- Staging Memory, Staging Strife: Empire and Civil War in the Octavia by Lauren Donovan
The twenty-first century has seen a flourishing of scholarly activity around the Octavia. This ranges from entire volumes of Symbolae Osloenses (77 ) and Prudentia (35.1 ) devoted to our only extant complete example of fabula praetexta, to fine commentaries by R. Ferri (Cambridge 2003) and A. J. Boyle (Oxford 2008), to the magisterial monograph of P. Kragelund (Roman [End Page 269] Historical Drama: the Octavia in Antiquity and Beyond [Oxford 2016]). Ginsberg’s new book, which began life as a Brown University dissertation, makes a valuable contribution to this newfound appreciation for the play. While many have noted the numerous allusions in the Octavia, Ginsberg combines inter-(and intra-) textual analysis with memory studies (both literary and cultural) to show that our playwright did not simply employ allusions on a whim. Instead, by careful examination of quotations and echoes, and of their subsequent reuse by intermediary writers, Ginsberg recreates the way a given character “reads” the past. In doing so, she presents the Octavia as arguing that the Julio-Claudian dynasty, rather than bringing about a period of peace, is grounded in discord that makes constant civil war unavoidable.
I do not have enough space here to do justice to Ginsberg’s arguments, but perhaps I can give a taste of her methods with one example. Chapter 1 focuses on the women of the play. At the end of her second soliloquy, Octavia links herself to Pompey through an allusion to Lucan’s description of the great general (Oct. 71 and Luc. 1.135). The epic poet remembers Pompey as the “shadow of a great name”; that is, one who relies on his past reputation and the fleeting affection of the populus, in contrast to Caesar’s employment of skill and experience. Further intertexts with Lucan and Ovid reinforce the idea that, like Pompey, Octavia trusts the crowd’s love for her, as well as her association with her father’s victories. The allusions continue to pile up, linking Octavia to Pompey through connections to his wife, Julia, and to Agamemnon. Agrippina, too, is associated with Pompey; this link occurs through Vergil’s depiction of Priam, whom Ginsberg duly calls “another Pompey figure” (35), and whose final words from Aeneid 2.533–539 echo those of Agrippina as reported by Octavia (Oct. 332–337). Finally, Octavia uses references to the Georgics and Horace’s Odes to paint Nero as another Julius Caesar. The result does more than just foreshadow Octavia’s eventual downfall. It places the blame on the fickle nature of fate as well as the fleeting affection of the Roman people. But it also asks the audience to view the domestic struggles between Octavia and Nero as yet another reenactment of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, and suggests that such bitter discord is an inevitable component of Julio-Claudian rule.
Chapters 2 and 3 set up a dichotomy in the argument about clemency between Seneca and Nero, based on the characters’ disparate readings of Octavian’s bloody rise to power. Our playwright’s magnification of the riots of 62 ce is the subject of chapter 4. The final chapter reinterprets the identity of the chorus(es), arguing that they comprise two groups with differing opinions concerning civil war, rather than being supporters of either Octavia or Poppaea. An epilogue places the drama in the early years of the Flavian dynasty.
This whirlwind description does little to reflect Ginsberg’s achievement. Her knowledge of Latin literature borders on the encyclopedic, and her nuanced arguments are difficult to summarize. Every chapter offers an intriguing new lens through which to view the Octavia. In particular, I find Ginsberg’s reading of the choruses especially thought-provoking. I do wonder, however, how many of the allusions would be detected and appreciated by an audience, be it in a theatre or a recital hall. Our playwright may trust...