[Access article in PDF]
This is an important book, one that has in its brief life (a paperback edition appeared in 2001) spawned many scholarly debates in both written and spoken form. Many have disagreed—and will disagree—with Habinek's ideas, and I certainly have many questions about his methodology, his use of sources and evidence, and his sometimes conflicting claims. Nonetheless, he takes on one of the most serious issues in Classics: how we read classical texts, what the reader's involvement with the text should be, and what part ideology plays (and did play) in both the formation and the reception of a text.
Habinek's task, as he states it, is to study literature as a representation of society and an intervention in it (3). His overall aim is to assess the social function of Latin literature, a literature that was produced within a traditional aristocratic empire "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" (3). As his title indicates (with "Politics" coming before "Literature"), he sets out to "politicize and historicize the reading of texts of classical Latin literature that are still too frequently regarded in purely formalistic and aesthetic terms" (4-5) by examining, chapter by chapter, a series of test cases or scenarios that embed Roman literature in its social, economic, and cultural context. This book is meant to offer the reader, then, a "historically engaged mode of reading" (5) by looking at intertexts of many sorts.
Such an approach to literature belongs to the school of cultural-materialist studies, those critics who read and analyze literature as "ideological discourse and social institution" (5), and it draws from many schools of thought and disciplines, including Marxism, feminist theory, anthropology, political science, deconstruction, literary criticism, New Historicism, and Foucauldian theory. The genesis of Habinek's book was the close philological study of the "meaning and usage of specific Latin words and phrases in specific discursive contexts" (6). Thus he began with a close examination of the political basis of words but then broadened his lens to analyze textual systems and the construction of political identity. Habinek distinguishes himself from the semioticians and the formalists in his focus on the "interestedness" of textual utterances and the historical and political dynamics of the text. The particular kind of interestedness that Habinek zeroes in on is the Roman aristocratic elite and its anxieties about strategies for sustaining a moral and political hegemony.
Habinek enters into a fray that has long simmered in the discipline of Classics but that boiled up into a full-scale battle with the publication of Martin Bernal's Black Athena. Habinek contends that Classical scholars' idealizing view of the ancient world (more Greece than Rome) and their isolation of Latin literature from Roman culture has allowed them to ignore "the social implications of their own practice" (10), a comfortable, ahistoricized position that militates [End Page 645] against reading Latin literature in a sociopolitical framework. If, for example, we read Ovid's exile poetry without acknowledging Ovid's contribution to Roman colonialism and his authorly assistance in constructing and disseminating an imperial discourse of domination, we risk imitating some famous scholarly forebears who "avoided the historical reality of Rome in order to actualize their own fantasies of the apolitical innocence of literature and literary studies" (14). Thus, Habinek sympathizes with Bernal's idea that "scholarship. . . is influenced by the scholar's sociopolitical background" (173, n. 2), and he urges us to follow Giambattista Vico, who privileged Roman literature and culture (over Greek), saw society and culture as something changing not fixed, and regarded language and cultural institutions as social constructs. Habinek contrasts Vico with figures like Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, who, in the German Romantic tradition, idealized Greece and firmly separated...