BMCR 2012.01.02

Reflections of Romanity: Discourses of Subjectivity in Imperial Rome. Classical Memories/Modern Identities

, , Reflections of Romanity: Discourses of Subjectivity in Imperial Rome. Classical Memories/Modern Identities. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011. xv, 247. ISBN 9780814211496. $59.95.

[Table of Contents at the End of the Review] I had looked forward to reading this book in the expectation of encountering a new argument about ancient conceptions of the self somewhat more theoretically adventurous than Christopher Gill’s works. While the piece as a whole does not achieve the coherence of Gill’s or of other major studies pertaining to the ancient self,1 the book is thought-provoking, and chapters three and six are notable essays. Reflections of Romanity reads texts of diverse genres from the early empire alongside modern works of critical theory (8). These exploratory readings “circle around issues of selfhood and identity” (9). Most of the ancient passages the authors discuss are from Pliny, Lucan, and Statius, although Seneca and Tacitus are there as well, and Silius receives brief but illuminating attention. Alston and Spentzou organize the work into five essays, an epilogue, and an introduction. In the introduction, the authors describe their approach as “often impressionistic, and always personal” (9). They briefly justify a Lacanian critical stance, but the role that Lacan plays throughout the rest of the work varies. While chapter three interweaves the Lacanian theoretical framing with insightful interpretation of multiple ancient texts in a developed argument, some of the chapters (especially five) have only a tenuous linkage with the Lacanian model. The central essays consider textual representations of the self under the following categories: the self in solitude; the self in conflict with emotion; the relationship between self and spouse; history, memory, and the self; and the self in relation to empire. This is a logical structure with an expanding concentric progression. The book would have benefitted, though, from tighter connection of ideas overall, especially within chapters. The introduction foregrounds Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. In a compelling narrative, the authors disavow Foucault’s approach to selfhood. With references to Foucault’s major works, Alston and Spentzou describe their rationale for rejecting Foucauldian models of subjectivity (10-17). Instead, the authors turn toward Lacanian theory because it offers a less historically contingent model of selfhood. Although Alston and Spentzou claim to consistently “invoke the Lacanian model” (18), the engagement with Lacanian theory, which is superficial in the introduction, is sporadic throughout the rest of the volume. The authors’ relation of the Lacanian self to the social order or “symbolic economy” here owes considerably more to Slavoj Žižek than their single footnote (19 n.47) would indicate.

In chapter two, the authors argue that Pliny’s and Lucan’s writings indicate a more profound separation from the social system than Senecan withdrawal, and that these ancient discourses parallel modern texts of alienation. The chapter begins with a description of the system of amicitia and its discontents (30-37). During the early empire, the system allowed for a social mobility that blurred class boundaries and distinctions between public and private. In addition, deception for the sake of gain affected both political system and social order. Descriptions of Pliny’s house and landscaping reflect the assertion of self as independent of and dominant over even the natural order. The authors suggest that Pliny portrays himself as a hero who triumphs over nature, and they then transition quickly to the character of Caesar in Lucan’s Pharsalia. Lucan’s Caesar is a complete and systematic upheaval in the Roman social order, an absolute. Thus, the authors argue, he is “a manifestation of the sublime” (56). Several block quotations pertaining to the abject and the sublime follow, with almost no analysis and weak connection to Lucan. The chapter concludes with a comparison of Lucan’s Caesar to the Nietzschean Übermensch.

Chapter three argues that while Seneca and Pliny perpetuate a dehumanizing hierarchy in their attitudes toward emotion, in Statius, love and grief dissolve boundaries to establish emotional connection between self and others. Taken as a whole, the chapter is well argued and developed, and it connects meaningfully with Lacanian theory both directly and via Kristeva. The most compelling arguments focus on the Thebaid with reference to the Lacanian Real, a psychic register beyond language that can disrupt social order. In Statius, ethical connection with another can be a force for disrupting dehumanizing social structures.

Chapter four, which is not as successful as the preceding chapter in integrating interpretation with theory, focuses on the conjugal relationship as a nexus between private and public. The authors argue that problematic conjugal relationships in Statius, Lucan, and Pliny reflect “an ethical individualism embedded in respect for the other” (112). The first section summarizes Argia’s conjugal relation with Polynices in the Thebaid. The next offers a similar treatment of Cato’s barren relation to Marcia in contrast with Pompey’s effusive love for Cornelia in the Pharsalia. The authors then turn to Pliny’s relations with his wife and her family as an example of the socially embedded nature of Roman marriage in the early empire. The preceding treatments combine liberal plot summary with interpretation. The authors then invoke modern theoretical narratives that resonate with the “tension between individuals and social codes” (132). Lacan receives only a passing mention. The authors spend more time discussing Jean-Luc Nancy’s argument about singularity as a quality resulting from continuous negotiation with plurality. In the Thebaid and Pharsalia, love motivates ethical judgments and connection with others, whereas Pliny’s descriptions of the conjugal relation maintain his dominant role and foreclose Calpurnia’s singularity.

The core of the fifth chapter, which unfortunately is sandwiched between a long summary of Pliny’s letters and a contrived conclusion, has something interesting to say about early empire attitudes toward the past. Following the summary of select letters by Pliny, the authors argue that Pliny sees a “modified moral continuity” (152) between republic and empire that enables his identification with Cicero. In contrast, Tacitus’s perspective on history posits a disjunction with the republican past, while Lucan finds strength to resist in the collective memory of this past. The Thebaid depicts the possibility of an escape from the past: a world in which freedom from the deterministic power of memories empowers the transformation of identity. Yet history prevails over this mirage. The authors then reread the Thebaid ’s fatalism through Gilles Deleuze in terms of the triumph of Chronos over Aion: Chronos being time as a bounded and constraining social construct, Aion being time as an eternal continuity. The authors might have concluded the chapter with this interesting interpretation, but instead they make a superficial gesture at connecting their arguments to Lacan through Badiou. This is a jarring transition, and dropping Lacan’s name in the conclusion, when the authors make no use of Lacanian theories throughout this chapter, merely emphasizes the lack of authentic coherence.

The sixth chapter argues that the state does not create the symbolic economy, but that individuals have a psychological need to associate the nation with the symbolic economy. The authors read Silius’s Punica as a narrative in which the typical binaries such as barbarian/Roman and villain/hero break down. Silius describes Hannibal in terms that resonate both with Aeneas and with Turnus. The characterization of Hannibal raises the possibility that barbarian values have been incorporated within Rome, and that true Roman values exist only in the past or outside the empire’s power. Tacitus’s ethnographical descriptions reveal similar complexities in Roman thinking about (Roman?) barbarians. The extended interpretation of Calgacus’s rebellion is nuanced and compelling. The authors conclude that the ancient texts explore a third space that is neither barbarian nor committed to Rome. A brief epilogue concludes that it is emotional connection at the individual level that resists history and empire, and that “the ethical community could only be found in the disengagement from society” (230).

Reflections of Romanity is more a pastiche combining excellent and less successful pieces than a focused argument. In addition to contributing at least two interesting and theoretically informed essays about imperial literature, the book unveils several suggestive ideas and connections that others might choose to pursue in greater depth: in this it succeeds in one of its stated goals. If the project as a whole is not as tightly connected as other works pertaining to the ancient self, it is partly because Alston and Spentzou set themselves such a challenging labor in treating ancient textual evidence from multiple genres in juxtaposition with diverse modern theorists. Despite the book’s flaws, there are stimulating ideas here that await further exploration.

Table of Contents

Series Editors’ Foreword
Chapter 1 Introduction. Talking to Strangers: Classical Readings and the Modern Self 1
Chapter 2 Home Alone: Terror and Power 27
Chapter 3 Death and Love: Rationality and Passion 65
Chapter 4 Private Partners and Family Dramas 107
Chapter 5 Living with the Past: Tradition, Invention, and History 141
Chapter 6 Imperial Dreams: Being Roman in a World Empire 193
Chapter 7 Epilogue 225
Bibliography 231
Index 241


1. For example: Gill, Christopher. 2006. The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bartsch, Shadi, and David Wray, eds. 2009. Seneca and the Self. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press; Bartsch, Shadi. 2006. The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.