Jonathan Sachs. Romantic Antiquity. Rome in the British Imagination, 1789-1832. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0195376128. Price: US$85[Notice]

  • Suzanne L. Barnett

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  • Suzanne L. Barnett
    University of Pennsylvania

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 …

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