Mortal Republic, Moral Disaster

A review of Edward Watts’ Mortal Republic:

Edward Watts’ new book Mortal Republic is situated in a well-trodden path of Roman political decline narratives which gained some popularity in the Anglophone world in the 18th century with Gibbon, but reflect an appealing narrative mode documented far earlier in the speeches of Nestor. In order to keep the volume comparatively slim and accessible (while also conveniently covering a period of Roman political and social history beginning at a point where the ancient sources are more plentiful and reliable), Watts pulls us in medias res to the early 3rd century Republic on the eve of war with Pyrrhus. Over the course of 282 pages, he traces the rise of Rome’s Mediterranean empire along with its corresponding political fragmentation culminating in a series of civil wars and ultimately a form of mild but unpalatable autocracy under Augustus at the end of the 1st century. Watts’ narrative moves along at a fast pace, but by providing only the essential details, he artfully manages the books pace in such a way that it feels lively and engaging throughout (i.e. without being bogged down by minute scholarly discussions of Roman legal practice) while also avoiding that most dangerous pitfall for any Roman history book designed for the general reader, the introduction of too many apparently identical names. As such, it is an excellent entry point for anyone who knows little about the history of the period but would like a crash course presented as a cracking thriller.

Yet, for all of that, Watts appears to have relied so heavily on the ancient sources that he imbibed their prejudice wholesale. In the book’s second chapter, Watts recounts a speech delivered by Appius Claudius Caecus [the Blind], in which he shamed the Roman senate out of accepting a peace settlement with their antagonist Pyrrhus by telling them that he wished he had lost his hearing in addition to his sight. One may be tempted to suggest that Appius Claudius represented a type of hard-headed intransigence which could prove destructive to the state when espoused by a war hawk, but we are instead encouraged to read his speech as a demonstration of his patriotic zeal and heroic virtue. Paired with this noble exemplum is that of Gaius Fabricius Luscinus, who refused bribes from Pyrrhus on the basis that, though his exalted reputation in Rome did not make him rich, it granted him access to the power, prestige, and civic glory which were the real objects of any Roman’s ambition.

There would be nothing wrong per se in using the decline of Roman civic and personal virtue as an organizational principle by which the Romans’ own views of their history were shaped, but when presented in an apparently objective account for the non-specialist, it reflects either naivete or recklessness. The idea that there was something singularly distinct about the Roman character of the 3rd century has an ancient pedigree, and in this way, Watts’ history reads no different than would some of the moralizing historians of antiquity. Enough is made of these exempla throughout the book to make the patriotic Roman heart swell with nostalgia. Of course, we are not immune to this in the mythologizing of our own history. One need look no farther than TV pundits who lament the decline of discourse and civility from the standards of early America to see this in action. The newspaper wars of the early republic were just as tawdry as modern social media battles between politicians, but the sanctifying effect of time and the august impression which we associate with now archaic diction are enough to convince us that civic virtue was much greater then.

The entire political program of the book can be gleaned on page 86, where Watts writes that “Tiberius now pushed the Roman political system in a new and troubling direction. He was advocating for a sort of mediated direct democracy in which the old institutional balances between the Senate and the concilium plebis would be stripped away.” How much does that one adjective troubling reveal! Presumably, readers will draw the connection between the troubling direction of Roman politics under Tiberius Gracchus with the troubling direction of politics under Donald Trump. Indeed, I suspect that this is what led Yascha Mounk in a recent New York Times review of the book to make the comparison. But there is no meaningful parallel to be drawn here between the popular and democratizing attempts at reform under Tiberius Gracchus and the wildly-corrupt personal enrichment scheme undertaken by Trump. Gracchus had a political program, worked hard to implement it, and lost his life as a result. Trump enjoys watching TV, posing for photo ops, and reveling in the adulation of his rabid cult.

While it is true that Gracchus’ heavy-handed tactics helped to destabilize the political situation in Rome, it would be naïve to suppose that he himself set the state on a perilous path: the entire episode reflects an already unstable and untenable social situation which was simply brought to historical consciousness by the political fight which it occasioned. If Gracchus were subverting “the old institutional balances”, it is because these balances had become stagnant and wholly unresponsive to the popular will. Tiberius Gracchus occupied the office of tribune, which was (importantly) not among the original political positions at the founding of the Republic, but was rather created in response to earlier revolts by the plebeians against their lack of political power and representation. Those who decry actions in any republic on the sole basis that they are unprecedented seem to miss a central point in republican history: at some point, the republic’s very existence was unprecedented, and many of the apparent norms within it were at some point innovations which were meant to respond meaningfully to the popular will or some political crisis. Rome’s republic was born from the violent expulsion of its kings, while America’s was born in a bloody war to escape a monarch. In both cases, much of the legal framework was designed around a paranoid fear of the return of monarchy. The Roman aristocratic political elite used the fear that Tiberius could make himself king as a pretext for subverting the popular will; that is, they advertised the restriction on popular sovereignty as the only way to protect popular liberty.

Watts focuses heavily on this episode, and laments the “institutional damage” which Tiberious wrought. In so doing, he seems to blame Tiberius Gracchus for the eventual decline of the Republic into autocracy. Much of what Watts appears to favor instead is a kind of bland conservatism focused on consensus politics and the political mainstream. For example:

“The deliberative and consensus-based political culture of the Roman Republic was designed to prevent revolutions, not manage them.” [p.69]

“Marius decided to put his own personal ambition ahead of his fidelity to the Republic’s norms.” [p. 106]

“A deligitimized establishment helped Marius in the short run, but it seriously damaged the Republic. [p. 117]

“This showed that the politics of consensus was dying.” [p. 118]

All of this may sound perfectly innocuous and palatable to readers in a country which is beset by political chaos and would sincerely appreciate a return to bland business-as-usual. Yet, this belies the fact that in America, people have been unhappy with institutional consensus politics for years, and voter apathy is supported chief of all by the impression that we live in a one-party state managed by a political class which defines itself against the common people while pandering to them. “Consensus politics” in Rome was no different. This was not the consensus of various political ideologies striving to represent the popular will and public interest. Rather, it was the consensus of a small group of wealthy and powerful aristocrats who conceived of a political system which would allow each of them to attain what he thought was a due share of honor, glory, and (notwithstanding the claims of Gaius Fabricius) increased wealth. The only consensus from common people was largely extorted by alternately fostering political apathy or bribing them into comfortable temporary submission. Then as now, “consensus politics” is really just code for the consolidation of a one-party political elite which aims to manage and con the rest of the population. Watts draws dishonestly on what he portrays as the Trumpian traits in figures like Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Marius to suggest that their appeals to the common people were just as cynical and hollow as Trump’s. In so doing, he portrays their populist reforms as dangerous political innovations which upset a well-governed system.

To make the point clearer throughout the book, Watts frequently recurs to the theme of subverted norms: “Like Tiberius Gracchus a generation before, Marius decided to put his own personal ambition ahead of his fidelity to the Republic’s norms.” [p. 106] No other popular work of Roman Republican history employs this word so frequently or so pointedly – it is a clear importation from our contemporary political discourse. Donald Trump is not mentioned in this book, but it is clear enough that this recursion to the theme of norms is meant frame this book as a reflection upon our current political disaster in America. But here it serves to note that Donald Trump is not problematic simply because he has subverted norms. A cursory review of the campaign sloganeering of the past two decades will remind readers that practically every politician now campaigns upon the promise of fundamentally changing a political system which is broken and largely unresponsive to popular will. Indeed, much of the disappointment directed toward Barack Obama stemmed from what felt to many like an overly fastidious adherence to political norms and a concomitant retraction of the promise of “change”. No, people are disturbed by Trump’s subversion of norms because he is an imbecile who has in a singular way combined fatuity with malevolence. By way of contrast, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has challenged norms (if that word still has any meaning anymore) as an incoming member of congress by tweeting about the lobbyist-directed early corruption campaigns to which congressional neophytes are exposed. In this latter case, skirting a “norm” has fostered public understanding of a corrupt but traditionally impenetrable system and in so doing helped to re-democratize some small element of politics.

Once he has passed the period of the civil war between Marius and Sulla, much of the apparent parallel-drawing is dropped, and Watts presents a fairly straightforward narrative of the first century civil wars which culminate in Augustus’ control of the empire. This makes it all the more apparent that Watts has singled out Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Marius as the real authors of the decline of the Republic’s institutions: we get the sense that Sulla, Catiline, and both sets of triumvirs were natural products of this broken system. Yet Watts returns to moralizing form on the last page, where he writes:

“Each of these men’s sefish, individualized pursuits of glory ensured that Romans quickly returned to a form of elite political competition in which no limits were placed on the tools one would use to vanquish his opponents. […] Rome’s republic, then, died because it was allowed to. Its death was not inevitable. It could have been avoided.”

This sounds unconvincing, given that the models of antique republican virtue cited at the beginning of the book were examples of spectacularly irrational hard-headedness and the unflagging pursuit of personal glory among a closed system of political elites. Only the pure determinist holds that such crises are strictly inevitable, but any thorough study of Rome’s political and cultural history would suggest that the decline of republican institutions was inevitable in the sense that it was the logical conclusion to the Romans’ unslakable thirst for public glory. Any of those who cried foul about the death of the republic at the time were not concerned with a real loss of freedom for Romans more generally. A figure like Cato was concerned primarily with the way in which the autocracy of a Caesar would limit his own access to power and prestige. Any of the actors with sufficient power to stop or alter this decline only found himself in such a position because he was actively seeking to be number one himself. The decline was not strictly inevitable, but it was at any rate highly probable.

Beyond the frustratingly centrist/elitist political tone of the book, there are some rather prominent typographical whoppers, including Mare Anthony on page 220 and the use of the singular equite (instead of eques) on page 98, which is a wholly unpardonable lapse. If one can ignore the rather facile political lessons drawn by the book, it is a fun and easy read, and at least well worth recommending to those who would like a fast-paced and simple introduction to the Late Republic.

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Now is the time

ὡς ἐνταῦθ᾽ †ἐμέν
ἵν᾽ οὐκέτ᾽ ὀκνεῖν καιρός, ἀλλ᾽ ἔργων ἀκμή. (Sophocles, Electra 21-22)

We’re at the point
where it’s no longer the time to shrink back, but the moment for action.

Thus the Paidagogus, the nameless “Tutor” in Sophocles’s play, ends his introductory address to Orestes (and to us, the audience) in the prologue to Electra. It sets the tone for the play. Soon after we hear Orestes—the ever willing student out to impress—repeat back his tutor’s language, as he brings his own opening declaration to an end with the words: “The two of us will go; for it is the time, which is for men the greatest leader of every action” (νὼ δ᾽ ἔξιμεν· καιρὸς γάρ, ὅσπερ ἀνδράσιν / μέγιστος ἔργου παντός ἐστ᾽ ἐπιστάτης, 75-76).

And shortly after this, when Orestes is yet moved to shrink back as he hears the offstage cries of his sister, the Paidagogus urges him on, ventriloquizing Aeschylus’s Pylades in his injunction to obey Apollo’s commands: for Orestes there are libations to be poured to his father, victory and power to be won. (80-85). No communal libation here, as in Aeschylus’s Choephoroi; here Electra and the chorus enter, only after Orestes and his support team have already departed. These men are doers. The women follow in their wake.


I watched a performance of Sophocles’s tragedy this summer in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki (all photographs are taken from the production stills). It was the second time that I had seen the play, after the 2001 Cambridge Greek play (co-starring a pre-Loki Tom Hiddleston) which was memorable for creating a stage like a petri dish, as if the actors were under a microscope, their actions and arguments open for dissection. Aristotle famously relegates spectacle, or opsis (ὄψις), to the least important of the six component parts of a tragedy (after plot, character, diction, thought and song: Poetics 1450a9-10). “Spectacle”, he writes, “while highly seductive, is the least technical [of the parts] and the one that is least to do with poetry” (ἡ δὲ ὄψις ψυχαγωγικὸν μέν, ἀτεχνότατον δὲ καὶ ἥκιστα οἰκεῖον τῆς ποιητικῆς, 1450b18-20).

Aristotle’s terms of reference here (his emphasis on poetry) must play a role in the downgrading of spectacle, as too must his concern to recoup tragedy from Plato’s criticism of the art form as leading aside the soul (cf. ψυχαγωγικὸν). And spectacle, arguably, still continues to attract less comment, even though reception studies and the use of performance theory (as in Rush Rehm’s Play of Space) have gone some way to refocusing attention on to the play in (as) action.

It was the spectacle of the Greek national theatre company’s Electra (under the direction of Thanos Papakonstantinos) that took my breath away. On the surface it appeared quite a traditional adaptation: it wasn’t located in a contemporary setting; the costumes were simple, bordering on the stylised; it used music throughout; the chorus sung *and* danced; the text wasn’t excised or adapted in any way (other than it being a modern Greek translation). But it was like no other adaptation of Greek tragedy that I had seen. The director’s vision of the tragedy drew on elements that are only ever hinted at in the text, and showed to me, a textual scholar, the life and power of a play beyond the text. Let me give two examples that go back to that opening scene I discussed above.

Papakonstantinos’s play began before the first lines of Sophocles’s script were even delivered. Out came the musicians, the chorus, and two actors (Orestes and Pylades), who proceeded to parade sombrely around the stage to a funereal drumbeat, led by the Paidagogus, who all the time very slowly, and very deliberately, turned his head this way and that to glare at the audience seated in the theatre, challenging us to hold his gaze (or to look away). We immediately fell under the thrall of this imposing figure, as Orestes does in Sophocles’s play. As for Orestes: when the musicians and chorus had taken up their positions, Pylades (notably mute again after his brief, but momentous, pronouncement of Apollo’s command in Aeschylus’s Choephoroi) makes a performance of binding the hero and blindfolding him. All this before the play (as in Sophocles’s text of the play) had actually begun!


Even after this point, the director’s “extra-textual” imagination continued to frame our response to the events on stage: for, rather than disappearing from view as in Sophocles’s play (when the actor would have had to play another role) Orestes, still blindfolded and bound, is led back around the stage by Pylades to that same funereal beat, while the action unfolds around them. It was only when meeting his sister, some two thirds of the way through the play that his bonds and blindfold are removed, as if offering a very concrete instantiation of his psychology: he has been trained (blinded and bound) to kill his mother; these bonds fall from him as meeting his sister reveals repressed ties of affection for her.

But this is only a fleeting glimpse of his humanity, as the Paidagogus suddenly reappears to berate the two “stupid unthinking children” (ὦ πλεῖστα μῶροι καὶ φρενῶν τητώμενοι, 1326), for talking a lot (τῶν μακρῶν λόγων, 1335) when “it is the moment to be delivered from these matters” (ἀπηλλάχθαι δ᾽ ἀκμή, 1338). As Electra desperately tries to engage in dialogue also with him, the Paidagogus firmly slaps her down: “That’s enough, I think” (ἀρκεῖν δοκεῖ μοι, 1364). In our performance, his reappearance at the top of the stage encapsulated once again his dominance over, and orchestration of, the proceedings.

As you’ll see from the photographs, the stage was stark in its simplicity, an effect that was further amplified by the simple, almost abstract costuming of all the actors. Not only did this help focus attention on the gestures, movement and interactions of the actors; it also helped to defamiliarise the action and detach it from any particular setting, whether classical (as when actors wear chitons) or modern. This is something, I think, that Greek tragedy generally manages to do: that is, to speak to audiences not bound by a particular place or time. But one costume did possibly have a contemporary resonance: the clothing of the chorus seemed to me, at least, to be a pristine white version of the clothing worn by the handmaids in the renowned TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

The chorus were the other significant reason for the impact of this drama. Controlled and in control, this was a chorus of and for our time, gaining power through their collective action. Unlike every other chorus I’ve ever seen, this chorus sung and chanted in metre throughout in unison. They spoke, as it were, with one voice, though that voice sometimes seemed to be stretched to the absolute limit, to the point of almost fracturing, using the technique of close dissonant harmonies familiar from Balkan singing. They also moved as one, like polished mannequins, often with minimal gesture of forefinger touching the thumb, as if a Greek orthodox Christ were blessing his congregation. Then, as the play hurtles towards its terrifying climax (the matricide; the forever deferred murder of Aegisthus), they transform, as Electra’s hatred and bitterness finally comes to affect and infect them. A *spoiler alert* #metoo movement with bite.


I had always read the chorus in the final scenes of the play as providing the only lingering vestige of empathy in an increasingly desperate and hateful (hate-filled) world. As Orestes does his thing (murdering his mother) offstage, and Electra comments on, and incites, the violence onstage in shockingly impersonal terms (“someone shouts within… someone screams”, 1406, 1409: the someone in question being her mother), it’s the chorus who remind us of what’s at stake: “I heard a cry that shouldn’t have been heard, enough to make me shiver” (1407); “o city, o wretched family” (1414). They sum up this fractured replaying of Aeschylus’s trilogy (Sophocles’s Clytemnestra “quotes” Aeschylus’s Agamemnon as she is struck, and struck again: ὤμοι πέπληγμαι / ὤμοι μάλʼ αὖθις, 1415-1417; cf. Aesch. Ag. 1343-45), by recalling the curses of those previously murdered (1419-21):

τελοῦσʼ ἀραί· ζῶσιν οἱ γᾶς ὑπαὶ κείμενοι.
παλίρρυτον γὰρ αἷμʼ ὑπεξαιροῦσι τῶν
κτανόντων οἱ πάλαι θανόντες.
The curses are working out. They who lie under the earth live.
For those who died long ago are draining the blood
—blood that flows in recompense—from their killers.

In a manner that again strongly evokes Aeschylus, this time the sarcastic reply by the Choephoroi Orestes’s to his mother: “I think that the dead are killing the living” (Aesch. Cho. 886), the chorus’s mention of curses reworks the language of generational violence and familial revenge that dominates that trilogy. Those earlier plays culminate in the instantiation of the curses in the form of the Furies/Erinyes of the Eumenides. One of the insoluble problems of Sophocles’s Electra is, precisely, the absence of the Erinyes from the drama. Although they are mentioned on four occasions (112, 276, 491, 1080) and alluded to once (1388), the fact that they don’t seem to appear after Clytemnestra’s murder has led many critics to conclude that Sophocles sanctions the matricide (as if it’s ever ok to kill your mother).

The masterstroke of Thanos Papakonstantinos in his direction of the play was, again, to make real what is only ever hinted at in the text. Thus, as the chorus attempt to make sense of the matricide and Electra’s conducting of the events offstage, they transform into the very curses to which they refer. At this very moment in the performance, they discarded their pristine white cloaks and began to writhe on the ground before Electra, sullying their inner garments on a stage that was slowly filling up with a viscous oily liquid—a black blood slick. They became in appearance like Electra herself, dreadful and deranged. They became, in essence, the Erinyes.


This transformation of the chorus into Sophocles’s missing Furies—as if the Eumenides‘s chorus had been invoked and brought back on stage by the constant incantations of Aeschylus’s earlier plays—was both utterly mesmeric and breathtakingly terrifying. It reminded me more of a horror film than a conventional tragedy, and it struck me that horror, too, must have played a role in these plays’ impact. And it wasn’t only a gut reaction; the horror-inflected climax got me thinking a lot harder about what *was* in the text. And, reading the play again at home, I noticed how the chorus from this point on assume a far more active role, first warning the siblings of Aegisthus’s arrival (1429), and then offering advice how to get him to drop his guard (1439-41). Even in their customarily generic last words, the chorus evoke the urgency (τῇ νῦν ὁρμῇ τελεωθέν, 1510) on which the Paidagogus has constantly insisted.

But—and this is important—their cue came not from him but from Electra. It’s when the men go off stage to do their thing and leave the women shut out onstage that they—the women—take control. It’s Electra’s commentary on the matricide that is the focus, not the event itself. It’s the sister, so long left home alone and shut off from the plot as soon as the play begins, who, forced to testify about her experience, her suffering before a (hostile?) hearing of male judges (us, the audience), dominates the play. And she dominates its ending with a group of women whose furious shedding of their demure costumes presages their transformation into curses, as if she, and not the Paidagogus, were now the orchestrator of the action.

Beware all transgressors. #wetoo are coming for you.


The Marble Faun: A Review

The Marble Faun is not one of the masterworks of American literature. Nearly any high school student in America could tell you one or two details about the plot of The Scarlet Letter, and likely add some comments on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritanism. If they are advanced students, they may be aware of his authorship of The Blithesdale Romance. Yet, the knowledge of the American teen here is faithfully predictive of the knowledge of the American adult, and it can be safely conjectured that few inside this country – and even fewer outside of it – have read this bizarre combination of fantasy, languid aestheticism, and heavy-handed sermonizing allegory.

My own Meridian Classic edition quotes Henry James’ description of the novel: “…the murder committed by Donatello under Miriam’s eyes and the ecstatic wandering, afterward, through the ‘blood-stained streets of Rome.’” Reading this note, one may be primed to think that The Marble Faun is a dark and seedy tale of slaughter – a macabre murder story set in an exotic locale. Yet, most of the book is actually a series of dreamy and unfocused meditations on Rome, the loss of innocence, and in particular the relation of art to nature. There are lengthy descriptions of both painted and plastic arts, as in the protracted notice of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline:

“The party ascended the winding way that leads from the Forum to the Piazza of the Campidoglio on the summit of the Capitoline Hill. They stood awhile to contemplate the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The moonlight glistened upon traces of the gilding which had once covered both rider and steed; these were almost gone, but the aspect of dignity was still perfect, clothing the figure as it were with an imperial robe of light. It is the most majestic representation of the kingly character that ever the world has seen. A sight of the old heathen emperor is enough to create an evanescent sentiment of loyalty even in a democratic bosom, so august does he look, so fit to rule, so worthy of man’s profoundest homage and obedience, so inevitably attractive of his love. He stretches forth his hand with an air of grand beneficence and unlimited authority, as if uttering a decree from which no appeal was permissible, but in which the obedient subject would find his highest interests consulted; a command that was in itself a benediction.”

The book is teeming with these slow moments of aesthetic reflection, which do little to advance the plot – what little there is of that. Much like Moby Dick (whose author, Herman Melville, was Hawthorne’s neighbor – indeed, Moby Dick was dedicated to Hawthorne), The Marble Faun is loosely structured around what might generously be called a sort of “plot”, which serves as little more than a bare skeleton upon which to mount a vast superstructure of winding and ponderous reflection. The main events of Moby Dick’s plot can be summarized in a few short sentences, and so too can those of The Marble Faun:

There are four central characters: Kenyon, a sensitive sculptor; Hilda, a skilled copyist who is simultaneously a paragon of beauty and Christian virtue; Miriam, a painter with a mysterious past and a threatening stalker; and Donatello, the count of Monte Beni, portrayed rather unbelievably as a figure of effusive, life-loving, Arcadian simplicity. At the beginning of the tale, the characters notice Donatello’s remarkable similarity to a marble faun, a scupture by the Greek artist Praxiteles.

The resemblance between the marble Faun and their living companion had made a deep, half-serious, half-mirthful impression on these three friends, and had taken them into a certain airy region, lifting up, as it is so pleasant to feel them lifted, their heavy earthly feet from the actual soil of life. The world had been set afloat, as it were, for a moment, and relieved them, for just so long, of all customary responsibility for what they thought and said.

This is the springboard for the characters to speculate upon Donatello’s ancient heritage (could the family of Monte Beni have among their ancestors those sylvan creatures?) and heavy-handedly draw for us a clear interpretation of Donatello as Rousseau’s noble savage, wholly uncorrupted by the civilization of that decadent sewer, Rome.

Early in the narrative, Donatello becomes passionately attached to Miriam, who is pursued mercilessly by a hooded stalker. In the middle of the book, Donatello murders the stalker by pushing him from a precipice in an effort to protect Miriam. The rest of the tale is then taken up with Donatello’s loss of innocence, Hilda’s attempt to deal with her guilty conscience after witnessing Donatello and Miriam’s crime, and Kenyon’s pursuit of Hilda, whom he loves as an instantiation of perfect beauty and grace within this world. The second half of the book is much more unevenly-drawn than the first, and there is little sense that any important events occur after the murder, with the sole exception of Hilda’s (a Puritan’s) confession in the Vatican. Otherwise, there is curiously little narrative impetus or even resolution, with the exception of a small note indicating that Kenyon and Hilda were eventually, predictably, married.

The first half of the book is suffused by a rich and sensuous paganism, which is a sheer delight to read; yet, in the second half of the book, Hawthorne begins to veer off not only into Puritan moralizing, but also a sense of hatred for Rome, the civilization it represents, and Catholicism. Consider, for example,

It seemed to Kenyon, looking through the darkly colored medium of his fears, that all modes of crime were crowded into the close intricacy of Roman streets, and that there was no redeeming element, such as exists in other dissolute and wicked cities.


You may see throngs of men and boys who thrust themselves beneath the horses’ hoofs to gather up bouquets that were aimed amiss from balcony and carriage; these they sell again, and yet once more, and ten times over, defiled as they all are with the wicked filth of Rome.

Indeed, the word wicked (or wickedness), occurs four times more frequently in the second half of the book than it did in the first. In a sense, Hawthorne’s narratorial attitude changes in the second half of the book to mirror the change which happens to Donatello after the murder – that is, it mirrors Donatello’s loss of innocence, his inability to enjoy what once were simply rich scenes of delight. Donatello himself retreats to his tower in Monte Beni, as if to further emphasize the et in Arcadia ego theme so closely associated with him.

I mentioned that the book contained four primary characters, but this is in a sense misleading, given that Rome itself is, in a sense, the main character of the book. While the narrative is indeed structured around the education which the four principal actors receive as the direct result of aesthetic experience and the conscious guilt of murder, Hawthorne calls our attention constantly to the ruin of Rome, and the way in which the city itself has not only lost its innocence, but accumulated a resevoir of vice and miasmic guilt through the ages:

The spell being broken, it was now only that old tract of pleasure ground, close by the people’s gate of Rome,—a tract where the crimes and calamities of ages, the many battles, blood recklessly poured out, and deaths of myriads, have corrupted all the soil, creating an influence that makes the air deadly to human lungs.

This is only one of many larger discursive sallies into urban reflection which Hawthorne allows himself. Henry James wrote favorably of The Marble Faun, and common critical consensus holds that he perfected the ‘international theme’ which is seen in seminal form here. Of course, James himself not only developed the theme to its full extent, he also managed to imbue his plots and characters with a nuanced depth of which Hawthorne seemed largely incapable; yet, it is difficult to fault a writer for employing less minutely discriminating subtlety than James. For all of that, many passages in The Marble Faun read much like some of James’ own travel writing compiled in his Italian Hours. Indeed, this goes some way to suggesting the ideal audience for the book: though most modern readers will likely find the Puritanical allegorizing somewhat blunt and uninspiring, anyone who is looking to read work of fiction which runs in the vein of a fantasized aesthetic or appreciative essay on the history of Rome or the place of art in human society will likely find much in the book to recommend it. I must recur to the comparison with Moby Dick: just as one should not read Melville’s masterpiece for the thin plot about Ahab’s pursuit of the whale, so too one ought not to read The Marble Faun with an eye to anything but its reflective, essayistic qualities.

Only a sculptor of the finest imagination, the most delicate taste, the sweetest feeling, and the rarest artistic skill—in a word, a sculptor and a poet too—could have first dreamed of a Faun in this guise, and then have succeeded in imprisoning the sportive and frisky thing in marble. Neither man nor animal, and yet no monster, but a being in whom both races meet on friendly ground. The idea grows coarse as we handle it, and hardens in our grasp. But, if the spectator broods long over the statue, he will be conscious of its spell; all the pleasantness of sylvan life, all the genial and happy characteristics of creatures that dwell in woods and fields, will seem to be mingled and kneaded into one substance, along with the kindred qualities in the human soul. Trees, grass, flowers, woodland streamlets, cattle, deer, and unsophisticated man. The essence of all these was compressed long ago, and still exists, within that discolored marble surface of the Faun of Praxiteles.

And, after all, the idea may have been no dream, but rather a poet’s reminiscence of a period when man’s affinity with nature was more strict, and his fellowship with every living thing more intimate and dear.

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