BMCR 2022.07.09

Disorienting empire: Republican Latin poetry’s wanderers

, Disorienting empire: Republican Latin poetry's wanderers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 328. ISBN 9780197571781 £55.00.


Disorienting Empire is an exciting study of Republican Latin poetry and the unsettling transformations that result from travel and cultural contact with new peoples, places, and ideas. It elucidates the complex ways poetic acts of wandering and “getting lost” connect to Rome’s growing imperial world (c. 264–30 BCE), with a particular focus on the friction caused by the integration of the Greek East and its imagined ethnic and sexual otherness. Dufallo’s readings range from early Latin epic to the last texts of the triumviral era, concluding with the new world captured by Horace’s first book of Satires. Vergil’s Aeneid is glimpsed on the horizon, in an Epilogue that previews how Disorienting Empire’sinterpretations may reorient thinking about the epic.

The Introduction articulates the structure of the book, defines core terminology, which includes the Latin lexicon linked to the study’s target motif (error, errare,[1] vagari, etc.), explains the methodology, and lays out the main argument. Rome’s republican empire and the literary movements that occur within it produce disorienting experiences with the power to reshape identity. Important for this premise is the work of Sara Ahmed, in which Dufallo locates a conception of queerness as an “effect of disorientation understood in terms of empire” and an understanding of empire itself as a force for constructing/(re)directing sexualities and other elements of identity (p. 19).[2] Ahmed’s disorientation, as Dufallo summarises, is “losing one’s way both literally and figuratively: the derailment or going-off-course of one’s sense of self as it relates to actual motion through geographical regions (as in the lives of migrants traveling out of the colonized world), together with such diverse experiences as the habitation of domestic space, proximity to familiar and unfamiliar persons and objects, and the heteronormative family with its potentially alienating imperative that its offspring reproduce its ‘line’” (p. 18). For Dufallo, Roman literary disorientation captures something unique to its moment(s) in time but is often strikingly similar to elements of Ahmed’s conception (he also discusses the relevance of modern work on hybridity). Accordingly, theory and poetry are put into dialogue, with the former never presented as a key to unlocking the latter. Indeed, the limitations of applying Ahmed’s distinctly postcolonial outlook to antiquity are addressed explicitly, as is the reasonable concern some may have with understanding the beneficiaries of Roman imperialism and colonisation through a modern approach centred on victims. Readers will find that many interpretations draw equally upon queer studies, New Historicism, old-school philology, and intertextual modes of criticism. Overall, the introduction is a success, although in a book about the impact of going abroad I would have welcomed a fuller analysis of “home.” The introduction also contains the book’s first readings, which seek out the seeds of Republican errare in the fragmentary Latin poets of the late third century, especially Livius Andronicus and Gnaeus Naevius, whose epicising verse linked Roman expansion and cross-cultural interaction with the wanderings of myth.[3]

In chapter 1, Plautus’ Menaechmi presents a Greece filled with the displaced and disoriented, where “people risk losing their sense of who it is that they think they are” (p. 27). From the confusion caused by identical twins to mental instability (divine and psychological), the play explores the crises of identity brought on by encountering new ideas on distant shores. Its themes are convincingly read in relation to a Mediterranean sent into its own identity crisis by Roman expansion. An act of wandering sets the plot in motion, when one Menaechmus is a victim of human trafficking after he aberravit (Men. 31) at a festival in Tarentum. Enslaved or formerly enslaved audience members would surely discern something different in this story than would a senator, who may see the play’s Greek world as a Roman possession and its “aberrant” characters as subjects. After all, when the prologist describes the plot, he emphasises its Sicilian flavour (verum sicilicissitat, Men. 12); Sicily is a Roman provincia, hence the Greek dramatic world is now, in a sense, Roman. Prominent cities (Syracuse, Epidamnus) also signal recent Roman conquests and concomitant cultural contact. Rome’s expansion refracted through a Greek comedic lens allows drama to highlight the pros and cons of travelling in “foreign and yet familiar” (p. 35) spaces; among the cons for those imagining themselves Roman (of course, there are far more cons for native peoples) is the perceived threat that direct contact with Greek culture will reshape what it means to be Roman. Plautine comedy’s ability to compel audiences to work through such pressing questions in “an atmosphere of pleasurable deviance” (p. 28) is a reminder of its power. As Dufallo shows, engagement with/appropriation of Greek art in the Greek world can even disorient traditional Roman gender identities (cf. Menaechmus’ crossdressing read via Ahmed). With the final plaudite approaching, comedy almost always returns “home” (p. 60) and strives to clarify what was vague and disturbing, which could be seen as balm for the itchy discomfort of expansion and increased mobility. The knowledge, however, that “home” or the self will never be the same again post errores lurks in the background, threatening to reopen any closural gesture.

Chapter 2 turns to the east and Terence’s Heauton Timoroumenos. The play and Rome’s imperial expansion have now hit Asia. The readings in this chapter are rich and, together with Giuseppe Pezzini’s forthcoming commentary, will surely prompt renewed interest in the play. Within a more expansive plot, HT stages the vicissitudes of a revenant soldier, which include his travels in the east and local meanderings. Dufallo argues that “Clinia’s love-struck wandering (note HT 257, errans) would, in the decade following the Treaty of Apamea, have presented an amusingly ambiguous image of Greek military activities in the East and afforded the play’s original audience a feeling of superiority to Terence’s onstage Greeks with their comicially mixed-up lives, ambitions, and problems” (p. 63). Rome’s cultural contact/conflict with the Greek world again provides the historicist framework (now featuring Seleucids and Macedonians), yet the Greek setting of Roman comedy is never only about others. What comes home with a soldier returning from the “orient”? The dangers of corrupted morals, alienation from traditional structures (social and familial), and new/reoriented sexualities, not to mention the ability to spread them all, perhaps via the stage itself. The character Bacchis and the meeting of sex and eastern Greek ritual she injects into the play are a key manifestation of this nexus of issues. There is also a productive interrogation of the attested rumblings of social change among young Romans in the years of HTs performance (cf. Adelphoe); Dufallo briefly reads the play’s adulescentes through notions of disorientation and queerness. The chapter shows how error in familial communication and cultural expectations can lead to physical errores, and how such wandering can bring complications home. Like Menaechmi, HT’s ending is ambiguous. Despite tribulations, the main love interest emerges as a marriageable Penelope in disguise waiting for the restoration of her Odyssean wanderer (tu nunc sola reducem me in patriam facis, HT 398). But in the face of this apparently rosy outcome Terence leaves some plotlines unresolved, a provocation for audiences to think more about possible futures. The play’s links to Cybele (it was performed at her festival in 163 BCE) also figure in Dufallo’s consideration of the Romans’ identity-construction vis-à-vis their putative origins in Asia Minor, and in an intriguing series of arguments later in the chapter (esp. pp. 91–94) concerning the legitimacy of Magna Mater versus the potentially inappropriate power wielded by the play’s unregulated Bacchic cult. The concluding discussion of the cultural (meta)poetics of the prologue is also a success.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 tackle the first century BCE. After a brief survey of fragmentary texts from the intervening years, Dufallo moves book by book through the wanderings of Lucretius’ De rerum natura. The path to Epicurean enlightenment and the physics that underpin its worldview all depend on movement, although not always the same kind: errare = bad, vagari = good, roughly. Venus herself is a primal journeyer in the epic’s opening, and even Epicurus is a model of movement (rational movement; peragravit, 1.74). Readers follow Epicurus’ quasi-imperial epic journey and voyage themselves through the entire cosmos. They are thus made to see the error in the ambitions (ambio “to go round”) of empire while simultaneously experiencing a product (cough cough, the DRN itself) made possible because of an appropriative imperial world (a translatio of Greek philosophy and poetics). Epicurus’ militant movements may render him a quasi-Roman general (victor, 1.75), but even this type of journey is beneficial when harmonious (after all, atoms wander/vagari too). The cultural work such movement performs is an antidote to the erring of those in aimless pursuit of traditional religion. Readers who submit, who learn, will find themselves (and empire’s aims) reoriented toward Epicurean pleasure and ataraxia, and for them, imperial expansion will represent “a disorienting distraction from the path of truth” (p. 155). The chapter is also attentive to Lucretius’ treatment of sex, gender, and identity, especially the stereotypical effeminacy and sexual deviance of Epicureans.

The poetry of Catullus is particularly fruitful for readers interested in mobility, journeys, and identity.[4] One thinks immediately of poems 11, 46, 63, 64, and 101, all of which and more feature in Chapter 4. Catullan verse is marked by varietas, and Dufallo’s conception of error is suited to this varied terrain. As moral delusion or cultural misstep it pops up as a (self-effacing) mode of critiquing those who write bad verse or those whose movement takes them to the so-called periphery; that is, from the urbs to spaces where “inferior” aesthetics abound (Cat. 22). Error also peppers 11 and 61, the latter a welcome if unexpected inclusion where a groom’s eye, the god Hymen, and even vines (in similes) wander in intriguing ways (huc et hucerrans, 61.34-5). In many poems, Catullus decries journeys in support of imperial conquest, but his cosmopolitan world(view) is a product of the mobility enabled by Roman expansion (like Lucretius). The East, especially around “Roman” Troy, remains a place of disorientation. In fact, the joy of queer deviation depicted in Catullan verse fully undermines easy dichotomies (Greek/Roman, male/female, west/east). Some poems feature tortured lovers who wander in despair, driven by their wayward passions off the “straight” path of Roman negotium and masculinity. There is also movement away from Rome/“home” and back again (4, 11, 46, 101), and from family and tradition to novel and disruptive modes of interpersonal interaction. There is even movement in space that creates fluidity in sex and/or gender (cf. the young Greek-but-also-Roman Attis of 63, whose anti-Aenean voyage results in seemingly undesired change akin to Catullus’ own self-feminisation).[5] The chapter treats Cat. 64 in several places but most fully in the strong finale, which demonstrates how wandering weaves together the poem’s various parts. The analyses of Peleus and the vagrant Bacchus are notable. By the end of the chapter, Dufallo has convincingly shown poet and poetic creations getting lost in Rome’s growing empire, a project about which Catullan verse is decidedly ambivalent.

The “Republican” in the book’s subtitle remains valid in the last full chapter, but all eyes are now on Octavian. In Satires 1, Horace superficially turns away from disorienting voyages and interactions abroad to a series of journeys on a local scale. The cityscape of Rome (e.g. 1.9) and the referentially rich landscapes of Italy (the Odyssean 1.5) are the settings for Horatian movement. Horace even takes us into the circle of Maecenas and Octavian, lifting the veil (well, at least pretending to do so) and dispelling “false” conceptions. Dufallo suggests that Horace “uses poetry characterized by error to present the Octavianic regime in the process of publicizing its political authority effectively, and to this extent offering political stability in place of instability” (p. 202). To do this, Horace wanders between noting the sacral dimensions of Octavian’s power and demystifying them, often an enterprise in bathetic exposure. The result is a vision of power that is like but distinctly not the same as that which drove Julius Caesar’s apparently regal ambitions and related religious excesses. Some claims concerning poet and princeps may not persuade all readers. The chapter employs comparative scholarship on later European monarchy that, while certainly relevant, would have benefited from a bit more discussion. Despite an undeniably collusive casting, in the end Dufallo’s satirist makes his own way, experiencing (as Ahmed puts it) the “disorientation of encountering the world differently” (p. 202). Yet the apparently chummy Horace of wet dreams and bad bakeries is a disarming traveller and perhaps a perfectly constructed vehicle for the subtle (insidious?) insinuation of the novus ordo’s ideology into the collective consciousness.

Explicitly designed as a preface to Aeneid 1–6, the 16-page Epilogue offers a pithy demonstration of the epic’s numerous manifestations of the motif explored in this book. Dufallo suggests the poem’s well-studied errores perform many of the same socio-cultural and literary functions. Vergil reorients the disorientations of his predecessors’ writings both to craft a new Aeneas and to open new pathways of communication in a complex and constantly changing Augustan Rome.

Disorienting Empire is distinguished by an often-elegant prose style. It is rarely unclear and reiterates goals and conclusions. A signal merit is the constant movement between broad claims and close philological readings that are rich in their attention to grammatical and stylistic detail (see e.g. p. 134). The text is generally clean, with only a few minor typographical errors. The endnotes (alas) are relatively robust (31 pp.). Despite a few notable gaps, the bibliography is up to the task. The book is a strong reminder that there are still good reasons to go for a wander with the poets of Republican Rome.’


[1] See B. Dufallo ed. (2018) Roman Error: Classical Reception and the Problem of Rome’s Flaws. Oxford.

[2] S. Ahmed (2006) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC.

[3] For more on these authors and themes, see T. Biggs (2020) Poetics of the First Punic War. Ann Arbor, MI. Dufallo’s 2013 monograph (The Captor’s Image: Greek Culture in Roman Ecphrasis. Oxford) also successfully charted a diachronic course beginning with Latin’s first poems.

[4] Noticeably absent from the bibliography is R. Armstrong (2013) “Journeys and Nostalgia in Catullus.” CJ 109.1: 43–71.

[5] For a new reading of the poem with similar concerns (sex, gender, space, Romans abroad), see L. O’Hearn (2021) “Conquering Ida: An Ecofeminist Reading of Catullus’ Poem 63.” Antichthon 55: 116-135. Readers will also want to compare the treatment of Catullus in S. Lindheim (2021) Latin Elegy and the Space of Empire. Oxford.