BMCR 2021.05.28

Urban disasters and the Roman imagination

, , Urban disasters and the Roman imagination. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 104. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xi, 286. ISBN 9783110674699 $149.99.

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

This volume presents ten papers, most of them delivered at a colloquium held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2015, with a preface and comprehensive indices, edited by Virginia Closs and Elizabeth Keitel.[1] The papers are classified under three headings, which give a clear impression of the main topics: the urbs capta motif (part I), causes of urban disasters (part II) and commemoration of urban disasters (part III). These headings already show that this book does not aim to collect or discuss urban catastrophes such as earthquakes, fires or wars, but examines much more the perception, the literary consciousness and the literary commemoration of catastrophes in connection with Roman cities, that is, “urban disaster(s) as a figure of thought”.[2] In the first part the editors define the urbs capta motif very broadly as a collection of literary topoi such as widespread killing, fires, plundering and the sound of lamentation. Once shaped, this motif was also used in political and rhetorical contexts to foreshadow future possible disasters. The second part is dedicated to the causes of urban disasters, which could also manifest themselves in individuals such as Verres or Pompey. The third part of the book is then focused on how destroyed cities were remembered and reconstructed by ancient authors. The following section will present an overview of the papers.

Christina Kraus investigates the significance of the sack of the Etruscan city of Veii by the Romans in literary sources. Although Veii still existed until the first century BC, it became what the author calls a “ghost town”, which means that Veii became a stereotype for backwater and poverty, a land without a name. Moreover, Veii functioned as image of an altera Roma, which becomes especially clear in Livy’s history. The city could have become the true Rome on the one hand, but was developed into a memorial for the downfall of a city on the other hand.

Timothy Joseph focusses on two sequences in Lucan’s Pharsalia and the permutation of the urbs capta motif as an imagined disaster. The first scene discusses Rome as a captured city without it being captured. Lucan builds on the expectation of the reader familiar with the urbs capta motif but then breaks the tension: Caesar enters the city without destroying it. The second sequence explores  the final battle between Pompey and Caesar and its brutal consequences for future generations. According to Joseph the constant fighting of Rome against Rome is the real tragedy in Lucan’s poem as Rome captures its citizens and not vice-versa.

Jacques Bromberg discusses one of the most famous disasters, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 resulting in the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum and its description by Pliny the Younger. In his paper Bromberg recalls Homeric parallels and interprets Pliny’s letters as a reassessment of paternity and succession. The natural disaster of the eruption of Vesuvius is equivalent to the atrocities of tyrannical rulers like Domitian and brings Pliny implicitly to prefer the mode of adoptive imperial succession. Moreover, Pliny stylizes himself as Telemachus in the sequence of events during the eruption of the Vesuvius in order to become an example for younger generations.

The second part of the book starts with Isabel Köster’s analysis of Cicero’s Verrine orations, where it becomes quite clear that single persons, such as bad politicians, could also be fashioned into disasters. Cicero uses disaster-themed topics to visualize the destructive potential of individuals such as Verres, who have a much greater ability to harm a society than natural disasters, as they destroy cities, people and cultures alike.

Jessica Clark aims to interpret Pompey’s three victory celebrations as disasters for the city of Rome. She discusses how Pompey not only influenced the memory and the history of the city, but also partly rebuilt Rome’s urban space. In this manner, Clark argues, he destroyed the city not physically, but in the sense that he opened the way to autocracy and the glorification of war and victory. Pompey presented himself not only as victor, but also as agent of recovery, an ideology that was to become an important part of the representation of later emperors.

Jason Nethercut analyzes the famous description of the Athenian plague in Lucretius’ De rerum natura and concludes that Lucretius interpreted the plague as part of a cosmic disaster in accordance with his Epicurean perspective. Nethercut argues that Lucretius parallels the end of the city of Athens with the end of the world, a concept typical of Roman thinking in its emphasis on the cycle of growth and decline. Moreover, Lucretius’ narrative of the Athenian plague might have functioned as narrative of the downfall of Rome, which means that the plague was an important model for way in which Romans imagined urban disasters.

Andreas Zanker discusses two poems of Horace, Odes 3.6. and the Carmen saeculare, which contain two very different notions of disaster caused by moral misbehaviour. In the first poem downfall seems inevitable, while in the Carmen saeculare Horace imagines a future without the natural cycle of downfall and destruction, as Rome could be saved from this by the princeps.

The third part of the book about the commemoration of urban disasters starts with the contribution of one of the editors, Virginia Closs. She compares the legend of Nero fiddling while Rome burned with a letter of Seneca in which he writes about the devastation of Lyon by a fire, probably only some months after the destruction of Rome. Closs shows convincingly that both events had their literary predecessors: Nero’s burning Rome was a literary evocation of the fall of Troy, while Seneca draws an analogy between the conflagration of Rome and Lugdunumby alluding to the literary memory of catastrophes.

Honora Howell Chapman moves the focus from Rome to the destruction of Jerusalem as it was remembered by Flavius Josephus. By describing the lavish beauty of the Jewish capital before its destruction, Josephus aims, as Chapman explains, to memorialize the suffering of the Jews and to create an imaginative space where the monumental temple of the Jews still in effect existed.

Joseph Farrell concludes the third part and the book by illuminating the many sacks of Rome from 390 BC to 2017 CE. In a richly illustrated contribution, he opens up a panorama spanning over 2000 years from Federico Fellini’s iconic movie “La dolce vita” to Michel de Montaigne’s visit in Rome to the rampages of Dutch soccer hooligans. In this way Farrell aims to show how the many destructions and resurrections of Rome have been depicted and remembered.

The book tries to cover a broad range of topics with only ten contributions. The small number of papers makes the themes that are discussed somewhat eclectic and the structure of the book not always as logically coherent as the editors themselves claim it to be (page 11). To avoid this impression, the book might have profited from a longer introduction with a clearer and more prominent discussion of the methodological approaches taken in the three very different parts of the volume.[3][4] Nevertheless, the book offers a new and broad perspective especially on literary discussions about the power of disasters, real and imagined, the commemoration of catastrophes in the Roman world as well as the ideological and literary models and topoi applied to such disasters. As a result, it is valuable especially for specialists in the fields of catastrophes and urban disasters, who are looking for fresh and stimulating perspectives. The book is carefully edited with only minor misspellings. The translations of the numerous quoted Latin texts are well done. The only negative aspect is the high price – around 150 Euro for fewer than 300 pages.

Authors and titles

Part I: Literary Elaborations of the Urbs Capta Motif
C.S. Kraus: Urban Disasters and Other Romes: The Case of Veii
T. Joseph: “One city captures us”: Lucan’s Inverted Roman Disaster Narrative
J.A. Bromberg: Pliny’s Telemacheia: Epic and Exemplarity under Vesuvius
Part II: The Causes of Urban Disasters
I. Köster: Rome’s Sicilian Disasters: Invective and the City in Cicero’s Verrines
J.H. Clark: Winning Too Well: Pompey’s Victories as Urban Disasters at Rome
J. Nethercut: Urbs/Orbis: Urban Cataclysm in Lucretius’ De rerum natura
A.T. Zanker: Horace on Moral clades in Odes 3.6. ant the Carmen saeculare
Part III: Commemoration of Disasters
V. Closs: The Unmaking of Rome: Nero, Seneca and the Fire(s) of 64 in the Roman Imagination
H.H. Chapman: Josephus’ Memory of Jerusalem: A Study in Urban Disaster
J. Farrell: The Sacks of Rome, 390 BCE – 2017 CE


[1] Elizabeth Keitel is unfortunately not represented by a paper in the volume, as she is a well-known expert in the field of disaster research: see among others E. Keitel, “The art of losing: Tacitus and the disaster narrative,” in C.S. Kraus, J. Marincola, C. Pelling (eds.), Ancient Historiography and its Contexts: Studies in Honour of A.J. Woodman, (Oxford 2010), 331 – 352.

[2] For this quote see p. 7 (introduction).

[3] Just to give one example among many other possible examples: T. Fuhrer, F. Mundt, J. Stenger (eds.), Cityscaping. Constructing and Modelling Images of the City, (Berlin; Boston 2015), discuss how the image of cities was shaped in literary sources.

[4] The arrangement of the chapters is of course subjective, but it is the view of this reviewer, for example, that Farrell’s paper might have profited from being part of the urbs capta section, whereas Jacques Bromberg’s contribution, on the other hand, which does appear in Part I, does not explicitly refer to the urbs capta motif.