BMCR 2018.11.41

Roman Error: Classical Reception and the Problem of Rome’s Flaws. Classical presences

, Roman Error: Classical Reception and the Problem of Rome's Flaws. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. x, 284. ISBN 9780198803034. $85.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This interesting book of essays (with a useful introduction by the editor) examines both perceived flaws in Roman life and also the flawed ways in which this flawed past has been received. Those essays in this book that deal with US history and politics in particular explore the ways in which people use a view of the ancient world as part of their own attempts to judge and change the world around them. If opponents in a cultural debate are using the same Roman data to draw diametrically opposing conclusions—about slavery for instance—then that says something about their methods of inference but it is not merely a matter of cultural taste. ‘Nothing prevents todays’ “use” from becoming tomorrow’s “abuse” and vice versa’ says Dufallo wisely (13).

As with any collection of essays, some pieces are more convincing than others. The political uses of Roman error in the essays of Malamud and Connolly are perhaps the most striking parts of the book for demonstrating that the theoretical issues surrounding reception can and do have effects in people’s lives. The essays concerned with literature (rather than ‘life’) lead the reader into areas where Classical scholars do not often tread, and I especially enjoyed the pieces on Hawthorne, James and Hugo. The book begins from a theoretical assumption about the nature of reception, but the text itself is more concerned with the practical applications of this theory than with endless theorizing for its own sake. There is some cross- referencing between the contributors but this book is largely a collection of independent papers rather than a rigidly marshalled assembly of interlocking parts. This is natural: the topic covered is huge and the authorial choices make it inevitable (and appropriate) that the book assembles a set of disparate and transitory viewpoints.

In the first essay Vout looks at the Romans failing to emulate what they saw as the perfection of Greek art. Roman rhetoricians blamed Greek art for ‘turning the citizen-body into grasping individuals whose love of luxury was the downside of empire’ (16), supplying a concept of ‘error’ implicit in Greek art, and Roman art-acquisition also became an ugly form of the commodification of beauty. Vout merges ethics and aesthetics (‘how could morality not come into it?’ (16)) by bringing in the bronze bull of Phalaris and the cow of Pasiphae, but the misuse of art by tyrannical overlords is (to my mind) more a reflection of their philistine quest for sadistic novelty and pleasure rather than a direct judgement on the art itself. When Plutarch censured ( Moralia 360D) Apelles’ portrait of Alexander wielding a thunderbolt (because the ruler never actually wielded a thunderbolt), Vout insists (p.26) that ‘there must be more to Plutarch’s criticism than the issue of accuracy’ and suggests that the artist has a ‘productively destabilising relationship to power’, which argues that the artist has the power to misuse the ruler’s image. The essay ends with the wonderful example of the Caryatids copied for Hadrian’s villa that (being now flanked by squat silenoi) re-evaluate the Athenian maidens as maenads. Hadrian knew how to make his gardens more than Verres’ gallery of plundered artifacts and he knew how to present the past in new ways.

The pair of essays that follow look at amicitia. Bizer examines Montaigne’s relationship with La Boétie, whose work On Voluntary Servitude was seen as subversive both in elevating friendship above obedience to rulers and in his assessment of friendship as linked to virtue and freedom. This ‘virtuous’ reading of friendship is traced back to Cicero’s de amicitia where friends do only good to and for each other: if Gracchus had asked Blaesus to do wrong then he would no longer be a friend. Williams’ essay on amicitia begins with the disapproval of ancient homosexuality as shown in Montaigne (who thought that the Romans corrected the Greek ‘error’ of homosexual friendships), and in C.S.Lewis—whose idealisation of Platonic same-sex friendships is based on a dismissal of any homosexual element in Roman culture (59-60). He discusses Epstein’s view that the Romans got it wrong by making amicitia political rather than personal, networking rather than virtue, and here he could well have brought in Horace Satires 1.3 for a deeper reading of amicitia. Williams ends his essay with an interesting account of the linguistic phenomenon of ‘false friends’.

The next pair of essays look at US history. Connolly shows how a Classical education was a marker and maintainer of class distinctions and yet revolutionary movements made use of paradigmatic classical names: ‘Brutus’ and ‘Cato’ were slogans and symbols of self-sacrifice in the war of independence, with the British presumably seen as a Tarquin or a Nero. Revolutionaries realised that it helps to assure people that the ‘new’ is in fact ‘old’, and so reception becomes revolution. The whole concept of freedom (collective/individual, negative/positive) is highly contentious: and Connolly shows how thinkers such as Hobbes, Constant and Burke pointed out many conceptual errors. Malamud turns to the rich field of slavery: Roman slavery was used in the US as both metaphor for their own colonial subjection to Great Britain and also as providing documentary material which could fuel both sides of the abolitionist debate. Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the Amistad revolt, was painted wearing vaguely classical garb, while the anti- abolitionists painted a picture of the captain being murdered by barbarous savages, and a ‘hanging committee’ (sic) was set up to decide whether to display the painting of Pieh at all. Jefferson could excuse US slavery as less barbaric than Roman, only to be told that ex-slaves in Rome had a social mobility denied to free blacks and that slavery commodified human beings with the ‘alchemy of turning blood into gold’. Tacitus’ ‘noble savage’ Germans were compared to slaves, and the questions were batted back and forth: was slavery an economic and social disease which sickened Rome into idleness and decadence? or was it needed to free up artists to create a Pantheon? Were Roman latifundia a model for slave-plantations? Malamud’s essay ends where Connolly begins, with the figure of Cato as the prototype of the southern Confederate fighting in vain against a Yankee Caesar.

The following four essays all deal with literature. Edwards’ superbly written essay on Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun shows the American’s vision of Rome as a place which is both repulsive and yet at the same time entirely compelling. Rome has ‘errors’ (of refusing Christianity in the first place and then of turning it into Roman Catholicism) and the novel uses the imagery of error a good deal as characters get lost, and the catacombs are a labyrinth. The brutality and religious error of pagan antiquity, with ‘all the weary and dreary Past piled on the back of the Present’, makes this novel a dark reading of the past, but this dark side of Rome is the ‘dark chasm’ of the self and Hawthorne sees both as essential to artistic creativity.

Formisano looks at the novella Venus im Pelz of Sacher-Masoch as the exploration of a condition which needed an erroneous antiquity in order to establish itself. The novel sees Rome as a paradise of cruelty: Wanda’s speech (p. 162) draws on a caricature of pitiless Roman life, where the well off have slaves to chuck into fishponds and gladiators to fight each other during dinner. This is slim pickings, however, and not enough to sustain a whole chapter: Formisano goes on to compare this novella with the tales of Pygmalion in Ovid and of Lucius in Apuleius but the argument here is less than compelling, and his reading of Venus in Lucretius can certainly be challenged. Did Lucretius present ‘a new way of life’ (163) in a Rome already familiar with Epicureanism? Venus was not in any way ‘the forebear of Epicurus’ and her role in embracing Mars is hardly ‘generative’.

Lowrie and Vinken offer a nuanced account of Victor Hugo. They begin with the question of whether civil war is a necessary blood-letting to establish stability—a sort of ostracism with added violence—and make the point that Hugo ‘presses upon us the responsibility to ask whether aspects of Roman antiquity rectify and redeem the erroneous aspects’ (181). Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize uses the Roman framework of civil war leading to an Augustan stability, but then shifts to a view of history in Augustinian terms as the quest for the ‘City of God’. Hugo’s novel is seen as a blend of the politics of Rome and the ideals of Augustine: society and history in dialectical development—Roman error in dialogue with itself. This concatenation of received ideas across centuries and cultures works much better than my summary of it would suggest it should and this chapter is one of the most impressive in the book.

Rowe examines Henry James’s Daisy Miller with its sensuous Roman atmosphere and clash of morals and ideals. The dangerous fever in Rome is both a metaphor for moral sickness and also ultimately literal in the novel’s dénouement. References to Romantic poets abound but are surely ironic in this tale: Winterbourne is no Manfred and Daisy is hardly an Astarte. The novel hints at issues of female emancipation and James makes especially good use of the threatening reading of Roman culture in his examination of the conflicts which this issue elicits.

The early cinema made use of Ancient Rome: spectacle without (much) morality and all (un)dressed in a form that shocked and titillated at the same time. Wyke’s essay on the 1911 film The Roman Orgy is excellent. She looks back to the Roman ‘error’ of misrepresentation by damnatio memoriae and sees how this fuelled a vision of the Roman past which is fascinatingly flawed: Elagabalus was turned into a monster by his successor and so the Roman account of his errors is itself erroneous. He is perfect for cinema: Gottfried Mader calls him ‘the grand satrap of pleasure, the cross-dressing, gender-bending, convention-defying showman who turns the Principate…into an amusement park’ and Wyke sees (p. 224) how he is a hybrid of man and woman, east and west, Christianity and polytheism. The film made little use of religion, in fact—the slave is thrown to the lions for scratching Elagabalus’ skin, not for his faith—but the film’s use of lions contributes to the imagery of bestial people being eaten by beasts.

In the final essay Fletcher looks at Narcissus in Ovid, Freud and Julia Kristeva. Freud’s concept of discontent leads to a vision of Rome as a gigantic narcissistic error, self-regarding and ultimately as self-destructive as Narcissus. Kristeva’s view of the need for inner space in the steel city where ‘Plotinus has degenerated into Dallas’ (244) is unpacked and the essay concludes with a reading of Ex Ponto 1.8 with its own contrast of nostalgia for the city versus nostalgia for the countryside. ‘We are warned’, Fletcher concludes, ‘against the error of taking any psychoanalytical reception of antiquity as a totality, rather than as a body of concepts and practice whose development remains ongoing’. It is a fitting way to end a book on the impermanence of cultural reception.

The book is well illustrated with nine monochrome plates and there is a general index as well as a bibliography. The copy-editing is good but I did spot a few errors.1

Some of the translations offered are inelegant: p. 27 ‘failing to have hair and pubic hair any more flawless than…’ is an awkward rendering of non emendatius and the downloaded English translation of Venus im Pelz is less readable by far than the German original. References are omitted for no obvious reason 2. Most quotations are cited in (or translated into) English but the dense epigraph to chapter 7 is printed in the original without translation.

Authors and Titles

Basil Dufallo, Introduction: “Roman Error,” Dangerous and Inspiring
Caroline Vout, The Error of Roman Aesthetics
Marc Bizer, Whose Mistake? The Errors of Friendship in Cicero, La Boétie and Montaigne
Craig Williams, Friends, Romans, Errors: Moments in the Reception of amicitia
Joy Connolly, Past Sovereignty: Roman Freedom for Modern Revolutionaries
Margaret Malamud, Receptions of Rome in Debates on Slavery in the U.S.A.
Catharine Edwards, The Romance of Roman Error: Encountering Antiquity in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun
Marco Formisano, “Im Sinne der Antike”: Masochism as Roman Error in Venus in Furs
Michèle Lowrie and Barbara Vinken, Correcting Rome with Rome: Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize
John Carlos Rowe, The Roman Aura in Henry James’s Daisy Miller: a Study 1878
Maria Wyke, The Pleasures and Punishments of Roman Error: Emperor Elagabalus at the Court of Early Cinema
Richard Fletcher, Psychic Life in the Eternal City: Julia Kristeva and the Narcissism of Rome


1. on p. 18 read ‘should not be’, for ‘should not to be’; p.18n.11 Vitruvius’s text reads argumentationis (as in OLD, not argumentationes). On p.25 ‘Olythian’ should read ‘Olynthian’. On p.45 read ille for illi in Cicero de Amicitia 11. On p.159 ‘jealousy’ is printed as ‘jelaousy’.

2. on p. 117 n.29 we should be given the full reference to Virgil Eclogues 1.6.6, and on p. 125 we ought to be told that the quotation comes from Lucan 1.128.