BMCR 2006.02.34

Empire and Memory. The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture

, Empire and memory : the representation of the Roman Republic in imperial culture. Roman literature and its contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiv, 178 pages : illustrations, maps ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0521836220 $24.99 (pb).

In his richly nuanced obituary for Eduard Fraenkel, Hugh Lloyd-Jones acknowledged the emotional cost of Fraenkel’s escape from Germany, citing in illustration the Freiburg colleague who pointedly withdrew his friendship in 1934: “After the war, when a time had come when they could be friends again, this person sent Fraenkel a book with a Latin inscription in which he professed himself ‘memor’ and received in reply the two words ‘et ego.'” Such is the power of memory, as much a feeling as a thought, defining the present even as it distorts the past.1 The emotional tug so easily felt in a story like this is not so easy to feel over millennia, but Romans too could be traumatized by and in thrall to memory. For them, as Alain Gowing (G.) observes in this thoughtful and challenging new book, “the past wholly defined the present, and to forget — to disconnect with — the past . . . risked the loss of identity and even extinction” (2). Proof of that statement could be found in the atrium of every great house, and it explains why the Republican past remained as potent a weapon for Lucan, when it was no more than a past, as it had been for Cicero, when Romans still thought it had a future. The Republic’s demise was not just a matter of political change, but necessitated “gradual shifts in individual and collective psychology” (3).

The Republic of this study is therefore not simply a historical phenomenon or a literary topos. As a center of memory, it became a way of thinking about the ever-changing present, and its utility for that purpose helps explain why the idea of the Republic took so long to die. G. traces that process from the reign of Tiberius to that of Trajan, largely (though not exclusively) through the example of literary texts and always with recognition of memory as a cultural phenomenon. His chronological beginning is significant. G. relegates “the memory of the Republic under Augustus” to an introductory chapter, partly because the Augustan need to forget was as keen as its need to remember and partly because Augustan precedents, as one might expect, inevitably return to the narrative in other contexts. The result is a refreshing elevation of the Tiberian period to a prominence it too seldom enjoys as G. sets Tacitean prejudices aside in favor of two genuinely Tiberian authors, Velleius Paterculus and Valerius Maximus.2 From there we move to Neronian Rome as represented by Lucan and Seneca ( Epist. 14 and 86), and then on to the Rome of Trajan through Tacitus ( Dialogus de oratoribus) and Pliny ( Panegyricus). A final chapter considers the Fora of Augustus and Trajan as seats of memory.

As might be expected, the thread of G.’s argument becomes increasingly tenuous over its course from A.D. 14 to 117. The decline in the centrality of Republican memory as personal experience gives way to lore is itself an important part of the story, and it has consequences for this sequence of chapters.3 The Tiberian chapter is especially good, reflecting in part the very freshness of Republican memory and the pressing need to suggest, as Velleius does, that “Rome has moved not from Republic to Principate, but from Republic to a better Republic” (43). Potential obstacles to that view, such as Cicero’s murder and — even more problematic — Octavian’s acquiescence to it, require special handling. G. reads Velleius’ famous tirade against Antony (2.66.1-5), Philippic as well as consolatio, as an attempt to limit damage to the emerging imperial ideology by simultaneously praising Cicero and fixing blame for his murder on Antony. Velleius particularizes the memory of Cicero, stressing his victimization and his eloquence, but not the cause of the former or the subject of the latter. Cicero is then held up as a stylistic model without becoming a figure “whose political or philosophical views should be emulated or even studied” (148). Whether it was really possible to isolate Ciceronian content from Ciceronian style is perhaps another matter. One of Julia’s sons, for example, certainly knew what, as well as whom, he was reading when he tried to hide a work by Cicero from his grandfather, and Augustus’ contemplative response on finding the book, “An eloquent man, my boy, eloquent and a patriot” (“logios kai philopatris,” Plut. Cic. 49.3), explicitly joins the two threads that Velleius is said to have separated. Valerius Maximus, for whom the Republican past (i.e., Rome before Actium) is also “constitutive” of the imperial present, seems to have changed the meaning of certain Republican exempla to keep them supportive of, rather than challenging to, contemporary ideology.

As the principate itself acquired a history, the importance of the Republic diminishes. Seneca de-contextualized Cato ( Ep. 14) and Africanus ( Ep. 86) with an effect that recalls G.’s reading of Velleius on Cicero. The protreptic value of these figures lies in their actions, not the cause or the result of their conduct. Lucan defies the pattern by locating the rise of the Principate in the very death throes of the Republic. Equally striking is his emphasis on memory as a human phenomenon controlled by human action, which makes his project distinctly historical in the Roman sense. Much rests here on G.’s discussion of Caesar as destroyer of memory while himself lacking memory, a discussion that centers on the famous visit to the site of Troy in Book 9 (88-96). This episode has a long bibliography, and G. follows the current trend in reading it against the story of Troy’s destruction in Aeneid 2.4 He might, however, also have considered the intertext missing from most recent discussions, which is Aeneas’ visit to the site of Rome in Aeneid 8. Aeneas throughout that book is as ignarus rerum as Caesar is inscius, and equally dependent on a local guide.5 Lucan’s association of memory’s death with its birth is surely significant, as is the demand on his readers’ literary memory to recognize the necessary allusions.

G.’s own historical sense puts a distinctive spin on the next chapter. In discussing the Dialogus, he rightly distinguishes between acknowledgement that oratory is now different and the claim that it is worse, and he makes the important suggestion that the “Neronian anxiety” of Aper and Secundus is anachronistic in this Vespasianic context. Maternus’ idea of libertas is personal, not political, and behind the work’s engagement with the Brutus is a conviction that the kind of eloquentia Cicero championed is irrelevant. G. builds very nicely here on his own earlier discussion of the Brutus as a defense of Republican eloquentia, but his reading of Tacitus rests on a distinctly un-ironic acceptance of Maternus’ notorious claim than eloquence is unnecessary in a world where public affairs have been entrusted to “sapientissimus et unus” (41.4-5). This could be right, but a darker reading of this speech remains current in scholarship and deserves mention.6 A defense of imperial eloquentia then naturally leads to our best example of it, the Panegyricus. G. points to its resurrection of Republican ideals, re-authorized now by the emperor, and to the historical significance of memory, though the Republic itself is beyond the grasp of Pliny’s own, necessarily post-Augustan memory. He emerges from the discussion as an embodiment of the values G. sees in Tacitus’ Maternus. We are left to wonder for ourselves whether the style of the Panegyricus confirms or confounds the enduring Ciceronian influence predicted by Velleius Paterculus.

From here a fifth chapter, “Remembering Rome,” moves the discussion to a different plane by treating the new fora of the principate as exercises in memory, its control, and its progress. Augustus’ Forum, whose gallery of heroes seems to legitimize Augustus’ position in the state by associating him with great figures of the Republican past, is contrasted with the much larger Forum of Trajan, with its focus on the quite recent past and , like the Panegyricus, its authorization of the state through the figure of the emperor. G. is especially successful in his insistence that we read these monuments against each other, but treating them as “monuments” also raises a question. Holocaust memorials are invoked along with the apparent paradox that, by doing the work of memory for us, they divest us of any personal obligation to remember. As James Young says of such structures, “Under the illusion that our memorial edifices will always be there to remind us, we take leave of them and return only at out convenience. To the extent that we encourage monuments to do our memory-work for us, we become that much more forgetful.”7 Yet unlike the subjects of Young’s study, these imperial fora were not only monuments and museums. They were also courts, markets, and gathering places, i.e., part of the living fabric of the contemporary city. The past formed the background for the present, and the reading of the past was very likely shaped by the health of that present. It was not simply the gallery of heroes or the looming presence of Mars Ultor that legitimized the Augustan principate, but the civic and social functions carried on within Augustus’ sheltering precinct.

I offer this not as a complaint but as a further observation, and a striking merit of this book is its stimulation of further rather than second thoughts. Only on purely literary matters does the argument sometimes wobble a little. G. returns to the idea of the emperor’s expanding influence, for example, through discussion of Ovid, Tr. 4.4.15: “. . . the full weight of these words — res est publica Caesar, ‘the state is Caesar’ — was entirely apparent to Ovid. At this particular point in time, in the age of Augustus, and in contrast to Septimius Severus’ empty use of the term res publica over two centuries later, one might reasonably render this ‘the Republic is Caesar'” (151). Yet this is not what the Ovidian context suggests. Ovid is defending his right to make the princeps a subject of his poetry with the claim not that “Caesar is the state” but that “Caesar is public property.” Is there a double entendre? Very likely, but it is not good method to suppress the primary meaning in pursuit of a secondary one.8 There are also occasional stumbles at the vexed (and vexing) intersection of literature and history. G. writes: “As Lucan’s Pharsalia is heir to Vergil’s Aeneid, which is in turn a descendant of the quintessential Republican epic, the Annales of Ennius; or as Horatian satire grows out of the Republican tradition established especially by Lucilius, and is subsequently transformed yet again by Persius in the Neronian period and Juvenal in the Flavian, so too does the Dialogus draw from but ultimately re-shape an important Republican text [ Brutus ]” (119). Behind the technical objection that Lucan drew from Ennius as well as Vergil and Vergil from Naevius as well as Ennius, and the chronological one that Juvenal was not a Flavian author lie the two great bugbears of literary history, teleology and periodization.9 This book is, as befits a title in the Roman Literature and its Contexts series, theoretically informed and alive to the larger cultural implications of its argument, so it is strange to find so theoretically naive a statement as this. But it is an exception. This series includes some of the genuine must-reads of contemporary Roman studies, and the present work is a worthy addition to it.

It is also a timely one as we ourselves witness the fading of old traumas, the emergence of new ones, and the rival temptations of remembering and forgetting. Even under the palm trees, recollection carries its emotional charge. Here in West Los Angeles, sheltered behind the high-rise bustle of the Wilshire Corridor, is the curiously calm Westwood Village Memorial Park. Its most famous resident is Marilyn Monroe. But not its most distinguished. My candidate for that greater honor lies near the entrance, beneath a flat stone with the following inscription:

3.21.1882 – 12.10.1968


The learned may recognize Aristotle’s epitaph for Plato, but only a little Greek is needed to hear an echo closer to home and to feel at once the power and the pain of memory.


1. The obituary in Gnomon 43 (1971) 634-40 is reprinted in Blood for the Ghosts (Baltimore 1982) 251-60. The colleague was Wolfgang Schadewaldt. For details of his contact with Fraenkel (and an implied challenge to this particular memory of it), see H. Flashar, “Biographische Momente in schwerer Zeit,” in Wolfgang Schadewaldt und die Gräzistik des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. T. A. Szlezák and K.-H. Stanzel, Spudasmata 100 (Hildesheim: Olms, 2005) 151-69, esp. 167-9.

2. As G. astutely observes, albeit in a different context: “For him [Tacitus], remembering the first century of the Principate was as pressing a need as Livy’s to remember the Republic. His are histories for the realities of the Trajanic period, not the Augustan” (154).

3. A distinction between the recollection of experience and that of education is implicit in G.’s discussion of historia and memoria (7-15), but merits acknowledgment. “Collective memory” is a useful term with clear Roman precedents (cf. Tac. Agr. 1-3), but it is not the same as personal memory. The fear of Holocaust survivors — to use G.’s own recurring analogy — is not, literally, that their experience be “forgotten” but that it not be valued, and therefore not taught to future generations.

4. The prevailing view is succinctly put by P. Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil (Cambridge 1993) 107: “By dense allusion to the Aeneid the description of the deserted site of Troy becomes all too clearly an allegory of what Caesar is doing to Rome…”

5. Specific parallels: a “gensque virum truncis et duro robore nata” inhabits the site of Rome (8.315), while “silvae steriles et putres robore trunci” cover the site of Troy (9.966); similarly, “tota teguntur Pergama dumetis” (9.968-9), while Rome’s Capitol is “aurea nunc, olim silvestribus horrida dumis” (8.348).

6. It is especially well argued by S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience (Cambridge, MA 1994) 110-19, though G.’s more positive reading is much more subtle than Roland Mayer’s in his otherwise exemplary edition of the Dialogus (Cambridge 2001) 46-7 and commentary ad loc. Cf. the realism of M. Winterbottom, “Returning to Tacitus’ Dialogus,” in The Orator in Action and Theory in Greece and Rome, C. W. Wooten, ed. Mnemonsyne Supp. 225 (Leiden 2001) 137-55, esp. 153-4. For G.’s full reading of Brutus, see Eranos 98 (2000) 39-64.

7. J. E. Young, The Texture of Memory. Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven 1993) 5. I owe the reference to G.

8. Cf. Plin. Nat. 35.10 on the effect of Pollio’s library: “ingenia hominum rem publicam fecit.” I do not doubt the coyness of the passage, but a place must be preserved in criticism for literal meanings. This is especially important when dealing with Augustus, a well schooled and astute reader of poetry. For more on this particular problem, see P. Davis, “‘Since My Part Has Been Well Played:’ Conflicting Evaluations of Augustus,” Ramus 1999 (28) 1-15, esp. 11-13.

9. I used “Flavian” Juvenal in Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic (Cambridge 2005) 209-11 to illustrate the capriciousness of periodization, but was not sure whether anyone actually made that particular mistake. Seeing it now in as good a book as this one only confirms how serious the problem is for literary history. G.’s specific point here about the relationship of Dialogus to Brutus is unaffected.