The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome

The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome

The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome

The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome

Synopsis

This is the first book to describe the intimate relationship between Latin literature and the politics of ancient Rome. Until now, most scholars have viewed classical Latin literature as a product of aesthetic concerns. Thomas Habinek shows, however, that literature was also a cultural practice that emerged from and intervened in the political and social struggles at the heart of the Roman world.

Habinek considers major works by such authors as Cato, Cicero, Horace, Ovid, and Seneca. He shows that, from its beginnings in the late third century b.c. to its eclipse by Christian literature six hundred years later, classical literature served the evolving interests of Roman and, more particularly, aristocratic power. It fostered a prestige dialect, for example; it appropriated the cultural resources of dominated and colonized communities; and it helped to defuse potentially explosive challenges to prevailing values and authority. Literature also drew upon and enhanced other forms of social authority, such as patriarchy, religious ritual, cultural identity, and the aristocratic procedure of self-scrutiny, or "existimatio.

Habinek's

Excerpt

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the relationship between Latin literature and its historical context. Without abandoning earlier study of language, form, and literary tradition, scholars have begun to consider as well the means through which literature was produced and circulated, the relationship between artist and patron, and ideological aspects of the production, consumption, and interpretation of classical literary texts. The present study continues this interest in texts and contexts, but with a crucial shift of emphasis. Instead of viewing texts as chiefly illustrative of or reactive to social, political, and economic practices, it regards literature as a medium through which competing sectors of Roman society sought to advance their interests over and against other sources of social and political authority. In other words, literature is here studied not only as a representation of society, but as an intervention in it as well.

The social milieu from which Latin literature emerged and in the interests of which it intervened was that of the elite sector of a traditional aristocratic empire. Many of the characteristics of Latin literature can be attributed to its production by and for an elite that sought to maintain and expand its dominance over other sectors of the population through reference to an authorizing past. While the precise social function of literature varies among texts, genres, and historical eras, taken collectively as an institution involving production, consumption, and interpretation, Latin literature of the classical period advances the interests of Rome's elites in the following ways: by fostering the development and promulgation of a prestige dialect; by providing a means of recruitment and acculturation for members of the imperial elites; by negotiating potentially explosive conflicts over value and authority; by augmenting the symbolic capital of the Roman state through expropriation of the cultural resources of recently colonized communities; and, eventually, by constructing the Roman reader as the quiescent subject of an imperial regime. In these multiple capacities, the literature of ancient Rome draws upon and enhances other forms of social authority, such as patriarchy, religious ritual, cultural identity, and the aristocratic procedure of self-scrutiny, or existimatio. Even the choice of technologies through which literature is circulated can be seen to work to the advantage of elite performers of literary texts.

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