The Reception of Alexandrian Poetry and Politics in Augustan Rome

17 Mar 2016

Recent work on Alexandrian poetry has revealed a surprising attunement to the native culture of Egypt. Scholars as Ludwig Koenen, Susan Stephens, and Daniel Selden have shown that Theocritus, Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes, far from elaborating Greek poetry apolitically as has often been thought, were working to portray the Ptolemies as both legitimate monarchs of Egypt and legitimate leaders of the Greek cultural world. The basic strategy of this synthesis was to give Greek and Egyptian cultural terms significance in the iconic language of each other’s culture; its tools ranged from mythological syncretism down to bilingual puns. It has so far seldom been asked whether Latin poets, who adopted in such detail the Alexandrians’ aesthetic intertextual methods, likewise extended them to the cultural sphere and used them to help redefine their own Empire, particularly after the conquest of Egypt. I contend that if we read the poetry written around and after 30 BCE with a renewed awareness of the Roman conquest of Egypt and Augustus’ status as King of Egypt, we may reattach to it a meaning that has always been latent in them: a new sense of national identity that paradoxically comes from the dialogic, mimetic aspect of that encounter. Studying Augustan Rome as a city of obelisks, quasi-royal portraiture, and incipient dynastic rule, Diana Kleiner has explored the way Augustus selectively appropriated a Ptolemaic appropriation of earlier iconography—perhaps more precisely, that of his defeated rival Cleopatra—and sees in the Augustan program a kind of triumphant rival to hers. We find in Augustus’ urbs a message about a translation of power from Egypt, through Ptolemaic culture, to Rome. My focus is on a similar message in the poetry of the time. Instead of aesthetic or metapoetic topics, my focus is on ideological appropriations of Alexandrian poetry in themes pertaining to national integrity and legitimate rulership, namely the defeat of “barbarian” others and the apotheosis of the ruler, mainly as represented by the work of Virgil (who offers some of the most complex expressions of these themes) but also including his fellow Augustans, as Horace and Ovid, and some later poets, like Lucan, who reflect on, revise, or contradict Augustan tropes. The Romans take these ideas—which Alexandrian poets had already molded out of Egyptian thought under the influence of Alexander’s new dispensation—and bind them in their turn to Classical Roman and Greek traditions. In creating this poetics, the Augustans both create an image of Rome’s inheritance of world empire and consummate a Roman style of cultural syncretism that itself could not be more Alexandrian.

Joseph D. Reed
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