BMCR 2023.09.33

Civil war and the collapse of the social bond: the Roman tradition at the heart of the modern

, , Civil war and the collapse of the social bond: the Roman tradition at the heart of the modern. Classics after antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. xv, 366. ISBN 9781316516447.



On June 27, 2023, the seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk was shot at point-blank range by a police officer, after a traffic-stop in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. The French teenager, of Algerian and Moroccan origins, was, at the time of his murder, one of the twenty-one to have been killed by police during traffic-stops in France since 2020. According to The Observer, the majority of those killed were of Black or Arab heritage.[1] In the wake of Nahel’s death, and after the emergence of a police cover-up, a wave of protest swept the cities of France. Analysis of events foregrounded the interrelated issues of immigration, wealth inequality, and race—taboo subjects for many in French politics. Éric Zemmour, leader of the far-right Reconquête party, characterised the protests as a civil and ethnic war. At the same time, prominent members of the center-right Les Republicans party have, emulating the far-right, questioned the French identity of those rioting, casting them as immigrants who failed to assimilate.[2] Throughout these events, and over the course of the numerous protests against police violence that have rocked French cities in recent decades, the spectre of civil war has haunted France’s political imaginary. Yet frequently, and ironically, the perceived agents of disorder are characterised as non-French, criminals or Islamic fundamentalists—in short, outsiders. Can civil war be fought against those characterised as external?

Michèle Lowrie and Barbara Vinken’s book addresses an important topic at a crucial moment. Lowrie, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Service Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, and Vinken, chair of French and Comparative Literature at Ludwig-Maximilans-Universität, Munich, bring their respective expertise to bear on the persistence of civil war in Latin and French literature. They argue that, since the Roman social conflicts of the first century BCE, civil war has been a way to think about the dissolution of proper social relations and about whether what comes after will be a republican restoration or descent into imperial tyranny. In this tradition, which Lowrie and Vinken trace from Virgil’s Georgics (after introductory discussions of stasis in Greek literature) up to Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Soumission, the instigator of civil war is frequently represented as external and Oriental,  and the empire that emerge from the ashes of internecine conflict is cast as a form of Eastern despotism.

After an introductory chapter covering the key concepts of the book (civil war, discord, Orientalism, and Rome’s eternal return in the European historical imaginary) the five substantive chapters each focus on one or two case-study texts. We begin with Virgil’s Georgics, before moving onto the Aeneid and Lucan in the next chapter. In the following chapter, Augustine acts as a hinge between the classical and modern French texts discussed in the second half of the book. Here, we jump from the fifth to the nineteenth century, with Victor Hugo’s novel Quatrevingt-treize before closing with Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission.

The justification for the selection of texts and the focus on modern French literature is convincingly made. On the second page of the introduction, the authors acknowledge that literatures other than French also offer rich examples of the classical tradition being traced in this book. However, France, unlike Germany, Britain, the US, or even Italy, occupies a special place in the tradition of Roman literary uses of civil war. The French texts discussed in the book are representative, Lowrie and Vinken say, “because they reveal with astounding clarity the shocking tradition of interpreting translatio Romae not as a return of a Roman Republic or Empire in the guise of political stability and well-being, but rather as a translatio bello civilis” (2). Furthermore, nineteenth-century Paris, as “a universal capital city” (2), became a new Rome.

Following the conceptual introduction, the first chapter offers a reading of the Georgics that questions the poem’s endorsement of the Augustan order that emerged in the wake of civil war. The bucolic idyll of the Georgics is constructed only for it to be torn apart and what emerges is ‘tyranny styled Oriental’ (54-55). The disruption of this idyll begins in Book 1 with imperial expansion, continues with fratricide in Book 2, lust and fury in Book 3 and the collapse of Aristaeus’ beehive in Book 4, culminating in the bugonia (Georg. 4.281-384). The bugonia, a ritual originating in Egypt, figures as Roman rebirth from civil war, now an orientalised tyranny.

The following chapter brings the Aeneid and Lucan’s De bello civili together to challenge interpretations of Lucan’s poem as an anti-Aeneid. Instead, Lowrie and Vinken suggest, Lucan makes explicit what remains submerged below the surface in the Aeneid. The centerpiece of the chapter takes us through cities with which Rome is ideologically paired across these two epics: Troy and Carthage in the Aeneid; Rome itself, Alexandria, and Rome again in De bello civili. Each of these cities represents some sort of perversion. For example, Troy instantiates sexual violence, not only with the Greeks’ violation of Troy’s innermost spaces but with the Trojan’s own destruction of their city in an “autoimmune attempt” (93) to beat back the Greeks (Aen. 2.445). Next, the authors take us through three instances of civil war being externalised in the Aeneid: Jupiter’s prophecy in Book 1; Anchises’ in Book 6; and the shield of Aeneas in Book 8. The switching between synoptic views of the Aeneid and Lucan, and sections focusing on just one of the two epics hinders the smoothness of this chapter’s discussion, with Dido’s suicide, for example, being discussed in the context of Rome’s pairing with Carthage in the Aeneid and again in the context of suicide and perverted sacrifice in both the Aeneid and Lucan. One wonders whether each epic warranted its own chapter in order to make the discussion easier to follow.

The chapter on Augustine’s De civitate Dei (CD) offers an elegant hinge between the classical half of the book and the modern French half. As the authors explain, Augustine exerts a particular power over French literature (147), and the characters of Quatrevingt-treize and Soumission typify certain characteristics of CD’s earthly city and the City of God. Rome, for Augustine, does not represent a vehicle for the spread of Christianity, and so its sack of 410 CE is the fall of one earthly empire among many. In Augustine’s view, Rome is defined by civil war and stands, not as a prototype of the City of God, but its antitype. Roman history is a sequence of the same wars being fought over and over again with Roman peace no less cruel than Roman war. Even Roman virtue is distorted into perversion. Roman decadence is necessary for the articulation of Augustine’s City of God, in what Lowrie and Vinken refer to as the Church Father’s “poetics of opposition” (191). Here, the chapter ends by segueing into Hugo, who, in the Preface to Cromwell, points to Augustine, alongside Longinus, as the authors of a new poetics on which Hugo’s own Romantic poetics are built.

The next chapter’s jump to the late nineteenth century may surprise some. After all, there is much to be said for readings of Lucan and interpretations of history as constant civil war in early modern France. For scholars steeped in French literature and theory, and especially in light of Lowrie’s work on discourses of security, it is striking that nothing is made of Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. According to Foucault, up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all history was, using Petrarch’s words, nothing more than the praise of Rome. In other words, history was the state praising itself. Then, according to the narrative set out by Foucault, which most ancient and medieval historians doubtlessly find deeply objectionable, something changes in the early modern period, first in England and then in France. History starts to be about the state of constant war within states, between the rising bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In a 2017 article, Ika Willis reads Lucan as speaking back to Foucault’s Rome.[3] Indeed, the period identified by Foucault as that of the emergence of this new type of history as one of constant civil war was also one in which Lucan enjoyed intense attention. In short, some account of the vast lacuna between Augustine and Victor Hugo may have enhanced the book’s overall coherence.

Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize (1873) is the third part of a trilogy on French history. This is a novel about one period of civil discord in France, the Reign of Terror, written in the context of another episode of civil discord, the aftermath of the suppression of the Paris Commune. The authors suggest that Hugo, who translated Virgil and Lucan at the age of fifteen (this important information is relegated to a footnote), styled himself as Virgil but was haunted by Lucan, and in the end chose an Augustinian paradigm. The question with which Quatrevingt-treize concerns itself is whether civil war and the Terror are necessary within Hugo’s vision of history, much as Lucan claims that the civil war between Caesar and Pompey was worth it, since they established the conditions for the reign of Nero.

The final chapter, on Houellebecq’s Soumission, is, perhaps predictably, the book’s most contentious. Soumission, published on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, is a dystopian novel about the Muslim Brotherhood winning the French presidential election in 2022 and establishing an authoritarian theocracy with imperialist aspirations. The Islamist President, Ben Abbes, is cast as an Augustus figure, with characters in the novel offering their own takes on Augustan history. Houellebecq has, as recently as 2022 in the far-right Front Populaire magazine, posed himself as a Cassandra-figure, to warn of a looming civil war between Muslims and non-Muslims in France. Nevertheless, Lowrie and Vinken view Soumission as satire, presumably as opposed to a genuinely racist novel. It is not so much a novel about Islam taking over France, they say, but as France becoming Oriental. Rather than Houellebecq representing the “zombie secularism” described in Emanuel Todd’s 2015 study Qui est Charlie?, which has taken Islam as a substitute for its traditional opponent of Catholicism, it is the Islam of Soumission that stands in for the new, orthodox secularism. However, not only does Houellebecq frequently single out Islam as a threat to French identity, whatever that means, but his willingness to appear on far-right platforms speaks to a blurring of satire and genuine political conviction. Similarly, as his 2023 memoire Quelques mois dans ma vie shows, Houellebecq seems to have lost track of himself beneath so many layers of irony and sees himself as some sort of victim.

The book would have benefitted from a conclusion to draw the wide-ranging discussions to a close. Overall, Lowrie and Vinken offer fresh readings of well-worn classical texts and introduces readers from classics to two important French novels. In its sweeping scope, the book reminds me of Julia Hell’s (2019) Conquest of Ruins and David Armitage’s (2017) Civil War: A History in Ideas. Civil War and the Collapse of the Social Bond is, however, primarily a book for Latinists. The authors assume a fair amount of knowledge about the Latin texts, but laboriously outline the plots and characters of the Hugo and Houellebecq novels. The chapters on Virgil, Lucan, and Augustine may be valuably read in isolation, but I am not sure that scholars of French literature would get quite so much out of the Hugo and Houellebecq chapters as standalone essays. Nevertheless, this is an important and challenging book, at times, as in the Houellebecq chapter, an uncomfortable read. Read against the backdrop of the latest episodes of racialised civil discord in France, it foregrounds the place of literature in politics, but also reminds us of the purpose of irony and satire. If Houellebecq is being satirical, then what sort of satire punches down at the same groups targeted by mainstream political rhetoric and state violence?





[3] Willis, I. (2017) “Lucan, Reception, Counter-History,” Foucault Studies 22, 31–48.