Paolo Asso

Assistant Professor of Classical Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


2011-2012: Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow

Africa in the Roman Literary Imagination

Project Description

Africa in the Roman Literary Imagination

The attitudes of the ancient Romans toward their imperial provinces and the peoples who inhabited them are essential subjects of study for scholars interested in the development of western ideas of the ‘Other;’ but scholarship on the Roman conception of Africa is rare. Asso’s in-progress monograph, Africa in the Roman Literary Imagination, examines the ways in which ancient Greek and Roman literary sources treat Africa, her gods, peoples, animals, plants, and inanimate entities. The book speaks primarily, but not exclusively, to those who work in the humanities and the social sciences at large, including students and scholars of literature, archeology, history, political science, and the creative arts, and to everyone interested in how imperialist geopolitics shapes the identities of both conquerors and conquered.

Asso began studying what the ancient literary and material sources associate with Africa as a test case for reexamining the model of Mediterranean identity proposed by Purcell and Horden (The Corrupting Sea, 2000), for whom the dizzying variety of Mediterranean cultures interconnect and contaminate one another through seafaring. The resulting analogies produce the composite identity that Purcell and Horden call Mediterranean. Building on their model, Asso posits that the Roman Empire treated African entities, Egypt included, in a colonial way, analogous to the highly textualized and ‘Orientalizing’ practice exposed by Said (Orientalism, 1978). As recently observed by Grant Parker (The Making of Roman India, 2008), India, for example, remains unambiguously ‘Other’ and external to Rome, but the word Africa, Asso argues, has conflicting meanings that point to a rich cluster of self/other paradoxes. Primarily a Roman province, decked with monumental Roman architecture, Africa is the theatre of foreign as well as civil war, and was felt by the Romans to be a part of their own world. While not completely ‘Other,’ Africa is nonetheless a threat to Roman identity. Africa is sometimes depicted in Roman sources as a mother of monsters that annihilate Roman armies. A source of anti-Roman energy in military as well as domestic terms, Africa nourishes Rome’s enemies Hannibal and Jugurtha, and fosters the self-aggrandizing propaganda of ambitious Roman leaders like Scipio and Marius, who with the impact of their extensive military and political reforms, set in motion the processes that tilt the socio-political balance of the senatorial republic. No longer denoting a mere city-state in central Italy, but a synecdoche for imperial power, the word ‘Rome’ and its meanings encompass an increasingly vaster geographic space. The Roman conquests inevitably change Rome’s perception of itself, and we see how traumatic that change is when the Roman authors acknowledge how corrupting conquest can be. Soon enough Rome is no longer just Rome, but it includes Asia and Africa.

Regarding the Roman ideas of Africa, many questions remain to be answered: How do Romans conceive of Africa? What contributions, if any, do the Romans feel that Africa and Africans have made to Roman identity? One way to begin to answer such questions is to consider how the ancients map the inhabited world. For instance, while Herodotus treats the world as constituted of three continents (Asia, Europe, and Africa), less known texts treat Africa not as a continent per se but as a part of either Europe or Asia. Furthermore, ancient maps and other representations of geographical space (such as itineraries) unveil that drawing maps enabled the ancients not only to order their geographical knowledge, but also to assert their mastery of such knowledge and their dominance, for world mapping is the age-old privilege of the conqueror. Asso relies on theoretical discussions of place and identity to illuminate maps and texts, and complicate our views of them, by showing how Roman ideas enrich our own understanding of African identities within and beyond the larger framework of current race and ethnicity discourse.

While race is relevant in modern discussions of Africa and Africans, the significance of Africa in Roman literature goes beyond racialism. Patrice Rankine’s recent path-breaking work on Odysseus in African-American literature, Ulysses in Black (2006), is inspiring because it studies a literary character, yet remains largely Hellenocentric in its approach to colonial and post-colonial narratives. Asso’s work on the Roman texts, especially the Roman epics, as well as the Elder Pliny’s Natural History, will engage the Greek sources, but his distinctive goal is to unveil the importance of the Roman texts to modern and contemporary debates. In connecting this specifically Roman perception with our current views of place and identity, Asso’s research adds a Roman perspective to the discussion of ancient and modern conceptions of Africa. After all, it was the Roman Empire with its endless opportunities to experience ‘diversity’ in its vast territorial expanses that handed down to us the roots of our prejudices.

You are here