Mountains in Antiquity

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


Mountains that are not

That the mountain is a site of the sublime almost goes without saying. This is not only a post-Romantic notion, but one that can be traced back to antiquity. Mountains are, of course, proverbial for their prodigious bulk, and their sublimity derives not only from their sky-scraping (or sky-penetrating) height and from their identity as locations for the absolute triumph of nature’s might, but from the sense of their immoveable solidity. That a mountain should move in some way, and particularly that it should fall, is a notion that exceeds the boundaries of human comprehension and excites the mind when the idea is formed in the imagination with a thrill of the transcendent sublime. While we encounter many mountains in Latin literature that are sublime for their massive stability it is very often the case that these mountains are much less stable than they initially appear. My doctoral thesis identified instability (both physical and metaphorical) as central to Roman ideas about the sublime in the literature of the early Empire, in a tradition that extends back to Lucretius. In part of the thesis, I focused upon earthquakes and earthquake imagery (engaging, for example, with recent work by Gareth Williams on Seneca’s Natural Questions) in order to establish a ‘language of sublime instability’––a bank of imagery and vocabulary upon which authors (including Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Seneca, the Younger Pliny and Tacitus) draw in order to evoke a sense of the sublime that derives specifically from the idea of trembling, toppling, ruinous instability. Beginning with Lucretius, this paper will focus on a select group of examples from the epic poets Virgil, Ovid and Lucan, gesturing towards the close at the reception and evolution of the epic tradition of the sublime, unstable mountain in texts from authors such as Seneca and Tacitus. ‘Mountains that are Not’ will examine the thrillingly unstable, even paradoxically insubstantial figure of the mountain in order to chart its place, bound up with the unstable sublime, in the Roman imagination.
PeriodJun 2017
Event typeConference