This paper explores aspects of the various ideological, aesthetic, and philosophical ends that the ï¬gure of Phaethon served in Roman literature for authors starting in the late ï¬rst century BCE through the early second century CE. Allegorized as early as Plato (Tim. 22c), the Phaethon myth's potential as a vehiclefor dramatizing early imperial anxieties about inadequately prepared, or even recklessly destructive leaders comes into focus in the late triumviral and and early Julio-Claudian crises of succession. Nero and “his” fire, along with the doomed emperor’s pronounced interest in solar imagery and chariot racing, added a striking confirmation of, and further provocation to, such interpretations.
The Augustan period produced a range of texts linking overly ambitious or unstable leaders with the ï¬ery destruction of their homes, from Vergil’s Dido to Livy’s Hannibal. The latter, as Clauss (1997) has shown, is itself constructed as an allusive echo of Sallust's Catiline, suggesting the ways in which the authors of the period enliven and complicate well-worn mythic and historical narratives by calling to mind more recent events and protagonists. Ovid’s Phaethon narrative in Metamorphoses 1.747-2.400 has an especially strong set of associations with the Augustan Principate; Fratantuono (2011) offers a reading of the episode highlighting its potential as a metaphor for jeopardized succession within the imperial family, echoing the suggestions of Gale (2000, 34-38) on the hints of Lucretius' Phaethon imminent in the charioteer simile with which Vergil closes Georgics 1. The contrast that emerges from these texts is more complex than simply claiming afï¬liation with one faction or another in a speciï¬c political dispute. Rather, we see the Roman imagination struggling to confront the paradoxical notion that a society's collective deliverer and its scorched-earth destroyer could be found within a single family, or indeed embodied within a single individual.
Extending the concepts outlined above into the later Julio-Claudian and post-Neronian period, I examine the dividends they pay for authors reworking the Phaethon motif under the influence of later emperors and new sets of concerns. The images of Phaethon and universal conï¬‚agration as united in Manilius (1.755-804, 5.734-45) invite attention for the ways in which they weave together political, philosophical, and cosmological concerns (Gale 2011). Manilius, selecting from an endless array of available narratives, uses Phaethon to shape representations suited to addressing pressing contemporary questions, explicitly linking Phaethon's destruction with civil war and political crisis. Likewise, we have the alarming quip Suetonius (Caligula 11) assigns to Tiberius: that he was raising Gaius as "a Phaethon for the whole world."
Seneca and Lucan, both keen readers of Manilius, also connect scenes of cosmic dissolution and social discord with images and narratives invoking the Phaethon myth. Specific texts meriting exploration include Seneca's citations of Ovid's Phaethon narrative at de Providentia 5.10-11, de Vita Beata 20.5 and Medea 598ff, and afï¬nities between Nero and Phaethon identiï¬able in the Natural Questions (cf. Champlin 2003,134-5). Lucan's address to Nero in the proem of the Bellum Civile (1.45-66) invokes Phaethon in a famously problematic fashion, initiating a lengthy engagement with Phaethon throughout the epic (cf. the Eridanus at 2.408-424, place names catalogued at 3.169-297, and the Libyan desert in Book 9).
Finally, much of the above became eerily prescient, if perhaps slightly overdetermined, in the wake of 64 and Nero's catastrophic end. The proleptically incendiary ï¬gurations of Nero in the historical drama Octavia (808-809, cf. Ferri ad loc.), as well as the apparent popularity of Phaethon imagery in Flavian literature, further suggest the new ideological stakes of these motifs. Thus, Phaethon’s trajectory through the literature of the early principate illustrates the intertwining of myth and history in Rome’s literary imagination, adding dimension to the ongoing discussion of the relationship between literary allusion and cultural memory.