Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Mario Erasmo, Reading Death in Ancient Rome. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 257; ill. 6. ISBN 978-0-8142-1092-5. $49.95.
Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University, Sydney

The stated aim of this book is to provide "a reading strategy for analyzing literary descriptions and allusions to death ritual" (p.x). While a number of important studies exist already on the reconstruction of evidence for such ritual in ancient Rome,1 what Erasmo looks to do is explore the ways in which writers and readers produce and extract meaning from versions of funerals and burials in Latin literature. To achieve this end, Erasmo engages in a series of case studies -- self-representations of living corpses (Propertius, Petronius, Tacitus); the theatricality of fictive death ritual (Seneca, Dio, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Suetonius); literary narratives of death and burial as the foundation of authorial agendas (Vergil, Ovid) and the focus for special reading experiences (Lucan, Statius); and figurative relationships between epitaphs and poetic texts (Scipionic and other inscriptiones; Vergil, Propertius, Ausonius, Ovid).

By way of Poussin's Et in Arcadia ego, an Ausonian epigram (37), an inscribed epitaph in its commemorative context (CIL VI 9583), and illustrative excerpts from Statius (Silvae 5.3), Livy (5.48.3), and Silius Italicus (Punica 13.463-465), a brief Introduction ("Reading Death", pp.1-12) introduces Erasmo's notion of "actual funerary rituals and their literary depictions as a form of participatory theater" (p.10). In other words, one way in which Latin literature mediates the production and reception of meaning is by immersing the viewer/reader in the experience of death ritual, making connections between intertextual references and cultural associations, and generating new ideas. In abstract form, Erasmo succinctly outlines the focus of each chapter.

Chapter One ("Playing Dead", pp.13-34) explores the various effects produced by, and meanings adhering to, literary representations of the living as dead. This applies to historical personalities -- Sallust (BC 61.4) impugns Catiline's mor(t)ality; Seneca (Ep. 12.8-9) similarly condemns Pacuvius -- as much as literary characters -- Cynthia's imagined performance of funerary ritual over Propertius contrasts with her present neglect of the living poet (2.13b.17-58); Trimalchio's funeral rehearsal (Satyricon 71.12, 77.7-78.1-7) and the tale of the entombed widow (111-113) magnify Petronius' aesthetic of vulgarity, absurdity, and shock. Erasmo concludes the chapter with a brief survey of Tacitus' narrative on the suicide of Seneca (and the shared attempt of his wife Paulina), foregrounding the use of death ritual as a literary strategy through which the author exposes the narrow divide between public propriety and private hypocrisy.

Chapter Two ("Staging Death", pp.35-74) establishes the fascinating interplay between accounts of Julius Caesar's funeral (Suetonius, Divus Iulius 84.1-5; Appian, BC 2.146-7) as a seminal topos for "the (meta)theatricality and theatricalization of death ritual" (p.40). From this starting point, Erasmo considers how the social construct of the funeral refigures a text like Seneca's Troades, informing the performative topography of the play and driving its dramatic tensions. By recontextualizing death ritual as a performance text, Seneca is seen to challenge theatrical paradigms, recasting the audience as participants in the death ritual. Erasmo argues that Seneca extends this blurring of cultural and social roles (dramatic spectacle and funerary commemoration) in the Phaedra (1262-68) to incorporate a further allusion to death ritual, in this case, a figurative ossilegium. He locates similar references to this traditional Roman practice in Propertius (1.17.19-24; 2.24.35-8, 49-52) and Tibullus (3.2.9-22). Rounding off his treatment of "reciprocal theatricality between stage and audience and between funeral ritual and the allusion/inclusion of funerary ritual on stage" (p.61), Erasmo analyzes the relationships between deceased and commemorator in depictions of particular historical funerals (Augustus: Dio 56.34.1-4, 42.1-4; a typical middle Republican aristocrat: Polybius 6.53.1-10; L. Aemilius Paullus: Diodorus Siculus 31.25; Vespasian: Suetonius, Vespasian 19.2; Pertinax: Dio, Epitome 75.4.2-75.5.1-5).

Chapter Three ("Disposing the Dead", pp.75-107) sets out the range of transformative strategies linked to depictions of cremation: as variations on, or confirmation of, epic precedents -- in the Aeneid, the bucolic eroticism of Pallas' cremation (11.59-99), contrasting with conventional evocations of Roman funeral ritual in the narrative of Misenus' cremation (6.179-82, 212-35) and the mass cremations of Trojans and Italians (11.182-224) -- and as contributing to the creative process and reading experience -- in Ovid's Metamorphoses, numerous references linking the fall of Troy with the rise of Rome (Hecuba: 13.423-29, 494-507. 523-26, 540-44; Aurora: 13.576-622; the cup of Anius: 13.685-99; the epitaph of Aeneas' nurse, Caieta: 14.441-44; Iphis' cremation: 14.743-47), and culminating in Julius' Caesar's apotheosis (15.745-51, 785-90, 799-806, 840-42) and Ovid's poetic metamorphosis (15.871-79; cf. Tristia 3.3.73-76).

Chapter Four ("Disposing the Dead?", pp.108-153) extends Erasmo's examination of how the narrators of cremation rituals in Latin literature manipulate the participation of their readers, focusing on "the evolution of the funeral trope from the epics of Vergil and Ovid to those of Lucan and Statius" (p.153). What emerges most clearly from this is the degree to which narrative episodes in later poetic cycles -- like the murder, decapitation and burial of the historical Pompey in the Bellum Civile (Book 8) and the cremations of the infant Opheltes and the serpent that killed the child in Statius' Thebaid (Books 6 and 12) -- challenge the reader's experience of funerals and cremations in reality and as encountered in epic. From Lucan's bizarre and grotesque treatment of Pompey to Statius' intertextual dynamics and eventual Ovidian shift from funeral ritual to metapoetic statement of his own literary success, it is clear to Erasmo that the rhetorical figure of death ritual serves as an entry-point for authorial strategies keyed to overturning rather than rehearsing social and epic conventions of funerals and burials.

Completing Erasmo's exploration of death ritual as a mediating narrative strategy underpinning important aspects of the author/reader dynamic in Latin literature, Chapter Five ("Animating the Dead", pp.154-204) looks at the figurative associations of actual and literary epitaphs. The focus here is firmly on the commemorative voice, its physical context and figurative setting, and the narrative and semiotic implications of the epitaphic texts and associated monumental representations of the deceased such as portrait statuary. Erasmo is careful to note that his discussion of epitaphs will not provide any historical, sociological, or anthropological information, and that it will not chart a typological evolution of epitaph features over time. Building on Fowler's notion of the synchronic and diachronic instability of the meaning of monuments,2 Erasmo addresses the limits of commemoration and self-representation in writing and reading stone and literary inscriptions. Varro's definition of monimentum (De lingua Latina 6.49) and Juvenal's comment on the impermanence of funerary epigraphy (Sat. 10.142-46) serve to introduce Erasmo's analysis of certain physical and associative functions of real funeral monuments - including the locus classicus of the "passer-by" type of inscription, addressed to a certain Claudia (CIL 1.2.1211), a selection of the Scipionic elogia (CIL 1.2.6-7, 8-9, 15), and other elegiac epitaphs (CIL 1.2.1732; 2.1821; 6.13528, 25063). The second major section of this chapter demonstrates how epitaphs in literature - Dido (Aeneid 4.653-58); Gallus, Cornelia (Propertius 1.21, 22; 4.11); and Ausonius' father, grandfather, father-in-law, and wife (Parentalia 1, 4, 8, 9) -- serve as textual and emotional markers, encoding shared elements of the narrative funerary landscape, enriching sentimental associations, and transforming the reading process into a ritualized experience. As Erasmo observes, "[t]he animation of the dead through their figurative (self) representation in elegiac texts highlights the reciprocity between epitaphs and poetic texts, in particular the reciprocal communication between the living and the dead" (p.204).

Erasmo draws the threads of his presentation together in a brief conclusion (pp.205-207). Critical end-notes keyed to each chapter address pertinent literary, cultural, and historical issues arising from general discussion (pp.209-241).There are a useful bibliography of secondary material (pp.243-252) and a brief general index of names and topics (pp.253-257).

Perhaps the most immediate point to be made about Reading Death in Ancient Rome is Erasmo's adaptation of previous approaches to the relationship between physical and figurative allusions to a particular socio-cultural construct - in this case, descriptions of funerary ritual -- as part of the production and reception of meaning in Latin literature. Early in Chapter One, Erasmo glosses Denis Feeney's articulation of the pivotal position of ritual representation and performance in Roman culture2 as "the interpretative process of association and (re) performance that a text elicits as part of an authorial agenda to mediate and manipulate the reader's perception of reality" (p.9). The remainder of Erasmo's book is a case-by-case analysis of literary and epigraphic representations of death ritual elaborating Feeney's basic point. This is not to say that Erasmo has appropriated this thesis without advancing nuanced or insightful interpretations of his source material -- and certainly drawing attention to the importance of funeral and burial practices as part of the socio-cultural fabric of ancient Rome is well taken; rather, that his overarching (and much repeated) identification of these representations as containers and generators of meaning is nothing new in itself. In this regard, see note1 below for the considerable (and acknowledged) debt owed by Erasmo to previous scholarship on commemorative mortuary practices and contexts and the expression and interpretation of funerary ritual.

A second point to be considered when engaging with Erasmo's survey of death ritual in Latin literature is the theoretical basis of his analysis. Erasmo prefaces his discussion by asserting that his approach to the literary staging of funeral and burial practices is informed by "the theory of performance semiotics" (p.x). To this end, he makes an explicit connection between the meaning of the Greek term sema ("grave") and literary representations of death ritual (pp.x, 42) in denoting his study as a semiotic exercise. While Sourvinou-Inwood's consideration of the nature, meanings, and function of sema -- as part of her examination of the grave monument in her chapter on Homer and the archaic period ("Signs of the Dead")3 -- explored this association with typical sophistication, Erasmo's application of semiotics as a methodology for his analysis of death ritual texts might have benefited from a clearer delineation of the particular 'signs' he sees as formative in the construction and understanding of meaning. On a related matter, it would have been helpful for Erasmo to clarify precisely what he means by the "aesthetics of mortality" (pp. 2-3, 31, 64) -- that is, does the phrase indicate the identification of a literary practice or is it instead a catch-all for literary references to death ritual?

The text of this Ohio State University publication is without significant inaccuracy -- there are a number of infelicities, in the main misidentified line numbers or typographical errors, but nothing that adversely affects understanding -- and photographs of funerary fixtures (an altar, a sarcophagus, an epitaph, and two portrait statues) are uniformly presented. Erasmo relies on important editions of the classical texts he analyzes and provides straightforward, literal Greek and Latin translations (often at length) of all cited material. While the extended nature of citations is sometimes not matched by complementary analytical detail, in general Erasmo incorporates text selections and discussion in good measure to articulate his thesis. With regard to his discussion of epitaphs (pp.161-180), although the author's photographs are of a reasonable size, there is an issue of clarity with regard to some aspects of textual inscription and decorative features. Here, certain graphic details - for example, of epigraphic orthography and ordination or of the relationship of epitaph and funerary portrait - might have contextualized more precisely some of Erasmo's conclusions in the relationship between commemorative and ritual practices and rhetorical representation in historical and figurative contexts, and to establish a clearer explanatory relationship between the texts and settings of real and literary monimenta.

In sum, I can recommend this book as a useful selection of representative texts in a self-contained study of Latin literature that incorporates descriptions of Roman death ritual. Erasmo declares openly that his discussion of social meaning -- treated in brief in brief excurses like those on Cicero's survey of funerary rituals in De legibus (pp.6-7), the tradition of ossilegium (pp.54-5), and Roman cremation practices (p.82) -- will take secondary place to his avowed interest in extracting the performative and semiotic significance in literary descriptions. In this respect, Erasmo achieves his aim of foregrounding narratives of funerary ritual as "a participatory reading experience that challenges ... and blur[s] the distinctions between the living and the dead" (p.207). His study will serve well as a supplementary text in a graduate course on practices of death and burial in the ancient world and as a sampler for those interested in the integral place commemorative ritual practices held in the thought-world of Roman authors.


1.   Erasmo recognizes as complementary to his analysis the following studies: Basil Dufallo (2007), The Ghosts of the Past: Latin Literature, the Dead, and Rome's Transition to a Principate; Catharine Edwards (2007), Death in Ancient Rome; Maureen Carroll (2006), Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe; Geoffrey Sumi (2005), Ceremony and Power: Performing Politics in Rome between Republic and Empire; Penelope J . E. Davies (2000), Death and the Emperor. Roman Imperial Funeral Monuments from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius; John Bodel (1999), "Death on Display: Looking at Roman Funerals" in The Art of Ancient Spectacle; Donald G. Kyle (1998), Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome; Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (1995), Reading Greek Death.
2.   Denis Feeney (1998), Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs, p.122.
3.   Sourvinou-Inwood, op cit, pp.122-135.

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