Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. Jason Banta : “On Unsteady Ground: Myth, Language and Authority in Plutarch’s Romulus"


Texas Tech University

“On Unsteady Ground: Myth, Language and Authority in Plutarch’s Romulus"


Plutarch begins his biography of Romulus not with any particular mention of the titular character, as one might expect, but instead a marked concentration on the city that the legendary figure will be instrumental in founding: “from whom, and for what reason, the city of Rome, a name so great in glory, and famous in the mouths of all men, was so first called, authors do not agree,” (1.1). In fact, throughout the Life, Plutarch is more concerned with the foundation and development of the socio-physical site of the early city than with the examining Romulus. Places and their names, and especially the ability to create and enforce linguistic labeling dominate the narrative.

Plutarch’s Romulus encounters a landscape already invested with pre-existing significance. From the Tiber to the environs of the city itself, local Italic and imported Greek toponyms abound. As the character moves through the narrative towards the foundation moment, he attempts to apply new labels, usurping the authority of older names. The Ficus Ruminalis, the altar of Consus, and the earliest social formations (especially the military ones) are all dependent upon Romulus’ direct interaction with the landscape. The drive and need to control the topographic labeling becomes so dominate in Plutarch’s narrative that the biographer reconfigures the twins’ quarrel to be not over who will rule the new city, but where the first foundations will be set and who will supply the name: “turning their attention towards the foundation, a quarrel over the site around between them suddenly,” (4.1). A quarrel the results in competing readings of two signs, the appearance of the vultures, and one that is resolved by Romulus violently imposing his interpretation upon his brother.

These new foundations, however, are set upon all older, alternateaetia. These older stories are not destroyed, but remain as vestigiathat threaten to unravel the current, Romulus-centered Roman foundation myth. By concentrating on these competing toponyms, Plutarch’s narrative invites his audience to meditate on the relationship between authority, language, and myth. The inherent tension resists any attempt at homogenization, resulting in a polyvalent, and heteroglotic narrative that attempts to reproduce the palimpsestic nature of the city it self. A text about a city presents a city that acts like a text, where the pages upon which the myths of foundation and authority are written are scrapped and re-used, and any reading is necessarily a re-reading.

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