Thursday, September 25, 2014


Christopher Star, The Empire of the Self: Self-Command and Political Speech in Seneca and Petronius. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 302. ISBN 9781421406749. $65.00.

Reviewed by Amanda Wilcox, Williams College (

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer sincerely apologizes to the book's author and the readers of BMCR for the extreme tardiness of this review.]

By juxtaposing the philosophy of Seneca the Younger with the Satyricon of Petronius, this ambitious study demonstrates how the corpora of these two authors may each in turn be used to illuminate the other, yielding a richer understanding of the style, the cultural attitudes, and even the moral commitments of both. The benefits of this comparative approach are evident on nearly every page. If this book only managed to demonstrate—as it unquestionably does—the complementary intertextuality of the Satyricon with Senecan philosophy, that alone would be a noteworthy achievement. But in fact The Empire of the Self is rife with compelling readings of its target texts that have ramifications beyond a narrow understanding of either author or their relationship to one another. Star's study offers its readers valuable insights into the governing metaphors and preoccupations of the Roman intelligentsia in the mid-first century CE.

The Empire of the Self is composed of an introduction, in which Star sets the stage for his overarching argument and previews its major moves, and six chapters, evenly divided into two halves. The book's first half, "Soul-Shaping Speech," argues that self-address, and particularly imperatival speech directed toward the self—the "self-command" of the book's subtitle—does not merely describe a set of rhetorical conventions, but expresses an epistemological state determinative of how a Roman man such as Seneca conceives of his own selfhood and that of others. This self will depend for its maintenance and development on repeated self-assertion and ongoing self-talk.

Star sets out the psychology of this self in chapter one, building on Brad Inwood's work on Stoic theories of impression and assent, but also recognizing specifically Roman dimensions to Seneca's understanding of self-command. Stoic cosmopolitanism, for instance, may translate into Roman terms as the exercise of empire without end. Moreover, Seneca calls on exemplary figures from Roman history to connect personal, internal forms of command with its outward aspects, both political and military. A general worthy of the right to command must equally exercise control over himself. This link was not originally of Seneca's forging, of course. As Star notes, Cicero already connects Pompey's self-control to his fitness as a commander in "On the Manilian Law" (p. 29). But Seneca repeatedly and emphatically articulates the similarities between cultivating the self and overseeing Rome's empire. Moreover, Seneca is deeply interested in establishing the special application of this link for the princeps, whom he figures as "the soul of empire." Accordingly, Star returns to Seneca's meditations on a ruler's self-control in the book's second half, where chapter four particularly addresses Seneca's conception of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled and the importance he attaches to each party accurately representing and interpreting the other.

In chapter two Star traces the consequences of this psychology of self-command for interpreting the characters of Senecan tragedy and for the aspiring Stoic, building on his own earlier work and that of scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, Shadi Bartsch, and Christopher Gill. Chapter three turns to self-address in the Satyricon, arguing that the unsuccessful self-talk of Encolpius, the novel's protagonist, may satirize the Stoic practice of meditatio. The chapter also opens up for consideration a bigger and more interesting question that Star, correctly to my mind, takes the text of Petronius as inviting us to pose—namely, in a world in which words can constitute and command selfhood, what else might words be able to construct? If words alone can create and manipulate value and status, then they may also destroy those things. Particularly rewarding in this chapter are Star's discussions of cannibalism and Trimalchio's version of continentia, which perversely equates the capacity for controlling and consuming vast resources with both moral autarchy and material self-sufficiency.

The book's second half has a broader focus than its internal subtitle, "Soul-Revealing Speech," might suggest. In fact the "political speech" mentioned in the book's subtitle gives a better indication of the concern that links these chapters together. Beginning with an analysis of De Clementia in chapter four, Star documents and dissects Seneca's obsession with the interactions between individual selves that are constituted by self-command and thereafter are maintained by repeated self-address and the rest of the community in which they reside, with special attention given to the interaction of rulers and their subjects. What happens when the self that constitutes and maintains itself through self-command comes into collision with the desires and perceptions of others? Not surprisingly, given his own circumstances, Seneca is interested in telling the difference between a tyrant and a king, a lesson in discernment needed, he shows, by both rulers and the ruled. He considers how a ruler may display the difference to his subjects, both through his actions and particularly through his words. Moreover, Seneca investigates the limits and duties of self-determination for a citizen (of Rome and also, as a Stoic, of the cosmos) whose freedom to speak and act is entirely circumscribed by the desires and decisions of an autocrat—who, to complicate matters further, is also his pupil, and one who requires careful instruction in self-command.

Continuing into chapters five and six, Star does a fine job of illuminating Seneca's exploration of these interlocking social, political, and moral dynamics both in the De Clementia and in the Apocolocyntosis, a work he reads as a satirical inversion of the former, as well as reading the Apocolocyntosis against the Satyricon. Additionally, these chapters resume the examination of connections between self-invention and the dangers of "holding it in," as Trimalchio puts it, that began in chapter three. Chapter five discusses the significance of "what lies within" and what escapes various containers—sacks and a ship in Petronius, the bowels of the earth and the body of the emperor Claudius in Seneca. In chapter six an analysis of the intersection of bodily and spiritual nourishment with economic metaphors for virtue and good fortune suggests that the shared prosperity and health of a community will be endangered whenever one particularly fortunate person—be he Trimalchio or Nero—monopolizes its resources, including its capacity for determining meaning.

Not surprisingly, given the slenderness of the fragmentary Satyricon in comparison with the volume and variety of Seneca's works, The Empire of the Self has more to say about Seneca than Petronius. And the book is at its least persuasive when it allows its reading of Petronius's text to lapse even briefly into a "Petronius vs. Seneca" schema, as in the attempt to present Encolpius's self- addresses as mocking versions of nightly self-examination described by Seneca at De Ira 3.36 (p. 87). Encolpius's failure to master himself through self-command and rebuke likely has as much to do with satire's penchant for destabilization and the novel's characterization of its protagonist as woefully, comically incompetent in every sphere as it does with direct criticism of a specifically Senecan technology of the self. In fact, a real strength of this study is how well Star usually resists the over-simplification of pitting one author against the other. The insights and pleasures this book affords frequently spring from Star's astute analysis of relevant passages by ancient authors other than his main targets. These brief excursions generally reinforce or nuance points that direct us back toward the interpretation of Seneca and Petronius, but taken together, they also make a point that Star leaves largely unstated—namely, that the interplay of ideas he tracks in these two authors reveal a nexus of first-century debate, creativity, and concern that was originally composed by many additional voices, more than even this admirably ambitious book can fairly encompass.

On many points of interpretation or debate, the Empire of the Self will not have the final word, but instead has opened a way forward for further exploration, refinement, and inevitably for disagreement. But the conversation that Star's work contributes to is a vital one. The questions his authors ask about the self, its nature and its responsibilities—themselves writing from positions of immense cultural and economic privilege, in an empire that at least some of its most articulate subjects felt was as rotten as it was rich—continue to be questions that should engage us not only from a scholarly perspective, but also direct us toward introspection of our own selves, and examination of our own society. These are exciting times to be studying Neronian literature, and The Empire of the Self both communicates the excitement and makes an estimable contribution to the conversation.

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