Dynamic Reading: Studies in the Reception of Epicureanism

Dynamic Reading: Studies in the Reception of Epicureanism

Dynamic Reading: Studies in the Reception of Epicureanism

Dynamic Reading: Studies in the Reception of Epicureanism


The texts, ideas, images, and material culture of ancient Greece and Rome have always been crucial to attempts to appropriate the past in order to authenticate the present. They underlie the mapping of change and the assertion and challenging of value and identities, old and new. Classical Presences bring the latest scholarship to bear on the contexts, theory, and practice of such use, and abuse, of the classical past.


Death is the sanction of all that the story-teller can report. He has
borrowed his authority from death. In other words: his stories refer
back to the story of nature.

Ancient Rome was fascinated by the performance of death. Apart from any popular, modern-day image of conquering Romans or gladiatorial contests, the classical literary record provides copious evidence of this fascination. From the Punic Wars to the reign of Theodoric, from Naevius and Ennius to Boethius, the literature of Rome is marked by countless dramatic—and dramatically staged—murders and suicides. Perhaps most famously within the traditional narrative of ancient philosophy, Cato the Younger (Marcus Porcius Cato), a Stoic, kills himself with his

I thank Brooke Holmes, James Ker, and the members of the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities at Stanford University (2008–2009) for commenting on earlier drafts of this essay. All errors are, of course, my own.

Benjamin (1977) 450: “Der Tod ist die Sanktion von allem, was der Erzähler berichten kann. Vom Tode hat er seine Autorität geliehen. Mit anderen Worten: es ist die Naturgeschichte, auf welche seine Geschichten zurückverweisen.” Emphasis added. All translations (of both ancient and modern languages) are my own unless otherwise noted.

Death in ancient Rome has, accordingly, a large bibliography. To cite only a handful of recent works, see Ker (2009), Edwards (2007), Edwards (2005), Connors (1994). Suicide is a major concern of later sections in this paper; on that topic, see Grisé (1982), Hirzel (1908), Griffin (1986a), Griffin (1986b). The most extensive treatment of Epicurean death from a philosophical perspective is Warren (2004).

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