GUEST POST – I’m happy to introduce Rebecca Scano, a graduate of Historical Letters, who is here to talk to us about the literary tropes in classical sources, the so-called topoi. Her blog “Romanae Topica” means “Roman topoi,” so you’ll understand why I asked her to take on this topic. From now on it is her work.
Literary Trope (Topos): Definition and Meaning
How many times in our lives have we heard or used the expression “commonplace”? Maybe in a political speech or casual conversation among friends. Nowadays, this term immediately recalls a negative idea. Our society commonly uses it to refer to something that everyone believes in, but that we know is not true or at least not entirely. In short, it would be a close relative of clichés, stereotypes, and sayings. In reality, this meaning is not the only one associated with such an expression. Its origin can be traced back to an older and literary usage.
tòpos (from the Greek τòπος, τòποι): commonplace, recurring motif in a work, in the themes of an author or an era (a meaning that contemporary critical language derives from ancient Greek rhetoric).
This is the definition of the ancient Greek term topos provided by the Italian encyclopedia Treccani. Did even the ancients have idioms, and commonplaces, which they encountered daily? Certainly yes. However, to better understand the meaning of the term topos, we need to forget for a moment the contemporary sense of our “commonplace.” Let’s set aside the current and informal usage and open ourselves to the literary world.
As the second definition, not by chance, we find “a recurring motif in a work.” Tòpos is primarily a theme, a narrative form, a device used since ancient Greece in rhetoric and literature. This tool was useful in rhetoric then as it is now: it offered writers and poets starting points to create something innovative and served as a patch when appropriate words were not found to use. It also allowed readers to understand, recognize, and immediately immerse themselves in the scenario, the moment, and the character the author was describing.
Literary Tropes Between History and Literature
Now, for a literary critic, topoi are excellent tools, fun to recognize and learn to use. For a historian, they pose a serious danger in source analysis if not immediately identified. Failing to recognize a topos can lead to a distorted understanding of the text, a historical figure, or even an entire context (especially those more remote and distant from us). Because of this, among the many portraits of men and women from antiquity handed down to us, we find many masks and few faces.
You might be confused with this reference to the Italian playwriter Pirandello. Therefore, some clarification is necessary so that you don’t doubt that Alexander the Great was ever truly great, for instance.
If you search online for the word #tòpos, you will find a multitude of articles and related examples, and you have the embarrassment of choice (the same dilemma I had in choosing which ones to tell you to delve into the topic). Ancient Rome is perhaps the one that offers us the most insights, also because it is very distant from us, making it more difficult to find evidence to reconstruct a complete picture. In the pole position, we find numerous emperors like Commodus, Caligula, Nero, and Claudius. For each of these, there has been at least one historian who has endeavoured to revise a common memory that has now become entirely distorted.
Between intelligence and deformity: the example of emperor Claudius
Let’s take Claudius as the most emblematic example. He has gone down in history as an incapable, crippled, and inept emperor. However, we know that in reality, he was a scholar, passionate about history and literature, a lover of that Hellenistic world, cradle of culture, freedom, and passions. These are aspects that ancient authors report, but they are concealed behind a plethora of hilarious (or rather humiliating) anecdotes about the clumsy, stuttering, and grumbling emperor. The deformity of his body overshadows every other aspect.
This is a literary topos: mental abilities compensate for a physical deficiency, which, however, will always remain the primary aspect in the character analysis because appearance is the most immediate and striking. In Claudius’s case, the authors go even further: they try to downplay his intelligence, passing down to posterity the idea that the poor cripple wasn’t even that brilliant after all. Seneca’s “Apokolokyntosis” is the apotheosis of this view. In reality, poor Claudius had simply been unlucky to be born in a historical period and into a family where there was no room for diversity.
Women and power, a dangerous combination
Claudius’ character allows us to shift to perhaps even more emblematic cases: Messalina and Agrippina Minor. Both his wives, both described with identical epithets, both accused of plotting, betrayal, cruelty, and lust. The τòποι we find in their descriptions can be associated with most women of antiquity, who probably had the sole fault of being ambitious, strong, and determined in a male-dominated world.
At the top of this immense list of women, we certainly find Cleopatra: the queen of Egypt, heir to Ptolemy, a fierce enemy of Rome. She is described almost as a witch, with a beauty that enchants and fascinates even the sturdiest of Roman generals, such as Caesar and Mark Antony. The use of topoi in these cases reflected a particular political and cultural ideology, characteristic of Roman male chauvinism.
The Historical Approach to Literary Trope
So, how should a historian behave to avoid participating in this distorted transmission and discover the hidden truth behind literary tropes?
- Start from the assumption that nothing of what we know is truly known. What we study in school or for university exams is such an extensive amount of information that we come out of our educational paths believing we know everything. Nothing could be further from the truth. All that is just the tip of the iceberg: there are thousands of unanswered questions, millions of events we are not aware of, and a billion documents, artefacts, and stories yet to be discovered and told.
- Without the first point, we couldn’t get to this: taking the trouble to study what has already been studied. There are no « sacred authorities ». Each of us has our peculiarities and talents, which lead us to observe things differently from others. It’s not guaranteed that everything has already been discovered, but above all, it’s not guaranteed that everything is as previous scholars have determined.
- Rediscover and reinterpret. You must take hold of the sources, analyze them, and compare them to highlight the differences and commonalities. These are especially essential in our search for topoi. When four out of five authors use the same expressions to arrive at a common judgment, there’s something wrong. At that moment, the historian must ask only one question: why?
- Look for the answer in the historical context, in socio-anthropological nature, and in the customs of the time. It is necessary to reconstruct the scenery around our actors, protagonists (characters), and co-protagonists (ancient authors). None of them should ever stand alone on stage.
- Finally, of vital importance: be curious and passionate.
- At this link, you can find a list of the 50 most common topoi in the history of Italian literature (only in Italian).
- Regarding the figure of Claudius, I recommend reading Buongiorno’s essay “Il principe inatteso”, which provides a complete, fresh, and innovative portrait of the emperor. On the subject, I refer you to the article in which I delve into the literary trope of the “different” with a comparative reading between ancient and contemporary literature, from the Romans to Game of Thrones: « Hear them Roar! » (only in Italian).
- On academia.edu, you can find articles about examples of literary tropes from antiquity to today (only in Italian): “Sepolti vivi. Paura tra topos letterario e problema giuridico” by Cristina Ciancio;”Il tema dell’esilio negli epistolari bizantini” by Gioacchino Strano;”C’è dell’altro in Danimarca. Da Giuletta e Romeo ad Amleto – pozioni erboristiche, filtri vegetali ed espedienti di magia tradizionale: topos letterario e messaggi nascosti in Shakespeare” by Stefano Valente;”Il mare d’amore: elementi per la storia di un topos letterario” by Giorgio Ieranò;”Fortuna Favet Fortibus: il topos dell’eroe nella Saga di Paperon de’ Paperoni firmata da Don Rosa” by Luca Pruner.
Hello there! My name is Rebecca (yes, like Hitchcock and Isaac’s first wife), I was born in 1996 and I live in Sardinia. In 2019, I obtained my first degree in Classical Literature, and I then continued with a master’s degree in History and Society at the University of Cagliari. Today, I am embarking on a doctoral journey in ancient history at the University of Potsdam, with a thesis that combines my greatest passions: childhood, sensitivity to forms of diversity, and ancient Rome. During the pandemic, the boredom of the lockdown pushed me to open an Instagram page @romanae_topica, entirely dedicated to Rome. The idea is to convey to the public what I feel when I study these ancient characters and their stories, trying to make them understand why each of these, even after thousands of years, is still worth knowing.
Blog: Romanae Topica