BMCR 2007.07.13

The Ghosts of the Past: Latin Literature, the Dead, and Rome’s Transition to a Principate

, The Ghosts of the Past: Latin Literature, the Dead, and Rome's Transition to a Principate. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2007. xi, 175. $49.95.

Table of Contents

The dead and the living coexisted in ancient Rome. A productive tension between “tradition and originality” pervaded every aspect of cultural life, from religion to politics, from art to literature. While restlessly moving forward with their aggressive program of augmenting the imperium Romanum, ancient aristocratic Romans always structured their present in terms of their past, according to their, at times flexible, interpretation of the dictates of the mos maiorum. Like Janus, they kept their gaze permanently fixed in two directions at the same time. In this interesting and engaging study, Basil Dufallo (D.) traces the role of the dead in Latin literature from the late Republic and early Principate. In particular, he focuses on several speeches by Cicero (chapters 1-3), from the Pro Caelio and the Pro Milone to the second Philippica, Propertius 4.7 and 4.11 (chapter 4), and Vergil’s Aeneid (chapter 5).

In his “Introduction: The Dead as the Living” (pp. 1-11), D. summarizes the scope and purpose of his study, which is to “explain the Roman dead’s literary life by developing a view of Latin literature’s interaction with Roman culture” (2). He pursues this objective primarily through the application of modern “performance” theory, specifically, the concepts of “orature” and “restored behavior”. The first concerns the relationship between orality and literacy, between literature and performance; the second concerns the relationship between ritual and performance. Neither, however, represents a significant theoretical advance in our understanding of ancient Roman culture, but, instead, simply a more refined formulation of preexisting ideas. D. continues with a brief survey of the place of the dead in ancient Rome, before arriving at the main subject of his investigation, the use of the rhetorical technique known as prosopopoeia. In particular, D. signals his interest in the subtype of the trope which Roman rhetoricians identify as mortuos ab inferis excitare, as well as in the role of the Furies in the literature of the period. After a succinct overview of the contents of the book, D. concludes with a brief glimpse at Ennius and Homer in the Annales, and the place of the dead in later Latin literature.

Chapter 1, “Oratory and Magic in Republican Rome” (pp. 13-35) “discusses Cicero’s manipulation of the rhetorical topos mortuos ab inferis excitare in the Pro Caelio and the Pro Milone” (14). D. emphasizes Cicero’s innovation and originality in his use of this technique throughout his speeches, as well as the connection which this use entails between oratory and magic. In this regard, the two speeches at the heart of the chapter form a dialectical pair, with two very different “performances” of the topos. D. considers the Pro Caelio first, with a focus on the passage in which Cicero calls the distinguished Appius Claudius Caecus up from the dead in order to chastise his infamous descendant Clodia for her alleged unbecoming behavior. Although he essentially agrees with the previous interpretations of the scene, D. explains that he does not view “the primary rhetorical goal of the passage as humor, but as the legitimation of (nonetheless humorous) information about Clodia in the judicial arena” (22). This is perhaps an overly fine distinction: while it is certainly possible to see a variety of ancient “performance traditions” (27) at work, it is, nonetheless, virtually impossible to divorce them significantly from the generally comic situation of the speech. The analysis proceeds with a series of comparisons between the excitatio of Appius Claudius Caecus and related passages in other genres. All of these comparisons well illustrate the variety of the cultural institutions with which Cicero engages. D. brings his treatment of the Pro Caelio to a close with a contextualization of this use of the trope within the ancient oratorical tradition in general. Next, D. considers the Pro Milone. Whereas, earlier in the Pro Caelio, Cicero had called Appius Claudius Caecus up from the dead as a “performance” of traditional Roman mores, here Cicero inverts the normative pattern through his persistent refusal to revive the recently murdered Publius Clodius Pulcher, since he would serve as the embodiment not of morality, but of immorality. In a further contrast, according to D., Cicero associates Milo with a certain philosophical detachment on the subject of death, whereas he identifies Clodius with undefined “popular traditions of a ghostly underworld” (34). The discussion of the Pro Milone here is too cursory, and a more detailed comparison with the Pro Caelio would have been useful. In the conclusion to the chapter, D. looks ahead to the survival of the topos mortuos ab inferis excitare in the Augustan era and beyond.

Chapter 2, ” Domesticae Furiae : Cicero’s Tragic Universe” (pp. 36-52) “argue[s] that Cicero’s oratorical use of the Furies represents an appropriation of mythological tragedy for the purposes of characteristically late-republican political competition” (37). Besides the Pro Sex. Roscio Amerino, D. also draws his evidence for the discussion from the Pro Sulla, the In Pisonem, the Pro Milone, and the actio secunda of the In Verrem. He helpfully divides the chapter into five major thematic sections. First, D. traces the role of the Furies in the Pro Sex. Roscio Amerino as an illustration of the “Murderous Aftermath of Civil War”. Specifically, according to D., Cicero evokes the “avenging goddesses” as a symbol of the civil strife and anarchy that have followed in the wake of Sulla’s attempt at monarchy, a failure of both the human and the divine order. Turning to the Pro Sulla and the In Pisonem, D. considers the “Recurrence of Murderous Violence across Generations”. In both speeches, Cicero develops the complex and powerful image of Rome as a state suffering in the present for the evils of the past. Next, D. briefly addresses the issue of the “Unjust Exile of Leaders”, in particular, Cicero’s own exile at the behest of Clodius. The analysis, however, is again far too abbreviated, and much more could have been said about the imagery of the Furies in the post reditum speeches. Continuing with the focus on Clodius, D. returns to the Pro Milone, where he argues that Cicero figures Clodius as a symbol for the “Return of Tyranny”. Finally, D. elucidates the role of the Furies in the In Verrem and the In Pisonem as a guiding force in the rampant and disastrous “Imperial Mismanagement” of the period. In the conclusion to the chapter, D. again looks ahead, to the survival of the Furies as a political metaphor under the Principate. Throughout, D. calls attention to Cicero’s dynamic engagement with the Orestes myth and tragedy in general, but a more systematic analysis of these allusions across the Ciceronian corpus and a more thorough illustration of the connections with civil war would have made his argument more effective.

Chapter 3, “The Second Philippic as Cultural Resistance” (pp. 53-73) reveals how “Cicero makes the literary representation of oratory into a means of resistance, not only to his great political enemy Antonius but also to changes in Roman culture portending the monopolization of power by a sole emperor” (55). D. sees a proper understanding of the function of the dead in oratory as essential for a proper understanding of the function of oratory in ancient Roman culture. In order to illustrate the importance of the dead in oratory at the time of the late Republic, he concentrates on the looming presence of the ghost of Caesar in the Second Philippic. First, D. sketches the historical circumstances, with Pseudo-Marius, Octavian, and Antony all vying for the title of ultor Caesaris. Then, he turns to a close reading of the speech itself. Here, Cicero opposes his own, “traditional”, laudatio of Caesar to the “untraditional” laudatio previously delivered by Antony. In doing so, Cicero attempts both to reassert oratory’s control over the commemoration of the dead and to cast Antony’s gradual divinization of Caesar as a perversion of the mos maiorum. D. then tracks the development of these themes in the later Philippics. In the thirteenth speech, for example, Cicero champions the memory of those senators who have died on behalf of the Republic during the recent upheaval. As a direct challenge to Antony’s destructive political agenda, this collective laudatio“subordinates any idea of personal vengeance to th[e] larger cause” (68). Cicero accomplishes much the same goal in his praise and commemoration of Servius Sulpicius Rufus (the ninth speech) and the famous Martian legion (the fourteenth speech). In the conclusion to the chapter, D. once more looks ahead, to the struggle between Republicanism and Caesarism during the Augustan age and thereafter. His emphasis on the importance of “cultural change” (72), however, does not sufficiently acknowledge the extent to which the notions of “change” and “decline” are more a reflection of contemporary polemics than of reality: in the end, the so-called “Roman Revolution” affected only aristocratic society (cf. chapter 3, n.40).

Chapter 4, “Propertian Elegy as ‘Restored Behavior'” (pp. 74-98) “argues that Elegies 4.7 and 4.11 adapt the rhetorical topos mortuos ab inferis excitare from republican oratory into Augustan elegy” (74). In expounding his thesis, however, D. articulates an unsustainable contrast between the Republic and the Principate. He locates Cicero’s oratorical activity in an era of intense political rivalry, whereas “Propertius’ elegiac use of the technique reflects the Augustan restoration of the res publica and suppression of the ruinous political competition that formed the backdrop for Cicero’s career” (75). This statement is logically contradictory: if Augustus had indeed “restored” the Republic, then “ruinous political competition” would be perhaps its defining feature, and there would have been no change whatsoever in the “backdrop” to the political situation. Furthermore, this conception of the Augustan regime ignores, e.g., the clear evidence for the political turmoil which persisted under his rule, including the later abortive conspiracy hatched by L. Aemilius Paullus (none other than the younger son of the addressee in 4.11, L. Aemilius Paullus Lepidus!) in A.D. 8 (cf. Suet. Aug. 19.1, as well as Tib. 8 and Vell. 2.91.2-4, with Woodman ad loc.). As in chapter 1, D. again establishes a dialectical relationship, here between the two Propertian elegies. First, he studies the similarities and differences between each of them and the excitatio of Appius Claudius Caecus in the Pro Caelio. However, it is not clear how the comparison between Cicero and Propertius improves our understanding of either writer. The further discussion of Propertius 3.9, 2.1, and 1.21-22 similarly fails to furnish any definitive results. In the conclusion to the chapter, D. recapitulates his argument, but his complete neglect of, e.g., Ovid’s Fasti, frustrates any attempt at clarifying the position of Propertius’ fourth book, especially 4.7 and 4.11, within the elegiac tradition and, consequently, the nature of Propertius’ literary relationship with Cicero.

Chapter 5, “Vergil’s Alternatives to Republican Performance” (pp. 99-121) comprises six sections, each of which addresses an example of so-called “restored behavior”. In light of the complexity of “Vergil’s technique”, D. explicitly rejects any overarching thesis: “my own methods and conclusions in the different sections of the chapter vary as well” (100). However, the absence of a unifying theme immediately weakens the overall thrust of the argument. First, D. explores the many links in the Aeneid between the Trojan War and the later civil wars in Rome through an analysis of Hector in book 2. Although he acknowledges the gravity of the horrifying vision of Rome in, e.g., Hor. Epod. 7, D. offers the facile conclusion that “Vergil evokes Hector to suggest a more promising inheritance” (105). This is true, to some extent, but there are other, more negative, elements, as well. This tendency to oversimplification of the thematic tenor of the Aeneid likewise undercuts the strength of D.’s arguments in the following sections. His discussion of Polydorus in book 3 touches on larger issues of cultural memory, but also attempts to associate the passage, via Euripides, with Augustan judicial reforms—a tenuous connection at best. His treatment of Dido in book 4 similarly founders on the suggestion of a link with contemporary legislation directed against magic and astrology in Rome. The final three sections of the chapter concentrate on Anchises. The comparison between Dido in book 4 and Aeneas in book 5 as practitioners of different types of ritual does not arrive at a meaningful conclusion. In his analysis of the conversation between Anchises and Aeneas in book 6, in particular its relationship with the Somnium Scipionis, D. squanders an excellent opportunity for reintroducing Cicero into the heart of the discussion. Instead, he falls back on yet another unsettling generalization. “While Cicero expresses discontent with republican politics, Vergil makes his ideal dialogue, in its content, form, and setting, appropriate to Augustan rather than republican Rome” (115). Finally, D. sees the “Parade of Heroes” as a bold statement of cultural reappropriation: “Vergil here insists on the Aeneid as supplanting the republican ceremony so as to perpetuate Roman culture” (120). Apart from the logical disjuncture this creates between “supplanting republican ceremony” and “perpetuat[ing] Roman culture”, such an evaluation of the passage diminishes its true power, as an exploration of the ideological struggle between the Republic of the past and the (emergent) Principate of the present. In the conclusion to the chapter, D. returns to the notion of the Aeneid as an Augustan “performance” in order to impart some structure to his argument, but, ultimately, most of the sections in this chapter are simply too short to reach any significant results.

In his “Conclusion: The Living as the Dead” (pp. 123-127), D. looks to the Augustan age and the subsequent decades for evidence of the inversion of his interpretative paradigm. Developing a point from the end of the introduction, he argues that, whereas earlier Latin literature presents “the dead’s ‘imitation’ of the living”, later literature presents the “living’s ‘imitation’ of the dead” (11). D. sees Ovid as the key transitional figure in this process. This is an especially fascinating idea, and it is perhaps the chief insight of D.’s study. However, he fails to consider the importance of Lucan and Silius Italicus in this regard, and, in general, his overly simplified conception of the “transition” from the Republic to the Principate ignores what is, in fact, the most important cultural issue during the first century A.D., in terms of both history and literature: the unresolved and, ultimately, unresolvable tension between the present and the past. This is a very complex topic, especially since the Augustan, Neronian, and Flavian periods all handle the issue in their own way. In the end, D. analyzes too small a body of textual material according to too rigid an evolutionary scheme, and the result is a distorted perception and presentation of an important theme: the dynamic relationship between memoria and the res publica.