Roma Argentea: On the 1950th Anniversary of the Pisonian Conspiracy

Conference on Roman Literature, Culture and History of the Roman Empire on the 1950th Anniversary of the Pisonian Conspiracy.

Place and date: Charles University, Prague, 24–25 September 2015.

The conference Roma Argentea, held on 24 and 25 September 2015, was organized by the Institute of Greek and Latin Studies of the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University in Prague. The conference brought together researchers from major Czech research institutions in Classical Studies and from other disciplines as the Pisonian conspiracy reached its 1950th anniversary. The Pisonian conspiracy, named after its leader Gaius Calpurnius Piso, was plotted by the Roman elite against the emperor Nero. However, it was exposed in 65 CE and led to the death of the main conspirators, and of the philosopher Seneca, his nephew Lucan and the writer Petronius.

Papers sought to asses this historical event while exploring the images of the Neronian age as constructed not only by emperors and artists of imperial Rome, but by later writers, both artists and scholars. Therefore, papers addressed the literary and visual arts’ imagery and the imperial ideology of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but also the image of the emperor Nero and his reign in later historiography and its reception in later periods. For instance, special attention was paid to the Czech baroque period. The conference was accordingly divided into several panels discussing the Pisonian conspiracy from a historical perspective, its wider cultural and historical context, Seneca as a playwright and philosopher and the reception of his writings and the so-called Silver Age of Latin literature in the Czech baroque, 19th and 20th century.

The ways literature and visual arts represented the newly established imperial power were particularly emphasized. Senecan tragedies and Seneca’s interpretation of Cicero have been analyzed as a trial to understand the role of individual, the irresistibility of power and the (im)possible human resistance. Attention was brought to the way Nero presented himself as vindex libertatis according to the Augustan model. The workings of the imperial ideological programme were examined on the example of the Tiberius’ seaside villa in Sperlonga with its sculptural decoration. It was inspired by the Odyssey-based genealogy of the Claudian branch of the dynasty in contrast to the Iliad-based Julian ideology. Furthermore, the historical image of the Pisonian conspiracy and its cultural background were presented, as well as the fate of the family of Pisones under Galba.

As was stressed in the course of the conference, images devised by later centuries were marked by a strict opposition between the acceptance of Seneca as a martyr and a sage, as supported by fake correspondence of Seneca and St. Paul, and the demonization of Nero in particular and the Neronian age in general. Seneca’s positive image was further spread thanks to neostoic influence and turned into a new iconographical type – Seneca Pamphilj, which was used on the colonnade of the Flower garden in Kroměříž. In contrast, a rather negative image of emperor Nero already shows up in Historia Augusta and subsisted in common knowledge on the Neronian age until the late 19th century. The literary debute Není římského lidu (There is no people of Rome, 1949) of the Czech author Jarmila Loukotková is built on this very image. The Jesuit school drama authors rewrote Senecan tragedies for their pupils. Hence, their goal was to create edifying examples and deterring images of tyranny. The latest Senecan scenography on Czech stage (Phaedra, Divadlo v Dlouhé) tried to reinvent the image of tyranny by means of incorporating elements of oriental theatre.

The Roma Argentea conference was a succesful impetus from the Czech Classics as it showed how the topics traditionally associated in the Czech Republic to classical scholarship are not only available to interdisciplinary research, but already the subject of such research. The conference laid a solid ground for further yearly gatherings around the classical themes, turned toward a dialogue between disciplines which could make a good basis for future collaboration. In the autumn 2016, on the anniversary of the voyage of Rutilius Namatianus from Rome to Gaul in 416, the focus will shift to late Antiquity.

A review written by Edita Wolf (FF UK & CEFRES).

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