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Prof. David Scourfield (Maynooth) Literary Form, Historical 'Reality', and Philosophical Exploration in Two Novels of Ancient Rome

Several of the best known and most distinguished historical novels on Roman subjects from the twentieth century – Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Gore Vidal’s Julian – are written (with minor variations) in the form of a historical memoir by a Roman emperor. In this paper I shall examine two novels – Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March (1948) and John Williams’ Augustus (1972) – which similarly present an imperial (or quasi-imperial) protagonist but take a radically different pseudo-documentary form, owing much to the distinct traditions of the epistolary novel and the historical sourcebook. Considering both form and content, the paper will explore these texts in terms of the tensions they display between historicity and fictionality, their representations of political power, and their value for historical understanding. It will be argued that the concerns of both works are, finally, less historical than philosophical, and may be seen to reflect the loss of old certainties in the world in which they were created.

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