OUP (2024) h/b 288pp £76.00 (ISBN 9780198878902)

The idea of Rome, and what Rome symbolized, had permeated European culture, politics, religion, and literature from antiquity onwards. The renaissance was a special case because claims to the legacy of Rome proliferated throughout Europe at the same time. When everyone claims the ancient Roman legacy simultaneously, and there is a rhetorical assumption that only one participant can be the ‘true’ successor to Rome, then the claims become inherently competitive. Susanna de Beer has conceptualised this competition amongst rival claimants to Rome’s legacy as a ‘battle for Rome’. She analyses a range of Latin authors across the period 1350-1600, and articulates, categorizes, evaluates, and contrasts the rhetorical strategies that they employ to stake their claim to be the ‘New Romans’.

It is generally agreed that the story of Renaissance humanism begins with the Italian writer and scholar Petrarch (1304-1374). Chapter 1 argues that Petrarch’s rhetoric of renewal, and the circular vision of history it draws on, became central in humanist attempts to claim the legacy of ancient Rome as a means to legitimize and strengthen the political and religious authority of renaissance-era Rome. The Papal Curia had moved to Avignon in 1309 with Rome losing its position as caput ecclesiae. In addition, the centre of learning had moved to France, the ancient city of Rome had fallen into ruin, and the Latin language and Latin literature had fallen into a corrupt state. Petrarch argued for the return of the pope to Rome, but also for a grander ‘vision of Rome’: to bring back the imperial, moral, physical, and literary legacy of Rome back to Rome.

Petrarch’s ‘rhetoric of renewal’ envisaged Rome’s legacy as being still connected to the same location where it had once thrived. In his Epistola metrica addressed to Pope Benedict XII, Petrarch stages Rome as a woman pleading for the pope’s return to her from his exile in Avignon. She describes her own appearance as old, filthy, and neglected, but she still retains her name: vetus accipe nomen … Roma vocor (‘Hear my ancient name… Rome, I am called’). By focusing on the name of Rome, Petrarch activates the ancient literary discourse on the name (nomen) of Rome, such as Tibullus’ Sibylline prophecy about the future of Rome: Roma, tuum nomen terris fatale regendis (‘Rome, your name is fated to rule the world’) Elegies 2.5.57. By emphasizing the nomen Romanum, Petrarch picks up on the Tibullan connection between name and empire to argue for the belonging of power in Rome.

French cleric and theologian Jean d’Hesdin (c. 1320—after 1400) counters Petrarch’s argument. In his Contra Franciscum Petrarcham epistola, he quotes an epigram asserting that Rome has lost her substance: Roma modo nihil est, nihil est Romae nisi signum (‘Rome is just nothing, there is nothing left of Rome but a signifier’). His rhetorical response to Petrarch’s reliance on the name of Rome is to empty the name of its meaning.

This is just one example of the range of rhetorical strategies and counter-strategies that the Renaissance humanist poets employ to justify their claims to Rome’s legacy. B. categorises the participants in the ‘Renaissance battle for Rome’ as either ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. ‘Insiders’ like Petrarch seek renovatio Romae (‘renewal of Rome’) in the city of Rome itself on the grounds that the name and location create a privileged connection with the ancient legacy. ‘Outsiders’ such as Jean d’Hedin, seek to appropriate Rome’s legacy for new centres of power and of learning outside of Rome and often outside of Italy, and employ different rhetorical strategies to justify this.

While ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ strategies are an important aspect of the book, B. also shapes her material in other ways. She employs the concepts of ‘image’ and ‘counter-image’ from the field of imagology and she arranges her examples according to domains which she calls imagemes: power, morality, cityscape, literature. Chapters 2 to 5 are based around these four domains. In this way, Rome can be imagined as City of Empire or City of Lost Empire, City or Virtue or the City of Vice, City of Magnificence or City of Ruins, and finally the exemplary City of Latin literature or learning. The positive and negative images of Rome can be activated for rhetorical purposes by humanist scholars trained to argue both sides of any case (in utramque partem).

The Florentine poet Ugolino Verino, in the epic poem Carlias about Charlemagne, has him guided around Rome in a scene mirroring Evander guiding Aeneas around the site of Rome in Book 8 of Virgil’s Aeneid. The remains of mighty Rome are dead: Cerne Palatini prostrata cadavera templi (Look at the prostrate cadavers of the Palatine Temple). New Rome is rising elsewhere. This is the image of Rome as City of Ruins. For an example of the image corresponding to this counter-image, we may go to Andrea Fulvio and his poem Jobilaeus Annus. The poet imagines a pilgrim (novus advena) entering the city. Yes, the monuments of ancient Rome are in ruins, but nevertheless they provoke an impression of wonder in the visitor: miratur veteres urbis magnasque ruinas (‘admiring the old and great ruins of the city’). The imagery of Rome as City of Marvels expresses the wealth and power associated with Rome’s position as caput mundi, which the Renaissance poets will reclaim.

B. is strongly influenced by Catharine Edwards Writing Rome (1996) and she herself describes The Renaissance Battle for Rome as a Renaissance sequel to Edwards’ seminal book. B. displays an impressive level of scholarship. The primary texts sprawl across time and space and B. succeeds in bringing order and coherence to disparate source material. As a reader, it is a pleasure to be in the company of her erudition. Her arguments are subtle, nuanced, and persuasive. One innovation which is most helpful is the listing of key topics, themes, literary tropes and symbols in small caps in the notes. These are linked to the Index of Keywords and General Index, and it becomes possible to track key concepts through the book. There is also a helpful Appendix of Humanist Authors, and an Index of Authors and Works which also serves as an Index locorum. The book is enhanced by nearly thirty illustrations, many of which are in colour. The book will be of interest to scholars of the Renaissance, and those interested in classical reception studies.

Giles Gilbert