Scholia Reviews ns 5 (1996) 19.

Shadi Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, 1994. Pp. vi + 309. ISBN 0-674-00357-8. US$37.50.

William J. Dominik
University of Natal

Literary critics are accustomed to considering the often ambiguous position of writers in modern Africa, the Americas and the former East European block who have composed their works in a climate of political repression and whose literary output is subject to official scrutiny. This usually takes the form of examining how writers employ various rhetorical stratagems to criticise and express their disapproval of and opposition to regimes. Most classical scholars writing about the literature of first- and early second-century Rome reject the idea that its authors could have utilised some of the same verbal strategies as modern writers to comment critically upon the Julio-Claudian, Flavian and Trajanic dynasties. In recent years, however, several monographs have appeared that explore how literary artists were able to express their views in the oppressive political environment of imperial Rome.[[1]] In Actors in the Audience, Bartsch approaches the problem by proposing two models to describe how writers and subjects adjusted to the loss of political freedom and expression under the principate. The first descriptive model, 'theatricality', accounts for the manner in which Nero and his subjects, especially members of the senatorial class, acted out roles in interacting with each other; the second model, 'doublespeak', describes how imperial writers communicated their feelings under oppressive regimes by subverting their texts and raising a suspicion that the real meaning was other than what the literal meaning indicated.

The theatrical aspects of Nero's regime and the paradigm of acting that characterises the interaction between the princeps and his subjects is the focus of the first two chapters. To imperial writers, particularly Tacitus, Neronian Rome was a stage on which drama and politics were inextricably linked. According to Bartsch (ch. 1), the performances of Nero prompted his audiences to stage their responses in dramatic form as a means of reflecting upon the nature of power and of responding to the way in which it was exercised by the emperor. Audiences in the theatre were compelled to express, or 'act out', their appreciation of Nero's on-stage performances as a citharoedus and an actor. Members of the senatorial class were solicited or forced to act with Nero on stage. The responses of audiences to Nero's performances are described by Suetonius and Dio Cassius in terms that recall the roles of actors. This role- playing extended to events off-stage in the emperor's dealings with his subjects, especially the senatorial class, in the political sphere. The interaction between the princeps and his subjects took the form of role- playing in which Nero determined the script to be followed by the 'actors in the audience'. Nero commanded approval and adulation from his wider audience at Rome. Nero, then, made Rome his stage; performance politics became his modus operandi. The theatrical overtones of Tacitus' Annals 13-16 are especially apparent. Neronian politics is self-conscious theatre and is represented in dramatic terms. The theatrical paradigm provides an analytical frame for exploring Tacitus' treatment of, for instance, Nero's reaction to the murder of Britannicus, the suicide of Julius Montanus, and his murder of Agrippina.

Bartsch considers (ch. 2) the extent to which there was a link between Nero's actions and his dramatic roles. Nero played the parts of such mythical characters as Alcmeon, Orestes, Oedipus, Thyestes and Hercules, roles that enacted on-stage crimes that he was reputed to have committed off- stage. Bartsch points out how Suetonius rearranges the order of events by reporting first Nero's acting role, then the murder of his mother, and then the graffiti that likened Nero to the mythical matricides, a reordering that can perhaps be explained by a desire of the biographer to encourage readers to make associations between Nero and his roles more readily. While Nero dramatised on-stage crimes that had been performed in real life, condemned criminals assumed the roles of such mythological figures as Icarus, Orpheus and Hercules in acting out their real deaths. Life and drama were closely intertwined in the Neronian age.

After her discussion of Neronian theatricality, Bartsch turns (ch. 3) to the use of doublespeak (her term for 'ambiguity'), which for the imperial writer was a method of criticising a regime and staying alive, while for the audience it became a way of discerning the insincerity of the writer. She focuses on how a writer's use of language can suggest opposing or contradictory interpretations to its different audiences and on the active role of the audience in detecting an author's subtext. The meaning that the author intends the audience to perceive is not the opposite of what is literally stated, as in irony, but rather a concealed meaning that lies beneath the surface. This ambiguity and obscurity of expression was necessary in a period when any direct expression of dissent could be construed as a personal attack upon the princeps. Quintilian suggested that an audience of the first century would have been especially sensitive to social and political undercurrents of the time when he observes that they would not have been slow to grasp the unfavourable implications of a veiled passage (Inst. Or. 8.3.47). This emphasis on the role of the audience in detecting criticism represented a change from the way that actors or authors of plays directly commented on political affairs in the republic (cf. Cic. Sest. 118ff., Att. 2.19; Suet. Iul. 84).

Probably the most challenging part of Bartsch's book is her practical illustration of the role of doublespeak in imperial literature (ch. 4). For this Bartsch selects Tacitus' Dialogus de Oratoribus and Juvenal's seventh Satire, works that have been the subject of much critical debate regarding the degree of sincerity and irony that should be attributed to them. The emphasis in this practical treatment of texts is on the author's subversion of his own text through the use of doublespeak. Bartsch's concern in the Dialogus is with the seemingly contradictory positions adopted by Maternus in his two speeches. In his first speech (11-13) Maternus expresses his preference for poetry, especially political drama (with its anti-imperial rhetoric), over contemporary oratory, which was dominated by men greedy for financial gain and power (i.e., the notorious delatores); in his second speech (36-41) he contends that a decline in eloquence can be attributed to the lack of political turmoil under the peaceful rule of Vespasian. Although Bartsch believes the contradictions can be partly explained by the different aims of each of his speeches, she maintains the first speech is an indication that the praise of Vespasian's regime in the second speech should be read as criticism.

Bartsch argues (ch. 4) that Tacitus deliberately subverts the meaning of his own words not by employing irony, which deceives no one, but by using doublespeak to suggest a hidden meaning to opponents of the regime. She may be right in arguing that doublespeak, or ambiguity, is a (better) way of reconciling the apparent contradictions in the speeches of Maternus. But she overstates her case in attempting to distinguish between doublespeak, which conveys one meaning to the emperor and a different meaning to his opponents, and irony, which she claims is powerless to deceive, since in most critical uses of the term 'irony' there is the sense of dissembling or concealing what is actually the case. Sometimes the use of irony by a writer is complex, especially when the meaning may be subtly qualified: an ironic statement can mean less or more rather than simply the opposite of what it suggests, and unravelling its sub-surface meaning may ultimately prove elusive. Much the same potential for misinterpretation by imperial authorities lies with writers who use irony as with those who employ ambiguity.

Juvenal's seventh Satire commences by promising a reinvigoration of the arts under the patronage of Caesar but ultimately reveals a picture of severe neglect and second-rate literary productions. Bartsch argues (ch. 4) that the apparent compliment to the emperor is undermined by Juvenal's representation of Statius, Paris and Quintilian as examples of the corrupt nature of imperial patronage in its source and its results (rather than an example of the effects of the absence of such patronage). In treating Statius, for example, she asserts that he is 'much like Quintilian, fellow crony and flatterer; and . . . Statius must have appeared a symbol of the prostitution of letters to Domitian's regime' (p. 270 n. 118). Bartsch greatly overestimates Domitian's subvention of Statius and suggests (wrongly in my view) that the poet was a supporter of the regime. In Satire 7.82-87 Juvenal insists that Statius would have starved if he had not sold his Agave to the pantomimus Paris, despite the immense popularity of his recitations of the Thebaid. While Statius almost certainly was not indigent, it seems clear that his popularity did not result in imperial acceptance or financial independence. Judging by his expressions of gratitude to Domitian, Statius appears to have been the object of the emperor's generosity on only a few occasions, namely, when the emperor provided him with a water supply on his Alban estate (Silv. 3.1.61-64), ensured his victory in the Alban festival (3.5.28-31; 4.2.63-67), and invited him to a banquet at the imperial palace (4.2.5-10; cf. 4 pr. 6f.). Statius stresses that the imperial invitation (in March 90 AD) was his first (4.2.5f.) and the favour 'a long time after' (4.2.64) his Alban victory (probably in 95 AD). These few imperial favours actually suggest the meagreness of imperial patronage rather than its substantiality, a point that is confirmed by Juvenal's description of Statius' grim financial plight.

Juvenal's portrayal of Statius seems consistent with the pervasive message elsewhere in the seventh Satire that literary artists have been disgracefully deprived of meaningful patronage. It is the lack of imperial patronage, rather than any representation of its corrupt workings, that undermines the apparent compliment to the emperor. Bartsch cites (ch. 4) Statius' flattery of Domitian's military exploits in Thebaid 1.17ff. as a typical instance of panegyric composed in exchange for imperial patronage, but this praise is undermined by contemporary suggestions of Domitian's partially (un)successful campaigns against the Germans and Dacians (Theb. 1.19; cf. Tac. Agr. 39.1; Pliny Pan. 16.3f.; Suet. Dom. 6.1) and his unmilitary demeanour (Silv. 1.1.25-27; cf. Suet. Dom. 19). Bartsch could have strengthened her argument by pointing out that Statius is yet another imperial writer whose poetry reveals a 'double voice', since he utilises many of the same strategies as Tacitus and Juvenal to undermine his praise of Domitian. Bartsch's paradigm of doublespeak, however, actually does help in the end to make sense of Satire 7: the optimism and praise of the emperor at the beginning of the poem must be viewed in terms of the grim reality that prevails in the second half.

The imperial audience's determination of meaning led to disclaimers by writers that their texts did not contain any covert meaning and should not be read with this intention or idea in mind. One such example was Pliny (ch. 5), who in his Panegyricus took care to assure Trajan that his laudes Traiani should not be construed to mean exactly the opposite of their literal meaning (3.4f.). Elsewhere Pliny observes that prior to Trajan imperial panegyric was immensely unpopular for its insincerity (Ep. 3.18.7). While Pliny's (e.g., Pan. 1.1) and Tacitus' laudes (e.g., Agr. 3.1; Hist. 1.1) are not unlike those composed by poets to Domitian, Pliny urges that his own praises of the emperor are to be interpreted differently from previous imperial panegyric (i.e., literally rather than ironically). Bartsch argues (epilogue) that Pliny tried to show that the public and hidden meanings of his praise of Trajan were the same, but since audiences of the first and early second century were accustomed to looking for veiled criticism in the form of superficial flattery, the audience is faced with the difficulty of whether or not to take Pliny's disclaimer seriously. At the least the uncertainty of interpretation would still leave the possibility that Pliny's praise of Trajan should be interpreted in the customary (i.e., anti-imperial) manner by an audience.

Bartsch believes (ch. 5) that Pliny's apparent attempt to convince his audience that his praise of Trajan has no other possible interpretation, that it does not indicate a meaning opposite of its literal meaning, is an attempt to establish himself the arbiter of meaning, which renders him 'the E. D. Hirsch of the ancient world' (p. 191). This jibe against Hirsch is unjustified, since his emphasis on the determinacy of verbal meaning allows for ambiguity and multiple possibilities of meaning (much like the models Bartsch proposes) and acknowledges that complete certainty as to a text's meaning can never be attained; moreover, the significance of a text to Hirsch, which is what enlivens and makes it resonant for different audiences, is indeterminate and ever changing.[[2]]

Who will not like Actors in the Audience? Primarily classicists who do not believe that literature of the first and early second century was heavily political or that writers attempted to communicate their disapproval of regimes through a variety of stylistic and rhetorical devices. Even those critics who favour her methodology (as I do) will disagree with some aspects of her approach and interpretations. But this sophisticated book is essential reading for scholars who have an interest in how writers (and their audiences) function in an age of political oppression. Its main contribution lies in the emphasis it places upon the political context in the reading and interpretation of literary texts, a quality often lacking in scholarship of the imperial period.


[[1]] See especially V. Rudich, Political Dissidence under Nero: The Price of Dissimulation (London 1993), who develops a model of dissident behaviour for exploring the politics of the Neronian age.

[[2]] E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven 1967); The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago 1976).