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Arethusa 38.1 (2005) 49-88

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Mimicking Virgins:

Colonial Ambivalence and the Ancient Romance

Drew University

There is increasing awareness of the complexity of the processes of identity-construction at work in the literature of the Roman empire, processes reflecting diverse intertextual strategies of appropriation, fragmentation, recombination, and parody that subtly interrogate both the hegemony of Greek paideia and the imperial dominion of Rome.1 Who is a "Greek"? Who is a "Roman"? (Who, for that matter, a "barbarian"?) Such questions, while answered with confidence by many ancient authors, raise particular challenges for the contemporary historian. From the perspective of a hindsight inevitably refracted through the lens of more recent experiences of empire and colonization, the ancient Mediterranean terrain unfurls as a scarred surface, layered with histories of conquest and traversed by passages between cultures only knowable as such retrospectively and problematically, in the moment of their mutual, agonistic differentiation—in the moment when purity is already "lost." Some of us may want to pose the question: Are not all subjects unmasked—differently—as "mimic-men" in this "space of colonial encounters"?2 (We recall, for example, that both Justin Martyr, a [End Page 49] Semite hailing from the Roman colony of Flavia Neapolis in Syria-Palestine, and Antoninus Pius, the Roman emperor to whom he addresses his first Apology, liked to adopt the "retro" styling of Greek philosophers.3 ) As Simon Goldhill quips in a recent essay, "Post-colonial discourse is a bandwagon that is not always aware of the length of its history" (2001a.156-57). Goldhill goes on to note that negotiations of position "in and against what might be called the dominant culture of Rome and the Empire . . . take place not merely within a matrix of dominance and resistance (the imperial gaze, and the subaltern text), but with a more complex dynamic of local and central knowledge, practices of displacement and marginalization, imagined forces and unrecognized collusiveness" (2001a.180).4

The Greek romance provides a particularly rich site for investigating this "complex dynamic." A quintessentially colonial literary product emanating from the geographical and cultural margins of what passed for "civilization," the romance at the same time lays claim to the central texts and linguistic practices that constitute "Hellenism," at once disputing and colluding with the universalizing aspirations of empire.5 A hybrid genre in [End Page 50] several respects, eclectically allusive in its compositional strategies, straddling the boundaries between the "elite" and "popular" realms of discourse, the ancient novel actively engages "a multiracial, multilingual, mixed Mediterranean" (Doody 1996.18). Indeed, as Mikhail Bakhtin has argued, the chief defining feature of the novel may well be its distinctive relationship to the polyglossia of the ancient world, resulting in an irreducible literary "dialogism."6 What emerges to the reader's view is thus less a clear snapshot of cultural diversity than a subtly shifting field of cultural difference. "Diversity," as post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha points out, assumes "the recognition of pre-given cultural contents and customs; held in a time-frame of relativism, it gives rise to liberal notions of multiculturalism, cultural exchange or the culture of humanity." "Difference," in contrast, calls attention to the process by which culture is enunciated in liminal moments of uncertainty and borderland spaces of contestation. "The theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation," suggests Bhabha, "may open the way towards conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity" (1994.34-35,38; emphasis in original). Bakhtin's notion of hybridity influences and thus partly anticipates Bhabha's, while also locating novelistic literature precisely within Bhabha's "split-space of enunciation": "The novelistic hybrid is an artistically organized system for bringing different languages in contact with one another, a system having as its goal the illumination of one language by means of another, the carving out of a living image of another language" (Bakhtin 1981.361; emphasis in original).

Christians and Jews are no longer considered external to the polyglot Mediterranean mix that...


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