Introduction to Augustan Poetry and the Roman Republic

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Departmental Papers (Classical Studies)
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Nelis, Damien P

A considerable body of recent scholarship has been devoted to investigating the ways in which societies remember, studying not only what they construct as memorable but also why and how they do so. Adopting a narrower focus, this volume examines the ways in which different aspects and images of the Roman Republic are created and exploited by the Augustan poets. Our subject immediately suggests two obvious strategies:- on the one hand, emphasis on a strictly historical project; on the other, concentration on versions of literary history. The latter has been more popular and influential in recent Latin scholarship, but the former has not been without its adherents, as the lively debate in recent historical research has fought over the value of ancient literary sources for reconstructing the early history of Rome and, crucially, for the origins of the Republic and the struggle of the orders. Simultaneously, recent work on Livy has provided strong support for a pre-Actian dating for the beginning of the composition of his history, and so has vastly improved our appreciation of the complexity and subtlety of this extraordinarily ambitious and influential historiographical project. In addition, more sophisticated readings of Roman historians in general that are themselves influenced by the application of New Critical techniques of dose reading developed by critics of poetic texts, have begun in turn to impinge on the ways in which the Latin poetry of the Augustan age is interpreted. Just as historical writers employ the materials of poetry and what we now call fiction-myth and metaphor, artful structuration, and the careful activation of intertextual possibilities involving models in both prose and verse-Augustan poets reveal their keen awareness of and interest in different historiographical modes, such as those of universal history, regal chronicles, and the tropes of annalistic writing. They are also interested in some of the characteristic themes and devices of historical writing, such as battle narrative, civil conflict, ethnography, speeches, and debates, even as they too engage intertextually with precise historiographical models in pointed and influential ways. The challenge for this volume, then, is not so much to ask whether the Augustan poets are concerned with Roman history, but to gain greater clarity with regard to the questions of how and to what end they may be seen as presenting their past as a specifically Republican history. In setting out to think about this vast topic, one which can only be treated in a highly selective manner in a book such as this, a series of obvious questions comes immediately to mind. Are there any particular aspects of the Republic that Augustan poets seem to remember with particular frequency and immediacy? Equally, are there any aspects they seem to prefer to forget? How do they shape the past in relation to the present: do they favour narratives of continuity, rupture, or repetition? What other forms of periodization do they adopt? And finally, how are we to define any given poet as 'Augustan'? Amidst such a bewildering array of questions, it seems advisable to attempt to seek some solid ground as a starting point.

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