115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Rewriting Landscapes: Britain as Seen by the Latin Panegyrists

Elizabeth Parker, University of California, Irvine

A three-phase analysis of the rhetorically sophisticated descriptions of Britain in the Panegyrici Latini. First, identifying specific groups of significant vocabulary. Second, discussing the literary/cultural tradition for this vocabulary in Latin literature. Third, contextualizing this vocabulary within the political/social changes of the Roman Empire during the late-3rd/4th century CE.


The Latin Panegyrists of the late Roman Empire created a new Britain through politically- and culturally-charged literary descriptions of the island. As a group, these writers presented a significantly consistent reinterpretation of the island in their speeches of praise, and much of that presentation was done by precise use of Latin vocabulary.

I intend to support my argument regarding the rhetorical expertise of these panegyrists by dividing the significant vocabulary from all the Panegyrici Latini into thematic groups. There is vocabulary of space and physical location (such as alium orbem 8.11.2; fines 6.9.4-5; limen 6.7.1; ultima 6.7.2; ultra 2.23.1), which is used to place the land itself in a new geographic situation. There is mythical and religious vocabulary, both beings and places (such as Hercules 4.16.6; Insulae Fortunatorum 6.7.2; Oceanus 8.20.3; Neptunus 8.7.2; Ultima Thule 6.7.2), which re-names both elements of the land and the people on it. Finally, there is a vocabulary of monsters (such as barbarus 12.25.2; Geryon 10.2.1; pirata 2.26.4; prodigium 10.2.1; tyrannicus 2.31.2), which is used to re-imagine those beings who dare defy the emperor from that corner of the empire.

Once I have given examples of each category, and briefly explained the Roman literary and cultural connotations of these words, I will conclude my analysis by explaining the varying political circumstances in the Roman Empire during the composition of the Panegyrici Latini which contextualize such unusual and innovative literary descriptions of Britain. For example, alium orbem, fines, etc play into Roman imperialist traditions of territorial expansion; Hercules and Oceanus contribute to the divine aspects of imperial propaganda; and pirata, prodigium, and tyrannicus are all examples of a long-standing political strategy of deflecting internal instability by presenting such events as external conflicts with non-Romans.

There is much to be learned from the Panegyrici Latini. These speeches are simultaneously rhetorically sophisticated texts, which show a period of panegyric innovation in the late-3rd/4th century CE, and complex historical documents intimately involved in the political upheavals and social transitions of that period in the western Roman Empire. And they communicate that legacy through their symbolic use of Britain and the vocabulary that surrounds the island.

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