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Despite its enduring strength, the Roman tradition has become unreadable in the twenty-first century. Conventional civil war tropes, however, are consistent and clear. While a narrative about citizen armies clashing against each other on the battlefield accords with the Latin concept – civil war derives from bellum civile – Roman literature figures civil discord as a matter of the heart. Fratricide, suicide, rape, rent marriages, incest, falling in love with the enemy all speak to the violence of same on same that makes civil war not just a matter of formal warfare, but a symptom of the collapse of the social bond. Although the protagonists in civil war narratives are male, the women they love or betray threaten to take over their stories.
Vergil’s ambivalence toward the Augustan renewal sets the stage. His overt celebration of an end to civil war and a new age of imperial expansion, which will direct Roman militarism outward, runs counter to the metaphorical register of both the Georgics and the Aeneid. Rome’s history, from the beginning, into the future, is figured as a struggle, only ever partially successful, to contain internal violence. The tension between his integrative and disintegrative gestures is formative for the Roman tradition.
Alone among texts analyzed, Soumission describes no battlefields. Civil war diffuses into street violence. The electoral crisis, in which the Muslim Brotherhood prevents the National Front from coming to power, is handled behind the scenes. The Roman tradition’s tropes, however, frame France’s social dysfunction as raging civil war: a republic fails and an oriental empire modeled on ancient Rome takes its place. Allusion – streets in Paris, squares encoding Roman institutions, towns commemorating Crusade battles – retells France’s dystopian future as a rerun of history since Augustus imposed peace through empire. The novel’s protagonist faces a personal crisis as he relives the life of his research interest, Huysmans: the paradigm of decadence converted to Catholicism. His perverse conversion, however, exposes the present refoundation as a return to a decadent political theology. Soumission’s Muslims, all nativist converts who establish a Nietzschean empire of domination, aim above all to subject women. Once again, orientalism projects onto an apparently foreign other the abjection residing within the self. The novel’s poetics accuse us of hypocrisy if we think we are any better.
Alternative cities structure Augustine’s City of God. The divide between the earthly and the heavenly city returns in his two Romes, a violent city of civil war and a violent city of virtue, in his two Jerusalems, a violent city of civil war and a city prefiguring God’s city, and even among Christians, divided between love of self and love of God. Although the heavenly city’s full realization is deferred to after the end of history, in this life, the heavenly city exists, mixed with the earthly city, on a pilgrimage toward realization. Rome, a dark shadow (umbra) that sets the light of the divine city in relief, instantiates the earthly city’s violence in both its horrific and virtuous manifestations. In its better form, Jerusalem advances toward the heavenly city’s realization as the prefiguration (figura) of what the divine city will realize (implementum).
Civil war has beset France yet again. Victor Hugo reacts to the slaughter of the Commune in 1872 by telling – like Vergil, Lucan, and Augustine – a story from the past. Quatrevingt-treize is set during the Terror (1793) following the French Revolution. Paradigmatic characters and places instantiate ideologies that have mapped positions since ancient Rome. As in Augustine, no history has managed to overcome civil war. Christianity has merely enabled the shift to a new form of domination in monarchy. A new republic is needed that will refound France – a universal paradigm like Rome – on secularized Christian values that will finally bring new order to the world.
The gorgeous surface of Vergil’s didactic poem on farming lulls the reader into a sense of false security – by the end of the poem, scenes of plague, crop failure, and the collapse of an allegorical society of bees brings vividness to the contemporary context of civil war. Analogy invites us to see the bees as Romans, but plausible deniability keeps the similarities from cutting too close. Although Aristaeus, the beekeeper, manages to restore his hive, the fantastical bugonia, which brings rebirth from an abject, rotting corpse of a bludgeoned calf, alienates. Out of Egypt, it offers an illusory salvation. Technology and sacrifice, in parallel registers, each fail to achieve the task at hand. Aristaeus is being punished for threatening to rape Orpheus’ wife Eurydice and causing her death. What is needed is not just to bring the dead back to life, but to placate the spirit of Eurydice, whose etymology, “broad justice,” reveals the real need as social restoration. The bees’ tendency to faction and to adore an autocratic monarch, on the model of Egypt, warns that the price of restoration for Rome after civil war is an oriental empire.
De bello civili may be an anti-Aeneid, but the contrast depends on a deeper accord. Both poems look back: to the mythic backstory of Rome’s foundation and to the history of the Republic’s fall. Both comment on the present. The inscription of civil war tropes into Rome’s foundation asks whether internal violence is endemic, or if the Augustan refoundation can put Rome on a more secure footing. The Republic’s death at the hands of Pompey and Caesar founds the Empire on perennial discord. The civil war tropes undergirding Vergil’s integrative story become the literal plot of Lucan’s. Foundation and defoundation share tropes: fratricide and rape. In Vergil, these tell an alternative story to the golden age the poem proclaims. In Lucan, the Augustan settlement disappears. As in the Aeneid, discord subtly defines the present: The panegyric to Nero defers peace to an uncertain future as effectively as the Aeneid’s defers the Augustan peace. Alternative cities – Troy, Carthage – reveal Rome’s perverse nature in Vergil. Caesar, embroiled with Cleopatra, founds an oriental empire in Lucan. Turmoil within the soul, between lovers, within peoples, and in the cosmos belies both poems’ promise.
Can civil war ever be overcome? Can a better order come into being? This book explores how the Roman civil wars of the first century BCE laid the template for addressing perennially urgent questions. The Roman Republic's collapse and Augustus' new Empire have remained ideological battlegrounds to this day. Integrative and disintegrative readings begun in antiquity (Vergil and Lucan) have left their mark on answers given by Christians (Augustine), secular republicans (Victor Hugo), and disillusioned satirists (Michel Houellebecq) alike. France's self-understanding as a new Rome – republican during the Revolution, imperial under successive Napoleons – makes it a special case in the Roman tradition. The same story returns repeatedly. A golden age of restoration glimmers on the horizon, but comes in the guise of a decadent, oriental empire that reintroduces and exposes everything already wrong under the defunct republic. Central to the price of social order is patriarchy's need to subjugate women.
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