Pestilence and the Body Politic in Latin Literature

October 31, 2020
Pestilence and the Body Politic in Latin Literature

Scientists, journalists, novelists, and filmmakers continue togenerate narratives of contagion, stories shaped by a tradition ofdisease discourse that extends to early Greco-Roman literature.Lucretius, Vergil, and Ovid developed important conventions of thewestern plague narrative as a response to the breakdown of theRoman res publica in the mid-first century CE and thereconstitution of stabilized government under the AugustanPrincipate (31 BCE-14 CE): relying on the metaphoric relationshipbetween the human body and the body politic, these authors usedlargely fictive representations of epidemic disease to address thecollapse of the social order and suggest remedies for its recovery.Theorists such as Susan Sontag and René Girard have observed howthe rhetoric of disease frequently signals social, psychological,or political pathologies, but their observations have rarely beenapplied to Latin literary practices. Pestilence and the BodyPolitic in Latin Literature explores how the origins and spread ofoutbreaks described by Roman writers enact a drama in which theconcerns of the individual must be weighed against those of thecollective, staged in an environment signalling both reversion to apre-historic Golden Age and the devastation characteristic of apost-apocalyptic landscape. Such innovations in Latin literaturehave impacted representations as diverse as Carlo Coppola'spaintings of a seventeenth-century outbreak of bubonic plague inNaples and Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam Trilogy. Understanding whyLatin writers developed these tropes for articulating contagiousdisease and imbuing them with meaning for the collapse of the Romanbody politic allows us to clarify what more recent diseasediscourses mean both for their creators and for the populationsthey afflict in contemporary media.