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Chapter 3 - Nineteenth-Century Literary and Artistic Responses to Roman Decadence

from Part I - Origins

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 August 2019

Jane Desmarais
Affiliation:
Goldsmiths, University of London
David Weir
Affiliation:
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
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Summary

This chapter examines the nineteenth-century cultural interest in Roman decadence, curious in view of the many historical figures who typified such Roman virtues as dutifulness to family and the gods, self-sacrificing patriotism, heroic manliness. To focus instead on the extravagance, weakness, and sexual deviance of the emperors was to exhibit the perversity for which decadent culture is renowned. A sense of belatedness, a feeling that the greatness of the past is gone forever, connects the Silver Age and the late-nineteenth century, inspiring a pessimistic world view but also a freedom from the artistic and linguistic restrictiveness of a self-consciously great era. Yet the transition from virtuous to dissolute impressions of Rome is not simply a phenomenon of the fin de siècle: the subversive insinuations of melancholy, self-indulgence, effeminacy, extravagance, embellishment, and foreign influences in the literature of the Golden Age resonate with romantic sensibilities and react against imperial ambitions to destabilize exemplary images of Rome throughout the nineteenth century.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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