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The Future of the Past: Fabius Pictor and Dionysios of Halicarnassos on the Pompa Circensis (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 7.70-72)

Jacob A. Latham

University of Tennessee

In The Roman Triumph, Mary Beard takes to task “modern historians of the triumph (and of other ancient parades and processions) [who] have erred on the side of credulity,” when assessing the reliability of ancient sources (Beard, 168). In particular, Beard scolds E. E. Rice for her supposedly gullible defense of Callixeinos of Rhodes’ second-century BCE description of an over-the-top procession of Ptolemy Philadelphos (early third century BCE)—now a “fragment” in Atheneaus’ Deipnosophistae (late second century CE) (Beard, 365 n. 57; and Ath. 5.197C–203B). Dionysios of Halicarnassos’ digression on the pompa circensis (the religious parade before the chariot races) poses a very similar problem. At the end of the first century BCE, Dionysios of Halicarnassos penned a long description of the pompa circensis, which was drawn from the late-third-century BCE work of Fabius Pictor. Fabius Pictor, in turn, seems to have offered a detailed account of an early republican procession (ca. 490 BCE) (on the pompa circensis, see Latham). Unlike Callixeinos, Fabius Pictor did not claim, and likely could not have claimed, the authority of some ritual record—and so, in the words of one commentator, Fabius Pictor penned a “bogus protocol” (Ogilvie, 149).

An archaic Roman temple relief (late sixth century BCE) suggests that Fabius Pictor’s production values were in line with early republican imagery, if not performance. Regardless of historical accuracy, Fabius Pictor’s primordialist account of the pompa circensis may have had an impact on subsequent performances and also subsequent interpretation and remembrance of those performances. Whether or not Fabius Pictor fabricated his depiction from thin air, or rather developed it “not only from what he heard, but also from what he himself knew,” the description from the father of Roman historical writing seems to have a become an authoritative cultural memory resource (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 7.71.1; and Assmann on cultural memory). Indeed, Dionysios of Halicarnassos explicitly traded upon that authority, insisting that he needed “no other proof at all,” but Fabius Pictor, whom Dionysios quoted “almost word for word” (Ant. Rom. 7.71.1; Gabba, 89; and see also Schultze 2000 and 2004). In the end, Fabius Pictor almost certainly did not describe an early pompa circensis, probably drawing instead a portrait based on contemporary performances and the collective remembrance of past performances. Even so, his narrative could have effected subsequent performances and memories—at least it impacted Dionysios’ historical memory.

In other words, Fabius Pictor, and later Dionysios of Halicarnassos, may have created a kind of Baudrillardian simulacrum, an ostensible copy, but one without an original, that very possibly came to serve as an authorizing archetype (Baudrillard). This simulacrum may have, in turn, impacted subsequent processions, even (other) textual ones, perhaps inspiring Vergil and Ovid, both near contemporaries of Dionysios, as well as Statius in the late first century CE (Georg. 1.1-42; Am. 3.2; Theb. 255-295; and Nelis and Nelis-Clément). That is, Fabius Pictor-Dionysios of Halicarnassos’ description could have become a non-conscious or un-thought influence on later processional performance or, at least, later literary depictions of processional performance—in a manner akin to Bourdieu’s habitus (“principles which generate and organize practices … without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends,” Bourdieu, 53). One generation’s “bogus protocol” may become the next generation’s ritual tradition, subtly shaping both the organizational protocols of the aediles and the expectations, imaginations, and memories of (literate) spectators. Once Fabius Pictor’s history became authoritative, his evocation of the pompa circensis could have shaped the experience, interpretation, and remembrance of any given performance and affected future performances. In short, Fabius Pictor’s invented memory, if that is what it was, seems to have had a lasting future.

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Prospective Memory in Ancient Rome: Constructing the Future Through Text and Material Culture

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