BMCR 2007.07.39

The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture

, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xxiv, 400. $59.95.

Flower’s book is a study of the use and evolution of memory sanctions in Roman culture. She begins in the first two chapters with some remarks on the nature of remembering and forgetting and an overview of the background provided by Greek practice. In the eight subsequent chapters Flower presents a detailed analysis of memory sanctions from the early Republic to the time of Hadrian. Some of the topics receiving extended discussion include the relationship between the rise of sanctions and the decline of the Republic, punitive actions against women in the Principate, and the manipulation of the memories of Gaius, Nero, and Domitian. Flower’s main points of emphasis include the need to interpret sanctions within their broader cultural context, and how they develop from each generation’s desire to control the past for its own ends. This approach is successful and no doubt the book will become a standard work on the topic.

In the introductory discussion of Chapter One Flower reviews some of theoretical issues involved in her study. She stresses the cultural specificity of memory and the need to understand Roman sanctions within a Roman context. The elite, for instance, relied on various commemorative practices to ensure the survival of their memory in the face of an encroaching state of oblivion. Analysis of the strategies designed to negate these efforts, consequently, must consider the particular dynamics of such energies. Flower similarly argues that it is not possible to disentangle memory sanctions from political culture in which they operate. They are formulated to preserve the unique collective memory of the community and ensure the survival and success of its political structures. Through such observations Flower underscores the need to contextualize sanctions within Roman culture, but she also begins to show the expanded parameters of her analytical approach by accentuating how sanctions intersect with a wide range of social and political concerns.

In the chapter Flower defines sanctions as “deliberately designed strategies that aim to change the picture of the past, whether through erasure or redefinition, or by means of both” (p. 2). This expansive characterization is important for her work and marks a significant departure from many existing studies. In her discussion of the evidence throughout the book Flower often moves beyond traditional accounts that consider measures recommended by the senate or emperor and erasure of epigraphic texts, to include sanctions effected by, for example, literary and historiographical texts. Discussion is thus not limited to official actions, as is perhaps implied in the word “sanction”, and as a result the book is a much broader study of the functioning of memory in Roman political culture. Indeed, Flower’s analysis treads in the realm of social memory and it is surprising that she does not often take the opportunity to build more connections with the work of other theorists in this field.

In her discussion in Chapter Two of some of the precedents for Roman practice Flower reveals how Greeks in various periods resorted to house razing, restricting and denying burial, exile, erasure, and amnesty to control collective memory and thus create and protect the political system, values, and identity of the demos. This review illustrates the politics of sanctions with specific examples and thus fleshes out some of the observations made in the first chapter. Her remarks on how the potential for sanctions was impressed upon the Romans as they expanded their empire through the Mediterranean world also continues to demonstrate the larger framework within which Flower situates Roman practice. Indeed, Flower presents a persuasive case that the imposition of sanctions on Philip V and his predecessors by the Athenians in 200 B.C. is one very specific point of such cross-cultural influence.

The origins of sanctions in Rome are the subject of Chapter Three. In a discussion of Spurius Cassius, Spurius Maelius, and Marcus Manlius Capitolinus Flower argues that although the evidence for sanctions in the early Republic is at times slim, it is still possible to generate some important conclusions. The manipulation of memories at this time reveals, for instance, that sanctions are not to be understood solely as a phenomenon of the late Republic and early Principate, nor to be connected only with the charge of treason. Through her analysis of the ban on the praenomen Marcus among the Manlii Flower also demonstrates that memory sanctions at this early period were primarily conceived as the responsibility of the family rather than the state. The latter half of the chapter proceeds to examine the use of memory sanctions within the context of the rise of the new nobility in the fourth century. Flower illustrates the increasing importance of memory to the nobiles for both the success of individual families and the functioning of the political system.

In Chapter Four Flower turns to the crucial period of the late Republic. Flower locates an important step in the evolution of sanctions in the different reactions to the deaths of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. In the case of the former the search for reconciliation and consensus through expiation at the cult of Ceres at Henna followed traditional Republican precedent. But the measures adopted in the wake of Gaius’ death initiated a radical departure. Gaius’ opponents did not resort to religion, but rather to such punishments as the annulment of laws, house razing, and the throwing of bodies into the Tiber. These actions against Gaius and his supporters constitute, Flower argues, the first punitive memory sanctions in Rome. The subsequent rise of a popular cult of the Gracchi, however, indicates the difficulties inherent in attempting to control or erase memory. As a result, in subsequent years senators intensified memory sanctions in an effort to eliminate the existence of martyr tribunes whose memories could be employed for political ends. Thus the sanctions employed against Lucius Appuleius Saturninus in 100 B.C. included not just the destruction of his house and revocation of his legislation but more importantly the banning of his portrait.

Flower begins her review of memory sanctions during the end of the Republic in Chapter Five with an analysis of Sulla. In struggles with his opponents Sulla relied on precedents such as the destruction of a family home or the banning of wax ancestor masks, but he also furthered the intensity of sanctions by introducing measures against the living through the declaration of Roman citizens as hostes and, even more importantly, the proscriptions instituted from 82-81 B.C. Sulla is thus a pivotal figure who marks the transition to an era when complete erasure of one’s political opponents becomes the goal. In later years Cicero could at times appear “Sullan” in his attempts to exert control over the memories of individuals such as Catiline and Clodius, though Caesar does not fit since he often opposed the sanctions imposed by Sulla and through his policy of clemency did not seek the erasure of his rivals.

Chapter Four and Five are among the strongest of the book and they demonstrate well the benefits of Flower’s approach. By utilizing memory sanctions as a lens through which to view political change, Flower illustrates how the transformation Rome experienced from the late second to first century B.C. finds expression in the ways Romans controlled memory. During this period there is a shift from the political memory culture of the nobiles, which attempted to build consensus and support the political system through the control and maintenance of memory, to an era when individuals such as Sulla defined success as the absolute erasure of political opponents. With this analysis of how sanctions operated within a larger context Flower manages to reveal how they are not simply a political tool, but also an illustration and agent of political development.

Flower focuses her attention on Augustus and the early Principate in Chapter Six. Although limitations of evidence present their own challenges when attempting to evaluate Augustus’ employment of sanctions, it is nevertheless possible to reveal his sophisticated and shrewd manipulation of memory. After Actium, for instance, Octavian refused to accept the attempts of senators to impose extensive sanctions against Antony, but rather preserved his memory by absorbing his descendants into his own household. Octavian thus managed simultaneously both to cast himself in opposition to individuals such as Sulla, whose program of political oblivion was associated with the traumatic events of the late Republic, and also to herald a return to the more traditional measures of the middle Republic. Some of these initiatives were relatively short-lived, and Flower proceeds to discuss how under Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius we witness the return of punitive sanctions against individuals such as Cn. Calpurnius Piso, C. Asinius Gallus, and Agrippina.

Flower’s treatment of the Augustan period, especially given its importance and the complexity of the role of memory during these years, fails to reach the detail and scope of some of her other discussions. There are few or no comments, for instance, on the crucial contributions his building program or various literary artists made to Augustus’ memory project. Comparable evidence is, after all, put to profitable use elsewhere in the book. To be fair, with the material she includes Flower manages to accomplish her stated goal of providing an overview of the evolution of sanctions. Nevertheless her handling of the Augustan age seems a little incomplete, although this criticism perhaps stems more from the enormity of the topic than from Flower’s analysis.

Flower sheds more light on the use of memory sanctions during the Julio-Claudian period with her examination of sanctions against women in Chapter Seven. During most of the Republic formal sanctions against women were, in essence, not needed, since as a result of their position in society and status under the law they had little public role. There was no urgency for sanctions, in other words, against individuals whose lives would leave little or no trace in the historical record. With the growing prominence of women in the late Republic, however, and especially later under Augustus, this situation changed. In her discussion of the developing phenomenon of sanctions against women Flower analyzes steps taken against women such as Augustus’ daughter Julia, Claudia Livia Julia, Messalina, and Agrippina, mother of Nero. The case of Messalina is particularly illustrative. The very few extant public texts showing her name and the difficulty of identifying existing portraits confirm the success of some of the formal measures introduced after her execution. The severity of these sanctions against the wife of an emperor thus exemplifies Flower’s argument regarding the developing relationship between the new public role of women in the Julio-Claudian period and the rise of tactics to control their memory.

In Chapter Eight Flower focuses on the use of memory sanctions during the shift from one ruling family to the next. Success for new rulers during such transitions often stemmed from their ability to modify or erase the memory of their predecessors or how they themselves seized power. The main focus in the chapter is on Nero and how his memory was manipulated by his successors. Analysis includes examination of, for example, the epigraphic record, the burial plans for Nero, and the topography of the city. The Octavia also receives extended discussion. Working from the premise of a Galban context for the fabula praetexta, Flower argues that it functioned as a form of memory sanction that consciously avoided the harsh connotations of earlier measures. Through its plot and portrayal of a tyrannical Nero the play functioned as a piece of political rhetoric that aimed to present to an otherwise sympathetic audience the monster Nero truly was. As such the play represents a clear attempt to control the memory of Nero for political ends during an important transitional moment.

The reception of the memory of Domitian occupies most of Chapter Nine. Through a detailed review of the epigraphic evidence Flower reveals the thoroughness of many of the memory sanctions instituted against Domitian. The success of these measures, Flower observes, is no doubt the product of ongoing Roman experience with sanctions, with individuals such as Nerva having learned valuable lessons after the death of Nero. With her discussion of variations in the treatment of the memory of Domitian in different geographical regions and sectors of Roman society, Flower also demonstrates her sensitivity to the complexities of the evidence and the difficulties encountered by attempts to control memory. The end of the chapter includes a brief discussion of reaction after the death of Hadrian. Antoninus’ rejection of sanctions against Hadrian, Flower argues, marks a conscious departure from the earlier practices of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian periods and is characteristic of the political culture of this era. The book closes in Chapter Ten with a recapitulation of some of the study’s main arguments and an overview of the role and evolution of memory sanctions in Roman culture and their various uses by succeeding generations of Romans.

As is evident from the review thus far there is much to recommend in Flower’s book. One of its main achievements is the success it has in placing the functioning of memory in Roman political culture within a much more expansive context. From tracing in greater detail the origins of sanctions at Rome and the continuing foreign influences upon them, to illustrating their interconnection with political change and social development, Flower provides a more complete account of sanctions and consequently reminds readers of their crucial role in Roman culture. An approach to the evidence that is more inclusive than that of many previous studies enhances this aspect of her book. Indeed, perhaps one thing that this review has failed to convey is the extent and detail of her analyses of specific sanctions or erasures. The book thus comfortably accomplishes its goal of providing an overview of the evolution of sanctions at Rome and their integration into its political culture.

It is also necessary, however, to judge the book as a contribution to memory studies. When viewed from this perspective the book does expose some of its limitations. Many of the conclusions Flower’s analysis generates stem from her stated positions regarding the direct relationship between the control of memory and support for the political system, for example, or how sanctions reflect the anxieties, needs and desires of each generation that instituted them. When Flower examines the death of Gaius Gracchus or the treatment of the memory of Nero from such angles, the results are revealing and enrich our interpretation of these events. But as a contribution to understanding how memory functions within social frameworks these premises offer little that is new. Similar conclusions could be reached about the operation of memory during various historical eras and as a result Flower often fails to highlight how Roman mnemonic practice is unique. This is unfortunate seeing that studies of Roman culture have much to offer those working on memory. But this criticism, although significant, should not mislead. Flower’s book is a tremendous success and will reward all who read it.