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-14CE): relying on the metaphoric relationship between the human bodyand the body politic, these authors used largely fictiverepresentations of epidemic disease to address the collapse of thesocial 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 anenvironment signalling both reversion to a pre-historic Golden Ageand the devastation characteristic of a post-apocalyptic landscape.Such innovations in Latin literature have impacted representationsas diverse as Carlo Coppola's paintings of a seventeenth-centuryoutbreak of bubonic plague in Naples and MargaretAtwood's Maddaddam Trilogy. Understanding why Latin writersdeveloped these tropes for articulating contagious disease andimbuing them with meaning for the collapse of the Roman bodypolitic allows us to clarify what more recent disease discoursesmean both for their creators and for the populations they afflictin contemporary media.