Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. Liv Yarrow: “The Opimian Myth: Cicero and the Language of concordia”


Brooklyn College (CUNY)

“The Opimian Myth: Cicero and the Language of concordia”


The Romans did not readily perceive a qualitative difference between the legendary past, documented history and recent events. The accomplishments of Marius could be just as potent historical exemplaas, say, the actions of Romulus or Scipio Africanus the Elder. This in itself may not be difficult to accept, but it challenges us to consider that the historical past, even relatively recent events, could be as open to the same re‐iteration and re‐formulation as the legendary past. Because of the strong cultural emphasis placed on the need for precedence for any controversial political action, the memory of events was readily molded and emphasized to meet contemporary objectives, perhaps significantly distant from the original instantiation and earlier interpretation. The meaning‐making was deliberate, pervasive, and cultural accepted. Such Roman mythologizing of ‘historical’ precedents is exemplified by how the mutable narratives come to be invoked through iconic images and value‐charged language: the father on the shoulders of his son is inextricably linked with pietas. The universalization of the myth, the image and the word legitimates each new instantiation. Thus, the language of public discourse becomes reified: abstracts concepts come to be treated as substantial objects, even at times as subjective agents.

The utility of such a semiotic reading of republican politics is well demonstrated through the creation of the Opimian ‘myth’ and the evolution of the concordia’s connotations. Cicero made diverse and creative use of Opimius as a positive historical exemplum from the Catilinarian conspiracy to his postexile career down even to his final, fatal, conflict with Antony. There is a significant disjoin between the historical Opimius and Cicero’s various characterizations: from the divergent connotations of concordia in 121BC and 63BC to the nature of Opimius’ trial and exile. The disjoin does not disempower theexemplum. Instead, it allows a retrojection of contemporary connotations of concordia into a now mythic past. Cicero interacts with the memory of Opimius, not just in rhetorical recollection, but in his use of key political space in the Roman forum, and even inspires a numismatic personification of concordia. The Opimian myth demonstrates not just the malleability of memorialization and Cicero’s self‐conscious usage thereof, but also of the means by which a mythologized narrative contributes to the reification of political vocabulary. The exemplum of Opimius retains its efficacy over a twenty‐year period of radical political change precisely because of Cicero’s ability to shift his rhetorical framing and audience’s (apparent) willingness to accept these shifts. Concurrently, concordiagains a more fixed iconography, while simultaneously attracting additional, period specific, connotations.

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