- God, Space, and City in the Roman Imagination by Richard Jenkyns
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 407 pp.
The Greek and Latin classics have no better advocate than Richard Jenkyns. He knows the great works of classical literature intimately, and he is uncommonly well read in other literatures as well as in art and music. His book of 1980 on the Victorians and ancient Greece showed him to be a perceptive chronicler of the classical tradition, and it was appropriate that his professorship at Oxford be dedicated to the history of the classical tradition. But his latest book is a return to strictly ancient themes, though dauntingly large ones. The title sounds more like something from a grant proposal than a scholarly enterprise, and so it is. The book was written with funding from the Leverhulme Trust between 2007 and 2010.
The sprawling subject—God, space, and city—includes what Jenkyns rightly describes as “a fashionable term in scholarship” (space), and much the same could be said of God and city. We are least spared other modish topics, such as memory or identity, although the gaze surfaces from time to time, but there is no escaping a certain pall from the artificial conjunction of nebulous concepts. The restriction of these concepts to the “Roman imagination” is, however, considerably more helpful than might at first appear, because Jenkyns is largely concerned with the city of Rome rather than Romans in the broadly cultural sense. This means that he directs his attention to the city’s residents and their interaction with the environment in which they lived. He evokes the buildings, streets, and piazzas through which they moved, the monuments that surrounded them, and the temples of their gods.
With his mastery of literary texts and familiarity with urban Rome, Jenkyns easily avoids the banalities that his title would imply. His book is consistently fresh and illuminating. He deploys well-known texts, particularly of the Augustan age, from new perspectives, and he is generous in citing from Cicero and the Evangelists, even from Apuleius. He writes brilliantly about Lucretius, “the most sacramental of all the classical Latin poets.” The only text I miss is Plutarch’s Roman Questions, which, in its quirky way, has much to say about Rome and its monuments. John Scheid has argued recently in a new book, Á Rome sur les pas de Plutarque (2012), that Plutarch is providing a handbook for a promenade through [End Page 346] the city in the area enclosed by the Roman forum, Forum Boarium, and Circus Maximus. It would be worth knowing Jenkyns’s response to this idea. It might not be positive, but it would, like all his work, be deeply informed and elegantly expressed.
G. W. Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an honorary fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. His many books include Hellenism in Late Antiquity, for which he received the Breasted Prize of the American Historical Association; Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire; Roman Arabia; Fiction as History; Mosaics as History; Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity; and The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam. East and West: Papers in Ancient History Presented to Glen W. Bowersock was published by Harvard University Press in 2008.