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Open Access Publications from the University of California

On the Way: a Poetics of Roman Transportation

  • Author(s): Hudson, Jared McCabe
  • Advisor(s): Oliensis, Ellen
  • et al.

The first chapter examines the role played by the litter (lectica) and sedan chair (sella) in Roman literature and culture. The portrait of the wealthy freedman, lounging in his deluxe octaphoros (litter carried by eight imported slaves), is one which appears repeatedly, taking shape in the late Republic and reaching a climax of frequency in the satires of Juvenal and the epigrams of Martial, in the late first century CE. While by this stage the conveyance undeniably functions as a satirical symbol, the origins and constructedness of its role as such have been surprisingly under-examined by modern scholars. In order to excavate the litter's developing identity, I first unravel Roman accounts of the vehicle's origins. The lectica was repeatedly framed by Roman authors such as Cicero as an exotic import from the near east (Bithynia, in particular), only available to Romans upon their exposure, through the process of imperial expansion, to eastern softness. However, such a projection involved carefully distinguishing this "decadent" litter from already existing, sanctioned litter use: thus the lectica also encompasses a category closer to our "stretcher." Indeed, the litter's status as a newfangled import is belied by coexisting narratives of republican-era patriarchs riding in the lectica, usually because of injury, old age, or disability. At the same time, there are numerous accounts of able-bodied Roman commanders who take the field in a lectica. That the notion of the litter as a stand-in for decadent luxury was still up for negotiation in the late Republic is demonstrated by Cicero, who could at one moment lambaste his juridical or political opponents for employing the litter, and at the next boast of his latest litter acquisition or invite his friends on a litter joy-ride at his villa. I argue that the litter's repeated configuration as an awkward boundary-crosser, constantly out of place whether in public or in private, contributes to the strengthening of dominant categories.

Chapter Two treats the more central image of the chariot (currus) in Roman literature and culture. The Roman chariot was a symbol of unique power and prestige in part because of built-in, inherited features: its role as the vehicle of the Homeric battlefield, as the preferred mode of transport for divinities and celestial bodies, as the metapoetic chariot of song of Greek lyric, and as a Platonic metaphor for the soul's constitution. While the complex reception of these individual and often overlapping strands in Roman poetry has been extensively examined, less studied is their intersection with the more distinctively Roman uses to which the chariot was put. In fact, the resonances of the four-horse currus triumphalis, in which generals rode during the triumphal procession, and the circus chariot, the breakneck-fast racing vehicle of the Roman circus, are frequently far more vital to understanding the function of the chariot in Roman literature. Starting from the assumption that the opposition between the two is central to understanding the Roman concept of currus, I explore how, on the one hand, literary chariots constantly invoke the transcendent power of the triumphal chariot, and yet, with increasing frequency, are represented as suffering terrible crashes. I read this obsessive fetishization of chariot crashes, which reaches a peak by the late first century CE, as attesting to an underlying anxiety about matters of imperial succession and expansion, and, at the same time, a willful articulation of a collective desire on the part of Romans to witness the collapse of the princeps.

A counterpoint to Rome's most central vehicle is the essedum, of which I offer an account as a postscript to the second chapter. This war-chariot of the Britons, first encountered and described by Caesar during his British expedition, was subsequently appropriated as an exotic and fashionable means of getting around Rome and its environs. As the vehicle's original associations fade through time, the conveyance becomes increasingly normalized for quick trips and even seems to have become a kind of light stage-coach for long-distance journeys. Nevertheless, as I argue, the essedum's lingering identity as mobile spoils of war available for leisure use by elites allowed the vehicle to function as a safe, subordinate alternative to the pinnacle achievement represented by the triumph.

The third and final chapter explores the cultural significance of the carpentum and its prestigious relative, the pilentum, two special carriages sanctioned for use by Roman matrons, but nearly always portrayed as problematic or else dangerous. Through an examination of several stories involving the carpentum--most importantly that of Tullia, who famously drove over the corpse of her father, King Servius, in the carriage--I show how this conveyance served to focalize Roman patriarchal anxieties surrounding women's conflicting loyalties as daughters and wives. Next, I analyze accounts of the prohibition of women's privilege of using the carpenta, the attempts of moralizing senators such as Cato the Elder to oppose the repeal of this ban, and the dramatic protest of the women themselves. I demonstrate how its occasional, but conspicuous use by men was represented as effeminizing, and I trace the recurring theme of hybridity in its depictions. I conclude by arguing that, rather than being exclusively about Roman attitudes towards women's mobility, the representations of the carpentum reveal an underlying crisis of individual agency in the late Republic and early Principate, for which vehicular transport--and the carpentum especially--functioned as a most powerful metaphor.

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