Dissidence and Literature

Review by Brian Arkins

University College
Galway

Dissidence and Literature under Nero by Vasily Rudich, Routledge, London 1997. Pp. xiii + 391, ISBN 0 415 09501 8 [[sterling]]50

It is a commonplace of modern critical theory that every person carries ideological baggage of some kind. In the case of Vasily Rudich (hereafter R.),that baggage derives from 25 years of living in the former Soviet Union, and manifests itself in this book - as in his previous Dissidence under Nero : The Price of Dissimulation - in blanket attacks on Nero that have a markedly Tacitean color.

But the main difficulty with R's book is what is omitted: the Satires of Persius; the pastoral poems of Calpurnius Siculus; the highly political play Octavia; and, above all, the tragedies of Seneca. These tragedies, which had such an enormous impact on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage provide implicit comment on the reign of Nero by portraying evil, and especially evil in the ruler. R. pleads lack of space as a reason for omitting Seneca's plays, but in a book of 391 pages provides over 100 pages of notes; drastic reduction of these prolix notes would have left ample space for a chapter on Seneca's tragedies.

R's three main chapters deal with Seneca's prose writings, Lucan's Pharsalia ,and Petronius' Satyricon .A clearer focus in the analysis of how these works relate to Nero's rule would seem desirable. As would a realisation that works of art very often do not provide a unified point of view, exposing instead various contradictions in the society they depict; as Adorno put it, 'a successful work is not one which resolves contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure'.

R. rightly draws attention to the crucial difficulty for Seneca, the Stoic wise man directing an all-powerful ruler, who believes that 'there was never an authentic rex iustus (just king) and never will be': he is torn between absolute and relative interpretation of moral value. Should lofty moral precepts always be invoked or should they sometimes be set aside? Seneca, that is, had constantly to decide between providing support for Nero (the relative option) and distancing himself from the excesses of Nero (the absolute option).

Ambiguity becomes inevitable. After Seneca engages in servile flattery of Claudius in Ad Polybium, he rehabilitates himself through a satirical account of the adulation directed at Claudius in Apocolocyntosis. In De Clementia, Seneca praises Nero - after the murder of Britanicus. Indeed Seneca comes close to the proposition that for the wise man (sapiens) everything is permitted. In mitigation, we must note that Seneca experienced, 'as few major writers in the history of the world have ever experienced, the nature and effects of unlimited political power' (Herington).

R. correctly notes that Lucan's pessimism about Roman politics covers not merely the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but the oligarchy of Republican times. He is accurate about Caesar's absolutism in the poem and about Pompey's inadequacy, but is too ready to endorse Cato as 'supreme sage'. R. is also too ready to deny a satirical edge to Lucan's apparent eulogy of Nero towards the beginning of Book 1. Problematical too is R's assertion of Lucan that 'His was a highly moralised sermon masking a flawed moral orientation'; this is surely an egregious example of 'the biographical fallacy'.

R. does not give us the essence of Lucan's achievement: to have exposed the myth of the history of power through the form of the grotesque. As Johnson says of that myth in his wonderful book Momentary Monsters: Lucan and his Heroes, 'we can not apprehend its horror until we have been shocked into such apprehension by the most violent, bitter laughter'.

In his best chapter, R. argues convincingly that the characters in Petronius' Satyricon are outcasts who mirror on the social plane the political dissidents of Nero's reign. Further links obtrude. The motif of theatre and of acting that permeates Nero's court is reflected in the Satyricon's emphasis on imposture and hypocrisy. It is likely that Petronius' sexual themes mirror Nero's activities, and that his poem Troiae Halosis parodies Nero's Troica. And it is possible that Trimalchio's vast estate suggests Nero's dreams of conquest. Finally, R. makes the interesting suggestion that Tigellinus brought these correspondences to the attention of Nero, and so engineered Petronius' downfall.

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