BMCR 2011.03.27

Le ragioni del sangue: storie di incesto e fratricidio nella declamazione latina. Studi latini 71

, , Le ragioni del sangue: storie di incesto e fratricidio nella declamazione latina. Studi latini 71. Napoli: Loffredo Editore, 2009. 207. ISBN 9788875643881. €14.00 (pb).

Brescia and Lentano, authors of several previous studies of Roman declamation,1 here offer an anthropological investigation of declamation’s “articolazione fondamentale del sistema formativo romano” (7). The first part of the book (chs. 1-3) lays bare the cultural “rules” that guide two of the pseudo-Quintilianic Declamationes Minores (286 and 291). The latter part examines the stepmother, one of the traditional villains of declamation, in the context of the accounts of Catiline’s murder of his son (ch. 4); and concludes with a study of Seneca Controversia 6.8 (ch. 5).

In Minor Declamation 286, a man rapes his absent brother’s fiancée, thereby triggering a familiar declamatory situation in which a rape victim may choose either to execute or marry her rapist. The woman chooses marriage; her new husband then catches his returning brother in adultery with his former fiancée and kills him; their father now disowns his surviving son. Minor Declamation 291 features a different setup that leads to the same conclusion of adultery and fratricide. A man grows sick with love for his brother’s wife; his father persuades the husband to give his wife to his brother; as in Minor Declamation 286, the new husband kills both brother and wife upon finding them in adultery and is accordingly disowned.

Brescia and Lentano analyze each element of these related declamations through comparison to a wide range of parallel Greek and Roman narratives. The story of Antiochus and Stratonice, in which an indulgent father also attempts to cure his son’s love-sickness, provides one of the models for Minor Declamation 291. Senecan tragedy, often studied as a parallel to Roman declamation,2 offers a similar narrative of incest and fratricide involving Atreus and Thyestes (though neither subsequently faces his father in court). Theseus and Hippolytus are also drawn into fatal conflict through suspicion that they share the same sexual partner. Both declamation and Senecan tragedy relate the prohibition against adultery to fears of turbatio sanguis and incerta proles, themes Lentano has pursued elsewhere in greater detail.3

In both of these declamations, the apparently good intentions of fathers pave the road to hell for their families. This study’s second chapter provides a variety of answers to the father who begins Minor Declamation 291 with the question of whether he should be seuerus or facilis. Though limiting their legal options to disowning ( abdicatio), declamation offers a range of personae for fathers to employ, and their efforts to perform indulgence or severity may be interpreted as genuine or impersonated. Though a mother’s relationship to her son may be “vertical” (as members of different generations), equal subjection to the power of the paterfamilias also makes the relationship “horizontal”. Indulgence is therefore seen as a mother’s prerogative, one which the father usurps when he attempts to act indulgently toward his son. The “horizontal” relationship between brothers (ch. 3) leaves both as rivals for control when the father no longer exercises his clearly delineated authority, and thus sharing women (as in these declamations), a throne (as in Senecan tragedy), or an inheritance can prompt fatal conflicts. Similarity between brothers can also inspire unyielding devotion, as in the declamatory cases where they risk death to ransom one another.

The second half of the book offers two case studies of declamatory themes. Catiline was accused of murdering his son in order to please his new wife Aurelia Orestilla. Chapter 4 investigates this stepmother’s affinity with the saeua nouerca of Roman poetry and declamation and the literary crossfertilization between declamation and the extant accounts of Catiline’s deed in other genres. As in many other Greek and Roman literary genres,4 the murder of a son either by a stepmother or in collusion with a stepmother is one of the most common themes in declamation. For Brescia, a new wife’s entry into the house disrupts the bond between father and son as the blood relationship is set in conflict with the marriage relationship. The book concludes with an examination of Seneca Controversia 6.8, in which a Vestal Virgin writes a line of poetry expressing admiration for the married life and is accordingly charged with incestum. This declamation’s treatment of specifically Roman concerns stands out among the multitude of themes drawn from Greek historiography and Greek New Comedy. What prompts particular interest is the declaimers’ discussion of the relationship between the author’s verse and her life, a question familiar from Roman lyric, elegy, satire, and epigram. Lentano argues persuasively that the declaimers, some of whom faced the displeasure of emperors, employ the case of the Vestal as a means of discussing their own precarious situation.

Brescia and Lentano effectively demonstrate that many of the same conflicts treated in better-known texts also animate the often-neglected genre of Roman declamation. The book is required reading for scholars of Roman declamation, and its discussion of a well-chosen array of literary and legal sources that illustrate reactions to violence within the Roman family should also make it attractive to a wider range of readers.


1. Graziana Brescia, La sfida impossibile: Ps. Quint. Declamazioni minori 317 (Bari 2006); Il « miles » alla sbarra: Declamazioni maggiori, 3 / [Quintiliano] (Bari 2004); Mario Lentano, L’eroe va a scuola. La figura del ‘vir fortis’ nella declamazione latine (Napoli 1998).

2. See Alfredo Casamento, Finitimus oratori poeta: declamazioni retoriche e tragedie senecane (Palermo 2002).

3. Mario Lentano, La prova del sangue. Storie di identità e storie di legittimità nella cultura latina (Bologna 2007). (Reviewed at BMCR 2008.10.14)

4. See Patricia A. Watson, Ancient stepmothers: myth, misogyny, and reality (Leiden 1995).