Thursday, March 22, 2012


Timothy M. O'Sullivan, Walking in Roman Culture. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 188. ISBN 9781107000964. $95.00.

Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy; Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


Solvitur ambulando. Not any more, perhaps; for many people, thinking out a problem means sitting down. (There are exceptions, as I know, since I am one of them.) Rodin's iconic Thinker, our image of contemplation, does not stride, stroll, or pace. Yet we are ambulatory beings, notoriously defined as upright, bipedal, and intellectual. Timothy O'Sullivan's short book has the merit of reminding us that walking, for Romans of the governing class, was a way of thinking, not simply a way to move from one place to another. The act of putting one foot in front of the other was entwined with social practices and roles: with philosophy, with politics and amicitia, and even with the intellectual construction of what it means to be human, male, or female. As O'Sullivan says, "walking plays a central role in our relationship to the world around us; it is essential to our experience of place, to the way we see and think, and to our assumptions about identity" (p.3).

After an introduction setting out reasons for thinking about walking and outlining the book's contents, Chapter One, "The Art of Walking," explores Roman understandings of gait, incessus, as a way of performing identity. O'Sullivan makes a good case for paying attention to the literal meaning of incessus as a Roman's style of walk instead of taking it, as interpreters often do, as a metonym for "demeanor." Incessus defined and declared the walker's social status and gender. Slaves are always in a hurry; free men stroll (liberos homines per urbem modico magis par est gradu / ire, servile esse duco festinantem currere, Plaut. Poen. 522-3). But a gentleman's walk required thought; to move too slowly was to run the risk of being thought effeminate. Men moved modico gradu, but achieving that mean between servile haste and feminine languor required effort. After the work of Maud Gleason (Making Men 1995) and others, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Roman governing class consciously rehearsed its performances of gender and status, but O'Sullivan does a good job of focusing attention specifically on gait as a marker of both.

Chapter Two, "Seneca on the Mind in Motion," takes its departure from Seneca's tragedies, in which pace and gait can declare not only a character's enduring rank or gender, but even his or her momentary state of mind. When Thyestes hesitates at his brother's invitation to return to Argos, his step, and not only his mind, is unwilling: moveo nolentem gradum (Sen. Thy. 820. In philosophy, also, gait mirrors mind and character and serves as an outward and visible sign of an inward and philosophical quest. The sage moves through the world without hesitation or fear, but the common-or-garden variety Stoic must pay attention to the way he (or she) walks. It is the mind, however, that shapes the gait; one cannot become a sage by changing the way one walks.

Chapter Three, "Urban Walkers on Display," treats walking as part of the theater that Roman political life brought to the streets. After a brief nod to triumphs and funerals (in neither of which did the honorand, removed from mortal life in different ways, walk), O'Sullivan turns his attention to the deductio in forum, that ancient analogue of the great person's motorcade through the city: traffic stops, bystanders gaze, and in some way political processes move from domus and curia into public view. The procession of an important Roman through the city communicated something to those who saw him, and sometimes her, pass. O'Sullivan makes many astute observations about variations on and exploitations of this practice, from Verginius leading his daughter into the Forum where he will kill her in view of the citizens to keep her from the lecherous decemvir Appius Claudius and Agricola tip-toeing into Rome by night to avoid the appearance of fame to Scipio Africanus' triumphant promenade into the Forum on the occasion of his trial in 184 B.C. The chapter's conclusion attempts to weave these threads together by discussing the parade of heroes from Aeneid 6 and arguing that Vergil not only draws his imagery from funeral pomp, but also "evokes the communicative power of other types of urban processions" (p.74).

O'Sullivan's third chapter sometimes has the feel of an anthology: walking through the city means this, and also that, and this too. His last three chapters, however, form a coherent group organized around the place of walks and walking in Roman villa culture. (They were, I suspect, the core of the Harvard dissertation in which this book had its origins.) Chapter Four, "Cicero's Legs," takes up the connection between the leisurely stroll, ambulatio, and philosophy, friendship, and Roman (as opposed to Greek) identity. Cicero's letters, as well as his Tusculan Disputations, receive attention. Chapter Five, "Theoretical Travels," explores the "intersection of literal and metaphorical journeys" (p.97) that allowed elite Romans to act out "the connection between the movement of the body and the accumulation of knowledge in the comfort and safety of the private villa" (p.98).

The last two sections of O'Sullivan's fifth chapter, "'Walking in history'" (a phrase taken from Cic. Fin. 5.5) and "Walking with philosophers," lead naturally to the culmination of the book, Chapter Six, "Walking with Odysseus." Here O'Sullivan considers the famous Odyssey Landscapes discovered on the Esquiline in 1848. Much has been written about these scenes. They have been thought to represent an otherwise nearly lost tradition of Hellenistic landscape painting, and they have been connected to bucolic literature and Hellenistic taste in a number of ways. O'Sullivan's contribution, which seems to me important, is to focus on an often dismissed detail: the painted portico which frames the individual landscape panels. He argues persuasively that it is an integral part of the composition, and that its structure, whose perspective creates a central viewpoint in front of the panel showing the palace of Circe, guides the viewer's response as he or she walks along the painted wall and imagines looking through them to a mythological world beyond.

In the concluding section of this chapter O'Sullivan succeeds in relating his analysis of the structure of the Odyssey Landscapes to contemporary philosophical texts, principally Philodemus and Horace, and not only to Epicurean uses of Odysseus as philosophical exemplar, but also to Stoic and other schools' valorization of ille sapientissimus vir, as Cicero called him (Leg. 2.3). It is a splendid example of the integration of material culture and philology and deserves attention.

Inevitably, there are quibbles. A few times, I wondered about O'Sullivan's translations of quoted passages; I am not quite sure, for example, that "extensive squalor" is the best translation of longo . . . squalore at Seneca Tranq. 2.13 (p.5), and at Tacitus Hist. 3.56, quae cura explorandi surely means that Vitellius was asking about the management of his intelligence service, not "what the use of spy missions was" (p.49; cf. Tac. Hist. 1.80, armandae eius [sc. cohortis] cura). Most interpreters are not as confident as O'Sullivan (p.22) that the moecha turpis of Catullus 42 is Lesbia. The decision to write a short book that people will read instead of a long one that they will admire means that interesting ideas like the connection between descriptions of gait and medical theories (p.27) sometimes seem underdeveloped. O'Sullivan, though, quotes the texts that he translates; readers may and will differ about interpretations, and it is good that work remains to be done on how Romans paced their thought.

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