BMCR 1997.06.03

1997.6.3, Wiseman, Remus (second review)

, Remus : a Roman myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xv, 243 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780521419819

[[A previous review was published as BMCR 97.5.18; we regret the editorial slip that kept the two from being published simultaneously. -Editors.]]

The author, title and cover illustration attracted me at the APA book exhibit: Peter Wiseman always original, provocative, judicious, Remus and the prospect of myth at Rome, where it sometimes is thought to have been lacking, to say nothing of the luxurious cover illustration of the twin brothers fleshed out by Rubens. Nor could I keep away from the book in January, even when I should have been absorbing and digesting interviews conducted on a brief trip to the Caribbean in search of Derek Walcott’s St. Lucia. Not that I read as thoroughly as I should, but more with the urgency of someone engrossed by a good read and eager to see where it will lead, until I finished only to wake up at 5:30 the next morning with Wiseman’s book welling up in my mind, prompting fragments of beginnings of response.

For one, the approach: exemplary. Wiseman signals the scholarly neglect of the famous story. He gathers the multiplicity of contradictory versions (more than enough to have put off scholars, make them abandon hope of sorting out this tangle). He takes it as a working premise that each of such multiple versions reveals the divers needs of those who made them up, revising, spinning familiar stories for the sake of new ideologies and agendas. Then, wielding this premise as a tool, he sifts through the scraps and versions to pinpoint the moment in Roman history before which ‘Remus’ cannot be documented and after which versions begin to appear, only to multiply and contradict each other in ways that suggest the ideological function of the myth.

In fact, Wiseman anchors the myth in political struggles and developments of the later fourth century and early third, when Rome’s plebeians gain new access to power, which leads them to propagate a new version of the very origin of the city, doubling the figure of the founder to reflect their own new participation in the state. An innovation that cannot be cancelled, but which generates patrician responses and variations, some of them in the form of appropriation and rebuttal. The punch and counterpunch of propaganda explain varying versions of Remus’s character and role, to the most negative that sees him killed for defying his brother.

Boldly, too, Wiseman suggests that the vehicle of this propaganda struggle must have been theatrical performance, which has a long history of political efficacy at Rome.

For me, Wiseman’s picture of myth being made and remade in the course of political-cultural struggle powerfully rereads and integrates some disiecta membra of Roman history. Particularly neat the analysis of the battle of Sentinum (295 BCE), where the patrician consul survives to claim the victory, while the plebeian consul Decius Mus famously sacrificed himself to assure the victory: a thematic and ideological pairing [patrician + / plebeian -] paralleled in revisions of the foundation myth that rub Remus out. Fascinating, too, that the same thematic nexus can take in the evidence for human sacrifice under the wall when the temple of Victory was built on the Palatine.

Particularly interesting, too, the way Wiseman’s model brings topography to life: the goddesses Stimula and Murcia, at their respective ends of the Circus Maximus, goading the chariots at the start of the race, slowing them at the turn, and Murcia associated with Remus, remorari,‘delay’.

Fascinating, too, the way Wiseman goes on to show how the foundation myth changed again to fit the needs of Augustan propaganda, notably in that puzzling detail, where Virgil in book one of the Aeneid imagines Remus with his brother Quirinus governing in peace, a version of the myth that reflects the close association of Augustus with Agrippa at the time, a theme also embodied in the pediment of the temple of Quirinus that Augustus restored.

Wiseman’s view of drama as a mode of political communication in largely preliterate Rome could use the supplement of Zorzetti’s work, not only the piece cited in Murray (1990), but especially, “Poetry and the Ancient City: The Case of Rome,” which I translated for Classical Journal 86 (1991) 311-329. In his account of the move towards literacy, Wiseman calls the epitaph of L. Scipio Barbatus the “earliest certain evidence for the use of written narrative in Rome,” a point well taken, but the rest of his remarks puzzle me. Wiseman merely states that the epitaph was inscribed on the sarcophagus, adding “It took the form of an address to an audience, and is plausibly interpreted as having been originally composed for the funeral.” Yet the verse elogium was in fact not the original epitaph but was added at a second moment, superimposed where an original inscription had been chipped away, a fact that puts the use of verse some remove from the circumstances of the funeral and suggests that the “form of address to an audience” may owe less to funerary oratorty than to the conventions of funerary epigram, which clearly come into the family culture, as I have argued in complementary essays: “The Elogia of the Cornelii Scipiones and the Origins of Epigram at Rome,”AJP 108 (1987) 41-55; “The First Hellenistic Epigrams At Rome,”BICS Supplement 51 (1988) 143-156, paper from the Colloquium in honor of the eightieth birthday of Otto Skutsch (December 1986).

Wiseman’s account of theatrical spectacles as the vehicle of ideology and new political myth has a close parallel in the later and latest republic, where evidence abounds for the political resonance of theatrical performances (lively documentation from Cicero) and where the repeated theatrical presentation of Virgil’s eclogues must have helped to lay the foundation for Augustan mythology, as I have argued in Poesia e potere: il mito Virgilio (Roma 1986), especially in the segments, “Gli operatori culturali” (pp. 17-20) and “Dal mimo al mito” (pp. 20-23).

A book to go back to and meditate, digest, where too dense to absorb all first time. That detail, of the rise of imperious pride and exclusionary ideology, evidenced in the suppression of the Bacchanals or the praeternatural severity towards Carthage, a slamming down the portcullus, as opposed to earlier permeability (the Ogulnii, those innovators, at ease with foreigners): but then the Hellenizing of the Scipios themselves and Hellenic elements assimilated in late Republic, in poets surely, also ideology of Augustus? Not least, the thought that this alternative view of Roman history speaks from a historical moment of its own, when occluded voices are more than even managing to make themselves heard.