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Actors in the Audience

Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian

When Nero took the stage, the audience played along--or else. The drama thus enacted, whether in the theater proper or in the political arena, unfolds in all its rich complexity in Actors in the Audience. This is a book about language, theatricality, and empire--about how the Roman emperor dramatized his rule and how his subordinates in turn staged their response. The focus is on Nero: his performances onstage spurred his contemporaries to reflect on the nature of power and representation, and to make the stage a paradigm for larger questions about the theatricality of power. Through these portrayals by ancient writers, Shadi Bartsch explores what happens to language and representation when all discourse is distorted by the pull of an autocratic authority.

Some Roman senators, forced to become actors and dissimulators under the scrutinizing eye of the ruler, portrayed themselves and their class as the victims of regimes that are, for us, redolent of Stalinism. Other writers claimed that doublespeak--saying one thing and meaning two--was the way one could, and did, undo the constraining effects of imperial oppression. Tacitus, Suetonius, and Juvenal all figure in Bartsch's shrewd analysis of historical and literary responses to the brute facts of empire; even the Panegyricus of Pliny the Younger now appears as a reaction against the widespread awareness of dissimulation. Informed by theories of dramaturgy, sociology, new historicism, and cultural criticism, this close reading of literary and historical texts gives us a new perspective on the politics of the Roman empire--and on the languages and representation of power.

Author Information


Shadi Bartsch is Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago.


Classicists will find in this engagingly written survey a stimulating synthesis...Students of rhetoric and literary theory unfamiliar with the classical material should find in the book an incentive to take a more serious interest in the darkly self-concealing literary and social culture of imperial Rome.

I heartily recommend this book to readers who have an interest in Roman historiography and literature of the early empire and more generally to any reader who has an interest in how language may be shaped by its response to the suppression of freedom...The beauty of [Bartsch's] presentation is that she invites us to reconsider familiar texts and historical episodes in a new and interesting light.

Shadi Bartsch examines the changes that took place in the relationship between Roman audiences and the emperor from the reign of Nero to that of Hadrian. Carefully documenting her work through contemporary sources--e.g., Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Juvenal, Martial, Pliny--she focuses on the theater and the gladiatorial games as a most appropriate place to analyze this interaction through the time of Nero; she draws on dramatic works as well for her analysis in the post-Nero period...Bartsch has taken an unusual and original approach to her material, and her book has much to recommend it. Her work should be of interest to both students and scholars of theater, history, classics, and sociology.

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Edition: Reprint 2013
Audience: Professional and scholarly;