Lauren Donovan Ginsberg’s wider research focuses on the intersection of drama, politics, and memory in early Imperial Rome. All of these interests contributed to her new book: Staging Memory, Staging Strife: Empire and Civil War in the Octavia out from Oxford University Press this December. This book focuses on a play named after Nero’s wife, Octavia, which happens to be the sole surviving history play from ancient Rome. The Octavia dramatizes the notorious age of Nero, the emperor’s murder of his first wife, and the events that led to his fall from power. At the core of her book is a question of the role that literature, and especially drama, plays in the way that we remember the past.
The turbulent decade of the 60s CE brought Rome to the brink of collapse. It began with Nero's ruthless elimination of Julio-Claudian rivals and ended in his suicide and the civil wars that followed. Suddenly Rome was forced to confront an imperial future as bloody as its Republican past and a ruler from outside the house of Caesar. The anonymous historical drama Octavia is the earliest literary witness to this era of uncertainty and upheaval. In Staging Memory, Staging Strife, Ginsberg offers a new reading of how the play intervenes in the contests over memory after Nero's fall. Though Augustus and his heirs had claimed that the Principate solved Rome's curse of civil war, the play reimagines early imperial Rome as a landscape of civil strife with a ruling family waging war both on itself and on its people. In doing so, the Octavia shows how easily empire becomes a breeding ground for the passions of discord.
In order to rewrite the history of Rome's first imperial dynasty, the Octavia engages with the literature of Julio-Claudian Rome, using the words of Rome's most celebrated authors to stage a new reading of that era and its ruling family. In doing so, the play opens a dialogue about literary versions of history and about the legitimacy of those historical accounts. Through an innovative combination of intertextual analysis and cultural memory theory, Ginsberg contextualizes the roles that literature and the literary manipulation of memory play in negotiating the transition between the Julio-Claudian and Flavian regimes. Her book claims for the Octavia a central role in current debates over both the ways in which Nero and his family were remembered as well as the politics of literary and cultural memory in the early Roman empire.
Hollywood and modern pop culture often view Nero as the evilest of Rome’s evils. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to question the basis of this image: what sources do we have for it? In whose interest was it that Nero be remembered as a monster? This book takes these questions back to their beginning by examining how Roman drama and the stage reinterpreted Neronian history for a world without Nero.