April 17, 2007

Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial culture


Alain Gowing's latest book presents what is a fascinating subject, the way that the early Roman Empire or Principate remembered the Roman Republic, investigating a large variety of sources from Augustan historians and poets like Livy and Ovid forward to the reign of Trajan, the letters of the younger Pliny and the dialogus of Tacitus, Gowing attempts to describe the historical process of what happened to the Republic under the Empire. In a separate last chapter he takes us through the ways that Imperial Rome changed not merely its literary representation of the Republic but also the fabric of the city- and through contrasting the forum of Augustus with that of Trajan he is able to show the change that he describes in his sources, taking place in brick and marble.

Gowing traces the way that in the early Principate the memory of the Republic was deeply political. Remembering the Republic was something disquieting and it had to be redescribed to make the new regime palatable. Thus one finds Roman historians looking at the Republic and finding in it the roots of the Principate. Thus one finds little mention of the civil war and the violent incidents at the end of the Republic whereas more attention is paid to the Republic's political triumphs and the ways that the Empire has succeeded in continuing them. We find therefore in the forum of Augustus, that Augustus is represented as the culmination of Republican history- down each side of the forum you would see statues of the heroes of the past (carefully selected) whose biographies have been pruned of civil strife and remind one of the march of Romanitas- Augustus's statue therefore is centrally placed reminding one that this is the supreme political embodiment of the long Republican tradition.

Gowing's central argument is that by the time of Trajan that had all changed. The memory of the Republic in the works of Pliny the Younger- of even of Seneca under Nero- had become less relevant to the present political situation. Historians like Tacitus didn't write about the Republic because they saw it as a different time whose rules could not neatly be applied to the present. Rather the history of the Republic is used for its ethical and not its political content. In Seneca's letters the great figures of the Republic inspire one to personal moderation not to political liberty- indeed Seneca explicitly denies that as an option- lauding not Cato the Younger's resistance to Caesar and Pompey but Scipio Africanus's resignation and retirement to his estates. For Pliny the Younger the history of the Republic is a resource to show up the dimensions of Trajan's imperial rule- Pliny argues that Trajan has bettered all of the previous heroes of the Republic and thus through his rule Roman civilisation is maintained. The world has changed- and nowhere is that change more manifest than in Trajan's forum- unlike Augustus's Trajan's forum includes no reference to an irrelevant Republican past, rather the statue of Trajan himself dominates and maintains the forum, and the Roman people.

Such acts of memory are interesting- as is the turn from the public to the private ethic. In part its fascinating to observe a process which we can see happening in other revolutions- resignation- the turning inward upon oneself- the life of scholarly or stoic abstraction from events that one can no longer effect is fascinating. Its fascinating to observe in Gowing's work the way that the authors of Rome had to accomodate the new political realities- Republicanism became not merely unfashionable but as irrelevant as a discussion of the Corn Laws is to modern Britain. Whether for good or ill, what Gowing seems to show is the way that history faded in Roman eyes from a political example, to a moral example. The way that Imperial thinking turned inward and the consequence of tyranny was a focus on the ethics of private resignation, rather than the politics of public engagement which a man like Cicero would have enjoined.

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