Dead Eyes and Blank Faces

John Henderson

  • Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricisation by Vasily Rudich
    Routledge, 408 pp, £50.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 415 09501 8

‘Power’ is the buzz word for the late Nineties, and when it comes to power-mania imperial Rome has always been hard to beat. On the one hand, there is the rogues’ gallery: doddery Claudius dribbling still down Derek Jacobi’s chin; blubbery Nero fiddling while the slums burn; and those women – impossibly sinister Livia, unimaginably (but let’s try) sexcrazed Messalina. On the other, reams of text from the Roman Empire, in Latin or Greek, written over three or four centuries by pagan members of the senatorial élite, by their Christian successors, and by representatives of all sorts of other points of view.

When these monsters are tracked down to the ancient ‘sources’, it’s not surprising to find that the writers pretty well always write about other emperors, not their own. Tacitus’ great history of the first two imperial dynasties was written one or two generations after their extinction, and sealed off in each case by the assassination of the last Caesar. The satirist Juvenal explicitly announces that he can only (explicitly) attack the dead. Having to observe this iron rule has been known to drive principled ancient historians away from the cosmopolis and its court of satellites and on to socioeconomics and the generation of population trends. Today, however, historians dig into the endlessly gripping game of literary politics under the emperors. Did the writers knuckle under? And if so, was it in adoration, apathy or abjection? Or did they invent and refine the art of dissimulation? Were they the first arch-courtiers whose thoughts we can get inside?

For their part, teachers and their precious core of more or (rather) less Latinate readers, no longer shy away from the intrication of their classic texts with the politics of autocracy. Teaching us how to think about the parade of Caesars is exactly the expert help everyone wants. What must it have been like to live as, or with, or under those dynasties? Were they fiends and perverts? Or are they – were they always – necessary myths? What kinds of history can be written about any ‘closed’, absolutist regime? What stake do we have in Nero?

It is now firmly established that we should read imperial Roman texts as political writings – not only among the wider public that laps up novels and dramas, documentaries and translations, but also among the professional gatekeepers; and not just when political history is the overt topic of a piece of writing, but over the whole range of literature produced after Augustus disposed of the Republic. Not everyone realises, however, that the little hard information we have about the process of reading and response in the ancient world is an animated confection of guesswork and gossip. Can we explain Lucan’s romp through Julius Caesar’s victory over Pompey’s Republic on the basis of the ancient Life? (We are told by Lucan’s anonymous biographer that ‘he turned against Nero for walking out on a recital to attend the senate; in a public loo, he farted thunderously and declaimed a half-line penned by the Emperor; he lampooned Him and those close to the throne, and finally came out as the standard-bearer of the conspiracy to assassinate Nero.’) The question is never far away: how convincingly can we read texts from what we know of the cultural context of their production? Wouldn’t it be better to recognise that context is just as much part of the mythology? Why not relax, and explore the fantasy? Those who study tyrannical regimes in the modern world should perhaps envy us the feebleness of the documentation – the blank where our archives should be – as compared with the power of the texts themselves.

The usual strategy has (of course) been to trust our ancient sources and the representations they give of the circumstances and predicaments of the writers whose work we want to explore, so as to extrapolate a plausible picture of how they intersected with those around them, particularly those close to the lines of imperial power; and thereby conjure up the hopes and fears, the ambitions and abstentions, that the works must have embodied. The alternative doesn’t sound at all scholarly: to stick with ‘our’ Rome, and work from the reactions and construals we ourselves bring to these texts, whose interpretation commits us to particular positions, values and denials.

Still, people hate being taken in, so they try not to rely on all the scurrility and noise that can be dredged up from ancient marginalia. Much sounder to read the major ‘accounts’ of, say, the ‘Reign of Nero’ as projects that speak to the presence of historians in history. Thus Tacitus tells us that Seneca, caught up in the same conspiracy as Lucan, committed suicide by cutting his wrists, ‘but his aged body, scrawny from a life of abstinence, let the blood out too slowly’, so he also severed the veins in his ankles and behind the knees, dictated a sermon (later published), took poison from a doctor friend, was lowered into a warm bath and finally suffocated in a steam-bath. The point of recounting all this was not, however, to prove that the historian had any more knowledge of what actually happened than Gerrit van Honthorst, the 17th-century painter of the scene sprayed across Vasily Rudich’s book-jacket; instead, there is a competition to represent the stoical Stoic’s moment of truth as part of the discourse of resistance to the force majeure of (any) dictatorship. The death of Seneca lays out guidelines for how history can go.

Vasily Rudich knows all these angles and more, but has decided he doesn’t mind being taken in, so long as that means he can determine a reliable cultural framework for authorship under Nero. He reckons that a network of cultural conditions derives from what he calls (on page after page) ‘the rhetoricised mentality’ of imperial Rome. As he acknowledges, this notion more or less updates Gordon Williams’s late Seventies account of the decline of ‘Silver Latin’, where rhetoric stopped anyone getting real or saying much worth thinking about, or else lost the audience, and writing lapsed terminally into a performance art (an ancient version of videocy). Instead, Rudich sees a literary culture given over to multivalency, as satellites jostled for influence around the Emperor. Any compliment paid to him could be faint praise and/or ironic complaisance, offensive on a literal reading and/or loaded with oblique insult by implication: but he sees the texts written out of this mentality as essentially self-consistent, plottable within a narrative of Neronian history.

In Political Dissidence under Nero (1993), Rudich showed something like a blind faith in the ‘sources’, and imagined a challenging ‘dissident sensibility’ in the Julio-Claudian élite. He wanted to give a strong impression of what life must have been like in a surreal world, and the experience of 25 years spent in the former Soviet Union did, undeniably, bring bite to his account of political terrorism and doublethink. The pay-off in that instance was a book full of courage. Few Latinists could relate so well to the dead eyes and blank faces at Nero’s banquets. By contrast, the sequel, Dissidence and Literature under Nero, beds down quite comfortably with the twenty years Rudich has now spent in US academia. This ‘companion volume’ stands and falls by its explication of three bodies of work from Nero’s reign: Seneca’s prose, a huge mass of moral essays and meditative epistles; Lucan’s ranting epic on civil war; and the Satyrica, Petronius’ mutilated experimental novel on sex, drugs and the whole sick crew. These are plotted along a graph of ‘(im)moralism’.

‘The Immoral Moralist’, ‘The Moral Immoralist’, and ‘The Immoral Immoralist’ – Seneca, Lucan, Petronius – are the three chapter headings of the book; the ‘moral moralist’ is suppressed, Rudich says, in order not to overload the volume (which has over a hundred anxious pages of notes, bloated by numbing lists of references to all the secondary literature there can be). The absentee in question is Persius, whose cackling Satires always did (and do) promise themselves oblivion. For Persius’ immortal joke is that there are no readers for moralists in decadent Rome, so he can bury any secret in his book without fear of detection.

There is nothing surprising in Rudich’s approach to Lucan’s manic blitzkrieg on Julius Caesar: fireworks lobbed from the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty at its early beginnings cause anyone to wonder how Lucan got away with it, how his poem would have to be kept from being read as subversive in intent, how much self-mockery it would have to contain were it not to relate directly to the authority of Nero. That Lucan wrote sizzling poetry, however, along lines very much of his own invention, is what impels his writing: not some general rhetoric; not simply the condition of Latin verse post-Virgil and post-Ovid. There isn’t much here that conveys the way Lucan’s Latin pummels and rages. Rudich has missed out by a decade: recent scholarship has already brought Lucan back with a bang.

That Petronius can be read as a(n) (im)moralist is also a familiar idea, particularly in New World criticism, where amoralist literature has traditionally proved an intolerable category, and translated instantly as immoralism. In recent years, attention to the framing and many-layered narration of this anti-novel has brought out the teasing and refractory properties of the Satyrica. To experience the world according to Encolpius, the first-person narrator, is to be trapped in his performance, as lush, dope, hopeless case, and to wallow with him in bad taste and worse verse. Emphasising, as Rudich does, the troubles with Nero that Petronius would be courting with his sparkling clichés and slumming snobberies gets us nowhere.

The one daring thing Rudich does is to try to politicise Seneca; and I wish he had given more of his pages to a vigorous dissection of On Clemency, because this is where Seneca addresses all emperors at all times, including our own, enters into negotiations with autocracy, and identifies the violence of forgiveness from on high and the way in which the act of mercy gives rise to the grudge. Seneca’s slick ellipses and clever nagging explore areas that are crucial for defending the self against all-comers. They add up to a formidable barrage of arguments that go far beyond the repudiation of political terrorism or intimidation. His invention of a strongly defended courtier’s self was the great pay-off of a rhetoricisation under Nero. Rudich doesn’t really get inside the writing, but he does usefully insist that we see how a Nero is a necessary condition for a Seneca.