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Your display name should be at least 2 characters long. At Kobo, we try to ensure that published reviews do not contain rude or profane language, spoilers, or any of our reviewer's personal information. In chapter two Star traces the consequences of this psychology of self-command for interpreting the characters of Senecan tragedy and for the aspiring Stoic, building on his own earlier work and that of scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, Shadi Bartsch, and Christopher Gill.
The chapter also opens up for consideration a bigger and more interesting question that Star, correctly to my mind, takes the text of Petronius as inviting us to pose—namely, in a world in which words can constitute and command selfhood, what else might words be able to construct? If words alone can create and manipulate value and status, then they may also destroy those things.
What happens when the self that constitutes and maintains itself through self-command comes into collision with the desires and perceptions of others? Not surprisingly, given his own circumstances, Seneca is interested in telling the difference between a tyrant and a king, a lesson in discernment needed, he shows, by both rulers and the ruled.
He considers how a ruler may display the difference to his subjects, both through his actions and particularly through his words. Moreover, Seneca investigates the limits and duties of self-determination for a citizen of Rome and also, as a Stoic, of the cosmos whose freedom to speak and act is entirely circumscribed by the desires and decisions of an autocrat—who, to complicate matters further, is also his pupil, and one who requires careful instruction in self-command.
In chapter six an analysis of the intersection of bodily and spiritual nourishment with economic metaphors for virtue and good fortune suggests that the shared prosperity and health of a community will be endangered whenever one particularly fortunate person—be he Trimalchio or Nero—monopolizes its resources, including its capacity for determining meaning. In fact, a real strength of this study is how well Star usually resists the over-simplification of pitting one author against the other. These brief excursions generally reinforce or nuance points that direct us back toward the interpretation of Seneca and Petronius, but taken together, they also make a point that Star leaves largely unstated—namely, that the interplay of ideas he tracks in these two authors reveal a nexus of first-century debate, creativity, and concern that was originally composed by many additional voices, more than even this admirably ambitious book can fairly encompass.
On many points of interpretation or debate, the Empire of the Self will not have the final word, but instead has opened a way forward for further exploration, refinement, and inevitably for disagreement. The questions his authors ask about the self, its nature and its responsibilities—themselves writing from positions of immense cultural and economic privilege, in an empire that at least some of its most articulate subjects felt was as rotten as it was rich—continue to be questions that should engage us not only from a scholarly perspective, but also direct us toward introspection of our own selves, and examination of our own society.
These are exciting times to be studying Neronian literature, and The Empire of the Self both communicates the excitement and makes an estimable contribution to the conversation. Bryn Mawr Classical Review ISBN BMCR