Venerari Contendere Adicere: Roman Emulation, Intergenerational Reciprocity, and the Ancient Idea of Progress

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Over the past few decades, the successful emergence of intertextuality, with its careful investigation of the dynamics of imitation, allusion, and emulation, has effectively challenged the Romantic notions of creativity and individual authorship. In the wide-open field left by the postmodern ‘death of the author’, however, the territory of culture as a network of patterns hiding behind the text has often been restricted within the boundaries of literary culture. In this paper, I will attempt to enlarge such a text-centred perspective by highlighting the often neglected connections between family education, intergenerational reciprocity, and aesthetic thought in Roman culture. Indeed, long before the 'neoteroi' started to seed their poems with ‘Alexandrian footnotes’, there existed at Rome a culturally embedded set of patterns providing concrete instructions onhow a Roman had to imitate his models and compete with them. As emblematically attested in aristocratic epitaphs, a young Roman was expected to consciously situate himself in the line of his 'genus', striving to imitate, and possibly to surpass, the virtues of his ancestors – the 'maiores' immortalized by the masks in the 'atria'. By reassessing Cicero’s, Seneca’s, and Quintilian’s approaches to 'aemulatio' and their underlying sociological backgrounds, I will point to several conceptualtraits which cross the boundaries between cultural and literary memory and shape the 'Bildung' of such learned writers as Horace: from the faith in the endlessly advancing progress of generations to the fear of reproducing ancestral vices, from the depiction of previous models as stimulatingly imperfect portraits to the creative manipulation of genealogical identities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)94-127
Number of pages34
Publication statusPublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Classics
  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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