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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2017

16 - The Poetics of Ruins in Ancient Greece and Rome

from Section V The Roman and Much Wider World


The term ruins (ereipia) in Greek derives from the verb ereipo, meaning to cut down,to cause to fall, as already documented by Homer. If the word appears in Herodotus, it is rarely found in the corpus of Greek tragedies and in Thucydides: ruins do not constitute a prominent theme before the Hellenistic period. It is not until Latin poetry that poetic nostalgia becomes a key element in sensitivity to the past. For Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, Troy is the setting of a massive and sudden destruction, a vast area of rubble devastated by pillage and fire; it is not yet a ruin. Things are different in the case of Latin poetry, which constructs a topos of the deserted and abandoned city from the image of the city's destruction. In order for the feeling of ruins to be expressed as a melancholy in the face of vestiges, which are nothing more than traces of a former flourishing life or of a splendid monument reduced to some blocks of stone, it is necessary for time to take its toll and for the poet to get to grips with the feeling of loss which ensues (Papini 2011).

To visualise the history of Rome it is necessary to give a historical dimension to the fall of Troy. It is necessary to accept that the destruction of the city becomes a parable of the cycles of nature. Propertius gives a good example of this; the poet sings of the beginnings of Roman history and the stages of its astonishing expansion (IV.10.27–30):

Alas, ancient Veii! You too were a kingdom then and a golden chair was set in your forum. Now within your walls the horn of the slowpaced shepherd sounds, and they reap the harvest above your bones.

These verses mark a break; although they take their place in the tradition of the encomium of cities that have disappeared, they reflect a unique tonality. Nothing remains of the noble city governed by so many rich and powerful rulers; all has disappeared; in place of the forum, we see only fields frequented by shepherds and ploughmen.