BMCR 2020.12.22

Pestilence and the body politic in Latin literature

, Pestilence and the body politic in Latin literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. x, 303. ISBN 9780198796428 $90.00.


This book tantalizingly explores the plague narrative in Latin literature, pinpointing some distinctive Roman features of contagion that influenced later treatments of the plague in texts and figurative language. Drawing on intertextuality as well as on a wide range of theories stemming from modern thinkers (Antonin Artaud, Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, René Girard), Gardner’s analysis represents a milestone in our knowledge of pestilence as a metaphor for the discord within the body politic in Western culture. The author convincingly identifies a turning point in the history of this metaphor in the passage from the Late Republic to the Early Empire, approximately between 55 BCE – 8 CE, when three decisive “epic treatments of plague” imposed an enduring literary topos overwrought with conventions.

Organized in three parts with three captivating and metaphoric titles, the volume opens with a general introduction that anticipates four essential features of the plague imagery that are identified in Latin literature. The first chapter of Part I (“Tabula Rasa. A New Kind of Plague Narrative”) consists of diverse preliminary arguments sketching a synthetic framework for the study of the plague metaphor on a historical, lexical, and theoretical level.

Being the sole exception to the chronological order, Chapter 2 concentrates on three major plague episodes in Livy, which are embedded in narratives of sedition and cultural or religious innovations. The astute interpretation of these passages reveals the possible salutary effect of civil strife[1] as well as Livy’s overarching program of figurative language, beginning in AUC’s preface and openly articulated in the speech of Menenius Agrippa.

The second section of the volume (Part II “Experiments in Apocalyptic Thinking”) starts with the expected analysis of the pestilence of Athens in De Rerum Natura (Chapter 3), in which Lucretius addresses eschatological concerns by demonstrating the natural scattering of corpora, at both atomic and societal levels. In alignment with Elena Gomel’s theories, this episode resists closure by endlessly replicating the images of pains of transmission and results in an apocalyptic scenario. Lucretius insists on the language of dissolution, decay and liquefaction (tabes) and evokes the vocabulary of civil conflicts already used by Cicero. By perfectly integrating Girard’s principles, Gardner is able to interpret this narrative as a symbol of the social pathology of the late Republic emerging from the competitive familial strife for honors. Citizens’ ineffective attempt to define themselves according to familial identity is mirrored by the paradoxical devotion to pietas in the abrupt final image, in which they brawl over the corpora of their kin. This image intensifies the traditional metaphoric bond between the plague and Roman civil strife, as family represents a microcosm of internecine strife already in the myth of the twins, Romulus and Remus. An excellent reading of the use of the verb certare throughout the poem provides further evidence of this bond.

In Chapter 4 Gardner gives a convincing interpretation of the Noric episode in the third Georgic in light of other references to a contagious disease in the Virgilian oeuvre (the threat of contagion from neighbor flocks menacing Meliboeus’ animals in Ecl. 1.49-52, the morbus afflicting Aristaeus’ bees in the fourth Georgic, and the pestilence that arises in Aeneid 3 inciting the Trojans to leave Crete). While this prompts readers of the Georgics to search for common ground between the many natural disasters experienced by the farmers and Roman civil strife, Vergil seems to maintain the metaphoric relationship between plague and civil war, as they both represent an opportunity for renewal. Indeed, the pestis in Noricum, described with elements of abundance and in terms typical of the Golden Age imagery, represents Vergil’s own intervention in the contemporary poetic discussion, in an open dialogue with Horace and his Epodes. In the account of the bougonia of the fourth Georgic, Gardner finds a possible allusive solution to this duo plague/stasis envisioned by Vergil: the creation under the bee-keeper Aristaeus/Augustus of a new body politic, i.e. the bees (loyal and acquisitive but lacking individual identities) born from the sacrifice of a calf. The link between this episode and that of Noricum is decoded through a suggestive reading of the pestilence in Aen. 3.132-42, since the location in Crete -by evoking its mythical apian community- associates Trojans and bees, and their suffering leads to the fresh start on the site of the future Rome.

In Chapter 5, expanding and developing a previous paper, the author persuasively interprets the narration of the plague in Aegina (Met. 7.490-660) as a commentary with which Ovid made the hidden message of the bougonia explicit and rejected it as a model for recovery from civil war, by distorting the imagery of the Golden Age. Indeed, the nature of the industrious ant-men Myrmidons, born under the king Aecus to repopulate the island after the outbreak and whose identity is tied to the state rather than to familiar bonds, resembles that of the bees of Aristaeus’ hive. Winking at the thesis that the Metamorphoses provoked the wrath of Augustus, Gardner’s analysis of the syntagma dira lues proves the connection between Aegina and Rome as well as strengthens the impression that with the Myrmidons’ myth, Ovid wanted to expose the rupture between the Republican governance and the novus ordo under Augustus, who attempted to engineer a population of loyalists more compliant with the needs of the state.

Part III (“Transmitting Roman Plague”) is segmented into two chapters on the legacy of Late Republican and Augustan narratives. Starting with Lucan’s Bellum civile, Chapter 6 briefly explores three different imperial receptions of the language of pestilence that question the role of individualism and ponder the possibility of heroism without rivalry within the body politic. The episode of the pestilence at Dyrrachium reflects the overall “epidemic of civil war” present in the poem. As Gardner demonstrates with pertinent arguments, the poet, on the one hand, contaminates battlefield narratives with the language of pestilence. On the other hand, the term rabies, which mainly refers to the madness of civil strife throughout the poem, is employed in 6.60-92 to describe the pestilential atmosphere that afflicts Pompey’s soldiers. Writing after “the apocalypse” of the Republic and replaying its historical drama without providing a conclusion to the poem, Lucan rejects the purifying potential of the plague of civil war and denies any role for a hero in its cure.

Borrowing from the Augustan writers, Seneca in his tragedy Oedipus expands the plague dramaturgy of the Greek model and evokes the imagery of the Golden Age whose alleged restoration was being promoted under Nero. In the wake of Girard’s study on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, Gardner examines the role of Oedipus in the Latin tragedy, who represents the source as well as the remedy for the plague. The expulsion of this hero/scapegoat, however, will not prevent Thebes from falling again into the interminable cycle of competitive violence, as the images of the split flames (v. 321) and of a double-headed liver (v. 360) anticipate the rivalry between Eteocles and Polynices.

The final analysis of the plague that equally afflicts Romans and Carthaginians during the siege of Syracuse in Silius Italicus’ Punica (14.580-640) focuses on the figure of Marcellus. The military leader, with his exemplary behavior, stands out as an alternative model of heroism, not destructive for the body politic but prompting a healthy coalescence among his subordinates.

The book ends with a concise study of the transmission of the Roman plague narrative in Western culture (Chapter 7), with a new perspective on the relationship between individuals and communities/body politics (cities, countries or even the entire humanity), rather than only on civil strife. Various examples of this legacy are given from writings in Late Antiquity (such as Endelechius’ Carmen de mortibus boum and Paul the Deacon’s Historia Langobardorum), Italian paintings in the aftermath of the bubonic plague (Raimondi’s Il Morbetto based on Raphael and Coppola’s two representations of the outbreak in Naples in 1656), and Anglo-American literary and cinematographic constructions of contagion.

This summary of the book only attempts to mirror the richness of arguments, studies, and perspectives taken into account by the author. The remarkable novelty of this work can be detected by any reader, specialist or non-specialist. They will easily find echoes of Roman reflections in the recent discussions about the coronavirus which some have depicted as a collapse of the “human body politic” even hoping for a “clean-slate”.

One of the major achievements of this book is not only to prove the efficacy of metaphoric analysis for deepening the study of Latin literature and its political implications (synchronically and diachronically), but also to tackle the issue of cognitive metaphors through a powerful example, questioning their function, their transmission, and their possible “universality” based on the human experience. For this reason, the book will definitely attract the interest of many scholars outside of Classics.

This is a seminal book and will remain a reference point; nonetheless, some minor flaws need to be addressed. For example, the choice of leaving out many Late Republican texts, especially those in fragments, may have slightly weakened the strength of its arguments. Indeed, Cicero and Sallust are only hastily mentioned despite the fact that the political vocabulary of the pestilence is particularly productive throughout all the works of the former (at least from the Verrines and until the De officiis).[2] Equally, the omission of a reference to Sallust’s use of tabes as a metaphor of moral corruption (and thus degeneration of the body politic) is striking.[3] Even if it is plausible that Lucretius established the enduring features of plague narratives in Latin poetry (as the author convincingly proves through the intertextual analysis of the plague in Vergil and Ovid, both influenced by Lucretius), it is useful to take into consideration also the surrounding prose texts. The book would have benefitted from a greater effort to explore the sources Lucretius might have used, departing from Thucydides. Surely, it is now well known that the Gracchan reforms were depicted as the source of a monstrous mutation of the civitas, a body politic become two-headed, biceps (fr. 108 Pittà).[4] This famous image stems from a Republican work, often neglected due to its fragmentary state but essential for its use of the corporeal metaphor of the body politic, i.e. Varro’s De vita populi Romani. Similar to what Livy later did under Augustus, Varro here probably aimed to stimulate the renovation of concordia (fr. 106 Pittà) by employing the disease metaphor (tinged with apocalyptic hues) for civil strife (fr. 65; 116; 117 Pittà).[5]

Despite these few desiderata, this outstanding work has already changed our knowledge of the late Republican imagery of the pestilence in the political culture and discourses. It is now a must-read for any future research on the plague metaphor(s) applied to the body politic beyond the Latin literature.


[1] In the wake of I century BCE historical conception that distinguished civic revolts bringing unity to the body politic from those destroying it. See Claudia Moatti, The Birth of Critical Thinking in Rome, Cambridge 2015 (Paris 1997), 14.

[2] See now Brian Walters, The Deaths of the Republic. Imagery of the Body Politic in Ciceronian Rome, Oxford 2020.

[3] Cf., e.g., Rodolfo Funari, “L’immagine della tabes come metafora di corruzione nel linguaggio morale di Sallustio e della prosa Latina,” Athenaeum 85.1 (1997), pp. 207–214.

[4] See Claude Nicolet, “Varron et la politique de Caius Gracchus,” Historia 28 (1979), pp. 276–300. The reference edition is now Antonino Pittà, M. Terenzio Varrone, de vita populi Romani. Introduzione e commento, Pisa 2015.

[5] See Irene Leonardis, “Le età di Roma e la fine di un mondo: vita e morte del popolo romano, secondo Varrone,” in Elisabetta Berardi – Massimo Manca, Età del mondo, età dell’uomo, Alessandria 2019, pp. 95-116. On Varro’s apocalyptic elements and their proximity to Lucretius see Alessandro Schiesaro, “Varro and Lucretius on the End of the World,” RIFC 167 (2019), pp. 352-356.