Building the Sublime Emperor in «A More Vertical Rome»

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A great many monuments pile up in the imagination when one thinks of the Augustan age; amongst them not only those famous works in marble that transformed the brick-built city of Rome, but the more lasting monumenta of the era’s poets. The construction of these monuments––city and poem––was in many ways a twin process: Augustan Rome was a mighty project at which its poets laboured with care so that the city as site and symbol of the new age was founded and raised in both matter and mind. Of course, the greatest edifice under construction at this time was also its architect, the emperor himself, Augustus. This confounding new figure required a literature and an architecture to represent his soaring scope. The Augustan poets, I argue here, imagine and depict architecture in their works (and particularly the architecture of Rome) as if on a vertical axis and the vertiginous rise of these monuments is a reflection of the perceived sublimity of the age—the sublimity, above all, of the new emperor, Augustus. My argument responds to the notion of ‘a more vertical Rome’ suggested by Alessandro Barchiesi in his 2009 chapter on Ovid’s ‘Phaethon and the monsters’ (in P. Hardie ed., Paradox and the Marvellous in Augustan Literature and Culture, Oxford: 168-88, esp. 178), where he reads in a small sample of texts a shared a sense of towering elevation that reflects in some way (whether explicit or implied) upon contemporary Rome. In my interpretation of this proposition, I am particularly concerned with the architectural sublime; a quality that, for both Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, relies on an impression of the infinite that provides the sensation of ‘delightful horror’ on which sublime experience depends. Sublime architecture is capable of containing the aspiration of ascent and sky-scraping greatness, but also the threat of collapse inherent in any beetling structure. While the lofty view from above implies a magnificent all-encompassing command, it also implies (or even necessitates) a view from below that speaks of oppression. The counterpoint to soaring ascent—that loftiness leaves one poised for a fall—need not always imply subversion; but the two exist in tension within the sublime and the threat of collapse provides an energising thrill, to which I turn towards the end of the chapter.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLuoghi dell'abitare, immaginazione letteraria e identità romana
Subtitle of host publicationDa Augusto ai Flavi
EditorsMario Citroni, Mario Labate, Gianpiero Rosati
Place of PublicationPisa
PublisherScuola Normale Superiore
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9788876426735
Publication statusPublished - 5 May 2020

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