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Empire and Aporia in Petronius’ Bellum Civile

Robert Simms

Petronius’ Bellum Civile, a periocha of 295 impromptu hexameters for a ‘proper’ epic on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (if Eumolpus were to produce one), has been variously considered an epic sketched in earnest, satire, parody, and/or criticism that is directed mainly at Lucan’s de Bello Civile (see Connors:1998 100-101). Yet in accounting for the fragment’s difficulties Eumolpus’ implicit and explicit condemnations of retiring gods and divine machinery from epic’s traditional scaffolding – a trend, or more likely the threat of a trend, from which young men fresh from their oratorical training should be dissuaded – is routinely neglected. Before Eumolpus begins his doodle he lays out the necessaries for taking up historical epic: ‘Non enim res gestae versibus comprehendendae sunt, quod longe melius historici faciunt, sed per ambages deorumque ministeria et fabulosum sententiarum †tormentum† praecipitandus est liber spiritus, ut potius furentis animi vaticinatio appareat quam religiosae orationis sub testibus fides’ (118.20-26). Now the reductive sorting of fact and truth, or ‘mere chronicling’, from amid the record of testimony and social recollection frequently elides moral interpretations of events (cf. Ricouer:2004). Eumulpus, contrarily, calls for the unfettered ‘liber spiritus’ who has been glutted with literature  (‘plenus litteris’) to participate in the re-creation of history as uates. And he should know how to summon canonical divinities that can manipulate and judge human affairs. Most importantly, as the courtroom metaphor stresses, the poet should not subordinate the fantastic to fact and truth.

Throughout his sketch of a Bellum Civile, Eumolpus explores the commonplace of Empire in decline. After several portentous expressions of disapproval from nature the outbreak of civil war features a climactic factionalizing of gods, and the departure of several favourable ones (PaxFidesIustitia, and Concordia) from the mortal sphere (124.249-54). Those that delight in mayhem or have particular allegiances, of course, remain. The departure of these gods supplants the Aenean promise of empire (cf. Zeitlin:1971 70) and Rome begins the shameful descent toward ruin. The departure of these gods creates both condemnation and aporia. On the one hand, by allegorizing the relationship between mortals and gods, the departure becomes a deeply accusatory rejection of Rome’s misdeeds. On the other hand, the loss creates puzzlement: Since the gods have fled, what does their absence suggest with respect to all that follows and when do they, or should they, return to Rome’s historic narrative? Poets use such aporia to raise issues that emanate beyond the temporal scope of events at hand; the past is framed to censure the present. The ‘deorum ministeria’ in particular present history in a way that is, quite importantly, not meant to be impartial. The gods and their departure become not only ways of condemning immediate wickedness, but also supposed wickedness beyond the narrative’s internal span of events. So, for instance, after Peace is removed in Aristophanes’ Pax, Hermes shrugs: Ὧν οὕνεκ’ οὐκ οἶδ’ εἴ ποτ’ Εἰρήνην ἔτι | τὸ λοιπὸν ὄψεσθ’ (221), an attitude that conveys an uncomfortably indeterminate span to be without that particular god’s influence. Similarly, Thyestes declares ‘immota tellus pondus ignauum iacet, | fugere superi’ (Thyestes 1020-21), and only the haunting sense of a godless world remains. Statius’ Thebaid develops a more complex picture: when Jupiter ushers the pantheon away (11.119-35), unrestrained wickedness overruns Thebes, but even the restoration offered by Theseus is hardly a concession. And as the author of Octavia articulates the situation in Rome up to Nero after Astraea has departed: ‘collecta uitia per tot aetates diu | in nos redundant’ (430-31). Sins persist and Rome is washed away. So Eumolpus too marshals the divine machinery for moral reproach, using the departure of symbolic gods at the start of his Civil War to express a view of Rome after the Civil War. And it is the eminent condemnation gods extend, I argue, that Eumolpus is anxious to preserve in the poetic presentation of Roman history.

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Truth and Untruth

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