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294Victorian Review Norman Vance. The Victorians and Ancient Rome. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. ix + 319. $59.95 US (cloth). The significance of Ancient Greece in the Victorian period has been well documented and analyzed in recent years, as Norman Vance observes at the start of this book. His project is to redress the balance, arguing that Rome too had great significance for Victorian culture. Vance pursues this large objective in an appropriately monumental fashion: the book is elegantly divided into two substantial sections which range across many different aspects of the Victorian vision of Rome, concentrating on earlier and later Victorian culture respectively, and a longer middle section consisting of detailed analyses of Victorian reactions to particular Roman authors. The main emphasis in Part One is on Victorian appropriations of Roman history for the purposes of commenting on current affairs. In fact here and elsewhere, Vance goes back somewhat beyond the Victorian period, to the Romantics, describing associations made by lateeighteenth - and early-nineteenth-century commentators between the French Revolution and various Roman political ideas and events. But he goes on to demonstrate that this was just the beginning of a process that went on throughout the nineteenth century, in which Roman wars, quarrels, and rivalries were effectively re-opened for contemporary ends. For example, the Punic Wars provided rich analogies for both sides in the Napoleonic conflicts, both the British and the French finding good reasons to construct themselves as Romans in some circumstances, and Carthaginians in others, but the same Classical material found an entirely different significance in 1861 when an English missionary in Africa spoke of his 'Punic wars' with slave-traders. "The phrase caused grave offence at home,' writes Vance. 'But his critics missed the precision of the allusion. Carthaginians . . . had set little store by human life . . . and they were noted chiefly as the great traders of the Mediterranean. Their Roman opponents . . . had, in their own estimation at least aspired to the nobler and more humane values of mercy, peace and justice, implicitly identifiable with missionary outreach and Christian civilization' (73). The missionary's precision, here, is echoed in similar instances throughout the book; one of the strongest impressions it offers is of the extraordinary authority with which many Victorians could summon up Roman references, and the confidence with which they could assume that their listeners or readers would understand them. Importantly, Vance does not merely deduce the currency of Roman culture and history from Victorian literature or speeches; he also Reviews295 provides detailed information about the extent to which Latin was still in use in schools and universities, in parliament and elsewhere. Also, he adds depth to his discussions of the Victorian afterlife of particular Roman writers by describing the huge changes in scholarly values and method that took place during the nineteenth century, especially through the influence of German writers such as Niebuhr and Mommsen. One of the great merits of Vance's approach, in fact, is its cross-disciplinary range, taking in literary history, social and political history, aesthetics, and historiography, amongst other fields, and thereby providing a very rich sense of Victorian culture in general, while consistently adhering to the Roman theme. Which is as much as to say that Vance is very successful in demonstrating his main thesis: Rome clearly was a central and pervasive source of ideas at this time. Part Two of the book consists of a discussion of the Victorian status and significance of five Roman poets: Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. This is the longest section of the book, with a chapter allocated to each poet, and it is full of sensitive analysis and striking information. Despite the concentration on poetry, Vance remains attentive to issues that go far beyond aesthetics, and even into science. For example, he demonstrates that learned Victorians (such as George Eliot) were still assimilating and responding to the ideas of Lucretius on the structure and processes of the natural world, even as they were getting to grips with the latest work of Darwin. In fact Vance implies that Lucretius was timely and apposite for the Victorians in a way which could not be the case today. On the other hand, late-twentieth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 294-296
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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