Friday, October 14, 2016


Victoria Rimell, The Closure of Space in Roman Poetics. Empire's Inward Turn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. 358. ISBN 9781107079267. $120.00 (hb).

Reviewed by Attila Ferenczi, Eötvös Loránd University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is about how space determines thinking, and the spatial references found in Roman literary texts of early imperial date. As the motto of the book —a stanza from the poem La Trappola ('The Catch') by the Italian poet Franco Marcoaldi says (in free paraphrase) — 'It is a sad and unsustainable adventure to exploit the energy of life in the unceasing battle between closed and open, between vast landscapes and anguished stagnation'. And though the title of the book refers only to enclosed space, closure is here imagined nearly always as a counterpart of quasi-unlimited open spaces. As the author claims in her introduction, 21st-century humans obsessively visualize enclosed spaces that provide an illusion of safety, protection, retreat and invisibility, but at the same time are just as interested in the freedom and unconfined possibilities, or even the chance of conquest, associated with wide-open spaces. Narrow spaces cannot, however, be imagined only as safe places, but also as loci of confinement, torture and captivity, and vice versa: vast landscapes are loci of exposure, danger and homelessness. Victoria Rimell's book analyzes these polarities of interior and exterior spaces in well-known Roman literary texts.

Rimell's various poststructuralist analyses raise fundamental questions about method. The so called 'spatial turn' has influenced the Humanities and social sciences in fundamental ways, but has so far found only a relatively weak following in classical literary studies. The question at stake in the book is whether such a spatial reading of the best-known Augustan and imperial literature can reveal the sinews (a metaphor by the author) of these literary works. Can the new perspectives offered by the 'spatial turn' bring out richer and deeper meanings than we saw before? What do Virgil, Horace or Seneca gain if we concentrate our attention on the spatial configuration of their works?

The term 'spatial turn' can signal a wide range of methods and theories. Most scholars, especially from the social sciences, use it simply for a geographical (instead of national or temporal) approach to social phenomena. For too long, they argued, research has dealt exclusively with time, without taking its link to spatiality into account. Rimell uses the term in a narrower sense. The spaces analyzed in this book are constituted mostly by cultural practices; she shows how social, economic, political and cultural phenomena are both the agents and products of spatial reality. The problem of applying spatial theory to Roman literature is twofold. Not only is there little of the 'spatial turn' in the study of Roman literature, but there is also little visible knowledge of Roman literature in the theoretical thinking of the late twentieth century. While the works of Heidegger and Derrida, as of Irigaray and others, all trace the metaphysical tradition back to Plato, 'it [critical theory] is almost entirely silent on the philosophy and poetry of ancient Rome, which more often than not appears only as an abyss between fourth-century Athens and eighteenth-century Germany'. (9) 'The project works to show how close engagement with Latin literature – and in particular its spatial metaphors and patterns – can stimulate a rethinking of the way we conceptualize the role of classical philology in the humanities' (14). In reading this book, the classicist reader always has the impression that it was designed as much for a theorist researcher of Kulturwissenschaft as for the usual audience for a book on Roman literary texts. An important feature of this book is that each chapter ends with an epilogue that presents a contemporary piece of visual art exhibited in the last decades somewhere in Europe or in the United States. These descriptions, which are the most unusual feature of the book as a publication in classical philology, serve to parallel, add to or simply vary the main subject of the literary discussion of each chapter.

The introduction establishes political power and the spatial references of the metaphorical language in which literature represents political power as major themes for analysis. The first chapter begins with literary representations of the foundational myths of imperial power. Rimell's interpretations of Aeneid I and of imperium sine fine show the double-sided Roman preoccupation both with pushing boundaries outward, and with articulating and fixing borders in a fantasy of absolute security. The interpretation of the ambiguous verb condere ('to bury, conceal' and 'to found'), which is central to any imperial rhetoric, provides an excellent starting point for the argument that follows and demonstrates the author's interpretative skill. The chapter concludes with two reports—one from Tacitus and the other by Suetonius—about the Neronian perversion of inherited power and his distortion of the imaginative language that had been used to represent it.

Horace is the subject of the second chapter, whose main focus is on the angulus (corner), a highly symbolic kind of space, part enclosed, part open, where the deeply ambivalent desire for a hiding place, or for retreat and distance on the part of the literary voice, can co-exist with the drive to be seen, heard and even approved. The terrain of Horatian poetry is represented alongside and within imperial space, and the corner is characterized in ways that are often similar to the Sabine farm—as a place where presence and withdrawal are simultaneously possible. The other chapters generally follow the chronological order of their respective texts, but the third chapter is an exception: here Rimell turns to Seneca's Epistles. The reason for putting Seneca after Horace is the close relationship between the concept of the 'corner' and the act of writing letters, which she reads as a kind of 'outwardly turned enclosure'. The writer of an epistle is not in the right place at the right time: he enjoys the benefits of withdrawal from society (secessus), or attempts to influence things at the centre from exile. The fine analysis of the spatial resonances of the verb excutere take the Epistles as a starting point.

Chapter four is arranged not around an author but the material or metaphorical image of the bath. Besides Senecan Epistles, Statius (Silv. 1.5), Martial, and Vitruvius provide examples of this rich theme in Roman literature. Chapter five also concerns the spaces where public and private meet, with readings of passages from the Georgics, Lucan and Statius' unfinished Achilleid, in which the author shows how small spaces provide a possibility for poetic intensity within the grandiosity of epic. Achilles must be enclosed in the tight rooms of the women on the small island of Scyros to manifest all his energy and manliness and to become the conquering epic hero. The sixth and last chapter works in tandem with chapters 1 and 3, discussing the relationship between exile and enclosure (i.e., the exile's loss of the ideal of safe enclosure). Rimell here discusses different passages from Ovid's Tristia and ex Ponto, and gives a splendid interpretation of the poet's enigmatic Ibis.

The book is neither easy nor quick to read. As she says in the introduction, the author worked on it for ten years, and it requires time and concentration from the reader to get to the meaning. The reason is not the book's unusually high level of rhetorical stylization, or the selection of passages for discussion from the vast corpus of early imperial literature, the criteria for which are not always evident, but are rather to be found in one characteristic of the book's style that takes it far from the usual methods of Classical scholarship. The author does not want to disclose the origins of ideas, concepts or images in literature: she is not dealing with the birth of a motif or with the way in which it reached each Roman author; her discussions are not concerned with the metamorphoses each motif underwent in its wandering through the literary tradition, and about what is new in the role it plays in each given text; the book is not an exercise in historical hermeneutics. The spatial features of each text are handled as timeless data. This is characteristic of the entire method: from the very beginning of the 'spatial turn', the theory has been formulated per definitionem against those who are exclusively interested in the time dimension, or whose historical curiosity outweighs their interest in space. The chapter epilogues play an important role in this method. Rimell's discussions of contemporary pieces of visual art are not inorganic at all. In spite of the temporal distance from the Roman texts and their non-literary media, the visual pieces have an important role in defining the level of abstraction needed for understanding the analysis. In the first chapter, I must admit, the organizing principle of the literary discussions was not clear to me until I read the epilogue, which proved that a much more abstract pattern was needed here than I had expected. This pattern made visible a real connection between the different textual examples and created the interconnected spaces of the chapter. Antique and modern described and interpreted together in this way demonstrate the timelessness of each chapter's abstract pattern, almost as though the ancient and modern imagination were using these patterns in the same way. The author's practice abolishes the strangeness of the Roman texts, placing them within a general system of Western spatial thinking. The limitation of the scope of investigation leads necessarily to a deeper understanding of the subject: this book provides a lot of new intuitions and reveals a series of new and importantly constituent characteristics of the discussed texts, and Roman and modern thinking.

The subject is nevertheless not too narrow. The author does not always use the same notion of space. The investigated spatial structure can be a real physical place (as in the case of Scipio's villa in Seneca's Epistle in chapter 4), or an abstract or even a psychological notion (like digging in the Tacitus and Suetonius passages in chapter 1) and, of course, it can be a rhetorical, linguistic space. The difference between these spatial concepts is not always clear. In her brilliant interpretation of Seneca's 56th letter (chapter 4), the author gives a nice example how these different notions of space interweave. Seneca rents an upper apartment in the center of Baiae, below which is a lively, crowded and above all noisy bath house: the letter mostly concerns the philosopher's reflections on this situation. Since there is no description without interpretation, the apartment acquires the characteristics of a separated place of refuge for the sapiens, while the outside noises symbolize everyday real life with its bodily and material preoccupations. Seneca thus recreates the Lucretian position, articulated at the beginning of book 2 of the De Rerum Natura, of the wise man who contemplates the struggles of life from a detached and commanding position, in a highly satirical way; but in Seneca it is not the sense of sight that connects the safe place of the sapiens with the hectic scenes of external life, but rather the noise. Rimell's interpretation of the acoustic patterns of Seneca's language shows nicely that the reader is surrounded by harsh voices, like Seneca in his apartment. Seneca's description itself becomes a noisy space, but not an enclosed one: the careful analysis of the similarities and recurring motives that connect letter 56 with other pieces of the collection represents the Epistulae Morales as an articulated system of spaces.

Modernity is not a quality inherent in things. Since classical scholarship has to find its place within the permanently changing system of the contemporary humanities, it must also permanently question its own standards and transform itself constantly: failing to do so, it will be marginalized. Victoria Rimell's book is a move in this game of adaptation, the result of dialogue between Classics and contemporary theory. Its methodological impulse — a reading method defined by Derrida and deconstruction is applied to texts of Roman literature — comes from outside Classics, but Rimell's implementation of it is a highly professional piece of classical scholarship. This book, extremely rich in thought and cultural intuition, enriches the interpretative tradition of the texts and also our notions of what scholarship should be. The Enclosure of Space in Roman Poetics is essential reading for researchers of early imperial Roman literature.

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