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Remembering Marcellus in The Poetry and Landscape of Augustan Rome

Aaron M. Seider

College of the Holy Cross

In this paper, I explore the dialogue between princeps and poets surrounding the 23 BCE death of Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, son-in-law, and potential heir. Scholarly treatments of Marcellus’ passing often focus on a single reaction (see, e.g., Falkner, Freudenburg, Shaya), but a synoptic analysis reveals the debate about the youth’s commemorative value. By considering material and literary monuments together, I argue that they reveal how Marcellus’ traumatic loss can be integrated within a successful narrative, even as they raise questions about memory’s capacity to encompass a death and demarcate a beginning. Memorialized several times over by the emperor, Marcellus is set within a standardized memory that includes the triumphant stories of Rome’s heroes and Augustus’ family. In the poets’ verses, though, Marcellus’ death resists the centripetal pull of a comprehensible social memory, as his own identity, along with that of this new Rome, become blurred.

Throughout the paper, I draw on work from Memory Studies to consider the complex array of reactions to Marcellus’ death. Zerubavel’s term “commemorative density,” for instance, elucidates how certain moments from a collective past may be remembered with a heightened intensity, while Assmann explores how a community’s founders experience their society’s origins and also have the power to communicate those events as memories in the future. Citizens of Augustan Rome occupied just such a mnemonic space, although it was attended by remarkable complexities. Along with uncertainty about the nature of this new foundation, not every member of that community had the will or ability to transform their individual recollections into a social memory. Augustus, though, possessed both the desire and power to foster a standardized commemoration of the past, and Rome’s poets interjected their own voices within this larger conversation as well.

Augustus’ commemorations of Marcellus seek to portray his death as part of a larger story of the triumphs of the city and its new imperial family. Honored through burial in Augustus’ Mausoleum, the dedication of a theater in his name, and inclusion amongst the Augustan Forum’s summi viri, Marcellus is associated with familial longevity and martial success. The triumphal route, for instance, likely passed either directly outside of his theater or through the structure itself, while the placement of his statue in Augustus’ new forum elides the trauma of his death by situating him within a visual display of strength and continuity.

The verses of Horace (C. 1.12), Propertius (3.18), and Vergil (A. 6.854-886), though, characterize Marcellus and his death as an event that destabilizes both his individual identity as well as the meaning of Augustus’ Rome. Horace’s Ode, for instance, likely written just prior to Marcellus’ passing, already raises the possibility of a blurring between this youth and his eponymous ancestor, a famous third-century BCE politician and general. This same link is emphasized in Propertius, and Vergil exploits this possibility further in the Aeneid, where Aeneas wonders in confusion at the two Marcelli in the underworld, one of whom is bathed in glory, the other in doom. Compared to Augustus’ commemorations, fractures radiate outward from these poems. By blurring Marcellus’ identity with that of his eponymous ancestor and focusing as much on the lost future as on past victories, the poets call into doubt memory’s ability to capture Marcellus’ singularity and to confer a stable meaning both on his death and on Augustus’ new foundation itself.

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Augustan Rome

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