Theses Doctoral

Youth and Power: Roman Performances of Age and Ageing from Plautus to Nero

Jewell, Evan Luke

This dissertation examines the history of elite male youth in the Roman Empire from 218 BCE to 68 CE by demonstrating how a young elite man could “act his age” in his specific historical context. The Prologue introduces the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of my approach, which depart from traditional social history models. Drawing on gender and age studies, theories of discourse and interpellation, my argument re-inscribes age as a performance, whereby the age-roles that existed in Roman society were constituted by historically determined performances of “age scripts”. The performances of youth examined are demonstrably intersectional in nature, frequently overlapping with gendered performances of masculinity. By concentrating attention on the behaviors prescribed for young elite men at Rome in these scripts, as recovered from the discourses about youth preserved in both textual and visual evidence, my inquiry tracks how changes in these scripts were historically contingent, rather than universal. As a result, this study foregrounds the interconnection between age and male power relations in ancient Rome and explains the diachronic changes in this relationship. Changes in the social, demographic, legal and, above all, political context(s) from the Middle Republican period down to the death of Nero, in turn occasioned edits—sometimes even full rewrites—in the age scripts available to young elite men.
Structured as a historical play in three parts, each part corresponds diachronically to a moment of change in these scripts. Part 1 examines the Middle Republic and introduces the “comic script” primarily through the plays of Plautus and Terence, as well as the “normative script” preserved in exempla and the works of Cato the elder to which the comic script responded and sometimes offered challenges. These scripts are examined in dialogue with the radical demographic, legal and political changes occasioned by Rome’s near defeat in the Second Punic War.
Part 2 then moves down to the Late Republic, acknowledging how both the normative and comic scripts endured in this period, but instead trains its focus on the emergence of new scripts for youth—oratorical, philosophical, sexual and poetic. These scripts are set against the background of a shift away from military pursuits among the youth and toward the civic sphere, stemming from political, legal and cultural developments that arose out of Rome’s increasing imperial hegemony in the Mediterranean during the second century BCE. In particular, the efforts of politicians to interpellate the youth, understood as the next political generation, according to specific ideological scripts, and in contrast to other scripts (for example, the martial, sexual, or philosophical scripts), reveals how young men in this period were presented with more behavioral options than ever before. That these young men were consequently torn by these conflicting options is borne out in Catullus’ parodic rejection of certain scripts, but also the discourses about other young men, such as C. Trebatius Testa and M. Caelius Rufus.
Cicero’s attempt to script the behavior of one youth, the young Octavian (later known as Augustus) and the dramatic shift in power relations that Octavian’s rise occasioned for the age scripts at Rome forms the first half of Part 3. From here my analysis extends out from Octavian’s personal aetas to the Augustan “age” more generally and how this period saw a conscious promotion of a normative script for the iuventus. Conjoined to this script, and driving its promotion, was the biological ageing of Augustus himself, whereby his own aetas and its youthfulness became contiguous with that of his youthful successors and more generally the community, as represented by the iuventus, and even more abstractly, the urbs itself.
With the advent of the youngest princeps yet, the problem of the emperor Nero’s young age and the script he would enact forms the core concern of Part 4, the epilogue to this dissertation. The De Clementia of Seneca is examined for its role in scripting the imperial youth and his behavior. The case study of Nero’s first bearded portrait as a visual commemoration of his depositio barbae, coinciding with his celebration of age-based spectacles during the Iuvenalia of 59 CE, demonstrates how Nero was both the heir to earlier scripts and in his reception of them, the author of a new one centered around an attempt to construct his imperial maturity. The response to Nero’s script is then traced both at an elite and non-elite level, from elite literary texts, such as Petronius’ Satyrica, to graffiti and non-elite bearded portraits.
As a historical study in visual discourses as much as textual ones, this dissertation encompasses a wide range of visual material from numismatic iconography to portrait sculpture in the round, and represents the first attempt to bring such material into dialogue with the textual evidence. A catalogue of imperial male portraits, from Octavian to Nero, which feature facial hair—a key piece of evidence assessed in Parts 3 and 4—is presented in the Appendices.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Classical Studies
Thesis Advisors
De Angelis, Francesco
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 29, 2019