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Brown Bag Lecture "Ancient Roman Ecphrasis: Overturning Theoretical Assumptions"
An influential view of ecphrasis (the description of art objects in literature) consists in treating it primarily as a way for authors to write about writing without appearing to do so. Modern theory and criticism have done much to propagate this perspective, even comparing such self-assertion of text over image to the colonizer’s domination of the colonized, and ancient Roman examples drawn from the major classical Latin texts have often been adduced in support. By contrast, my claim in the book from which this talk is drawn is that in Latin literature ecphrasis is also, and more centrally, about competition between cultures—Greek and Roman, literary and visual. By “competition,” however, I refer to something far more complex and subtle than simply overt, agonistic struggle or attempts at domination.
Roman ecphrasis stages a larger, ambivalent receptivity to Greek culture, a set of changing social attitudes reflecting the rapidly shifting political conditions of the Roman Republic and Principate. The trope is a site of cultural competition both in the way that Roman authors vie to display their receptivity to Greek culture (often for the benefit of patrons who also wish to display such an attitude) and in the way that divergent Roman and Hellenic cultures themselves can be said to compete, through ecphrasis, for influence over a Roman sense of self. But in both cases cultural competition occurs via the author’s receptive postures, as staged within broader cultural circumstances that favor a receptive response, in turn, from contemporary audiences: a broader Roman philhellenism expressed through visual and verbal means.
Basil Dufallo is associate professor of Classics and comparative literature at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Captor’s Image: Greek Culture in Roman Ecphrasis (forthcoming), The Ghosts of the Past: Latin Literature, the Dead, and Rome’s Transition to a Principate, and articles on Latin literature and Roman culture. He is also co-editor, with Peggy McCracken, of Dead Lovers: Erotic Bonds and the Study of Premodern Europe.