Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2008) 19.
Nancy Shumate, Nation, Empire, Decline: Studies in Rhetorical Continuity from the Romans to the Modern Era. Classical Inter/Faces. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. 191. ISBN 0-7156-3551-4. UK£12.99.
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
This interesting series of close studies of rhetoric by Horace, Tacitus, and Juvenal is packaged into an overarching concept of empire, comparing, as the dust jacket notes, 'their strategies with the defining structures of modern nationalist or colonialist discourses.' The author goes on to claim that: 'General rhetorical principles can be discerned, remarkably persistent across time and circumstances. Classicists will find something new in an approach that systematically analyses the rhetorical strategies that underlie Roman prototypes of these discourses while demonstrating how closely later incarnations follow them' (ibid.). This is a large claim, and some readers may doubt the efficacy or indeed validity of perceiving such 'rhetorical principles' across two thousand years.
The first piece, 'Them and Us: Constructing Romanness in the Satires of Juvenal' (pp. 19-54), deals first with the Latin material, and then examines similar threads in modern nationalism, invoking a host of ideas and comparisons with National Socialism, Gibbon, British anti- urbanism and, of course, lots of 'others.' The second piece is 'Augustan Nation-building and Horace’s "Roman" Odes (3.2, 3.5, 3.6)' (pp. 55-79), linking various threads to nationalist discourses in 19th and 20th-century Germany and England. She prefers, she writes, an approach which 'allows us to situate Augustan proto-nationalist rhetoric at an early point in the development of a discourse which a long and less than illustrious subsequent history' (p. 79). In the third paper, 'Tacitus and the Rhetoric of Empire' (pp. 81-127), Shumate treats the Germania as a prototype for the noble savage theme seen in European literature. The fourth, '”Crazy Egypt” and Colonial Discourse in Juvenal’s Fifteenth Satire' (pp. 129-58), tries to relate Juvenal’s story to imperialist literature in Victorian England. Naturally, these papers need tying together, and this is attempted in the introduction (pp. 7-17), in which she asserts that 'the templates for these “modern” discourses were forged in their essentials by the early Roman imperial period' (p. 7) and emphasizes that the book 'makes no claim to original scholarship on colonial or nationalist discourses per se,' instead looking at the 'rhetorical strategies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism and imperialism/colonialism' and 'writing Rome into these studies in a way that lengthens their perspective and invites reformulation of some of their basic assumptions' (p. 14).
All the analyses and explications of the Latin texts (for which English translations are always provided) are subtle and perceptive, but this reviewer (an art historian with an interest in the classical tradition) must take exception to the comparative techniques involved in linking the Roman past with recent nationalisms. Crudely put, there are two ways of approaching such possible linking. The former is to start from the more distant period(s), and then trace continuities through time, demonstrating how they are taken up more recently. The latter is to start from the recent period, and study what the education and political concepts of imperialist practitioners might owe to the distant past. Tracing continuities is a large task, and picking up on the ideas of 19th and 20th-century imperialists not only much easier, but surely a more solid way of approaching what evidence there is. However, although everyone can agree on the importance of the classics for the formation of recent mind-sets, an approach such as Shumate’s is posited on the existence of definite links between the two, on demonstrating how closely later incarnations follow classical rhetorical ideas. The author does not have the space to trace ideas from antiquity through to modern times, nor does she adopt the surely more logical approach of starting with recent concepts and seeing how they relate to the past. Instead, she often appears to take it for granted that there are strict comparisons to be made between ancient and more modern times, in terms not only of basic concepts but also of their application in attitudes and actions. But words have different meanings in different contexts. The result is a series of broad statements encapsulated in a bombardment of abstract nouns, isms and comparisons which are bound to be true because they are so general, and set in a very broad canvas. But there is inevitably a lack of detailed examination to discover the many disparities and discontinuities between the recent and the distant past.
It is not necessarily axiomatic that the distant past is different from the recent one. But the study of history, while certainly demonstrating the longevity of certain concepts, also reveals that the same words do not necessarily express the same concepts. In other words, the author’s approach is ahistorical, because it does not study, let alone take into account, the discontinuities in Nation, Empire, Decline between the distant and the more recent past. It would have been more satisfying to read longer discussions of the chosen classical authors, with added emphasis on how the use of rhetorical devices by the chosen authors informed their conception of their world, rather than attempting to make tenuous connections between various pasts. After all, 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'