The Roman legacy has loomed large in both Romantic literature and Romantic scholarship, and Italy’s status as the “paradise of exiles” to the late Romantic poets has long been recognized as both a Romantic fascination with classical history and a reaction to contemporary Italy’s post-Napoleonic transformation into a modern nation-state. However, an examination of how the literature and culture of ancient Rome, in particular, has both influenced Romantic literature and had its reception shaped by its Romantic readers has long been missing. In Romantic Antiquity, Jonathan Sachs offers a nuanced and comprehensive reading of the ways in which Rome, and more specifically republican Rome, influenced the novelists, poets, and playwrights of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sachs’s focus on the transition from monarchy to republic to empire (and on the subtleties of Romantic writers’ uses of literature from each of these periods) teases out the political implications of ancient Rome for Britain after the French Revolution and during the ascendancy of Britain’s own empire. Sachs argues for a Romantic Rome (and, in turn, a Rome-antic Britain) that is not simply an extension of Augustan neoclassicism but rather a re-imagination of the Roman cultural legacy and the very idea of history itself. Romantic classicism, according to Sachs, has too often become synonymous with Romantic Hellenism, so that the legacy of Greece has overshadowed that of Rome. Sachs reasserts the importance of Rome to the English Romantics’ idea of history, cultural inheritance, and political transformation, suggesting the ways in which ancient Rome shaped Romantic Britain’s understanding of historicity and the rise of empire, and how Romantic Britain, in turn, has shaped our modern reception of the Roman legacy.
Sachs’s approach is wide-ranging, with a comprehensive introduction and three distinct sections, each devoted to a literary genre: first political prose and Jacobin novels, then late Romantic poetry, and finally Romantic drama. The title’s self-imposed chronology of 1789-1832 at first feels arbitrary, a concession to the traditional historical bookends to the Romantic period, but Sachs quickly clarifies that those dates have both political and literary significance for his subject. 1789 is, of course, the revolutionary year, but it was also the first year of John Philip Kemble’s staging of Coriolanus, which, as Sachs argues in an excellent chapter, becomes a key representation of ancient Rome for modern England. And 1832 was not only the year of the First Reform Bill but also of the first of Thomas de Quincey’s essays on the Caesars in Blackwood’s, which chronicle the fall of the Roman empire and the creation of the empire under the Caesars. It is this correspondence between the literary and the political that is Sachs’s focus: while he acknowledges that much work could still be done on the use of ancient Rome in Romantic oratory, journalism, caricature, visual culture, and satire, Sachs limits his scope to “literary events” and the political climates that both shape and are shaped by them.
The section devoted to the influence of Rome on the prose of the period offers compelling insights into the ways in which Roman republicanism is used by Romantic political writers (particularly Burke, Paine, and Godwin), the stakes of historical precedent, and how Jacobin novelists play with the ideas of classical reading and exemplary figures used as models to be emulated or avoided. The idea that the roman begins to displace the Roman in this period as a means of promoting virtue and condemning vice is delineated in readings of novels by Mary Hays, William Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, and Elizabeth Inchbald. Sachs argues that Jacobin novels’ treatments of “correct” reading practices blur the line between history and fiction and “usurp the moral and pedagogical functions of a Plutarchian historical mode to redeploy its exemplarity for progressive causes” (111). As the English classics continue to replace the ancient classics in the literary Pantheon, and politicized writers begin to rethink the legacy of ancient Rome (especially in light of its exploitation by the revolutionary French), the Jacobin novels’ “republican poetics” suggest new models of historical exemplarity that challenge the traditional uses of Roman authors and heroes.
The following section on poetry is limited primarily to Byron and Shelley, the two Romantic poets who, coincidentally or not, also spent the most time living in Italy. (This narrows Sachs’s focus on poetry perhaps too tightly onto the usual suspects, and I would have loved to see what he might have done with treatments of Rome by other poets; Coleridge and Wordsworth, for example, also pondered the Roman republic throughout their careers.) The discussion of Byron’s participation in the contemporary debate on the relative merits of the ancient classics and the English classics, including his role in the Pope Controversy, suggests that we read Byron’s evocations of Rome as implied critiques of literary decline and Romantic taste. Sachs’s argument that Shelley’s use of Rome is too often eclipsed by a focus on his Hellenism becomes at times a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Sachs must at times recap established critical work on the centrality of Greece to Shelley’s philosophical development in order to differentiate it from his budding interest in Rome. And Shelley’s “internally differentiated classicism” (a phrase which Sachs uses to mark the conscious segregation of Greece and Rome and of the disparate eras in Roman history) came to him rather late, meaning that Sachs must focus his attention on late-period Shelley exclusively. However, the readings of Philosophical View of Reform, “Ode to Liberty” (which Sachs contrasts with James Thomson’s 1729 Liberty), Defence of Poetry, and, oddly enough, Hellas are at times compelling, and this reader, at least, was inspired to reconsider the role of the Roman republic in late-period Shelley.
The final section devoted to the representation of ancient Rome in Romantic drama was the freshest, most revelatory of the text’s three foci and is a significant contribution to scholarship on Romantic drama. The Romantic theater was, of course, a public and a political space, its audience more representative of the nation that even Parliament before the Reform Bill, and, unlike classical scholarship, accessible to all, regardless of education. Theatrical productions based on Roman classics (or Roman classics by way of vernacular writers like Shakespeare) were also a means of skirting censors wary of political content (much like how John Thelwall, banned from discussing contemporary politics after the Two Acts of 1795, instead gives a series of public lectures about Roman history). The meaning of the Roman legacy and the idea of historical progress was a crucial battleground between English radicals and conservatives after the French Revolution, and Sachs beautifully illustrates how the public stage was a key locus for that battle. This section touches on aspects of the visual arts, music, architecture, prints, popular culture, journalism, and even science in ways that tie together the centrality of the stage to Romantic culture and politics. Sachs’s argument for the topicality of Kemble’s long-running Coriolanus – with its representations of conflict between patricians and populace, grain shortages, and the relationship between the ruling and ruled classes – illustrates the ways in which the theater embodied Roman history for the masses. The comparison of Kemble’s conservative and sensational staging with Edmund Kean’s more modest and politically ambiguous retelling in 1820 highlights both the ways in which Shakespeare – a “classical” English writer taking on a classical Roman story -- is interpreted by Romantic actors and playwrights and how Roman history becomes a medium for contemporary debates over democracy, leadership, and the power of the populace.
Sachs describes his own project as “a study […] of the way one historical period uses another historical period and of the meaning of that use” (36). The crux of this description is the idea that this era signals a move from historical exemplarity, in which events and artifacts of human history are seen as timeless lessons with universal significance, to a mode of historicism in which human events and actions are seen as dependent on time, place, and cultural context. This reworking of historicism challenges a logic of historical progress that suggests a natural evolution from Greece, to Rome, to the British Empire, a logic further muddled by the republican specter developing across the Channel in revolutionary France (which had its own novel ideas about the progress, such as it was, of history). Romantic Antiquity makes a compelling case for our continued reassessment of classicism in British literature and invites us to consider not only the role of Roman history but the very idea of history itself in Romantic literature and culture.
Suzanne L. Barnett recently completed her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation is entitled Romantic Paganism: Ecstasy and Excess in the Shelley Circle.