CJ Onlien Review: Star, The Empire of the Self

posted with permission:

The Empire of the Self: Self-Command and Political Speech in Seneca and Petronius. By Christopher Star. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. viii + 302. Hardcover, $65.00/£34.00. ISBN 978-1-4214-0674-9.

Reviewed by Gareth Williams, Columbia University

This book constitutes an important addition to the burgeoning body of scholarship on the self and on Roman attitudes/approaches to self-shaping and self-articulation in the early Imperial era. Star’s particular objective is to show how Seneca and Petronius “address the problems and possibilities of self-shaping and self-revelation in the new world of empire” (19). This broad theme is developed from varied angles of approach in six main chapters, all of which combine sensitive micro-analysis of individual passages and texts with the patient unfolding of Star’s macro-argument. Eschewing an approach which sets Petronius and Seneca against each other as philosophical and literary opposites (even opponents), Star sets the two in a dialogue of sorts, both of them contributing in complementary ways to the larger theorization of self-shaping that is constructed across the six chapters.

The book is in two movements: after an anchoring introduction, the focus in Part I (Chapters 1–3) is on “Soul-Shaping Speech,” in Part II (Chapters 4–6) on “Soul-Revealing Speech.” Star’s starting-point in Part I is the familiar idea that traditional modes of military and political command gave way in the early empire, amidst “the new problem of political autocracy” (3), to an internalizing tendency that prioritized self-empowerment and self-command (sibi imperare). In Chapter 1 Star focuses on Senecan self-apostrophe as a key mechanism by which self-command is asserted and inculcated—a mechanism already of wide rhetorical application, but Star nevertheless argues persuasively for Senecan improvisation: he “‘theorizes’ it, turning this literary and declamatory figure of speech into a philosophical concept” (59). In Chapter 2 Star turns to self-address in Senecan tragedy, demonstrating through the examples of Medea, Clytemnestra and Atreus how the therapeutic apparatus of self-apostrophe is reapplied to galvanizing effect as the tragic characters ready for heinous action. As in Chapter 1, Star boldly attributes considerable originality to Seneca (so, e.g., 73–4: “Seneca develops a portrayal of the passions and the psychology of vice that goes beyond basic Stoic theories of the passions as simply unstructured and inconstant: he develops a new image of the passions built around the Stoic ideal of constantia”); he also smoothly downplays tension between Seneca’s philosophical prose and the tragedies (“In his tragedies, Seneca is neither negating, inverting, nor denying his philosophical ideals; rather, he is expanding them,” p. 83; my emphasis), but (i) without quelling at least this reader’s disquiet at the troubling implications of Stoic constantia being reapplied in a context of evil, and (ii) without dwelling at greater length on the precise nature of Seneca’s tragic “expansion” of his philosophical ideas. In turning to Petronius in Chapter 3, Star continues indirectly to illuminate the function of self-apostrophe in Seneca through contrast with the different trajectory of self-address that he explores in the Satyricon: whereas Seneca focuses on interior self-shaping, Petronius “brings Senecan ‘command psychology’ down to the body” (111) in physicalized counterpoint to the “higher” mode of meditatio explored in Chapters 1 and 2.

In turning his focus to self-revelation in Part II, Star offers in Chapter 4 a penetrating analysis of De clementia, again with emphasis on the shaping of self. Here, however, the shaping process is external, in the sense that Seneca molds (the projection of) a merciful Nero, he prescribes the conduct to be expected of the young emperor, and he shapes “the populace’s capacity for critical judgment of Nero in order to determine whether he is a king or a tyrant” (118); De clementia offers, that is, a pattern and paradigm for Neronian self-revelation—a script for him to follow. In the Apocolocyntosis, by contrast, Seneca orchestrates self-revelation of a more sordid kind as the feeble Claudius struggles to breathe his last: in Chapter 5 Star predicates his impressive reading of the Apocolocyntosis on a two-fold system of comparison, first relating Claudius to Petronius’ Trimalchio and to the latter’s all too graphic account of his digestive problems (Sat. 47.1–7; cf. the excrement with which the dying Claudius dirties himself at Apoc. 4.3), and then exploring the Apocolocyntosis as a form of comic double to De clementia. Finally, in Chapter 6, “Trimalchio’s surprising usurpation of the name of Maecenas” (171; cf. Sat. 71.12) provides the departure-point for Star’s instructive treatment of Seneca’s Maecenas in Letter 114. If in De clementia Seneca “developed his position as Nero’s speech-writer in order to stress how the emperor’s language could both shape and reveal the mildness of his soul” (177), Seneca’s treatment of Maecenas’ literary style in Letter 114 (written after Seneca’s de facto retirement from the Neronian court in 62 ce) is very different in import: Maecenas’ style “reveals that his manner of living was incongruent with the imperial power he was granted” (177–8), to the effect that the positive shaping of self that takes place in De clementia now gives way to a negative paradigm.

This bare sketch can hardly do justice to the scope and richness of Star’s argument in each chapter, to the thoroughness with which he discusses his chosen texts, and to the creativity with which he exploits his simultaneous treatments of Seneca and Petronius. The writing is clear and uncluttered, his chains of reasoning are lucidly constructed, and there are few typographical errors of note (but read “smile” on p. 93: “all the faces that usually create a simile among lovers”). In sum, this book makes a major contribution to the modern bibliography on selfhood and self-formation in the early empire, and it will doubtless generate further debate in so vibrant an area of study.

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