BMCR 1998.01.18

98.1.18, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City

, Writing Rome : textual approaches to the city. Roman literature and its contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xii, 146 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780521550802. $49.95.

At his village on what will become the site of Rome, the Arcadian chief Evander names for Aeneas places that do not yet exist, in a city not yet founded ( Aen. 8, 347-348):

hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit,
aurea nunc, olim silvestribus horrida dumis.

Augustan present and imagined Augustan past coincide; furthermore, as James Zetzel suggested in his 1993 Jackson Knight Memorial Lecture (Edwards p. 31), olim may look ahead to an imagined Augustan future, when the center of Rome will once again be overgrown with wild vegetation, like the monuments of Janus and Saturn which Evander also points out. Rome is eternal, and eternally in ruins.

Yet it is nearly impossible for us to read the past, present, and future of Rome and its ruins simply through Augustan eyes, even when we encounter them in Augustan literature. A dozen lines later, Evander takes Aeneas onto the Palatine, and they gaze over the pastoral scene: passimque armenta videbant / Romanoque foro et lautis mugire Carinis ( Aen. 8, 360-361). For anyone who has seen or read early modern depictions of the Campo Vaccino, these lines have a penumbra of transhistorical reference that they could not have had for Vergil or his Augustan readers and hearers. There is nothing we can do to silence this additional resonance. Time has added it to our Vergil, transforming him in the process—and is it possible that a Piranesi print or a remark in Gibbon predisposed Zetzel to call our attention to the multiple valences of olim, and predisposes us to accept his suggestion?

I mention these complications by way of pointing out what Catharine Edwards’s brief, insightful book does and does not offer its readers, who may be led by her subtitle to expect something other than what they find. Despite her introduction’s discussion of Gibbon and Petrarch, Du Bellay and Byron, Edwards gives only a few pages to the effect of post-antique accounts of Rome on our understanding of Vergil and other ancient depictions of the City—nothing here about Piranesi influencing our interpretation of olim at Aen. 8, 348. Nor does she explore ancient, modern, or post-modern ways to understand the physical city itself as a text open to the strategies of interpretation that postmodernism has brought to bear on non-literary structures of meaning—not much either, that is, about irony in the architectural rhetoric of the Domus Aurea or the synecdoche of the Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa.

Instead, in five chapters Edwards explores the idea of Rome in Latin literature, mostly of the first centuries B.C. and A.D. That chronological restriction makes sense, since only in the Augustan period did the Romans develop a sense of the lasting metaphorical power of their own monuments and topography; Livy and the Augustan poets, in fact, seem to have been the first to apply the phrase urbs aeterna to Rome. Edwards concentrates her attention to good effect on the value and associations of particular places or structures; her first chapter, “The City of Memories,” focuses on the Hut of Romulus, which begins to acquire its historical and moral value in the antiquarian literature of the Augustan period, and her third, “The City of Empire,” explores the use of the Capitol as metonymy for imperium in Tacitus and Livy, with glances forward to Poggio, Gibbon, and Mussolini.

Both these places, Edwards argues, became powerful devices that encapsulated fundamental anxieties and contradictions in the Romans’ understanding of themselves as a people. The casa Romuli—or casae, since after Augustus’ reorganization of the area Capitolina there seem to have been two huts, one on the Palatine and one on the Capitoline—could stand for perpetually renewed connection with past virtues, contrast of present luxury with past simplicity, or even, as Seneca saw it ( Helv. 9.3, quoted by Edwards on p. 38) the Romans’ tendency to rely on such symbols at the expense of what they represented. The Capitol also becomes a trope for similar Roman anxieties about their empire and its moral condition. Contemplating the historical, legendary, or imagined destruction of Rome’s acropolis and its sacred monuments allows Tacitus, Livy, or Horace to reflect on the transience of imperium and its relation to the moral contrast between Rome past and Rome present, or between Rome as conqueror and Rome as fatal victim of internecine conflict.

Edwards’s second and fourth chapters range more widely both textually and topographically. “The City of Gods” deliberately evokes St. Augustine’s title at the beginning of a chapter which takes up the identification of Rome’s essence with the physical fabric and topography of the city. The profound reworking of the city’s religious fabric under Augustus prompted Livy and the other Augustans to ask whether Rome could be anywhere but on its seven hills by the Tiber; at the end of antiquity, Augustine knew the answer. “The City of Marvels” explores a cliché, the grandeur of Rome, as we have come to call the city’s combination of massive buildings, luxurious material, and historical association. Edwards evokes another text from late antiquity, Ammianus’s well-known description of Constantius II’s visit to Rome in 357, and a medieval catalog, the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, to show that these familiar expressions of awe and wonder at Rome’s grandeur do not exhaust the possibilities for ancient responses to the city’s physical fabric. Pliny the Elder’s rhetorical strategies and silences reveal a profound unease over the moral dimensions of architectural luxury and gigantism. Sewers and aqueducts have a higher moral standing. Although Edwards tries to argue (pp. 105-109) that even here Pliny sees a morally problematic aspect in the association of these structures with tyranny, her case for this particular ambiguity seems weaker. It depends too much on rhetorical questions (e.g. p. 108) and on assertions hedged with “perhaps” and “might.”

Edwards has her own rhetorical strategy: she takes well-known facts, like the Romans’ prowess as engineers, their suspicion of luxury, or the flexible conservatism that allowed them to venerate symbols of their past even as they continually renewed them, and then demonstrates how each one functions as a kind of rhetorical topos that can find a place in a range of text and often contradictory argument. In her final chapter, “The City of Exiles,” Edwards explores the implications of the fact, which has long been a staple of literary history, that most Roman authors were not natives of the city. Rome is at once the universal patria and a city of foreigners; founded and populated by exiles, it is the place for which an exile longs. It has become a paradigm of modernity, a universal, multicultural place to get lost in. Seneca, Ovid, and Juvenal, each in a different way, place themselves in this estranging city by describing their own alienation from it, and Edwards has fresh things to say about all of them.

I wished this stimulating book had been longer. It led me to think in fresh ways about the peculiar dynamic of Roman literature in which global assertions are intimately connected to specific persons and places. Latin is, notoriously, a language in which nos can mean ego, and conversely, when a Roman says “I,” he always entertains the possibility of incorporating the rest of the world into that personal imperium. That is, as we now say, where the Roman comes from—a place that becomes a commonplace and our common place, where to speak urbi is at the same time to speak orbi.