BMCR 1999.02.04

The Politics of Latin Literature. Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome

, The politics of Latin literature : writing, identity, and empire in ancient Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 1 online resource (234 pages). ISBN 9781400811922 $39.50/£27.50.

The socio-political aspect of ancient studies has proved to be a fruitful area of inquiry and may well prove to become one of the defining characteristics of the discipline in the late twentieth century. The eight self-contained, loosely related chapters of The Politics of Latin Literature are an immensely valuable addition to this field. Habinek’s claim that ‘literature is here studied not only as a representation of society, but as an intervention in it as well’ (p. 1), and that ‘the chapters that constitute this book present a set of scenarios for relating the literature of ancient Rome to its social, economic, and cultural contexts’ (p. 2) are misleading, for it is much more than that. Habinek circumvents the usual pitfalls of attempting to mould the literature of ancient Rome to fit modern theories of sociology by, much more subtly and convincingly, using a fundamentally sociological approach to re-evaluate select aspects of the interaction between Latin literature and Roman society and politics.

Chapter 1, subtitled ‘Latin Literature and the Problem of Rome’, deals with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century perceptions of the relative merits of Hellenic and Roman culture and the way in which these filtered through to the seminal Classicists who laid the foundations of the discipline in the United States. Habinek deftly sketches the Romantic, Hellenocentric intellectual world inhabited by Basil Gildersleeve, then firmly anchors the founding Chair of Greek at Johns Hopkins in his contemporary context, including the illuminating comparison Gildersleeve made between Maximillian of Mexico and Julian the Apostate. These biographical details are brought into yet wider perspective through analysis of the reasons for Gildersleeve’s deepseated preference for Greece over Rome: ‘the unity that led to the loss of Roman soul was a unity, or mingling, of races, cultures, languages, and religions that stands in marked contrast to the preservation of distinctive national identity that Gildersleeve associates with the purportedly autonomous Greeks … at best Rome could serve as evidence of the risks involved in abandoning the pure Greek model’ (p. 21). The chapter culminates in an examination of the ways in which these views continued to affect the nature of Roman studies in the United States well into the twentieth century. An alternative Weltanschauung is presented in the liberalism and appreciation for Roman civilisation which characterised the scholarship of Mickiewicz and Michelet.

The second chapter, on the invention of Latin literature, is the first demonstration of Habinek’s technique of re-evaluating aspects of Roman history and culture through a sociological perspective. Habinek suggests that the development of Latin literature was intrinsically linked to the parallel political evolution of the Roman state and the concomitant transformation of the aristocracy. Two elements are isolated: the preservation of aristocratic elitism and hegemony in the face of increasing military expansion, and the more prosaic necessity for a language of imperial administration. A clear division is drawn between the archaic performance-based culture and the rise of the professional exponent of ars poetica, and it is suggested that the aristocracy’s involvement in this development developed from being the performers of literature such as vaticani libri and carmina convivalia to being the patrons of the new breed of poetic artisans, neatly termed ‘Musaic culture’.

Habinek plausibly suggests that the unapologetically Hellenic comedies of Plautus reflected populist tastes, while Latin was the literary currency of the elites, who were unperturbed by, or possibly even encouraged the masses’ taste for Greek entertainment in order to preserve the exclusivity of their shared Latinitas. Literature then acts as the means by which the all-important exempla are recorded and transmitted; Habinek cites Polybius and Scipio as an example of the wider relationship between the constraining influence of the established aristocratic mos maiorum and the individual who strove to continue this tradition. Existimatio is defined with reference to mos maiorum, and literature becomes an intrinsic, although perhaps not the only method of validation, as the act of reading reinvents and reasserts aristocratic tradition in each generation. The cultural self-consciousness created — primarily by Cicero’s canonisation of the Latin literary tradition — provided the ideological framework and sense of a Roman identity which made the pax Romana possible. Habinek’s contention that Cato’s opposition to the visiting Greek philosophers was based on the wish to restrict access to such learning ‘to those who could pay an appropriate price for it’, which telescopes into the observation that the aim of sumptuary legislation was to attempt to preserve aristocratic cohesion (presumably against the encroachment of ambitious equites) by reining in excesses with which others could not hope to compete.

From the wide focus of the preceding chapters, Chapter Three zeroes in on one particular example of the political implications of language: Cicero’s choice to assail Catiline with ‘latrocinium’, banditry. By examining the sociology of ancient banditry in parallel with the specific allegations made by Cicero, Habinek methodically demonstrates that, far from the various acts of sexual degeneracy and aspirations of regnum regularly levelled at political opponents, the particular charge of banditry implies an attempt to establish a parallel society which challenges through its inverted constructs of ideology, military, political and moral constructs the legitimacy of established social structure. According to Cicero, Catiline’s associates planned to violate and overturn all of the accepted social norms of person, home, city, and religion. These aspects then allow Cicero to set himself in apposition and opposition as the bastion of Rome against the dangerously subverted ‘government’ offered by Catiline.

Subtitled ‘culture wars in the first century BCE, the fourth chapter is a discussion of the integration of Rome and Italy by means of the relationship between literature and cultural identity. Habinek examines Horace’s treatment of this issue against the background of earlier authors such as Catullus, Cicero, Cornelius Nepos, Atticus, Vergil and Varro. In particular, Habinek contrasts Cicero’s wholly Romanocentric presentation of culture and literature with Horace’s ‘sensitivity to and participation in the shifting balance of power between Rome and the rest of Italy’ (p. 89); Italy is variously characterised as a separate entity subservient to Rome, as both an historical and a contemporary component of Roman military success, and as the beneficiary of imperial success, for which the region pays with Italian soldiery. The shifts between these various views seem to mirror Augustus’ own involvement in Italian affairs until the confrontation at Actium. The obvious presentation of Italy as the fortress of the Latin West is tempered by the suggestion that the resultant emergence of Rome as the capital of the world is at the expense of tota Italia. Later, the focus seems to swing toward the conflation of Rome and Italy as the joint responsibilities of Augustus and his lieutenants, until the Letter to Augustus portrays the princeps’ greatness as his ability to transcend ‘us and them’, creating the context of a new concept of Romano-Italic literary and cultural identity.

Habinek’s examination of the background to the creation of the Augustan paradigm starts with the brilliant juxtaposition of Catullus’ comments on Nepos’ Chronica with Cicero’s remarks on Atticus’ Liber Annalis, suggesting that the latter’s project replaced the Tranpadane’s Italian history with the achievements of Rome and the Greek counterparts. This process is also apparent in Aeneid VI; while Polybius chronicled the effect of invasion on Italian acceptance of Roman hegemony, in Vergil’s account of the career of Marcellus the Elder there are no longer any Italians left by the time of the Gallic invasion. Similarly, Horace’s vision of Augustan literature includes a strong elitist component which pits aristocratic literature against the common pastimes of the games and public performance. Habinek’s reading of the Letter to Augustus is as an intervention in ongoing debates over Roman and Italian cultural identity, and verbal versus visual communication; Italian identity is to be subsumed under Roman leadership, and Rome’s hegemony is linked to the elite support of a dynamic literary tradition. It is a blueprint of imperial literature.

Habinek suggests in Chapter Five on Writing as Social Performance that the circulation of written texts, with the concomitant expansion of the author’s renown at the expense of his personal presence, also had wider social ramifications for an aristocratic society since the presence of the aristocrat, and access to this presence, is a means of defining the relative status of others. The central question is whether an author who releases his text for publication and circulation through the Roman literary market place is in fact weakening his own claim to authoritative status. Habinek concentrates on Ovid’s exilic writings, and the recurrent motif that the texts’ ability to go where the author cannot in fact underlines the author’s absence, and thus, the underlying importance of is physical person. Writers write, by implication from Ovid and Quintilian, not to communicate their ideas nor to make money, but to draw attention to themselves and their performance, which remains the area for proper interaction between the author and his audience. With epigraphy, public writing attains its goals of physical presence, an audience, longevity, and becoming part of the authority of the past.

In Chapter Six Habinek approaches the topic of the absence of women in the Latin literary tradition by examining the implications of the phrase ‘docta puella’, arguing that it is rarely used (with the exception of the Muses and the Cumaean Sibyl) in complimentary context of doctus. The docta puella is instead portrayed in a tangle of uncomfortably contradictory guises. She may be seen in direct competition with the male poet, dangerous in her potential to enervate and whose very presence ‘short-circuits’ the proper male-to-male interaction of fraternal aestimatio; while she may, as erudite judge, inspire the poet, her own learning is peculiarly dependent on exclusive fidelity to him (Propertius II.11.6); not only is the muse/judge herself apparently incapable of emulating the male act of literary creation, but women who are implicitly capable of writing can only do so in the context of an economic, educational, and sexual relationship with a man. Ovid, however, in Tristia III.7 heralds a fundamental shift in attitude as he exhorts Perilla, although disadvantaged by the loss of her (male) mentor, to emulate Horace and himself in producing poems which will outlast the Caesars and death.

Produced within an imperial context described as one in which education promised social mobility to those skilled at manipulating the symbols of cultural tradition, Seneca’s writings are examined in Chapter Seven as a departure from the established writing for the elite, hitherto grounded firmly within the traditional aristocracy, towards those who would transcend the social position conferred by birth. Seneca’s treatises and letters, though intended for wide circulation, advertise the intimacy of his relationships with the addressees and invite the reader to evaluate his and his correspondents’ ethical progress; instead of relying on the accumulated dignitas of one’s ancestors, Seneca validates his texts by grounding his treatises within the hortatory philosophical tradition by attempting to establish an alternative ‘aristocracy of virtue’.

This was not, however, a system that embraced any more of Roman society beyond the previously excluded equites and the provincial propertied classes; not only are the masses excluded from the privileged education and social cachet within which these treatises circulated, but the fundamental social, moral, and sexual values of the ruling classes are unquestionably embraced and reinforced within Seneca’s philosophical framework. The extraordinary parallel is even made between the text and the reader, as exemplified by the passage from a letter to Lucilius ( Ep. 46.1-2), in which Seneca portrays himself as being sexually receptive to his friend’s text.

Ovid’s exilic works are examined in the final chapter from the perspective of their ideological revelations about the prevalent attitudes towards non-Roman peoples within and without the imperial system. Ovid’s laments for the poet represent his consolation in exile and only hope of recall, while his readers see obedience to the imperial system, and, ironically, a demonstration that Romanitas can be sustained at the furthest reaches of empire. Instead of adapting the centre of his writing process to his new place of abode, it seems vital for Ovid to continue to see Rome as the only source of inspiration and existimatio, with the latter being repeatedly invoked in funerary terms in the Tristia. The descriptions of life amongst the Getae is here characterised in the context of Latin stereotypes of barbarians rightly conquered, subjugated, and civilised by Rome. Ovid’s Tomis, suspiciously unremittingly bleak, is, also incredibly, under constant threat from all manner of external barbarians. These invaders represent a physical threat to Tomis and its unwilling inhabitant, but also, as the archetype of the dark forces beyond the borders of empire, to Roman rule and civilisation. Ovid characterises himself as infected by the misdemeanour which has merited his punishment, worries that his poetry may become contaminated by native words and metres, pines with homesickness, and concludes that the perceived infertility of the Pontic fields is directly affecting his creative powers, resulting in poetic impotence. The implications of this self-pity, taken beyond the immediately personal dimension, is to demonstrate the mundane personal cost of maintaining an empire beyond the gloria of the battlefield as Ovid lauds the power of which he is himself a victim.

It is unfortunate that Princeton University Press does both the author and the reader a great disservice by not complementing the extensive annotated footnotes, prefaced by general remarks which are models of concision, with a separate bibliography; the inclusion of modern authors in the index is a poor substitute. The main area into which one could have hoped that Habinek had extended his discussion is that of post-Augustan, and more specifically, Silver Age Latin. While it would be unreasonable to expect additional chapters, there are certain ideas raised which seem to beg interesting connections to be made. The inversion of society delineated in Chapter Three calls to mind the perversion of normal values presented by Tacitus, particularly in Annales I-IV and XII-XVI. One also feels the absence of reference to Juvenal’s Satire 6 and the appropriation of a female voice in Satire 2 the discussion in Chapter V. A notable omission in the extensive survey of modern scholarship is Wirszubski’s monograph on the political semantics of Latin literature;1 one looks forward to Habinek’s views on the fundamental shift which allowed Pliny the Younger to pronounce ‘you tell us to be free, we shall be free’, a statement which Cicero would have found unthinkable. These few points, however, are not so much criticisms as a wish to see Habinek’s methodology extended and applied beyond the confines of this excellent work.

As promised in the Introduction, the spirit of literary criticism is used throughout in a general sense, but with a refreshing precision and lack of jargon and persiflage. Densely, intricately written the compilation of the book from autonomous chapters is not only the logical means of approaching so vast and varied a topic, but also a positive factor in allowing the reader time to reflect. It is almost immaterial whether one agrees with his conclusions on contentious subjects; the great strength of the work rests greatly, though not primarily, with the enthralling possibilities revealed by Habinek’s methodology.


1. Wirszubski, Ch. Libertas as a Political Idea in Rome during the Late Republic and Early Principate (Cambridge University Press, 1950).