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Given the importance of Ancient Rome as one of the wellsprings of the West, we would do well to reclaim it from the clutches of Critical Theory.

Much of a group, culture, or nation’s ideological framework is often based on the seemingly simple concept of ‘us versus them’. Lutfiye Oktar notes that, ‘The relations between discourse and ideology [where] … ideological discourse is constructed socio-politically [functions] as a means to confirm group dominance’.1 In psychological terms, the effects are often realized as ethnocentric perceptions of out-group homogeneity.2 In essence, the out-group homogeneity effect is simply the tendency of the ‘in-group’ to perceive members of the ‘out-group’ as a homogeneous block, with few, if any, individual characteristics to differentiate one member from another. The ethnocentrism effect ‘Refers to the tendency to derogate out-groups and/or favor the in-group. When asked to attribute positive and negative attributes to target groups [or] to distribute resources among different people … individuals generally favor their in-group over the out-group’.3 This once well-understood phenomenon is coming under increasing attack by ideologues intent on razing natural human instinct to the ground in order to further their egalitarian agenda.

Though the critical theorist ostensibly seeks to highlight and interrogate the tensions of history and the complications arising from revisionist over-lap, this isn’t usually the case in modern application.

Any dominant (or would-be dominant) ideology seeks to make its precepts paramount within particular confines, such as national borders (and all must attempt to remove or settle any disturbances in their ideology); however the ‘ruling class’ as it stands at present has committed itself to a superficially universalist doctrine of equality and borderlessness – for select peoples only. As Nicola Terrenato argues, ‘Each perception of Rome, when it was created, helped people to make sense of the past, in a way that minimised internal contradictions, and thus ultimately contributed to preventing painful inconsistencies’.4 Nations and empires have always done this, but it is only in the past century or so that these narratives have been weaponized against their own people, in large part by hostile foreign interlopers, but not without significant internal collusion. It is this notion of constantly turning to the past and complicating the classic historical view that could be viewed as anticipating critical theory; it can be useful to explore certain voices outside the hegemony and investigate their attitudes and the wider implications of their actions, and it is also useful to consider how cognitive dissonance has a profound impact on human behaviour; but though the critical theorist ostensibly seeks to highlight and interrogate the tensions of history and the complications arising from revisionist over-lap, this isn’t usually the case in modern application. Rome is used here for its cultural and civilizational import, as well as for the increasingly evident parallels between the trajectory of the Roman Republic then Empire and that of our own.

Critical theory’s aforementioned interrogation generally starts with the canon and Western tradition (at least for the critical theorists, as they generally ban or ‘de-colonize’ these texts for the ‘benefit’ of their students), with Horace and Virgil helping to establish the Roman ethos, Juvenal, Catullus, and Ovid satirizing it, and Petrarch and a number of English Renaissance poets (Surrey, Donne, Marlowe, Sidney) as key later influences wrestling with its influence. Virgil’s Aeneas, for Nicole Fermon,

anticipates many of the traits of the new imperial man [in the Augustan era]. He abandons his wife and forgoes domestic pleasure and marital love in order to fulfil his ambition as a new man. … Virgil’s hero discards one by one the matriarchal forms and cultural modes of the earliest times of mother-right and constructs a modern, imperial, outward-looking, still patriarchal cultural ethos.5

The new preoccupation, for the Cultural Marxists and post-colonial feminists, became domination and subordination, both on the field of battle and in the household. Continues Fermon: ‘Sexuality became more puritanical, and a cult of male superiority based on misogyny rose to new heights’. The marriage relationship calcified into the master-slave dialectic.6 Through their eyes the imperial ethos became one of rigidity and conquest, the reverberations of which are still felt today. There’s obviously quite a bit of truth to this particular interpretation, but you can see the seeds of the reductive oppressor-oppressed paradigm at work here.

The tone of ‘Otherized’ rhetoric is used to similar effect in contemporary societies. Dmitrij Agroskin and Eva Jonas describe such ‘control motivation’ (‘operationalized as state need for structure’) as central to terror management theory – ‘people manage death anxiety by defending cultural in-groups’.7 Death anxiety in the Roman context would be the perceived threat of barbarian invasion and the attendant pillaging and destruction, as was seen when the Huns cut a swathe of destruction across the breadth of Europe at regular intervals, typically when the Empire’s tribute no longer met their satisfaction.8 In a contemporary context, this anxiety has a wide range of applications; central concerns may range from the American axis’ relations with the Middle East to the lasting effects of the break-down of the Soviet Union to the ‘migrant crisis’ gripping Europe (and issues of mass immigration in other parts of the West).

The semi-permeability of the late empire Roman border was a consistent source of anxiety for the Roman elite; inclusion within the cultural dialogue was subject to constant debate within certain circles, and once again, a millennia-old debate has found new life in the modern West.

The semi-permeability of the late empire Roman border was a consistent source of anxiety for the Roman elite; inclusion within the cultural dialogue was subject to constant debate within certain circles, and once again, a millennia-old debate has found new life in the modern West. The ceaseless revision of Romanness reflects a number of deep-seated anxieties housed in this necessarily broad concept that was at once an umbrella and a series of fine-tuned ‘bullet-points’ that could serve as an ‘in-group’ checklist. Death anxiety, security concerns, perceived effete attributes of patricians – each or all had the potential to drastically alter the carefully constructed hierarchy. According to Eric Adler:

Tacitus and Dio stress, for example, the disorderliness of the Britons – thus linking the Celts as a whole to a trait associated with femininity in the Greco-Roman world. All the same, it is clear that the Boudica speeches also use issues of gender to castigate the purported decadence of the Roman Empire.9

For Rome’s historians the use of speeches or dramatic monologues in historical accounts reveals certain prevalent attitudes, focusing not just on the imperial aspect, but with gender and criticisms of the patricians’ hedonism and effeminacy also playing a major role. We can point to a rich tradition of intensive self-critique amongst the Roman intelligentsia, inspiration for which dates at least to Sallust. As Adler puts it: ‘In the words of foreign enemies, as they were composed by Roman historians, the Romans seem chronically untrustworthy, treacherous, insatiably avaricious, lusty, and utterly lacking in self-restraint’.10 A number of modern critics might seek to investigate characterizations of the endemic hedonism and sumptuousness of society’s ‘elite’, and they’d not be wrong to do so. For Adler, ‘In many orations … one detects typical Greco-Roman prejudices regarding foreigners. Eastern kings often appear decadent and conniving, and Western leaders come across as rambunctious, undisciplined, and uncivilized’. That said, he acknowledges that ‘negative appraisals of Romans occur with great frequency’.11

This tradition of Roman self-critique opened up a number of avenues for exploration; indeed, not only Roman, but contemporary constructs of borders, boundaries, imperialism, and the ubiquitous Other. As Don Fowler suggests, ‘The incorporation of a character’s viewpoint adds that viewpoint to the text; regardless of the author’s intention, the reader retains the option of seeing matters from the character’s perspective’.12 The actual inclusion of enemy speeches in historical accounts, even though they are used for predominantly ideological purposes, gives voice to the Other and ‘problematizes’ didactic excoriations of the ‘barbarians’. Contemporary critics mine this frequently circumscribed tradition not simply as a means of providing opposition, but more broadly to complicate notions of what constitutes a historical account. They typically miss the fact that these critiques were usually aimed at the Roman elite in an effort to course-correct and improve the perceived endemic luxus. Instead, modern critical theorists have turned on our foundational texts in an effort to discredit and de-legitimize them, for a culture and civilization is in no small part defined by its art, music, and literature. To bring the bards of classical antiquity low is to bring all of Western civilization with them.

It is remarkable how flexible imperialist empires based on conquest have been in folding conquered peoples into their dominant ideologies, but nevertheless, there has always been a fear of the Other corrupting society and rotting it from the inside out. This is not a concern without significant merit, however. Consider the numerous forces of the Other buffeting the West from within and without today.

In Ovid’s Amores, time exists as both flight and pursuit. Ovid undermines the Platonic ladder, for the very idea of a ladder is rung upon rung from one point to another, in a rigid, fixed state. Without this, no ascension could be possible. Ovid is thus leveling, equalizing, in a way that is very threatening to authority; this leveling is also used in the sonnets that would come to dominate Renaissance English society, many penned even by a monarch such as Elizabeth. She appropriates these ideas of contained tension and subsumes them into the power structure. Tudor society was very much concerned with notions of control. Ovid remains vital in the sense that he tends to focus on the feminine, which is complicated by the idea of a female regent at the seat of masculine and patriarchal power in a Renaissance context. These tensions exist with other English sonneteers as well; in Sonnet One from Astrophil and Stella, Philip Sidney describes himself, a male courtier in Queen Elizabeth’s court, as pregnant with verse. We should not, however, view this leveling as the same as that which defines the Bolshevik spirit; it is a leveling in a sense, but it does not dispense with its aristocratic bearing. Thus these complications of hierarchy remain confined to the elite.

The onset of the Age of Exploration at the end of the Renaissance adds another wrinkle to this analysis, as European empires fanned across the globe, mapping and colonizing new lands, establishing trade routes, and formalizing vast administrations and bureaucracies to manage trade, territories, and the like. Prior to the expansion of England into an empire, however, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, began experimenting with form and formality in what could be viewed as a doubly subversive technique, whereby he viewed a break in ideology as a means of undermining a king and administration he was opposed to. On the other hand, for Jack Stillinger:

The work in which he used his ‘strange meter’, as the publisher called it, was a translation of part of Virgil’s Aeneid. … It is striking that his two great literary innovations, the English sonnet and blank verse, should emerge in the same period that saw radical upheavals in traditional religious and social life. It is possible that he was drawn to Virgil’s epic because it offered a model of continuity in the face of disaster. Aeneas cannot prevent the fall of Troy, but he goes on to establish a new world without abandoning his old values.13

The ideologies of the numerous fringe religious and political sects that fled England for the so-called New World should here be apparent, and work in tandem with certain interpretations of Surrey, but at the same time they are also loaded with the historical context of subsequent settlement and colonization. Though they left the Old World behind, they brought its values, discipline, and ultimately its civilization to shape their new environs indisputably for the better. Perhaps in some fashion the figure of Laura has been transformed into the New World in a kind of abstraction for readers who came after Surrey, but if this is indeed the case, this abstraction engages with a separate sphere, something other than that which brings about amorous desire and passion: ‘the soote season’ bears the mark of pastoralism and a keen interest in nature, at least as metaphor, but the idea of physical passion or lust is removed, and the only kinds of physical actions are references to either actions performed by the animals or a kind of fauna progeny, which does carry an undercurrent of procreation, but its intent is political. In this sense Surrey’s ‘soote season’ is a break with Renaissance ideology as well, for it is divorced from concrete references in the form of proper nouns, so to speak, as opposed to Petrarch’s.

Ronald Martinez perceives a distinct rationale for Surrey going to Petrarch as source material: ‘For the Tudor poets living under the tyranny of Henry VIII, the Petrarch-inspired sonnet offered a richly articulated space of private reflection that did not fail to register the pressure of court politics’.14 This practice remained intact during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. So while Surrey’s loose translation moved away from the love aspect as it pertains to Laura, it was in Petrarch’s lyric that he could see the harsh daily realities of his day in the text. As Martinez argues, Petrarch himself was already working in metamorphoses of translation in his day, so it should come as no surprise that this happened again both in form and content under the pen of Surrey. Surrey found certain relevance in Petrarch beyond the ‘blank signifier’ of Laura ‘where a politically resistant kind of writing and self-fashioning finds shelter’.15 To think of it in this sense, to view Surrey as oppressed under the heavy hand of Henry, is to revisit the idea of Renaissance court literature as a form birthed from both emerging and received ideas of nation and empire. Extending this thought process reveals the critical theorists’ engagement specifically with dominant ideologies as a means of critique, and use of applied critical methodologies such as New Historicism to articulate the oft-obscured and marginalized as a form of resistance. It’s not that critical theory is always off-base necessarily, but rather its corruption and use in tendentious fashion for Cultural Marxism, especially as regards foundational authors and poets of the Western canon, hews clearly partisan with the express purpose of de-legitimizing our defining works of literature.

Further, any kind of classist, nationalist, or imperialist agenda must be underpinned by a clear ideology, most often demonstrating the superiority of those that are privileged enough to be part of this cultural dialogue. On the outside is the shadowy Other, the ‘savage’ dark foe who is beneath and beyond the dominant ideology and therefore represents a threat to the stability of the ideas of the ruling class – or even more dire, the ruling class’ very existence. It is remarkable how flexible imperialist empires based on conquest have been in folding conquered peoples into their dominant ideologies, but nevertheless, there has always been a fear of that which is outside penetrating the borders of the empire, of the Other corrupting society and rotting it from the inside out. This is not a concern without significant merit, however. Consider the numerous forces of the Other buffeting the West from within and without today.

Another serious point of contention is the very notion of borders and boundaries, both real and perceived. The imperial status quo in fourth- and fifth-century Rome underwent a dramatic shift, as the borders of the empire became increasingly fluid and subject to constant barbarian incursions; as Peter Heather’s study of the Roman Empire suggests, the patricians were aware of the need to become more dexterous in incorporating settled barbarian peoples into the dominant ideology of the empire. Statistics show an astounding number of barbarians serving in the latter-day legions, and the degree to which the ailing emperors and their acting generals enlisted the help of outside barbarian tribes to settle their borders would have given an earlier version of the empire great unease, and not without justification, as Rome would come to find out. It is worth noting that proximity to the bordering barbarians along the empire’s frontier and the penetration into the empire, and consequent re-settlement, by invading hordes had a reciprocal influence on Rome and the tribe in question (be it Goths, Vandals, or Huns) for a period of time, until, of course, the empire simply ceased to be.16 This is the central concern confronting nationalist-minded individuals at the moment.


1 Lutfiye Oktar, ‘The Ideological Organization of Representational Processes in the Presentation of Us and Them’, Discourse Society, Vol. 12, No. 3 (May 2001), pp. 313–346.

2 Markus Brauer, ‘Intergroup Perception in the Social Context: The Effects of Social Status and Group Membership on Perceived Out-group Homogeneity and Ethnocentrism’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 37 (Academic Press/Elsevier, 2001).

3 Ibid.

4 Nicola Terrenato, ‘Ancestor Cults: the Perception of Ancient Rome in Italian Culture’, in R. Hingley Images of Rome, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 44 (Portsmouth, 2006), pp. 71–89, p. 73.

5 Nicole Fermon, Domesticating Passions: Rousseau, Woman, and the Nation (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), p. 81.

6 Ibid, p. 80.

7 Dmitrij Agroskin and Eva Jonas, ‘Controlling death by defending ingroups – Mediational insights into terror management and control restoration’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 49, Issue 6 (Elsevier, Nov. 2013).

8 Indeed, this, along with the negotiation of the return of some of Attila’s political enemies, was the very reason Theodosius sent Priscus’s envoy beyond the Danube.

9 Eric Adler, Valorizing the Barbarians: Enemy Speeches in Roman Historiography (Austin: University of Texas, 2011), p. 173.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. p. 174.

13 Jack Stillinger, Deidre Lynch, Stephen Greenblatt, and M. H. Abrams, The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. 607.

14 Ronald L Martinez, ‘Francis, Thou Art Translated: Petrarch Metamorphosed in English 1380-1595’, Humanist Studies and the Digital Age (2011), p. 80.

15 Ibid, p. 81.

16 Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

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