’s interest in Martial and identifies distinctive strengths of his revolutionary study: Sullivan provides penetrating accounts of “the sociology of Martial’s life and times” (p. 252); Martial’s place in the traditions of epigram and satire in antiquity; “his poetry’s thematic complexity and … coherence”; his “sexual attitudes … his humanity, humour, imagery, wit, language, form, metre and poetic ambivalence”; and 1900 years of Nachleben. Boyle goes beyond (very perceptive and pithy) rehearsal of the merits of Sullivan’s work to map areas that “present Martial scholars may wish to investigate further in collaborative disagreement with this ‘landmark’ study” (p. 253). Specifically, he calls for more attention to intertextuality—the exploration of dynamic relations between Martial’s poetry and that of certain literary antecedents: among other examples, Epigram 1.1 is shown to gain meaning by comparison with Catullus 1 and Ovid, Tristia 4.10. Boyle also (oh so respectfully) detects a failing in Sullivan’s lack of concern with “intratextuality” or “the semiotics of poem juxtaposition and of a book’s entire structure” (p. 264). Alertness to the effect of the order of poems ensures a better appreciation of, for example, ironic undercutting, as in Epigrams 6.2 and 6.4, where the seeming praise for Domitian’s renewal of the lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis complicates the reader’s understanding of the intent behind 6.3 on the expected birth of a child to Domitia Longina, Domitian’s wife. Boyle’s essay adds to the luster of Sullivan’s work—already recognized as epochal in its transformation of our assessment of Martial—by indicating avenues it opens to constructive critical reaction and further interpretive refinements.

More than most Festschriften, this one evinces a definite consistency, not so much in subject matter (“ideology” is a usefully elastic thematic envelope) as in critical tenor and theoretical outlook. Its contributors have paid fitting homage to Sullivan, whose lively mind, scholarly acumen, and exhilarating prose will be sorely missed by all who love Roman literature.