BMCR 2020.07.26

Fides in Flavian literature

, , , Fides in Flavian literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019. xi, 328 p.. ISBN9781487505530 $75.00.

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Working from the claim that “fides encompassed a semantic range that included anything from the most intimate of personal and family relationships to international law and war, and … developed in concert with the nation state of Rome itself” (3) this volume surveys the concept of fides—in its many manifestations, public and private—in a range of Flavian, or arguably Flavian, literature and a smattering of plastic arts. It is divided into four sections following the introduction: “Fides: Flavian Politics,” which includes essays on the intersection of poetry and propaganda in the principate, as well as Josephus and Statius’ Silvae; “Fides: Flavian Myth,” which covers Valerius Flaccus and Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid; “Fides: Flavian History,” which contains two essays on Silius Italicus’ Punica and two on the pseudo-Senecan Octavia; and “Revisiting Flavian Fides,” a single essay on Tacitus.

The argument, broadly, is that under the Flavian dynasty fides itself (or herself) became central to imperial self-fashioning and propaganda. In the climate that followed the civil wars after the death of Nero, ties to Augustan and earlier virtutes were especially important, and the Flavians chose to elevate fides in particular in order to negotiate their relationship with the Roman past. The volume does not claim to be exhaustive, either in defining fides in every situation, or in spotlighting every Flavian author. Instead, it attempts to “[use] fides as a tool for thinking about the broad cultural changes and anxieties of the Flavian period” (8).

The last decade or decade and a half has seen a flourishing in Flavian studies, and indeed the names in this volume will be familiar to specialists. The editors, together and singly, have been the force behind many panels and conferences on Flavian matters (including the conference “Fides in Flavian Literature” at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen in 2015 and the identically named panel at the 2016 SCS, from which events most of these contributions are drawn), and, beyond that trio, it is no surprise to see, e.g., Marco Fucecchi writing on the Punica, or Alison Keith on women in epic. For the Flavian scholar, this volume will largely repackage familiar concepts; for a more general audience, the scope may be simultaneously overly narrow and too various. Admirably, the essays largely keep to the brief: this book does what it says on the tin.

A preoccupation of several of the contributions is the often uneasy ground fides occupies between public and private, and the increasing overlap of these spheres under the late Julio-Claudians and Flavians, when the family lives of the emperors were of urgent political moment. Neil Bernstein, writing on Statius’ Silvae, usefully defines in his first paragraph what he suggests that his subject means by his appeal to fides: “voluntary, enthusiastic participation in structures of domination” (68). He then outlines the types of fides he will investigate: “loyal subjects’ service to the emperor Domitian; a freedman’s loyalty to his patron (who in some cases is the same emperor); and a wife’s loyalty to her husband” (68). This essay stands out for its clarity and adherence to theme, although the pendant about Claudian and Stilicho (while intriguing) is strange. Alison Keith likewise is concerned with these public and private manifestations of fides, and introduces, in her piece on the Thebaid, a more gendered reading of these issues. For her, the private virtues (fides and pietas) of the Thebaid’s women bring about state catastrophes, showing the “deformative pressure Statius… brings to bear on all the virtues in his civil war epic” (117).

Also in this public-private vein are the two contributions on the pseudo-Senecan Octavia. Inevitably concerned with the feminine side of fides, these both treat expectations for and anxieties about imperial women, whose public role is newly expanded. Lauren Donovan Ginsberg approaches the question from an elegiac perspective, relying on Propertian intertexts, while Emma Buckley starts from a state-centered position, using Seneca’s De Clementia to explicate the failures of fides in Nero’s marriages. More surprisingly, this concern with private life arises in one of the two treatments of Silius’ Hannibal. Fucecchi treats Hannibal’s commitment to fides both in the context of his marriage and family life as well as his loyalty to his homeland in order to argue that Silius portrays Carthage as a place of fides against which Rome’s self-conception is constructed.

Another key grouping is the several essays that concentrate on collocations of fides and pietas (including the aforementioned Keith contribution). Raymond Marks’s treatment of the religious aspects of fides in the Punicais well argued, explicating, for example, the influence of the fetiales on Hannibal’s declaration of war (174). Somewhat less convincing is Antony Augoustakis’s argument that fides, with pietas, “becomes easily manipulated and inane in the course of Statius’ [Thebaid]” (132). This contribution motivates many and varied quotations, but they are under-explained.

Likewise suffering from an excessive variety of evidence, the first contribution, by Claire Stocks, reads the uptick in appearances of Fides on Flavian coinage against conceptions of perfidia in a range of poetry, mostly pre-Flavian. The marshalling of disparate authors is an intriguing attempt to wrestle with a large and complicated question. Its conclusion, however—that fides is a key word or concept in recoveries after civil war—is fairly weak, and the sheer variety of sources renders the argument somewhat slippery. This is, surprisingly, the only piece to deal substantively with Martial, who is elsewhere relegated to endnotes (as in Keith’s essay on the Thebaid).

More problematic are some of the pieces that expressly look outside the Flavian context. Helen Lovatt’s chapter on Valerius Flaccus uses fides in many, somewhat tenuously connected, meanings, including the romantic and metaliterary, with the implication that these tend to act in the same way to convey a sense of “the belatedness and political anxieties” of Flavian epic (86). The arguments about mythical authority would also benefit from less reliance on claims about intertextuality and more quotation of Apollonius, who appears precisely once. Dániel Kozák on the Achilleid similarly provides a largely surface comparison of that incomplete poem with the Iliad.

When moving to history proper, Salvador Bartera’s contribution on Tacitus is too schematic, treating word counts and isolated instances, though his argument—“Tacitus… appears to reflect the Flavians’ concern with fides”—is clearly presented (257). Steve Mason’s essay on Josephus, for its part, admits that fides cannot be a category in that Greek history, and then dismisses the possible substitution of πίστις in favor of a summary of the veracity or verisimilitude of the appearances of the Flavians in Josephus’ oeuvre. To tie the chapter in to the volume, there is a gesture at the end to Josephus’ “loyalty” towards the Flavians, but this is neither defined satisfactorily nor is it heralded. As one of only two essays on a prose source, and the only one to deal with a Greek author, this contribution needed to do more to justify its inclusion. Instead, it adopts a polemical pose towards the discipline, largely on the score that Josephus should always be included in such surveys, but fails to establish links with the larger context.

Overall, the volume would benefit from more attention to consistency in definitions—not what is meant by, or investigated as, fides, but the parameters under which the investigation occurs. Bernstein and Keith are especially good on this front; the slippages among various functions and senses of fides in Lovatt are particularly confusing. An additional and perhaps related problem is that the Flavian context is not always comprehensively treated (or treated at all), which leads to some awkward grafts at the ends of chapters and, again, a slight lack of cohesion. Nevertheless, scholars of the topic and period will find much of interest and use.

The proofing and style are uneven. There are some moments that seem to have made their way in from drafts, where both options for near-synonyms appear (e.g. “kin (domestic?),” 28), or no convention has been chosen (on the same page, “Legio XV Apollinaris” and “Tenth Legion Fretensis,” 58). Furthermore, there is an over-reliance on currently fashionable “and/or” formulations and precious parentheses: “(anti-)hero” in Fucecchi’s title; “(in)famous” used of Romulus and Remus (31). Beyond these, there is the odd factual error, including: “Titus Drusus” for Livius Drusus, tribune of the plebs (245); and numerous proofing errors, including: pricipesfor principes (25); “Judaeao-Roman” (49); “starling” for “startling” (141); a rogue “Apsyrtus” among otherwise consistent Absyrti (99); fidissima custos for fidissime custos (98); “eighttimes” (105); “consquence of its convience” (166); “Shackleton-Bailey” (253); and many others. In a volume that can only be for a specialist academic audience, the insistence of the press on endnotes is mystifying.

Authors and titles

1. Antony Augoustakis, Emma Buckley, and Claire Stocks, “Introduction”
2. Claire Stocks, “Broken Bonds: Perfidy and the Discourse of Civil War”
3. Steve Mason, “The Fides of Flavius Josephus”
4. Neil W. Bernstein, “’A Greater Love’: Fides in Statius’ Silvae
5. Helen Lovatt, “Faith in Fate: Plot, Gods, and Metapoetic Morality in Valerius Flaccus”
6. Alison Keith, “Women’s Fides in Statius’ Thebaid
7. Antony Augoustakis, “Haec Pietas, Haec Fides: Permutations of Trust in Statius’ Thebaid
8. Dániel Kozák, “Trust and Mistrust in the Achilleid
9. Raymond Marks, “Fides, Pietas, and the Outbreak of Hostilities in Punica 1”
10. Marco Fucecchi, “Hannibal as (Anti-)Hero of Fides in Silius’ Punica
11. Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, “The Failure of Female Fides in the Octavia
12. Emma Buckley, “Fides under Fire: Virtue and Vice in the Octavia
13. Salvador Bartera, “Flavian Fides in Tacitus’ Histories