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Michèle Lowrie / Barbara Vinken (eds.): Civil War and the Collapse of the Social Bond. The Roman Tradition at the Heart of the Modern (= Classics after Antiquity), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2022, XV + 366 S., 10 Farb-Abb., ISBN 978-1-316-51644-7, GBP 90,00
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Rezension von:
Richard Westall
University of Dallas, Rome Campus
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Matthias Haake
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Richard Westall: Rezension von: Michèle Lowrie / Barbara Vinken (eds.): Civil War and the Collapse of the Social Bond. The Roman Tradition at the Heart of the Modern, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 6 [15.06.2023], URL:

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Michèle Lowrie / Barbara Vinken (eds.): Civil War and the Collapse of the Social Bond

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This volume is organized in six chapters. The first chapter ("Figures of Discord", 9-46) sets forth the tools of literary criticism to be deployed, offering a full illustration of the volume's methodological underpinnings. The ideological implications of the act of naming "civil war" are delineated, and the tropological refigurations of this concept adumbrated. There follow two chapters dedicated to authors of the early Principate and their representations of Roman civil war. The second chapter ("Oriental Empire: Vergil, Georgics", 47-81) explores the violence that manifests itself in the natural world, marking the collapse of the social bond, and argues for the poet's depicting a restoration of order that is, in the final analysis, sterile like the bugonia. The third chapter ("Empire without End: Vergil, Aeneid, and Lucan, De bello civili", 82-143) offers an intertextual reading of the epics of Vergil and Lucan. The effect of the interpretation advanced, unremittingly pessimistic, recalls the title of W. R. Johnson's 1976 monograph: Darkness Visible. Civil war in Rome is endemic and inevitable (137). The fourth chapter ("The Eternal City: Augustine, De civitate Dei", 144-192) explores how Augustine cast this inheritance in novel and enduring form with a rejection of the civitas terrena and what it defines as virtus. In so doing the authors highlight how the phenomenon of civil war renders Rome a hermeneutic model for universal history. The way is thus prepared for later, modern reprisals of the trope of civil war as developed by the ancient Romans. The volume concludes with two chapters, each dedicated to one modern work as a case study. The fifth chapter ("The Republic to Come: Hugo, Quatrevingt-treize", 193-255) discusses Victor Hugo's secularized vision of the French Republic as a response to Augustine's pessimism regarding civil war and the Roman state. The Revolution offers the prospect of liberation from the ever-recurring cycle of civil war encoded by ancient Rome, or so Hugo's Romantic novel would have us believe. The sixth and final chapter ("The Empire to Come: Houellebecq, Soumission", 256-325) examines a post-modernist response to the Republicanism of Hugo. In his 2015 novel, which is interpreted as satire, Michel Houellebecq foresees renewed civil war and the fall of the Fifth Republic in the near future, viz. 2023, with the creation of a Muslim version of the Roman empire. Neither Catholicism nor secularism suffice to save the Republic, for the moral rot of capitalism, liberalism, and individualism is far too advanced.

The focus on tropes and the literary representation of civil war via the filter of the Roman experience makes this volume a welcome contribution. Far too often, historians and social scientists tend to focus on the immediate perspective, just as literary analysis tends to eschew the reception of ancient models. Such myopia on our part means overlooking the cultural continuum within which any particular instance is inscribed. Uniting within a single volume works of literature dating from the 20s BCE to CE 2015 admits of a "long perspective" and an appreciation of the enduring appeal of ancient Rome to the West.

Aside from the overarching thesis, the reviewer (as an ancient historian) welcomes various details, e.g., use of the work of Veith Rosenberger, the re-affirmation of a belief in the report that Caesar "the Son of the God" had a considerable number of senators and knights put to death upon the conclusion of the siege of Perusia (40, 129, 136 n. 179) and the authors' drawing attention to the possibility that Catullus wrote Carmen 64 after the battle of Pharsalus (21). But there are momentary lapses that trouble: the bellum Perusinum was a siege, not a campaign ending in a pitched "battle" comparable to those at Pharsalus and Philippi (40, 363); describing the lovemaking of Dido and Aeneas in the cave as "rape" (103) is unjustifiable hyperbole; and the Amyclas whom Caesar asked to transport him back across the Adriatic was not a "poor soldier" (209). As regards scholarship, use of the work of Anton Powell and Kathryn Welch on Vergil and Sextus Pompeius (respectively, but not exclusively) would have improved the iconoclastic, stimulating discussion that Lowrie and Vinken offer.

More generally, there are arguably lost opportunities. For instance, nothing is said of the Orientalism evident from the very outset in contemporary descriptions of the forces deployed by Caesar, Pompeius Magnus, and other pro-magistrates in 49-48 BCE, notwithstanding the pertinent observations of Andreola Rossi, Luca Grillo, and others. Or, remaining on topic while vaulting forward some nineteen centuries, we find that nothing is said about a singular discussion of the battle of Pharsalus to be found in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, notwithstanding this author's receiving a whole chapter to himself. Most striking, however, aside from the citation of a grotesque judgement delivered by Victor Hugo on the "death throes" of Latin literature (203), the authors say nothing about Petronius. That seems a pity, for the novelist's introduction of a fragment of epic poetry on civil war into his Roman novel screams out for exegesis. Comparison with an author as different as Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice self-consciously avoids any overt mention of military operations against Napoleon, is highly suggestive. Aside from casting into relief the Senate's fetish of res publica under the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, which is tantamount to the contemporary situation in the US, where we find White Supremacists' veneration of General Robert E. Lee and fealty to the Confederation, the comparison raises the possibility (or, à la manière hendersonienne, shall we say probability?) that novels serve as self therapy and a means of dealing with personal and communal trauma. Those who write are confronting their personal demons? Those who read searching for answers to their own frustrated lives? Inane though these questions may seem, they merit reflection. After all, would Don Quijote have been possible without the trauma of the battle of Lepanto or The Unbearable Lightness of Being without the quashing of the "Prague Spring"?

Nevertheless, the book is highly readable and certain to engender debate. Moreover, it has the virtue of discussing in depth a handful of texts, teasing out the connections between them as well as exploring their tropological refigurations of Roman civil war. It will indubitably challenge students and colleagues to be more attentive, thoughtful readers. Therefore, possessing a manifest appeal to intellectuals, this is a volume that is also warmly recommended for use in teaching, as a textbook for seminars and a reference work for survey courses.

Richard Westall