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Mon, 21 May 2007 13:27:51 -0500
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The Myths of Rome. By T.P. WISEMAN. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2004. Pp. xxii 
+ 389. Cloth, $74.95. ISBN 0–85989–703–6.

Order from Amazon ($64.60) using this link, and benefit CAMWS:

Print Version: CJ 102.4: 387–8

     Despite its title, this work is a hybrid study consisting of retellings of Roman myths, a 
core narrative of Roman history from the foundation of the city through Hadrian, told 
more or less from the perspective of the Roman populace, and scattered analyses of later 
reflections of Roman myth and history, especially in European painting of the 16th 
through 18th centuries. The mixed nature of the work makes it difficult to determine what 
audience the author has in mind and also difficult to restate and evaluate the central 
arguments. Running throughout are repeated themes, which, if formulated as 
propositions, might be said to constitute the intended contribution of the book: first, that 
Rome was capable of producing and transmitting its own myths; second, that many 
Roman myths (a term that includes historical legends) were transmitted through dramatic 
representation; third, that Roman society in general, especially as viewed through the 
lens of myth, was playful and eroticized, and not merely concerned with power; and 
fourth, that in the realm of myth (as much else) Rome’s relationship to Greece was not 
one of mere imitation. 

     Such a bare summary does not do justice to the quality of many of the particular 
analyses offered here, but it does bring to the surface two underlying problems of 
conceptualization: first, that Wiseman’s arguments are largely negative ones, working 
against views of Roman culture that hardly have much purchase among serious scholars 
today, and second, that Wiseman, like many classicists, persists in studying ancient 
material in isolation from methods and approaches developed elsewhere in the human 
sciences. The latter problem is the more interesting, for it cuts to the heart of what we 
consider the role of the classicist (and of Classics more generally) to be. Is it to maintain 
interest in ancient material at any cost? Or is it to integrate antiquity into broader 
accounts of culture, society and human nature? Obviously much is to be gained from 
close analysis of case studies, but is it worth the effort if all we learn, in effect, is that 
the Romans, like all societies known to the “solemn anthropologists” Wiseman disparages 
(p. 80), told stories that mattered to them? Even the more specific claims that Wiseman 
advances with great energy give pause when viewed from a broader perspective. For 
example, Wiseman pursues the argument, already articulated in his previous work on the 
figure of Remus, that many of the historical legends that permeate classical Roman 
literature and art took form in the early 3rd century BC in connection with internal and 
external political changes. Wiseman rightly notes inconsistencies and anachronisms that 
make it hard to date the legends as transmitted to the periods of history they purport to 
describe (i.e., the founding, the monarchy and the early years of the Republic), but does 
this mean that the legends were therefore invented in their entirety at the date he 
proposes? More generally, are there comparable cases in other societies where virtually 
an entire mythic system is developed in such a brief period of time? Finally, even if the 
stories in question are the invention of early 3rd-century mythopoetic geniuses, why do 
they take hold and get repeated for centuries thereafter? Without some framework for 
understanding how mythical production and transmission take place in better-documented 
contexts, we have little basis for judging Wiseman’s reconstructions as either true or 

     As for the particulars of Roman myths, it is both pleasing and useful to have them 
teased out of sometimes recalcitrant material. Flora and Liber become more fully-
rounded figures of cult and story, the latter in large part through a detailed discussion of 
the imagery on 4th-century cistae; earlier work on the ludi Apollinares and the festival of 
the Nonae Caprotinae is integrated into a discussion of the tension between serious and 
ludic aspects of Roman culture; and the play-acting of the Julio-Claudians comes to be 
seen as a continuation of mythopoetic impulses manifest throughout the Republic. 
Ultimately, for Wiseman the Roman “community of self-governing citizens protected by 
the god of liberty and licence” (p. 225) is itself something of a myth, that is, a story that 
matters regardless of its truth-value.

     But matters for whom? And why? Recurrent references to later Western paintings and 
poetry suggest an answer—“the Western tradition”—that can only be understood as a new 
myth to which Wiseman himself implicitly contributes. No reason is offered for including 
the works in question and excluding others (e.g., why North American political thought 
but not South American? why art from medieval France but not Byzantium?). Moreover, 
while no one would deny that studying classical antiquity provides access to a range of 
allusions and references familiar to later writers and artists—a point Wiseman illustrates 
through his correction of a museum’s label of Tiepolo’s Empire of Flora—nevertheless, 
those later works require analysis and interpretation on their own historical terms. We no 
longer regard Romans as naïve products of Greek influence; why would we expect the 
same for later adapters of Roman myth and legend? The sumptuous illustrations and 
textbook-style asides that differentiate this book from standard scholarly treatises are 
small compensation for a failure to think through problems of mythmaking, canonization 
and appropriation brought to our attention by the material itself. 

University of Southern California
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