BMCR 2000.07.11

History and Silence: The Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity

, History and silence : purge and rehabilitation of memory in late antiquity. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xxvi, 338 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0292799152

This thoughtful book has been taking shape for some time. “More than a decade ago in a seminar on Roman epigraphy with R. E. A. Palmer at the University of Pennsylvania” (xxv) Charles Hedrick began his interrogation of CIL 6.1783, the 40 line inscription that anchors the ruminations of History and Silence. Carved over an erasure on a statue base in the Forum of Trajan and dedicated on the Ides of September 431, CIL 6.1783 rehabilitated the memory of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, the influential (and overtly pagan) Roman senator who had joined the “usurpers” Eugenius and Arbogast against Theodosius I, died at the battle of the Frigidus River in September 394, and (apparently) suffered damnatio memoriae shortly thereafter. Following a preamble honoring the younger Nicomachus Flavianus as well as his father, the inscribed text preserves the imperial letter addressed to the Roman senate by which Theodosius II and Valentinian III expressed their desire “to recall the recollection of a deceased man to eternal fame” (ll. 10-11). As Hedrick makes abundantly clear, CIL 6.1783 (abbreviated at ILS 2948) is a fascinating but difficult document. Those who know the text will not be surprised to find that Hedrick’s inquiry requires him to engage several of the more crucial historical and historiographical problems of the Latin west in the late fourth and early fifth centuries; they may be less prepared, however, for some of the other avenues and byways Hedrick explores here.

Hedrick does not restrict his meditations to the “Late Antiquity” advertised in the volume’s subtitle. In pursuit of “history and silence” and of the “purge and rehabilitation of memory” he moves backwards and forwards in time, relentlessly to Tacitus, the “historian of silence” par excellence, now and again to the Holocaust and its historiography or to the dynamics of purge and restoration in the Soviet and post-Soviet world. What CIL 6.1783 and the writing of (Tacitean) history share with each other, as well as with the narratives of Holocaust survivors and the ceremonial restorations in former Eastern bloc countries, is a conscious desire to “break silence”, to give voice to memory, to re-represent a past that has come to be seen as dissimulated and suppressed. Since the evanescent human world leaves only “traces of its passing in memory and the material world”, since “monuments decay, death comes even to stones and to names” (Aus. Epigr. 37 [Green] quoted at 240), all history perforce arises out of silence in order to fulfill a commemorative function. Still the kind of silence that most interests Hedrick here is that imposed by the purge, or in Roman terms the damnatio memoriae. Thus Hedrick returns often to the processes by which governments seek to suppress memory and by which survivors and historians resist and counter such attempts.

But for Hedrick the dynamics of silence, memory, and representation are as evident in the essential human condition as in the construction of historical accounts: “Everyone”, he observes, “stumbles among the detritus of their lives, remembering some things, remembering that they have forgotten others” (169). In the end, then, Hedrick’s History and Silence is as much (or more) about these grander themes of history and historiography, of realism and idealism, of mind and memory, as it is about the rehabilitation of Nicomachus Flavianus in 431. So much, perhaps, should be obvious from the work’s title but it is noteworthy just how far at times late antiquity recedes from the reader’s view, yielding place to the ideas of Freud, Barthes, and Ricoeur or to “large generalizations” about “the problem of history and silence” (e.g., 147-153; quote 153).

I offer these preliminary remarks not because they do justice to the range and complexity of Hedrick’s thinking (they don’t), but because they adumbrate some of the topics that this review will not treat in the manner they warrant. My remarks will rather concentrate upon those more immediate reasons why the historian of late antiquity, and particularly of the Latin west in the Theodosian age, should read this book, for it is an important study that points the way out of one of the corners into which (some) late Roman historians have painted themselves.

A preface and endnotes frame seven chapters and an appendix; the book concludes with a bibliography of secondary works, a general index, and an index of cited passages. The study’s programmatic frontispiece reproduces Piranesi’s frontispiece to the 1757 edition of Le antichità Romane. Piranesi’s etching depicts an ostentatiously erased and re-inscribed “inscription”, a palimpsest. Where once had been recorded a dedication to a would-be patron (whose last minute defection Piranesi elsewhere openly denounced), now appears an obviously “over-written” statement of Piranesi’s intent to vindicate “the traces of the eternal city from the rubble and the injuries of time.” The image of Piranesi’s damnatio memoriae of James Caulfield condenses several key themes that Hedrick sketches in his preface and laces throughout his study: first, damnatio memoriae aimed not at eradicating but at dishonoring someone’s memory; and, second, damage, corruption, lacunae, and even silence are, because of their status as signifiers of something now lost, the surest signs of a past now truly absent. Thus all history is “a writing over an erasure” (xiv), whether that erasure has been consciously wrought or is a product of the ravages of time. Or as Hedrick puts it later, “historical research might usefully be imagined as a reading of the lacuna” (246), which equally implies that all historical writing, ancient and modern, is “re-representational.” A notion whose principle most historians, I think, would now grant.

Chapter 1, “A Palimpsest,” is brief (5 pages). It presents a photograph (thankfully), text, and translation of CIL 6.1783. The heavily worn stone is indecipherable at some points and even the preserved Latin is often ambiguous. Translation is not easy (I am not aware of a previous English translation) and Hedrick has made a contribution in this respect alone. The text and translation offered in this chapter are justified in the book’s appendix, which reviews the history of the monument’s discovery and publication, analyzes its epigraphic and orthographic features, and provides the commentary that justifies Hedrick’s readings.

Chapter 2, ” Cursus and Career,” treats primarily the dedicatory preamble that stands before the imperial letter of rehabilitation. The chapter thus provides “a general account of the careers of the elder Flavianus, his son [Flavianus the Younger], and [Appius Nicomachus] Dexter”, the last of whom “supervised the erection of the statue to the best of grandparents” (ll.37-38). This “biographical” terrain has been much traveled, but Hedrick shuns the worn pathways. It is not his aim to seek to resolve (yet again) the complicated and apparently contradictory evidence for the careers of these Roman senators (although he reviews the evidence and adds to the arguments). It is rather his goal to demonstrate that all cursus inscriptions are purposefully ambiguous. They were not composed to present the full story of a man’s career; if they do not necessarily lie, they often dissimulate in order to mislead; they have a contextual particularity that must be considered by any interpreter. The “typically equivocal” (32) rehabilitation inscription from the Forum of Trajan is, of course, an illustrious case in point. It is selective and ambiguous. It does not record, for example, that Flavianus held the office of pontifex maior or that he had been consul under Eugenius in 394 (a more understandable omission since that consulship had never been recognized by Theodosius) although both of these offices had been acknowledged after Flavianus’ death in at least one other context (CIL 6.1782). Similarly, the text honors Flavianus the Younger as praefectus urbi saepius, apparently in order to recall while disguising the urban prefecture awarded Flavianus the Younger by Eugenius. So Hedrick’s consideration of the cursus information given by the inscription both emphasizes the importance of placing this text in the context of 431 (not the 390s) and stresses the ideological character of this and other cursus inscriptions, whose messages, he argues, are fashioned as much by exclusion (i.e., silence) as by the inclusion of details.

Chapter 3, “Unspeakable Paganism”, is (for this reader) the heart of this book and a welcome contribution to a debate over interpretation whose two primary (anglophone) poles have been represented by the works of Herbert Bloch and Alan Cameron (Hedrick provides full bibliography and summary). Much of the evidence that has been deployed in this debate is now quite familiar: e.g., the dossier on the Altar of Victory, the carmen contra paganos, various epigraphic evidence but with less previous attention to CIL 6.1783, the Nicomachorum/Symmachorum diptych, the subscriptions to Livy, and the Saturnalia of Macrobius. But familiarity has not engendered consensus over interpretation. Few would now accept the classic reconstruction of the late-fourth-century militant pagan revival presented by Bloch (first in 1945 and restated in 1964). And, as Hedrick rightly emphasizes, willingness to reject many of Bloch’s ideas rests upon a series of remarkable articles by Alan Cameron (beginning with Cameron’s 1966 redating of Macrobius’ Saturnalia). Yet Cameron’s challenges to Bloch, which have consistently and effectively denied the existence of a pagan “party” or of an aggressive and systematic pagan reaction in later fourth-century Italy, have not necessarily offered a viable alternative to Bloch’s model based on open conflict. As Hedrick notes, many of Cameron’s arguments appear determined by his perceived opponent (49); thus Cameron’s naively tolerant last pagans tend to be apathetic or overwhelmed by a highly organized Christian juggernaut they cannot comprehend. Hedrick has no interest in reviving Bloch’s paganism, though he is, I think rightly, willing to give religious motivation its due in the events leading up to the battle of the Frigidus (42-46, 50-51, 85). Rather Hedrick finds a more nuanced position between the pagan reaction scenario of Bloch and the denial of Cameron, and he does so by refusing to define narrowly the nature of late Roman paganism. Cult practices are only one aspect of an ideology that Hedrick sees as potentially operative across a broad spectrum of social, political, and intellectual activity. He will not allow “religion” to be quarantined: “Cultural behavior of all kinds is coherent” (50). Once this possibility is acknowledged and a binary model of social relations and religious conflict is set aside, we can follow Hedrick’s strong lead through the thickets of “Christianization” and across the shifting ground of aristocratic self-definition in the decades before and after the death of Flavianus. This lead, it seems to me, is the book’s greatest gift, but the job for the future is to bolster with further historical arguments (like those Hedrick develops in chapters 5 and 6) the cultural and theoretical perspectives that are themselves nearly a reflexive expression of our own outlook.

The carefully considered claims of this chapter over the dating or interpretation of specific evidence and the trends such evidence may illustrate are too many to summarize here. Hedrick’s various points may not win universal assent but they will require serious attention. His treatment of the Saturnalia may be taken as exemplary (79-88). This work, contemporary with the rehabilitation of Flavianus (as Cameron demonstrated), is noteworthy for its willingness to parade the paganism that CIL 6.1783 so studiously side-stepped. Cameron has characterized the Saturnalia as tendentious and nostalgic and therefore, it seems, innocuous. Hedrick, on the contrary, is willing to see the work’s nostalgia as at least a sign of “dissatisfaction with the present” and even of resistance to accommodation to the new Christian order. But for Hedrick, it is especially when the “paganism” of the Saturnalia is set against the “silence” of CIL 6.1783 that the implications of each text clarify. If the Saturnalia“shows that at the time of the rehabilitation Flavian was associated with elite paganism” (85), then CIL 6.1783’s “strategy of silence” on this issue reveals the “continuing dangerous and disturbing connotations of that [pagan] past” (86). The silence of the rehabilitation text, Hedrick concludes, “confirms the importance of paganism in it” (88). If silence does speak in such ways, Hedrick is justified in the careful reconsideration of so much overly familiar evidence in subsequent chapters.

In chapter 4, “Remembering to Forget: The Damnatio Memoriae“, Hedrick provides “a general description of how the Roman state attempted to purge the memory of those condemned as its enemies,” (92) while emphasizing that the practices of the damnatio memoriae (a modern coinage for a set of inter-related penalties) worked primarily to repress representation not memory. Paradoxically, that is, the damnatio actually “must reinforce memory of the public enemy because the continuance of memory is essential to the success of the repression” (114). Disgrace not oblivion is the aim and the defaced monument still standing in public view is only the most obvious “sign of the thing repressed” (94). Hedrick’s general discussion here is wide-ranging and often abstract, and perhaps unnecessarily long and digressive, but does also seek to ferret out the historical realities of Flavianus’ posthumous condemnation in 394 and 395 (identifying, e.g., a ban on representation and the prohibition of mourning). Notably, Hedrick imagines that the statue base that received the rehabilitation text in 431 had been standing for decades in the Forum of Trajan prominently displaying the erasure of a previous dedication to Flavianus (110). He explains the fact that other extant dedications to Flavianus were not erased by reference to the practical inability of the state to repress all texts and images and, especially, by stressing the limited objectives of the damnatio, whose message was “primarily directed at a small percentage of the populace, the senatorial elite” (110). Hedrick may be right on these points (although he also acknowledges [99] the power of popular sentiment in other situations), but it remains the case, as he grants, that there is precious little explicit evidence for the specific nature of the “attack on the memory of Flavianus” (98) that is implied by the imperial letter of 431 — a rehabilitation that restored to memory, Hedrick notes, “a person whom no one has really forgotten” (115).

Though organizationally distinct, chapters 5 and 6, take their cue from two related aspects of Flavianus’ biography: his contemporary reputation as an historicus disertissimus (CIL 6.1782 = ILS 2947) and his family’s commitment to the emendatio of the manuscripts of classical authors (especially Livy). Hedrick “reads” CIL 6.1783 in the light of these external facts (as he read it against the Sat. in chapter 3). Chapter 5, “Silence, Truth, and Death: The Commemorative Function of History”, broadly equates the purpose of the rehabilitation inscription with the goal of historians: both “aim to represent what has gone without representation” (148). This way of thinking encourages substantial consideration throughout this chapter of the works of Tacitus specifically and of the complex relationship of silence, representation, and historical writing generally. At a more immediate level reside Hedrick’s comments upon the language of CIL 6.1783. Therein (e.g., in the clarorum adque inlustrium in republica virorum of line 9) he detects allusions to the traditions of historical writing at Rome (e.g., to Cato’s Origines). Such allusions would have been especially appropriate in a text honoring Flavianus, whose own Annales are mentioned later in the imperial letter, but perhaps more significantly they also suggest the sophisticated self-consciousness of the inscription, for Hedrick sees its authors as sensitive to the parallel between the goals of their own text and the rehabilitative and commemorative functions of works like Tacitus’ own Annales or his Agricola.

Similarly in chapter 6, “Rehabilitating the Text: Proofreading and the Past”, Hedrick argues that the imperial letter made public by CIL 6.1783 uses the image of textual emendation, the correction of a faulty manuscript, as a metaphor to portray the “correction” of the memory of Flavianus, whose dignity is described as “corrupted to some extent interpolatum aliquatenus” and whose restoration is characterized as a “kind of correction emendatio quaedam.” Like the allusions to historical writing, these to textual emendation, Hedrick argues, are apt both because the rehabilitation of a man’s reputation is akin at one level to a textual correction and also because Flavianus and his descendants are known to have emended literary and historical texts. The latter point leads Hedrick to develop a sociology of the well-known fourth- and fifth-century manuscript subscriptions (especially to the first decade of Livy), building upon the work of J. Zetzel and O. Pecere. The discussion here connects directly to the interpretive debate engaged in chapter 3, for at issue is not whether the Nicomachi and Symmachi took the time to read and emend their manuscripts but what it means that they did so. While some scholars, like Alan Cameron, prefer to see such proofreading activity (which was practiced by Christians as well as pagans) as culturally insignificant, an extension of schoolroom habits, Hedrick counters with arguments that stress the “ideological significance of the practice of correction” (202) within the elite social circles of the age. He works to “defamiliarize” proofreading by a lucid discussion of the realities of emendatio in a pre-print culture and by emphasizing the socialized context of book production and circulation. All of this is convincing; we should see emendatio as implicated in the broader cultural discourse. Yet, as Hedrick recognizes, the direct links between proofreading and pagan activism are tenuous; only the epitaph of Praetextatus and Paulina, composed a decade or so before the Frigidus, explicitly describes cult initiation and personal religious transformation in the language of textual emendation. What Hedrick does conclude, however, is that in 431 the imperial letter’s subtle “self-presentation as history and rehabilitation and emendatio is an attempt to explain and reconcile present and past” (212). And that observation itself arises from one of the most important claims further supported by this book (succinctly expressed at 210): the first decades of the fifth century were years of ambivalence and transition, marked by the “cohabitation of contradictions” (210), when many were searching for the means of reconciling the Christian present with what was, in one way or another, their pagan past. “Should Flavian the younger have been any less ambivalent about his past than Jerome and Augustine were about theirs?” (210). The question neatly epitomizes the cultural project of the Theodosian age.

CIL 6.1783 is a text that “implies, suggests, dissimulates”, Hedrick remarks at the outset (215) of his final chapter, “Silence and Authority: Politics and Rehabilitation.” Its ambiguity is a product of its social context and of the intentions of its authors, two places modern historians have tended to search for meaning (but not always with equal comfort). In defense of seeking the latter in this chapter, Hedrick cites the inscription’s own obsession with “problems of motivation and authorship” (220), noting, for example, how the text “scapegoats” the unnamed individuals responsible for Flavianus’ condemnation and excuses Theodosius I. The “narrators” of the imperial letter may have been Theodosius II and Valentinian III, but its “authors,” Hedrick argues, are likely to have been Galla Placidia or Aetius, Nicomachus Dexter, and especially the younger Flavianus himself (225). Addressed to the Roman senate, dedicated on a day associated with the cult of Jupiter, and standing in the Forum of Trajan amid the statues of famous literary men of the past, the monument bearing CIL 6.1783, Hedrick finally suggests, made its points about religion and cultural heritage by indirection. Without a word, it called up the still problematic pagan past that contemporaries, some of them eventually readers of Macrobius, would have readily associated with Flavianus. “To be manipulated, memory must be silently evoked” (230).

This is not an easy book; readers will work hard to stay with Hedrick on every page. Moreover, Hedrick is aware that if silence and the lacuna are the fields of the historian’s hunt, then the historian’s challenge is to determine when something not said truly matters, to recognize when not speaking was actually speaking. Yet as every historian of late Roman paganism is, like many of the figures introduced by Hedrick, to some degree giving voice to the silenced, particular arguments will at times be theoretical, contextual, and conjectural. Nevertheless, Hedrick is surely right in his larger characterizations of the age. His interpretative scheme, with its emphasis on the cohabitation of contradictions and on the dilemmas of self-definition in a Christianizing age, expresses admirably a sensibility shared by the best work on this period. Moreover, History and Silence is a remarkable demonstration of the treasures that may be locked away in one relatively brief text. Multiple story lines arise from CIL 6.1783, and by skillfully pursuing so many of them,1 Hedrick has deftly sketched a central facet of the age’s cultural history. Throughout History and Silence, as he suggests new solutions to old problems, Hedrick acknowledges the fundamental work of Alan Cameron even as he disagrees with the tenor of Cameron’s “larger revisionist project” (194). Alan Cameron’s happily anticipated Last Pagans of Rome will surely continue the conversation.2


1. Two stories not pursued at length: 1. Rufinus’ assertion that Flavianus committed suicide before the battle of the Frigidus (HE 11.33), which makes problematic the equation with Cato offered by Hedrick (46) and others. 2. Rufinus’ account also suggests the competitive zeal with which Christian writers set out to “canonize” a version of the events of 394. To Hedrick’s remarks at 72 add Y.-M Duval, “L’éloge de Théodose dans la Cité de Dieu (V,26,1): Sa place, son sens, et ses sources”, Recherches augustiniennes 4 (1966) 135-179 with the observations at D. Trout, Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems (Berkeley 1999) 109-113.

2. Promised anew at A. Cameron, “The Last Pagans of Rome,” in The Transformations of the Urbs Roma in Late Antiquity, JRA Supplement 33, ed. W.V. Harris (Portsmouth, Rhode Island 1999) 109-121.