Guardommi, e con le man s' aperse il petto, / Dicendo: "Or vedi com' io mi dilacco." (Dante Inferno XXVIII, 29–30)

"See How I Rip Myself!"


A two-day conference at
Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst
November 10 – 11, 2007


As part of his long diatribe on civil war in the City of God, Augustine mocks the Romans for erecting a Temple of Concord in the aftermath of the murder of Gaius Gracchus. “If they wanted to reflect truly what had happened, why didn't they build a Temple of Discord instead?” he asks. As perversely appropriate as a Temple of Discord would have been, the Romans of course did not need one to remind them of their predilection for civil war. Rome enshrined civil conflict, indeed fraternal conflict, in its foundation myth, and the burden of civil war on Roman minds would be hard to overestimate. Civil wars, more than other wars, sear themselves into the memory of societies that suffer them, and each earlier civil war is present in some fashion in a society's experience of successive conflicts. This is particularly true at Rome, where in a period of 150 years the Romans fought four epochal conflicts against themselves: Marius / Sulla, Caesar / Pompey, Octavian / Antony, Galba / Otho / Vitellius / Vespasian. Retrojections and echoes of these conflicts are to be found from Rome's foundation to late antiquity and into post-classical receptions of Rome.

Taking a broad view, this conference aims to address the cultural significance of civil war at Rome from a variety of perspectives. Why did the Romans subject themselves to civil conflict repeatedly over the long course of their history? How did the experience of civil war and, equally importantly, representations and memories of civil wars shape Romanness? We think these questions can be best addressed at the intersection of literary texts, documentary texts, and material culture. To this end, the conference will bring together historians, literary critics, archaeologists, and art historians to consider Rome's civil wars within the following four themes:

Definitions of civil war. How did Roman observers define civil war? Is there something distinctive about the nature and quality of a Roman civil war? In what ways do ancient writers perceive the phenomenon of civil war at Rome to be similar to and different from other manifestations of civil conflict such as, for example, the many staseis in the history of Greek city-states? Are the sorts of political, economic, or religious motivations that might provoke civil strife in modern societies entirely absent from Rome, and, if so, what takes their place? To what extent is the brother-against-brother struggle of the Romulus and Remus myth fundamentally true as a unifying theme of Roman civil wars and to what extent does it fail to tell the whole story? Why, for example, are some conflicts classed as civil wars when others such as the rebellions of Sertorius and Catiline are not?

Representations of civil war. No Roman conflict is free from memories of previous civil conflicts. How did the persistence of civil war affect how historians, poets, and participants conceived of individual conflicts? Was Rome's series of civil wars seen as a sort of historical intertextuality? Given the sense of déjà vu that dominates representations of Roman civil wars, it might be productive to break them down by medium and genre and by audiences. How, for example, is civil war perceived differently by historians and epic poets, by Greek writers and Roman writers, in texts and in victory monuments, at home and abroad?

Dissimulations of civil war. Along with representations of civil war, we would like to consider the range of strategies the Romans developed to disguise the nature of their internal conflicts. Examples include civil conflict recast as foreign conflict or seen through the distancing lens of myth. Differences get manufactured to hide the kinship between competing parties. The creation of counter-myths is another favored strategy. The golden age, whether it is located in the past or in the future, is one alternative to the idea that Rome will always be at war with itself, and there are others. Is the visual vocabulary for representing victories in civil wars always of this type?

Translations of civil war. How, finally, does civil war insinuate itself into the Roman worldview and into what it means to be Roman? What influence does the Roman propensity for civil war have over how other cultures define Rome? What role does Rome's propensity for civil war play for later societies, both as they experience and describe their own conflicts and as they look at Rome and their relationship to Rome?

Romulus and Remus, socer generque, a choice between concordia and discordia: dualisms and contradictions come almost too easily to the surface in descriptions of Rome's civil wars. And yet, at least some of them are true. The persistence of civil war at Rome seems to represent both an endless cycle of conflict within an ostensibly unified society and the continuing possibility of creating unity for a divided populace out of conflict. We are confident that new insights can emerge from a thematic approach to looking at the various ways in which Roman civil wars were perceived, experienced, and represented by Romans and others across a variety of media and historical periods.

Cynthia Damon, Amherst College
Andreola Rossi, Amherst College
Brian Breed, University of Massachusetts Amherst


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