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Stepping into Seneca’s Grove with Dr. Victoria Austen

A grove, an anti-garden, Latin and some pizza characterized the lunch hour of some Classics-inclined students, faculty and other attendees of Robert A. Oden, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Humanities and Classics Dr. Victoria Austen’s presentation last Thursday, Feb. 1.  Entitled “That Dark and Ominous Grove: The Anti-Garden of Seneca’s Thyestes,” the talk covered the comparisons that she has drawn to other depictions of gardens and groves in Ancient Rome, Austen’s area of concentration.

“My research focuses on landscapes and gardens in the Roman world, particularly imaginative gardens,” said Austen. “Not really archeological sites, but more literary descriptions or if a garden is used as a metaphor in literature. And also artistic descriptions of gardens, so we’re very lucky that we have a lot of frescos and wall paintings from the Roman world, particularly in Pompeii, that demonstrate a big use of garden motifs across the Roman world. So I look at that and how Romans are perceiving these spaces and what it tells us about their broader cultural trends.”

The presentation opened with an introduction to the inspiration for Austen’s study of the grove in Thyestes, a tragedy written by the Latin playwright Seneca (the Younger).  Within this, she briefly touched on the content of her first book, “Analyzing the Boundaries of the Ancient Roman Garden.”

“It’s basically this intermedial study of the imaginative space of the Roman garden. I take six different case studies of different descriptions of gardens,” said Austen after the talk. “Some of them are literary descriptions of gardens, and some are art historical. We’ve got some sculptures, and we’ve also got some fresco paintings.”

Using these varying portrayals of gardens, Austen then analyzed their conceptual boundaries.

“I look at how a boundary is represented metaphorically, physically, ideologically, spatially, temporally. All of these different ways that bounded-ness can manifest, and I look at that across all of these different examples to investigate what this space means for the Romans,” said Austen. “Why do they seem to use it in their descriptions? What sort of activities are going on there? What’s located in these imagined spaces, and what does that tell us about their broader approach to space in general?”

Austen’s case study of “That Dark and Ominous Grove” serves as a continuation to her examination of bounded spaces in Ancient Rome.

“The topic of this talk comes out of the conclusion to my recent book that was published last year. This was essentially a passage in a Latin drama play that I used in my conclusion as an ‘I think this will be something interesting that will come out for my next project.’ And I have developed that into a broader research project,” said Austen. “It’s a chance to explore. This is a very dark and twisted piece of Latin literature with people eating the bodies of their children and not knowing about it. It’s a kind of fun topic.”

Austen then went on to the difference between two Latin words that were used in a description of the grove itself: “nemus” (a garden with more artificial elements) and “lucus” (a garden centered around a spirit). Their seemingly interchangeable usage set the stage for the rest of Austen’s talk, which touched on the many oxymoronic themes and ideas that juxtaposed each other throughout the grove’s description.

From regenerative versus degenerative to contained perfusion versus lifeless trees, these contradictions were highlighted in comparison to other texts and depictions of gardens in the ancient world, similarly to Austen’s handling of gardens in her book.

“Each of the individual case studies in my book were not necessarily things that have not been looked at before, but my approach was bringing them all together in this new way. I’ve found that a lot of research that has to do with gardens and landscapes—it has been dealt with in isolated pockets,” said Austen. “So you have literary analysis, you might have art historical analysis, you’ll maybe have archeological analysis. And they weren’t necessarily talking to one another in that way.”

“So my angle in my research is [asking] ‘how do we bring these different types of media together?’ I particularly focus on the concept of the boundary. If we have a garden as a bounded space, how does that concept translate across different types of media?” said Austen. “So it’s really thinking about them together that’s the novel approach…These are not passages or pieces of art that have not been analyzed before; it’s just people have not been thinking of them holistically in this cross-media way.”

Bee Candelaria ’24, a Classics major and student department advisor who attended the talk, “went, on one hand, because I’m normally at the classics table on Thursdays and I particularly like it when they have people talk about their research during them; on the other hand, I’m familiar with Dr. Austen’s work from other talks she’s given in the department and I was interested to see what went down in the ‘dark and ominous grove.’ I enjoyed her talk, especially its discussion of space and relations to space, and the time to be around so many Classics-oriented people. My main takeaways were that groves and gardens were cool spaces with rich literary allusions within them.”

In the future, Austen looks forward to taking on a larger study of groves in the ancient world with this talk serving as a transition between her first book and a future one.

“I think the first stage will be turning this particular talk into a standalone article; that’s my next plan. But this is very much a project that I see as a transition from book one into the next book project. The first book was on gardens, and I see the second book project as being more on sacred groves. This is kind of an interesting transitional case study of…what seems to be a garden in a palace, but Seneca, who is writing this play, describes it with all of this dark and twisted imagery that really evokes these ominous groves, tapping into this underworld imagery.”

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About the Contributor
Zoe Roettger, Features Editor
Hi there!  I'm Zoe (she/her), and I'm a prospective Linguistics major with a Classics minor.  I love anything language-related, arts-related, writing & reading, and cats.  I also have a spider plant named "Pulchra," which, against all odds, is still alive.  When not testing my plant's resiliency, I can usually be found in Anderson or Blue Monday. Zoe Roettger '27 was previously an Arts & Features writer.

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