- Augustan Poetry and the Irrational ed. by Philip Hardie
In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Sigmund Freud famously used the city of Rome to illustrate his observation that “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish” (trans. James Strachey). In Freud’s vision of the Eternal City, as in the human mind, all developmental stages exist simultaneously. The past is never entirely forgotten, and modern visitors can imagine themselves wandering among long-lost Republican monuments even as they conjure up these buildings’ Augustan and later Imperial successors, all within the same space and at the same time.
The contributors to Philip Hardie’s Augustan Poetry and the Irrational jointly advance a similar thesis (although they surprisingly never discuss Freud directly). According to their readings, memories of the recent civil wars have been incompletely repressed and continue to shine, along with other illogical, emotional, and self-contradictory elements, through the supposedly orderly lines of Augustan poetry. As Hardie explains in his introduction, this argument constitutes a refutation of the traditional view that the Augustan poets are distinctively rational and/or that their thinking about the human psyche is not sufficiently profound to warrant a Roman sequel to E. R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1951). The resultant contributions, most of which originated from a colloquium at the University of Cambridge in 2012, are stimulating. They cover the Augustan poets but also look back to Catullus (Jürgen Paul Schwindt) and forward to early-modern poets who engage with the Roman past (so William Fitzgerald and Hardie himself). They even trace philological commentators’ views on the irrational from Servius and Donatus to the present (Séverine Clément-Tarantino). In these manifold ways, Hardie’s volume significantly advances our understanding of the irrational in Augustan literature.
Sed quomodo dicitur Latine “irrational”? As Christian D. Haß points out in his contribution, one potential problem with the project is the absence of a reliable definition of, much less a Latin equivalent for, the term. Hardie’s volume treats “the irrational” simply as “the absence of the rational,” and no two [End Page 582] contributors approach the topic with the same presuppositions. And yet the articles do come together into a relatively unified whole. What most of them detect is a pushback against the official narrative that with Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra, good has triumphed over evil, order has defeated chaos, and “rationality” has vanquished “irrationality.” According to the Augustan poets, the truth is more complicated. For example, Elena Giusti notes that in the Aeneid, Dido’s Carthaginians may at first sight look like Aeschylus’s Persians, while Aeneas’ Trojans—associated as they are with the Augustan regime—resemble the victorious Greeks. But upon closer inspection, the lines are blurred and few differences remain between Aeneas’ (and Augustus’) friends and foes. Stefano Rebeggiani’s exploration of the Aeneid’s Orestes-theme yields similar results. Comparisons to Agamemnon’s mad son might excuse as much as indict Aeneas (and, again, Augustus) for the crimes he commits in the service of empire. That these crimes will not remain buried is apparent from Mario Labate’s discussion of Horace’s Satires 1.8. Here, the bones of an old cemetery remain uncomfortably close beneath the surface of Maecenas’ new estate on the Esquiline. Maecenas himself is no unambiguous figure either. As Emily Gowers shows, Vergil’s Georgics makes him resemble the contradictory figure of Bacchus, who is both a successful conqueror and a notorious carouser. Jane Burkowski adds that in Tibullus 2.3 and 2.5 even Apollo is torn between irrational emotions and the more self-respecting and rational role he plays in Augustan propaganda. It only makes sense then, that, as S. J. Heyworth argues, the Augustan poets are at their most unabashedly irrational (here: deliberately self-contradictory) when they praise the princeps, thereby inviting the reader to question the assumptions underlying their panegyric.
What is more, the irrational defines not just the time’s military...