BMCR 2008.01.38

Nation, Empire, Decline: Studies in Rhetorical Continuity from the Romans to the Modern Era. Classical Interfaces, vol. 5

, Nation, empire, decline : studies in rhetorical continuity from the Romans to the modern era. Classical inter/faces. London: Duckworth, 2006. 191 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0715635514. £14.99.

In an era of theory that is marked by a distinct motion away from the Classics as being somehow innately authoritative, a stress on the distance and difference between Greco-Roman discourses and our own contemporary discourses would normally provide the starting point for comparative investigations of classical antiquity. Even if we might agree that in antiquity there were many forms of political and social activity that are analogous to those of the modern era—even rhetoric defined broadly as a social and political phenomenon—, it may now seem counter-intuitive or at least unorthodox to suppose that there are “transhistorical” categories of social and political activity at all. Yet, this is precisely the provocative claim made by Nancy Shumate in her study of Juvenal, Horace and Tacitus: that the rhetorics of empire, and nation, which functioned to provide for Rome the essential building blocks in the development of its self-conception, have a transhistorical character. These rhetorical continuities are not merely tantamount to modern discourses of nationalism and imperialism; rather, they are different manifestations of the same thing, images created from the same “template.”1

This is a serious question of urgent significance to the field of Classics. For if Roman rhetoric provided the “templates” for nationalistic and imperial rhetorics of the modern period, the interpretive categories of imperialism and nationalism, and hence even post-colonialism, as they are commonly understood, would have to be revised, and rewritten to include the Roman period. This is Shumate’s stated purpose: she aims to challenge the orthodoxy of historical categories, and write imperial Rome into them.2 I find myself in the paradoxical position of having enjoyed this book’s admirable readings and the critical methodologies it brings to these three Roman authors, while at the same time harboring reservations about the validity of its theoretical apparatus and argumentation.

In the first chapter, Shumate explores Juvenal Sat. 1-3 and 6, arguing that national anxieties about ethnicity, gender, and sexuality “drive nationalistic discourses” in the poetry (19). Here, however, Shumate consciously eschews the recent approach of such scholars as Ando, MacMullen, and Woolf, who see it as their obligation to emphasize the “signs of resistance on the part of those who bore the burden of that negative representation.”3 Instead, she focuses on the city, its elite, and the production of national ideology. In Satires 1 and 3 she interprets the voice of the poem’s speaker as the “reactionary rhetoric” of a Roman beset by a new influx of foreigners into his city (Jews, Syrians, and the other “sewage” brought in by the flow of the Orontes: see Sat. 3.61-6). The speaker perceives in these intruders a threat to his sense of place in the social hierarchy. In the second satire, Juvenal’s speaker attacks Rome’s “male gender and sex deviants,” and in satire 6, the poem’s narrator famously launches into an all out attack on the female sex. These satires provide Shumate with a richly illustrative context for the analysis of the charged gender dynamics of Juvenalian ideology.

Shumate calls attention to several features of othering that are worth mentioning here. She traces in these satires the persistent application of metaphors of vice, criminality, and disease to racial and ethnic groups, arguing that these texts depend on a putative imperial reader who can imagine the viciousness of a given race, its criminality, and its association with disease as being essential to that race. For Shumate these metaphors are tropes and structures that are “recycled” in modern projects of constructing national enemies (46-7). This theoretical move allows her to pursue what I see as the most interesting contribution of the book, namely, a comparison of the “proto-nationalism” of Juvenal and the contemporary modern nationalistic discourses of 19th and early 20th century England, the Weimar Republic, and Germany under National Socialism. In a particularly stimulating analysis, she compares the pastoral fantasies of Umbricius in Sat. 3 with the pastoral fantasies of the Weimar dystopian novel Deutschland ohne Deutschen by H. Heyck (1929), as well as the Nazi films Hans Westmar (1933), Hitler Youth Quex (1933), and Jew Suess (1945).

Chapter 2 will be familiar to admirers of Shumate’s essay on Horace’s “Roman odes” from Helios 2005; she expands on her ideas of that important article in a fuller exploration of Carm. 3.2, 3.5, and 3.6. In Horace Shumate pursues a different series of questions from those she asked of Juvenal—Horace is the “voice of the Augustan establishment laying out a program of national renewal” (55). These poems are characterized by the idealization of a national past, and the “implication of issues of gender and sexuality in that process—a central element of the ‘backbone’ of modern nationalistic discourse” (ibid.). Shumate then draws parallels to the crisis posed by modernity to the sexual mores of 19th and 20th century Europe. Pace Mosse, Shumate argues that in the nationalistic discourses of Germany and England, “the threat to masculinity was modernity itself” (G. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe [Ithaca, 1985]). Consequently, literary, political, and scientific texts “enshrined clear gender definition as a pre-condition to a flourishing national culture” (64).

In Chapter 3, Shumate analyzes the Germania of Tacitus, arguing it is an earlier instantiation of the Rosseauian “noble savage” topos, studied so famously by A. Lovejoy and G. Boas in Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore, 1935). This chapter, much in the style of Hartog’s work on Herodotus, interprets the presentation of the German ‘other’ as a mirror of Roman imperial society (F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History [trans. J. Lloyd, Berkeley, 1988]). Consequently this mirror reflects both the virtues and vices of Roman society as it imagines itself, both its “self-righteousness” and “self-disgust.” In both cases, the German barbarian serves to reaffirm a tenuous set of shaky norms that are perceived to be under threat. Here Shumate’s comparanda derive largely from British texts of the High Empire: Darwin, Kipling, and the early field reports of Winston Churchill, written in 1895 and describing the British campaign against hostile Northern Indian “tribes” for The London Telegraph.

In the fourth and final chapter, Shumate returns to the fifteenth satire of Juvenal, an unjustly neglected text in which Shumate’s reading is likely to renew interest. This satire recounts the story of two Egyptian youths who “descend into a spontaneous orgy of cannibalism” (131). In a most enjoyable style, Shumate unpacks this alluring if unsavory story as analogous to later British otherings of its abject colonial subjects, arguing that Juvenal’s representations of the Egyptians are of the “sort that would have been at home in the imperialist literature of Victorian England” (ibid.).4 She concludes in a brief epilogue with a gesture of comparison between Roman imperialism and the 21st century imperialism of the United States, focusing on the othering of Iraq in the media and politics. This made for provocative reading and I was sorry it had not been expanded into a full chapter, perhaps even the first chapter.

My primary objection is not to the usefulness of these readings, but to the assumption that what lies underlies them is cultural “continuity.” If Shumate aims to show that certain continuities of rhetoric are a universal tendency, how could it be that they had a genesis in any historical period, and especially the Roman, so well known for its rhetorical interrelations to the Greek age of the Sophists? Shumate is hardly unaware of the controversial nature of this transhistorical claim; indeed, on page 12 she acknowledges that the reader might suspect some anachronism in the use of nationalism, imperialism, and colonialism as interpretive categories.5

Shumate lays the theoretical groundwork to sustain such an admittedly heterodox argument in her introduction. She makes no claim to original scholarship on colonial or nationalist discourses per se, but rather notes that she relies “primarily on some of the more important and/or synoptic studies of the many produced in these fields in recent years” (14-15). For the theory that “the nation is a transhistorical phenomenon, recurring in many periods and contexts, irrespective of economic, political, and cultural conditions,” she cites as primary architects J. Armstrong ( Nations before Nationalism [Chapel Hill, 1982]) and especially A. Smith ( The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism [Hanover, 2000], 34-50).

This school of political theorists, known as the “perennialists” or “primordialists,” provides the backbone of Shumate’s hermeneutic framework. She does the heavy theoretical lifting on page 14-15, where she claims that “according to the ‘perennialists,’ particular nations, national identities, and even nationalisms may come and go, but the phenomenon is universal.” Shumate adapts this interpretive schema to her own search for continuities of rhetoric, and in so doing allows for the use of contemporary sociology and its methodologies. But I am not sure why incorporating the perennialist theory into her reading was necessary—why cannot similarities across eras be instructive and worth studying in their own right, without having to imply that the comparands possess any transhistorical unity? I think that ultimately “continuity” may be a confusing term to use as the dominant interpretive metaphor in an investigation of historical categories, since it can signify both an unbroken tradition (e.g. a “continuous” narrative), as well as resemblances that recur in spite of other differences; we could hypothetically describe “continuities” between objects, concepts and arguments that are manifestly not stamped from the same template.

At the end of the day, I doubt that we can find a template for modern nationalism in Roman “proto-nationalism.” Some symbolic continuity with imperial self-representations could possibly be detected. More or less everyone borrowed something from the Romans, including the Russians under Peter the Great. But this was more by way of claiming glory and asserting one’s pretension as the heirs of Rome. As for nationalism, the case would have to be even weaker.

I would make a strong case for the modernity of nationalism. Imperialism is older, different, more ambiguous, and was possibly more inspired by the Roman example. Nevertheless, in many instances the legacy of Roman republicanism must have been of greater importance than Roman imperialism. For example, the Florentines and others were interested not so much in Rome’s emperors or dictators, as they were interested in republican Rome as a way of justifying their struggle for city independence from the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy.6 Republican discourse was influential in reviving the idea of patriotism, understood as the attachment to one’s city-state or place of birth. But nationalism—the idea that the state should be founded on popular sovereignty—was different, if always clearly related to Northern European readings of the Florentines.7 Nationalism is much more modern and more related to the rise of civic consciousness and the struggle for parliamentary representation. Be that as it may, if the Florentines chose to emulate republican Rome—how could we deny the ability of Rome’s successors to construct their own identities from whatever parts of Rome and Roman discourse they perceived as serving their aims?

One could argue, then, that a defect of this book is an over-reliance on the perennialist school for its sociological and theoretical underpinnings, a school which is hardly as well-established or respected as Shumate would lead us to believe.8 Nonetheless, this is a provocative, serious, well-written and well-executed monograph, that rewards the reader with persuasive and original readings of Horace, Juvenal, and Tacitus. Most importantly, Shumate challenges her readers to revise their suppositions about the relevance of Classics—and may transform their ability to do so—by providing a rich bibliography and consideration of contemporary critical work on nationalism, imperialism, and othering.9


1. Cf. page 7: “In fact the templates for these ‘modern’ discourses [sc. nationalism and imperialism] were forged in their essentials by the early Roman imperial period… what can be discerned are…interlocking sets of general rhetorical principles which are remarkably persistent from antiquity to our era in spite of radical differences.” See further pages 13, 40, and 82-3.

2. Passim, but especially the introduction, page 7 and pages 15-16: “This book’s contribution is in writing Rome into these studies [sc. of nationalism, imperialism and post-colonialism] in a way that lengthens their perspective and invites reformulation of some of their basic assumptions;” similarly on page 65: “In dating this development [of nationalist ideology] to the 19th century, [Mosse] betrays the historian of modern Europe’s typical blind spot to ancient precedent.”

3. C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley, 2000); G. Woolf, Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (Cambridge, 1998); R. MacMullen, Romanization in the Time of Augustus (New Haven, 2000). See Shumate pages 14-15. For Shumate this is a political question: “In a sense Roman social historians participate in this revision when they interpret Romanization as creative cultural exchange (for example, Woolf 1998, MacMullen 2000)… or analyze… how provincials actively consented in their own subordination (Ando 2000).” She argues such studies “have a depoliticizing effect that lets classical antiquity off the hook for some of its more pernicious inventions,” and that they can be read as a “subtle apology for the Empire.” This point (as Shumate acknowledges) was famously made by C. Martindale ( Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception [Cambridge, 1993]) in his analysis of Parry’s “Two Voices” of Vergil’s Aeneid,” (A. Parry, Arion 2 [1963], 33-80).

4. It should be noted, however, that this conversation is addressed not to a citizen of the city proper, but to a Roman provincial (15.1-2 Quis nescit, Volusi Bithynice, qualia demens/ Aegyptos portenta colat?). This might suggest a more dynamic model, even within Juvenal’s narrative, for the production of ideology: it seems that provincials carry out a process of identity construction and othering similar to that of the urban elite.

5. “No one would argue that the ancient and modern worlds are not radically different places and that in studying antiquity we should not be cautious about assimilating the former to the latter, always conscientious of the anachronism that can result from casting ancient cultures in familiar terms and not taking them from our own. But this caution should not blind us to the common threads where they do exist.”

6. On the significance of Roman republicanism to the political thought of Renaissance Florence, see H. Th. van Veen, “Republicanism in the Visual Propaganda of Cosimo I de’ Medici,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 55 (1992), 200-209; especially useful is the edited volume Machiavelli and Republicanism, ed. by G. Bock, Q. Skinner, and M. Viroli (Cambridge, 1993).

7. For the centrality of Republicanism to modern European political discourse, Republicanism: a Shared European Heritage (edited by M. van Gelderen and Q. Skinner [Cambridge, 2002]) provides many articles meriting study; particularly incisive are “Empire and Liberty: a Republican Dilemma,” by David Armitage, pages 29-45, and D. Winch “Commercial Realities, Republican Principles,” 293-309.

8. For Shumate’s representation of the perennialist school as a non-contested authority, see the introduction passim but especially page 7: “Anthony Smith, the prominent scholar of modern nationalism,” etc. Against the idea that perennialists such as Smith and Armstrong constitute a well established consensus, see C. Kidd’s discussion in British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (Cambridge U. Press, 1999), 3-4: “The various broad churches of modernism are opposed by the primordialists, led by Anthony Smith, who believe that the modernist approach has led to a neglect of important continuities in the long-term evolution of national consciousness… Smith denies the contention that nations are ‘invented’, but his primordialism is qualified by the concession that modern nationhood, which draws on deep ethnic roots, is nevertheless not a direct continuation of older forms of identity, but is rather ‘reconstructed’ out of pre-existing materials. …Quite apart from this debate over the historic provenance of nationalisms, there is the related issue of whether they correspond to underlying and enduring national ‘essences.’ Those scholars who advance essentialist interpretations of nationhood are, in academic terms, if not by the cruder criteria which reign in the public domain, an uninfluential minority.” For a different interpretation of the domain and purpose of imperial history, see the work now on “New Empire studies,” as in A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660-1840 (ed. K. Wilson [Cambridge, 2004]). Wilson imagines what a fully integrated imperial history of Britain might look like, and aims to deliberately overthrow the “old” imperial history by casting light on how empire defined Britain, rather than continuing to focus on how the British imposed their will on subjected people and places. Cf. also Wilson’s “Old Imperialisms and New Imperial Histories: Rethinking the History of the Present,” Radical History Review (2006), 211-34, and now also J. Connolly, The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome (Princeton, 2007).

9. I have benefited much from the criticism and discussion given by my Oberlin colleague Veljko Vujacic: I refer the reader to his magisterial survey of the sociology of nationalism in The Encyclopedia of Nationalism, ed. by A. Motyl, Volume 2, (Academic Press, 2001), 693-818.