The Semiotic Potency of Historical Icons: The Case of Caesar Augustus

Photo credit: Elina Pyy
Photo credit: Elina Pyy

“In Mankiewicz’ ‘Julius Caesar’, all the characters are wearing fringes. Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history. Those who have little hair have not been let off for all that, and the hairdresser – the king-pin of the film – has still managed to produce one last lock which duly reaches the top of the forehead, one of those Roman foreheads, whose smallness has at all times indicated a specific mixture of self-righteousness, virtue and conquest”. (R. Barthes, Mythologies [1957] [transl. A. Lavers, Vintage, London 2000, p. 26]).

In his essay “Les Romains au cinéma”, Roland Barthes has a look at Julius Caesar, one of the big-screen representations of Roman history produced in the mid-20st century. In this brief essay, Barthes’ focus is strongly on the meanings and significances created by hairdos. Barthes’ gaze is perceptive as ever: through a seemingly small and insignificant a detail, he is able to penetrate the essence of Roman-ness in modern imagination. Barthes’ idea about the intrinsic and the embedded significances of “the Roman forehead” and its associations with virtue, control and imperial power, enables him to scrutinize and explain the complex sign system through which antiquity evokes emotions and creates meanings in the mind of the modern viewer. 

“Les Romains au cinéma” is an outstanding example of the ways in which semiotic approach can be effectively utilized in classical reception studies. Be that as it may, not many attempts to marry the theoretical background of semiotics with classical studies have been made in the five decades that have passed since Barthes’ day. Nor have other intellectual movements, born in the wake of structuralism in the latter part of the 20th century, left a strong mark in the mainstream of classical scholarship. For the past fifteen years classical reception studies have been an emerging trend in the field of classics, which naturally has introduced to the discipline various methods of literary, film and media studies (see e.g. Martindale & Thomas 2006; Lowe & Shahabudin 2009). Yet, intertwining ancient and modern in the field of classical reception has not led to a widespread interest in theoretical contemplation among the broader community of classicists.

Naturally, this is not something of which the majority of classicists are unaware – the issue has been repetitively raised and discussed since the late 1980’s. In 1989, John Peradotto accused classics for being a famously and deplorably non-theoretical discipline. In Peradotto’s opinion, classical philology has “relentlessly and – – successfully resisted the inroads of current methodological concern arising out of ongoing philosophical reflection and interdisciplinary dialogue” (Peradotto 1989, 189). It is somewhat perplexing that twenty-five years later, this still holds true to many branches of classical scholarship. Methods of sociology and gender studies have had an impact on many classical scholars whose research deals with social history, identity issues or minority studies. Be that as it may, the ‘hard core’ of classics (classical philology and literary studies) still appears to be, for the most part, averse to theoretical considerations.

Paradoxically, the most dreaded nemesis of theory-phobic classical scholars appears to be the semiotics. Peradotto went as far as to define semiotics as a “special object of revulsion”; he spoke of “suspicion or reserve among classicists”, even of “a conspiracy of silence” when it comes to the study of structure, code, and langue (Peradotto 1989, 180, 183, 186). Once again, it is in the field of classical philology where this resentment can be most clearly perceived even today. Whereas the semiotic approach has been utilized to great benefit in the study of classical art and visual culture, in the field of classical literature, there has not been a wide-spread support for this sort of theoretical approach (Hitchcock 2008, 33). Obviously, this seems somehow distorted, studies of language and literature being exactly the fields that, in other disciplines, have been revolutionalized in the aftermath of semiotics, structuralism and deconstruction.

FullSizeRender (1)So what seems to be the problem? Why do many classicists so relentlessly refuse to embrace the theoretical tradition that other fields of humanities have long since made their own? There are multiple probable explanations. On the one hand, it has been suggested that the conflicted relationship between classics and semiotics derives from these disciplines’ very different approaches towards historicism, subjectivity and ideology. As Peradotto argues, classics resents semiotics precisely because the latter tends to make ideology explicit – according to him , semiotics “cannot avoid unmasking the process, to which language is ever open, of naturalizing what is historical and arbitrary, and of essentializing the contingent.” (Peradotto 1989, 194-195; see also Barthes 1967, 295). Classics, in turn, is a discipline that is well-known for suffering from a centuries-old ‘objectivity fetish’ – a deep-rooted belief that through a meticulous process of source criticism it is possible to achieve an objective interpretation of the past. As Skinner puts it, classical scholarship has a tradition of committing itself to a “positivistic belief in objective, verifiable truths” (Skinner 1989, 201-202; see also Nimis 1984). Moreover, it is not classical philologists alone but historians too, who often seem to suffer from the ideological aftermath of a von-Rankean tradition. As DuBois states, “[s]elf-criticism is not the traditional stance of the cultural historian, who often sees himself as a ‘self’ having unmediated access to another culture – -. He works within a tradition of historiography seemingly innocent of interests and motives; thus he finds no epistemological or methodological obstacles to the application of common sense to culture” (DuBois 1991). This is of course provocatively put, however, DuBois seems to be onto something when she criticizes the discipline for the lack of self-criticism and for what could be called epistemological naïveté.

Another possible reason for the suspicion towards semiotics among mainstream classical scholarship is closely connected to the aforementioned – that is, classics’ and semiotics’ different takes on language. Classics is, by nature, a diachronic science. Arguably, this is why some classicists might feel that a semiotic approach inevitably undermines and downplays the value of their traditional field of expertise and interest: “concrete, actual, conscious, intended, individual, literary utterance” – in short, parole. (Peradotto 1989, 186; on “classicizing gaze”, see also Porter 2005, 48-51). Classical scholarship traditionally perceives the language as a representation of things, “as mere instrument, constituted wholly by an autonomous subject, in no sense constituting that subject” (Peradotto 1989, 186-187). This was already pointed out by Barthes, who criticized philology for declaring each text to be univocal, possessing a ‘true’ or canonical meaning (Barthes 1970). He argued that by following this research tradition, the philologists “banish the simultaneous, secondary meaning to the void of critical lucubrations” (Barthes 1970 [transl. Miller]). This inherent difference in the ways in which classical philology and semiotics approach the study of language and representation, naturally, is a rather hefty barrier between them.

Clear as the gap between these two scholarly traditions is, there is a great deal to be gained from overcoming it. Theoretical approaches of semiotics could greatly profit the classicists if we gave them a chance. They can help us understand and analyze the contexts of texts, and to detect interconnections between seemingly different signs and phenomena in our sources. As Barthes noticed, the traditional shortcoming of philology is to analyze texts out of their context of production and interpretation – however, in classical studies that tend to combine philology and history, the contextual background has always been valued. Here, semiotics can come in handy. As Hitchcock states, a more theoretical approaches to classics require us to see the past “not simply as isolated texts, events, or categories of objects and monuments, but as interconnected aspects of culture that both impact and are impacted by social life in the past and the present” (Hitchcock 2008, xiv).

Furthermore, while there is a lot to be gained from the marriage of classics and semiotics, there is arguably very little to be lost. The humanism and historicism treasured by classicists need not necessarily be sacrificed to the study of an ahistorical, synchronic system (Peradotto 1989, 186). Moreover, as Leonard points out, the necessity of historicism along with dangers and merits of appropriating the past are questions “which should be central to classicists of all methodological persuasions” (Leonard 2005, 229). After all, there is no inherent conflict or contradiction between classics and semiotics – or if you will, between the past and its interpretation. As Sebeok perceptively states, referring to Wheeler’s rendition of the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’, that “the past is theory, or yet another system of signs; it ‘has no existence except in the record of the present.’ At a semiotic level we make the past as well as the present and the future” (Sebeok 2001, 38). Thus, we classicist are semioticians, whether we acknowledge it or not. The choice that remains to be made is whether we want to be self-aware semioticians and develop our skills in interpreting both the classical past and the modern perceptions of it – or whether we want to be stuck in the tradition of ‘historical amnesia’ that refuses and denies obvious interdisciplinary connections (see also Hitchcock 2008, xiv).

My forthcoming monograph, Semiotics of Caesar Augustus (Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics) is an attempt to do the first mentioned. It applies the methods of semiotic analysis to the study of classical reception, focusing on a particular historical figure that, in many modern contexts, can be considered to embody the ideas of Roman-ness – emperor Augustus. The book examines representations of Augustus in postmodern novel and in historical fiction, as well as in film and television, focusing on how the figure of the emperor is continuously reinvented, and how he becomes a sign for the most varying values and ideas. Through these interpretative lenses, the book aims at illuminating the relationship between the classical past and the modern imagination in the period reaching from the 1960’s to the early 21st century.

FullSizeRender (3)Semiotics of Caesar Augustus is built on my argument that Augustus, in particular, is a very suitable object of a semiotic classical reception study. First of all, the first emperor is undoubtedly one of the best-known and the most complex figures of Roman history. Two thousand years after his death, we come across him in literature, television, cinema and visual arts. Augustus’ strong presence in the modern culture is indisputable – yet what he stands for, or what sorts of ideas are communicated through him, has rarely been questioned let alone academically disputed. Maria Wyke’s studies of the significance of Julius Caesar to the American political and popular culture have shown us the necessity and the value of academic research that focuses on the appropriation of classical figures in the modern world. With her perceptive analysis of Caesar’s modern connotations, Wyke shows how we can better understand the ideological, cultural and political currents of the present day by having a look on how modernity treats iconic figures from antiquity (Wyke 2007; Wyke 2012). On a deep-rooted and partially unconscious level, Roman history is still considered to form the basis of the ‘Western’ culture. Therefore, the use, reuse and abuse of the Roman past can work as a rather accurate barometer when we want to understand the self-perceptions of modern societies.

Moreover, Caesar Augustus is not only one of the most significant characters of Roman history, but a prime example of an influential historical figure whose semiotic importance is at its greatest in times of cultural or ideological turmoil. What marks characters like him is that they are often simultaneously very well-known and ambiguous in reputation – due to these characteristics, each period re-invites them based on the values and ideals of the time. In the course of the centuries, Augustus is both consciously and unconsciously made stand for most varying ideas, values and phenomena. 

In the latter part of the 20th century, the coexistence and the ongoing battle of differing ideas and values naturally left their mark on the interpretation of history. This period of time is marked by the increasing ideological fragmentation, enforced by the postmodernist scepticism – the multiplicity and heterogeneity of values, the ideological disruption and the increasing insecurity and instability are the most defining characteristics of the turn of the century. Naturally, these are also the main phenomena that impact the appropriation and the interpretation of historical figures in literature, film and media.

Due to the multiplicity of values and ideas, there is not one single Augustus to be found in the sources from this period – rather, we are dealing with ‘the many faces of the emperor’, produced for most varying ideological purposes. On the one hand, in the bipolar world of the cold-war period, the character of Augustus offered a means to discuss flammable themes such as tyranny, oppression and revolution. On the other hand, he also became the symbol of the ‘Golden Era’: concordia, happiness and common well-being. Furthermore, in the world of constant and seemingly unending ideological battles, the first emperor became a sign for the so-called ‘end of history’, the final close of political strife and disruption. Therefore, by examining the significances of Augustus in prose fiction of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, we can better understand how the discourses of power, liberty, oppression and humanity operated in the postmodern world.

The corner stone of my analysis in Semiotics of Caesar Augustus is Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Published in 1965, Vonnegut’s novel is a representative piece of early postmodern fiction, while also being a prime example of the modern appropriations of the classical past. As an author, Vonnegut is best know for his razor-sharp social criticism, for his cynicism towards the modern, Western way of life and for his tireless endorsement of humanism (See Davis 2006; Klinkowitz 2009, 40; Tally 2011, 4-10). In God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, the author discusses these familiar themes, engaging with allegories from Roman history. He exploits the historical ambiguity of Augustus and utilizes the many faces of the emperor – the moralist, the merciless tyrant, the idealist, the pater patriae – to mock the political rhetoric of his own day, and to expose the fragility of the consumerist society. Semiotics of Caesar Augustus aims at understanding the significance of Augustus to Vonnegut’s postmodern prose – what is the additional value that the first emperor can offer to the author’s social criticism and to his authorial voice? Why is it namely Augustus that Vonnegut finds to be an apt sign and symbol for so many phenomena in the American postmodern society?

I compare Vonnegut’s representation of Augustus with a number of other literary works from the latter part of the 20th century. The most important is Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt (1988); the novel that can be best described as a piece of postmodern dystopian fiction discusses various aspects of tyranny and political oppression through an imaginary character of “Caesar Augustus”. Vonnegut and Ransmayr’s different literary styles and cultural backgrounds provide a prolific starting point for a comparative analysis of their works, and for an examination of the multiple meanings of Augustus in the postmodern literary discourse. What is characteristic of both of these novels is how they distance Augustus from his original historical context, and utilize him to discuss topical, current and often complex and distressing phenomena of the modern world. They transform Augustus into a sign that enables the communication between the author and his audience and helps the writer to make points about the recent past or the present. Yet this relationship is naturally a two-way street; while Augustus is used to denote certain elements of the modern culture, the role in which he appears simultaneously shapes the modern audience’s ideas of him.

Naturally, when scrutinizing the semiotic significance of historical figures such as Augustus, one should not limit the analysis to belles-lettres alone – in effect, often the more popular forms of art can be more revealing and multifaceted in their treatment of iconic characters. This is why, in addition to the postmodern novel, Semiotics of Caesar Augustus takes a look at the representations and the appropriations of the emperor in historical fiction and in screen representations from the turn of the century. From the 1960’s to the end of 1980’s, a number of historical novels about the Roman civil war period and the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty were written – the works of John Williams, Allan Massie, Olive Gilliam, Elisabeth Dored and Francois Fontaine are the best-known and the most central to my analysis. These works, in turn, served as models for the many large-scale screen productions dealing with the Roman history. From Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953) and Cleopatra (1965) to BBC’s smash-hit series I, Claudius (1976), 20th century films and television series utilized narrative techniques adopted from historical novels in order to ‘deconstruct’ and ‘familiarize’ the character of Augustus. They seeked the human being behind the public figure and emphasised the contrast between the emperor’s political success and his private tragedies (often at the expense of historical accuracy). Due to their popularity, these dramas had a powerful impact on the ways in which modern viewers perceived, and continue to perceive, this crucial period in Roman history – and on the meanings and the appropriations of Augustus in the modern culture.

What is particularly intriguing is that this fascination of Augustus, and the re-branding of his character in television and cinema, is by no means a phenomenon of the past. After a few slow decades in the latter part of the 20th century, screen representations of Roman history enjoyed a newly arisen popularity in the turn of the millenium. HBO’s Rome is the best example of a massive-scale historical drama that, due to its worldwide popularity, has achieved a similar sort of power in shaping the modern viewers’ ideas of Augustus in the 21st century as I, Claudius did in the 1970’s. When we aim at understanding the place and the significance of Caesar Augustus in the modern world, it is absolutely crucial to take these sorts of representations into consideration. One of the purposes of Semiotics of Caesar Augustus is to show that academics do not own and cannot control Augustus’ memory. What Augustus stands for is not only something to be argued among classicists in academic journals, but something that is decided by novelists, journalists, producers, and audiences outside the field of classical studies. This is why one of the aims of the book is to narrow down the gap between antiquity and the modern world, and between scholars and laymen, and to make the classics more approachable to the wider public.

In 2014, the world celebrated the bimillenia of Caesar Augustus’ death. As time goes by, the historical Augustus slips further from our grasp. In the 21st century, fewer and fewer people are profoundly familiar with the classical tradition and ancient history. This inevitably leads to the collision and the intermingling between different signs of antiquity, and to confusion in their interpretation. In some cases, it is justifiable to ask to what extent we can distinguish the semiotic significance of Augustus from that of Julius Caesar, for example. Moreover, there are instances where the name or the face of Augustus is no more than a reference to ‘Rome’ or ‘antiquity’ in general. In modern literature, film, media and visual arts, ‘Augustus’ often translates as ‘Rome’ – up to the point where it is sometimes strikingly difficult to separate the attributes of Rome from those of Augustus, and vice versa. For instance, when we read Barthes’ analysis of the lock of hair on “the Roman forehead” – a sign of power, imperium and virtue – how many of us think of Augustus? It is worth our while to ponder how many of the modern readers might have this vague and unidentified image in the back of our minds, an image of Augustus pontifex, or Augustus of Prima Porta, as a visualization of what we understand by ancient Rome. Moreover, it is worthwhile to ask how many of the modern readers are aware that it is namely the Julio-Claudian lock that they think of – or whether it actually matters if they are?

Elina Pyy
Elina Pyy

This non-dissolvable semiotic link between Augustus and Rome is something that must be considered if we wish to understand either of the two. It is vital to acknowledge that whenever we are talking about Augustus, we are talking about the ancient Rome and all the connotations that follow with it – the link between Augustus and Rome creates an unending chain of associations and significances. Semiotics of Caesar Augustus attempts to bring some clarity into this web of meanings. It is an attempt to illuminate the reasons behind the ongoing fascination of the character of Augustus, and to examine the relationship between the classical past and the modern imagination. The aim is to scrutinize who owns the emperor’s memory in the modern ideological polemics – and what do we still need Augustus for, two millenia after his death.

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