Abstracts for 2014 Boston University Graduate Conference in Classical Studies

Death and Mortality in the Ancient World

Panel 1 (10:30-11:30 am)

Richard Hutchins
Princeton University

“Death in the State of Nature: De Rerum Natura 5.195-199 & 5.988-998″

Why does Lucretius give us an extensive and graphic account of violent death in the state of nature, my target passage, 5.988-998? Commentators assert that the point is to down-play the idea that Lucretius’ state of nature was a Golden Age, a literary point. Monica Gale, for instance, asserts that this passage is a reaction to Empedocles’ portrayal of human-animal harmony in the state of nature (Myth and Poetry in Lucretius, 2007 reprint, pg.62). Gordon Campbell (Lucretius on Creation and Evolution, pgs. 240-243) thinks the point is a contrastive one: to paint as harsh a picture of the state of nature as possible to show how much worse things are now under modern mores. While both are not incorrect, I argue that Lucretius is making a larger, theological point with this violent death. 5.195-199 is a programmatic statement that tells us that the world was not made by the gods for the sake of humans. This is because the world is so full of culpa (“guilt” but systematically mistranslated as “fault” Rouse-Smith, “flaws” Bailey, “imperfections” Gale). The point of the violent death, then, is to show that, per impossibile, if the gods had made the world for humans’ sake, they would be guilty of such violence in the state of nature. But Epicurean gods did not make the world; it came about by chance. Therefore, they are not guilty of violent death in the state of nature. This gives motivation for Lucretius dwelling on the graphic death at 5.988-998, and it also suggests that culpa at 5.199 should be translated as “guilt.” Lucretius’ violent death in the state of nature is an attack on the idea that the world was made by the gods for our sake.

Reina E. Callier
University of Colorado, Boulder

“The Missing Twin: Death and Politics in Ovid’s Fasti”

In Book 5 of the Fasti, Ovid creates a spurious etymology between Remus’ name and the word “Lemuria;” this allows Remus, whose death famously marked the foundation of Rome, to appear as a ghost and speak at length about his plight. I argue that Ovid uses this episode to verbalize a theme that is merely suggested elsewhere in the Fasti: Remus’ equality to his brother Romulus and the arbitrary nature of Romulus’ kingship.

The seeds of this idea are planted throughout the work. In Book 2 lines 359-380, for example, Remus surpasses his brother in his pursuit of the stolen cattle, while later in that book (lines 485-488) Ennius’ original statement of Romulus’ destined apotheosis (unus erit quem tu tolles in caerula caeli) becomes a suggestion that either brother could have ascended to godhood. Meanwhile, the unusual variation of Remus’ death in Book 4 eliminates Romulus’ traditional physical superiority, and the augury episode questions Romulus’ divine favor with the ambiguous use of the word prima (5.152). But it is only when Remus’ ghost appears that we are given a direct statement of what these episodes mean, for the dead man himself claims that he was “half” (dimidium) of the pair of twins and equally deserving of divine support (5.459).

Ovid thus uses Remus’ death and ghostly reappearance to suggest that political power is arbitrary. Given the volatile political situation that had plagued Rome until the “peace” obtained by Augustus Caesar, this is controversial indeed.

Panel 2 (11:30am-12:30pm)

Ronald Orr
Texas Tech University

“Mortality and the Foreknowledge of Death in Herodotus”

One of the signature traits of being human throughout the course of history has been one’s foreknowledge of the fact that, at some point, his life will end. This understanding has presented itself within literature beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh and continues to the present day. Our author of study, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, was no exception. In his epic work, The Histories, Herodotus put forth what he believed to be the causes of the great wars between the Persians and the Greeks. Within this monumental narrative, Herodotus diverted his story with many tantalizing anecdotes of peoples and customs. Some of his digressions put the foreknowledge of death at the forefront of his characters’ thought. Commonly in his story, it is only when a character is on the verge of death that all becomes clear for him. Two of the most prominent examples within his narrative are Croesus and Cambyses. Croesus is on his own funeral pyre, when he cries out and Cyrus the Great has mercy on him (Hdt. Hist 1.86). Cambyses, after going completely insane and mortally wounding himself, has a change of heart, knowing that he is going to die (Hdt. Hist 3.64). His imminent death causes him to accept the evil things he has done in his life and beg the gods for forgiveness. Our study will examine the various characters, who on the verge of death become wholly aware of their demise, and how each character copes with his defeat. Their foreknowledge will be juxtaposed with characters in the narrative, who are on the verge of death yet unaware of their demise. Through their foreknowledge of death, some of these characters have a change of heart and accept their fate.

Keywords: Mortality, Herodotus, Cambyses, Croesus

Kristin Harper
University of Missouri

“The Killing Blow: Aeneas’ Transformation through His Experience of Death”

Through the Aeneid, Vergil delves into the character of Aeneas through the development of death itself. It is through Aeneas’ experience of death that he is able to grow as a character and develop into a hero. Before he goes down into Hades, Aeneas is reluctant to accept his fate as the future founder of Rome. In the Elysian Fields, Aeneas is shown the future souls of the Romans and it is there that he recognizes the importance of his mission. In order to become the hero he is destined to be, he must first relinquish himself and his past. He leaves his own passions and sorrows behind him for the greater good. It is only when he experiences death and the future of Rome that he is able to recognize the importance of his mission. He journeys out of the Underworld with a newfound fervor for his duty and proceeds to do what is necessary to bring his destiny to fruition. Through Aeneas’ journey into Hell, he is reborn and arises as a passionate hero determined to fulfill his destiny.

In this paper, I will discuss Aeneas’ reluctant transformation from his state at the beginning of the epic, his acceptance in Hades, and ultimately his destruction of his former self in killing Turnus. Aeneas’ hesitation in killing Turnus does not arise from his newfound lack of humanity, but from his realization that with this stroke he has completed his transformation through his own metaphorical death. In experiencing death, the Aeneas that fought in the Trojan war has, in all intents and purposes, died, and a new man has arisen from the ashes. It is through death that Vergil has transformed Aeneas, and it is in Turnus’ death that the reader sees this ultimate transformation. Aeneas’ own personal wishes and goals no longer remain. In this paper I would like to discuss the nature of Aeneas’ own death, not necessarily occurring in Book VI with his decent into the Underworld, but in his symbolic death (Book XII), with his killing stroke of Turnus.

Panel 3 (2:30-3:30 pm)

William Smith III
University of Florida

“Dignitas and Mors: Restoring Public Image after Rejecting Honorable Death”

This paper will focus on Cicero’s exilic period as well as the period after his decision to accept Caesar’s clemency rather than die honorably. Cicero’s decisions during these periods damaged his reputation and left him open to criticism. I will analyze how Cicero attempted to overcome this criticism.

According to Van Hooff, “in the Classical period suicide was counted as an obligation for soldiers and politicians when confronted with the risk of losing their honour” (1990, 50-51). Through a close reading of Cicero’s Epistulae and other selected works as primary evidence, I will discuss strategies the orator and former consul employed to restore his honor after failing to display virtus in a noble mors voluntaria. Cicero struggled with suicidal thoughts on multiple occasions: after the passing of the Leges Clodiae and his subsequent exile in 58 BC; when Caesar’s victory in the Civil War seemed imminent; following Tullia’s death in 45 BC; and according to Plut. Cic. 47-48, after Octavian betrayed him. His Epistulae provide the rare, autobiographical glimpse into the mind of a suicidal Roman who ultimately prefers to cling to life.

Cicero frequently expresses regret over opting to beg for support and then leaving Rome when the situation looked hopeless (e.g. Att. 3.3; 3.6; 3.15; Fam. 14.4). In exchanges with family and friends, he makes it clear that a political suicide in protest of Clodius’s laws would have been the proper way to preserve his dignitas (e.g. Att. 3.7; Q. Fr. 1.4). Cicero’s failure to end his life honorably made him a target for criticism. My work offers a new reading of how Cicero responded to this criticism. While contemporaries and modern scholars alike have attacked his emotional letters from exile as unmanly or displaying signs of mental imbalance (e.g. Stockton 1971, 190; Rawson 1983, 114; Mitchell 1991, 138-141; Everitt 2001, 145), my paper focuses on a much less-studied aspect of Cicero’s works: I analyze Cicero’s response to his contemporaries’ criticism and his claims for why his own death would not be of any service to the state in order to conclude that Cicero defends his decision by identifying himself as a patriotic martyr whose death would not serve the state any practical purpose .

Daniel Poochigian
University of Colorado, Boulder

“Corbulo and Agricola: Dying and Surviving under the Principate”

Tactius’ famous lament for the loss of the ancient liberties and unbridled virtue that the res publica permitted and men of the past exhibited is demonstrated by his focus on two anachronisms of recent memory—Gnaeus Julius Agricola and Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. Tacitus leaves his reader with no doubt that both of these men represented the very virtues that the new Principate could not reconcile. Indeed, both men served as high ranking generals in far flung provinces of the empire under emperors whom Tacitus considers despotic by any stretch of the imagination. And despite their virtues, loyalties, and tireless labors, which were seemingly on behalf of the empire’s well-being, both were viewed with some degree of suspicion by their respective emperors. While Agricola escapes Domitian’s paranoia by his own natural death, Corbulo suffers the ultimate fate of being ordered to commit suicide.

In this paper, I seek to explain why Corbulo was ordered to take his own life and why Agricola managed to survive to his own natural death. Tacitus’ accounts of both generals paint the two men with almost exactly the same brush. According to his writings, they were excellent commanders, devoted to their men and to drilling their legions to superb readiness, models of virtue that harkened back to the commanders of the old Republic. That said, Corbulo’s main fault seems to be his unrestrained willingness to obtain personal glory, a trait that was completely incompatible with the times, and certainly helped to convince Nero to sign his death warrant. Even more interesting is the question of Agricola’s survival: did Domitian’s decision to force him into retirement constitute a sort of social death now that he could no longer finish the cursus honorum?

While Tacitus might have written his history in the typical Roman moralizing fashion, a closer look at the provinces under each general’s command reveals a far more pragmatic concern for any princeps. While Agricola was governor of Britain, Corbulo had the responsibility of ensuring Roman dominion over Armenia, and had the entire resources of the East to do it. Indeed, following Corbulo, no Roman emperor allowed a subordinate to launch campaigns into the East. It appears that Corbulo was a victim of not only his own successes and his character, but also the very nature of his mission—he wielded too much power too far away from Rome to be left alive, even after his assignment was complete. The difference of these men’s fates was a constant reminder for the principes and their generals during the time of the Principate—geography could cause a man’s demise just as much as his character.