Time, saecularity, and the first century BCE Roman world




Hay, Paul Jerome

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This dissertation examines the practice of historical periodization by Roman thinkers in the first century BCE and demonstrates that this discourse binds many of the intellectual developments of that time. I argue that during the dictatorship of Sulla, the concept of the saeculum (an Etruscan divinatory term) became adapted into a new idea for historical narrativization among the Roman intellectual community. The result of this development was saecularity, a discursive mode that applied periodization to both the past and the future and thus situated present activity within a broader historical arc. The adoption of saecularity affected the progress of intellectual engagement in a variety of sociopolitical topics. Roman moral decline narratives, traditionally focused on the selection of a single turning point, subsequently developed a more sophisticated vocabulary for explaining the changes in Roman habits, and offered a look to the future of social mores. The rising class of Romans with expert knowledge could historicize the development of their chosen field with “technical histories,” tightly focused narratives inflected by saecularity. The customary trope of attempting literary immortality was transformed, through saecularity, into a weapon against one’s rivals and a source of anxiety for poets seeking a stable fame despite shifting popular tastes. Transitions between each saeculum became a model for Romans who sought to explain instability in their own time. Such transitions increased the Roman interest in a new kind of period, the “post-Roman world,” which saecularity helped hypothesize and structure. Simultaneously, the language of saecularity also influenced the ways that the new Roman Principate and the aristocratic community negotiated their relative statuses within Rome at the end of the first century BCE. My dissertation thus demonstrates how many of the sociopolitical preoccupations typical of the Augustan world emerge from a longer tradition of Roman explorations in temporality.