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No field of Latin literature has been more transformed over the last couple of decades than that of the Roman historians. Narratology, a new receptiveness to intertextuality, and a re-thinking of the relationship between literature and its political contexts have ensured that the works of historians such as Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus will be read as texts with the same interest and sophistication as they are used as sources. In this book, topics central to the entire tradition, such as conceptions of time, characterization, and depictions of politics and the gods, are treated synoptically, while other essays highlight the works of less familiar historians, such as Curtius Rufus and Ammianus Marcellinus. A final section focuses on the rich reception history of Roman historiography, from the ancient Greek historians of Rome to the twentieth century. An appendix offers a chronological list of the ancient historians of Rome.
The Roman historians can seem deceptively familiar. Three authors especially from the late Republic and early Empire left works that survived in substantial enough form to shape our understanding of the periods they wrote about. From the pen of Sallust, writing just after the civil war between Caesar and Pompey ended and as the new civil war between Antony and the future Augustus was coming into view, we have two monographs. One relates a recent domestic crisis, the coup attempt of Catiline (63 BCE); the other the war against the North African king Jugurtha from two generations before. A decade after Sallust, as that period of extreme internal violence was giving way to the nervous stabilities of the Empire, Livy began a history of Rome from its foundation, concluding eventually with the death of the emperor's stepson Drusus in 9 BCE. This enormous project would take its author many decades and fill 142 book rolls; from it, we possess the first ten books on the early history of Rome up to the beginning of the third century BCE and another twenty-five taking the story from the struggle against Hannibal (218-201 BCE) through the conquests of the early second century BCE. Finally Tacitus, writing a century after Livy's death, produced two extended works that together tell the story of the Empire, from the moment it became clear it was an empire (that is, when Augustus died and was succeeded by Tiberius) up to the revolution that gave power to the dynasty under which he wrote.
Any large-scale history of the Romans is inevitably a history of conquest. Livy, for example, defines his subject as the “men and arts, through which, at home and abroad, power/empire was born and increased” (praef. 9). So too Sallust can distinguish between Rome's moral flourishing and decline on the basis of military success against foreign enemies (cf. Cat. 2.4-6; 51.42). The importance of military victory as an affirmation of political and moral well-being gives a special importance to the portrayal of non-Romans in Roman historiography. This function appears most transparently in one of the monumental records of the Roman past, the Fasti triumphales, an inscription recording all triumphs from the time of Romulus, which formed the military counterpart to the “domestic” list of consuls within the triumphal arch erected by Augustus in 19 BCE in the Roman forum. In this compendium of Roman imperium, culminating in the return of the standards captured by the Parthians at the notorious defeat of Carrhae, the data recorded are simply the date of the ceremony, the name and office of the commander, and the people over whom he triumphed. The function of non-Romans in such a record is to be defeated, and by their defeat they affirm the identity of the Romans in both a negative and a positive sense.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.
The first sentence in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a work whose moral seriousness has sometimes seemed to place it at the opposite pole from Ovid’s epic in the literature of transformation, is as baffling for the reader as the event it describes is for Gregor Samsa. As he has become a monstrous insect so we are immediately confronted with the question of how to make sense of and interpret this monstrous and bizarre subject. The first words, with their resemblance to the classic fairy tale beginning 'once upon a time', seem to offer one possibility: we can normalize this supernatural event by assuming the story belongs to a genre that doesn't ask us to take it seriously, and even rejoice in the distance that separates us from a fictional world where such things are possible. So for Samsa there is the fleeting possibility that he is still dreaming. But if the time when this event takes place is re-assuringly indeterminate, other elements of the story bring it much closer to home. Gregor Samsa is too specific to be the name of a fairy tale prince, and the transformation takes place in his own bed – it could indeed be ours. Throughout the story, the particularity with which Gregor’s condition is described suggests a kaleidoscopic variety of strategies for making sense of it. Perhaps one of the most tempting is to neutralize its strangeness by treating it as a figure of speech, so that its significance becomes symbolic rather than literal.