BMCR 2019.02.08

The Production of Space in Latin Literature

, , The Production of Space in Latin Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. viii, 298. ISBN 9780198768098. $85.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The Production of Space in Latin Literature is an ambitious volume, which aims to tackle both the influence of the spatial within Latin literature and the influence of literature in the production of Roman spaces. Developed from a 2013 conference on ‘Psychogeographies: Space and Place in Latin Literature,’ the volume contains eleven individual chapters ranging in focus from lyric and epic poetry to historiographical and philosophical prose (authors and titles are listed at the end of the review). Thematic threads knit the chapters together: the complexity of Roman space in the interplay between city and empire; Rome as a palimpsest; exile and withdrawal; the literary construction of Rome and empire as contested spaces; and the experience and creation of urban space through individual movement.

What truly promises to unify the volume, however, is the contributors’ embrace of spatial analysis and the theories generated by the ‘spatial turn’ in the Humanities. Fitzgerald and Spentzou claim in their Introduction that Romanists have been lagging behind their Hellenist colleagues in this respect — a somewhat odd claim, given that several of the volume’s authors have contributed to the recent boom in publications on place and space in Latin literature.1 Nonetheless, the papers collected here certainly do engage with an impressive range of spatial theories, including but not limited to Lefebvre’s production of space and rhythmanalysis; de Certeau’s distinction between space and place; Benjamin on Baudelaire and the flâneur; Bakhtin’s chronotope; Soja’s Thirdspace; Foucault’s heterotopia; Debord’s dérive; Maingueneau’s paratopia; and Nora’s lieux de mémoire. Fitzgerald and Spentzou provide lucid explanations of several of these, so less theoretically inclined readers need not despair. What is more, almost all individual chapters succeed in the delicate balancing act of delivering theoretically-informed insights without undue obfuscation.

Co-editor Efrossini Spentzou opens the volume proper with a chapter on elegiac representations of Augustan Rome. She discusses Propertius 3.4 and 2.31/32, as well as Ovid Amores 2.2 and Ars Amatoria Book 1. Drawing on spatial theorists’ interest in ‘thirds’, Spentzou nuances the familiar argument that these poems turn a subversive erotic eye on Augustus’ monuments. In her reading of Propertius 2.31, for example, both the imperial and the amatory act as scripts ordering the poet’s movement through the city. While Propertius delays at the temple of Apollo Palatinus before hastening to Cynthia, however, a third space of possibility opens up. This space is “irreducible to a script of either authority or opposition…being a touch late offers a mirage of freedom” (40). Spentzou concludes that the elegiac, distinct from the amatory and the imperial, occupies this third space — an intriguing idea meriting further investigation.

Diana Spencer’s chapter on Varro continues exploring the divergent spaces opened up by the movement of the individual within the city. Those familiar with Spencer’s growing list of publications on Roman space in the De lingua Latina will not be surprised to learn that this chapter is densely theoretical and challenging to read. What is surprising, given the subject of the volume, is how little space is devoted to Varro’s etymologies for Roman places (the so-called ‘tour of Rome’ constituted by De ling. 5.41-56). Instead, Spencer discusses Varro’s time-words, his ‘textual dérive,’ and his excavation of consumer culture, before arriving at a single example of how he evokes movement through the city. Happily, this final section contains valuable insights into how the text compresses space and time.

Movement is foregrounded again in Jared Hudson’s chapter on the moral implications of vehicular activity in Roman texts, with illustrative passages from Seneca, Horace, Juvenal, Gellius, and Cicero. The chapter is considerably less theoretical than most others in the volume, and it does not engage with space per se. While making the fairly obvious point that Roman authors assign moral valences to modes of transportation (e.g. travelling by litter makes a man a dandy), Hudson does not discuss how different modes of transit organize and constitute the space around them. This seems a missed opportunity. Given that most of the roadway run-ins Hudson examines take place outside the city, it would have been interesting to explore the intersection between vehicular transportation, its moral implications, and the articulation of Italian space by Roman authors.

David Larmour’s chapter on “Juvenal and the Specular City” returns to the interaction of the individual and the Roman cityscape. Combining spatial theory with Lacanian psychology, Larmour argues that Juvenal’s Rome is not just spectacular but also specular. Unstable and unwholesome, it mirrors the alienation and dejection of the satirist-narrator and his reader- spectator. The analysis is perceptive and its relevance to the volume is clear, but the substance of the argument is familiar from Larmour’s previous work.

In the next chapter, Maxine Lewis shifts focus from the literary construction of Roman space to the role of the spatial in constructing character — a move foreshadowed by Hudson’s analysis of the moral valence of modes of transport. Lewis examines how Catullus locates Lesbia in space in the three traditional sections of his corpus: the Nugae, represented by c.37; the Carmina Docta, represented by c.68; and the Epigrams, represented by c.70. She argues that these poems, with their contrasting spatial poetics, construct three distinct Lesbias. Like Hudson, Lewis foregoes serious engagement with spatial theory, and as a consequence her readings lack novelty. She proposes, for example, that “C.37 shows that Catullus could depict places in such a way that the values associated with those places bled over into the characterization of the figures who operated in those locales.” This is perfectly true, but hardly necessary to point out.

Catullus features again in co-editor William Fitzgerald’s contribution, “The Space of the Poem: Imperial Trajectories in Catullus and Horace.” This chapter marks an expansion of the volume’s focus from the city to the city-and-its-empire. Fitzgerald offers close readings of Catullus c.11 and c.46, and Horace Odes 2.11 and 3.5. In the specifics of diction, word order, and enjambment, Fitzgerald finds Catullus and Horace evoking imperial space and thematizing the spatiality of their own poems. Complexity is key: urbs and orbis are intimately bound together as the empire expands in all its diversity and is contracted into the smaller spaces of the city and the confines of the poems themselves. Fitzgerald is by no means the first to draw attention to these poems’ evocation of empire, but this chapter stands out in its success at tracing the mutual constitution of the spatial by the literary and the literary by the spatial.

The next two chapters turn to philosophical texts, and their treatment of Rome and other cities as both historical and semanticized places. Catharine Edwards explores the relationship between the Stoic cosmic city and the places mentioned in Seneca’s prose, in particular Rome and the Bay of Naples. Between the ad Helviam and the Letters, cosmopolitan Rome does double-duty as an earthly approximation of the true Stoic cosmopolis and a sink of iniquity which the philosophically-minded are advised to leave. Therese Fuhrer uncovers a similar dynamic in her chapter on Augustine’s Confessions. Combining Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire and van Gennep’s rite de passage, along with healthy doses of narratology and German spatial theory, Fuhrer shows how the text re-semanticizes each city as a transit point on Augustinus’ personal journey to purification. Yet the historical semantics of the three cities remain active in the background as well, so that Carthage, for example, functions as both a political, economic, and cultural centre and a space for young Augustinus’ erotic and intellectual adventures.

The following chapters also function as a diptych, offering contrasting perspectives on imperial space and its others in Tacitus. Shreyaa Bhatt on the Annales is the more optimistic of the two. Bhatt presents three case studies: Lucius Piso’s speech imagining a (republican) utopia outside the city; Vibius Serenus’ desire to return to exile rather than stay in Rome; and Tiberius’ withdrawal to Capri, where he can indulge his perversions. These episodes destabilize both a longstanding literary discourse making exile into a place of alienation and the imperial use of exile as a spatial manifestation of sovereign power. Bhatt argues that Tacitus constructs ‘home’ as a fluid concept, such that Rome can become a place of alienation and exile can be homely. The chapter concludes by boldly reengaging with contemporary theory and suggesting that Tacitus has something to teach the likes of Hardt and Negri and Lefebvre: namely, that the hegemonic production of imperial space is not so smooth that it cannot be disrupted by the lived experience of exile.

Richard Alston’s chapter on Tacitus’ Agricola is far bleaker in its conclusions. Through close readings of Agricola 21 (on the ‘civilization’ of the Britons) and 30-32 (Calgacus’ famous speech), Alston argues that Tacitus constructs a totalizing Roman Empire with no spatial or temporal outside. The only places of refuge are the interior psychological spaces of the educated elite — where humanitas can be preserved, but only through acquiescence to the inhumanity of the imperial regime. These elite spaces of freedom are thus both vulnerable and flawed, and Alston indicts those of us Classicists who practice ‘Tacitean politics’ by disengaging from the contemporary world in order to preserve our own version of timeless humanitas.

Victoria Rimell concludes the volume with a chapter on the Latin poetic topos of the seething strait. She argues that this is a crucial image for 1st-century poets — a violent Romanization of Callimachus’ well-worn track that simultaneously characterizes imperial space and the imperial aesthetic. The chapter covers considerable ground: selections from Ovid’s Heroides and Tristia; Statius’ Achilleid, Thebaid, and Silvae; Catullus 64; and Lucan’s Bellum Civile. The prose is dense and difficult, but well worth the effort. Like Fitzgerald, Rimell succeeds admirably in simultaneously exploring both the literary construction of space and the spatial articulation of the literary.

The text of the volume is clean and accurate, and there is a brief but serviceable general index. In place of a general bibliography, each chapter has its own extensive works cited list. In sum, this is a valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship devoted to intersections between Latin literature and Roman space and place. Individually and as a collection, the papers make a compelling case for the incorporation of spatial theory into the philologist’s analytical toolkit.

Authors and titles

William Fitzgerald / Efrossini Spentzou, Introduction
1. Efrossini Spentzou, Propertius’ Aberrant Itineraries: Fleeting Moments in the Eternal City.
2. Diana Spencer, Varro’s Roman Ways: Metastasis and Etymology
3. Jared Hudson, Obviam : The Space of Vehiculation in Latin Literature
4. David H. J. Larmour, Juvenal in the Specular City
5. Maxine Lewis, Gender, Geography, and Genre: Catullus’ Constructions of Lesbia in Space and Time
6. William Fitzgerald, The Space of the Poem: Imperial Trajectories in Catullus and Horace
7. Catharine Edwards, On Not Being in Rome: Exile and Displacement in Seneca’s Prose
8. Therese Fuhrer, Carthage — Rome — Milan: ‘ Lieux de passage ’ in Augustine’s Confessions
9. Shreyaa Bhatt, Exiled in Rome: The Writing of Other Spaces in Tacitus’ Annales
10. Richard Alston, The Utopian City in Tacitus’ Agricola
11. Victoria Rimell, Rome’s Dire Straits: Claustrophobic Seas and imperium sine fundo


1. E.g. C. Edwards (1996), Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City (Cambridge); D. Larmour and D. Spencer (eds.) (2007), Sites of Rome: Time, Space, Memory (Oxford); V. Rimell (2015), The Closure of Space in Roman Poetics: Empire’s Inward Turn (Cambridge).