Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



Useful to historians and archaeologists, the life stories of victims of subjugation and oppression preserve social and political motivation as well as details of empire. The importance of biography in illuminating struggles for power survives in the Welsh monk Asser's Life of King Alfred (893), the feminist poet Christine de Pisan's Hymn to Joan of Arc (1429), and the Indian journalist Nayantara Sahgal's Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power (1982). An Old Testament study of wise and unwise rule occurs in 2 Samuel with the emergence of David, shepherd poet and first to unify desert tribes into a Hebrew state. Mentored by Jonathan, King Saul's son, around 980 B.C., David epitomized the physical hardening of the professional warrior. According to the anonymous biographer, “They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions” (2 Samuel 1:23). The narrative, possibly written by the priest Abiathar, balances King David's political promise with his arrogance in stealing Bathsheba, another soldier's wife.

The biblical text illustrates the power of the Middle Eastern sage over monarchy through a FABLE told by the priest Nathan to David. With an allegory about the rich man's theft of the poor man's pet lamb, Nathan charges David with despoiling Bathsheba and concealing her pregnancy by having her husband, Uriah the Hittite, abandoned in battle against the Ammonites (2 Samuel 12:1-15). The rhetorical mousetrap so shatters the king's composure that he confesses to Nathan in a scenario that survives in art, drama, and film. Actors vied for the parts of king and prophet—Gregory Peck and Raymond Massey in David and Bathsheba (1951), Richard Gere and Niall Buggy in King David (1985), and Nathaniel Parker and Franco Nero in David (1997).

Nathan's PROPHECY of ongoing strife within the Davidic dynasty holds true through much of the king's reign, when he struggles for political accord. After David's son Absalom rebels and falls to the spears of Captain Joab's men, the abject father keens with the loss of his treacherous child: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). Five chapters later, the biographer restores the king's dignity by recording the last words of David, an idealized portrait of the perfect ruler: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth” (2 Samuel 23:3-4). The emerging star of Israel, David's son Solomon, restores justice by dispensing wisdom that turned the adjective Solomonic into a standard descriptor of judicious emperors as far east as Malaysia.

The Life of Jesus

Three New Testament texts—the gospels of Mark (ca. A.D. 70), Matthew (ca. A.D. 80), and Luke (ca. A.D. 90)—portray the execution of Jesus as an example of Roman retribution against outside agitators who threaten the status quo. According to the 16 chapters that John Mark (Saint Mark the Evangelist), a disciple of St. Peter, composed in koine (Greek dialect), the Hebrew prophet and teacher Jesus was born in the last years of Emperor Augustus's reign and came of age during the early years of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Looking back some four decades, the biographer, a congregant of Jerusalem's first Christian church living in Rome, begins with the Messiah's baptism in the Jordan River and reproduces verbatim the pronouncements of Jesus in the original Aramaic. As a collection of WISDOM LITERATURE, the narrative amasses three agrarian parables—about the sower, the wheat and tares, and the mustard seed—alongside prophecies and confrontational episodes preceding Jesus's crucifixion around A.D. 36. At a high point in gospel advice, Mark records a challenge to skeptics: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul! Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul” (Mark 8:36-37). The rhetorical question bears implications for the Roman Empire and its minions, who disenfranchised Middle Easterners through four centuries of suppression and slaughter.

A cornerstone of the New Testament, the Aramaic summation of Jesus's birth and ministry is the work of tax accountant Matthew, a putative Galilean whom the bureaucracy of Herod Antipas posted to Capharnaum on the Damascus highway. The biography excels at accuracy and thorough coverage. Beginning with a lengthy genealogy dating to the Abrahamic and Davidic dynasties, the life story pulls details from Isaiah's prophecy and from Mark's gospel and includes aphorisms and the Sermon on the Mount, the core oration of Christian philosophy. Matthew constructs his biography chronologically, from the arrival of unnamed magi from the East to honor the Christ Child to King Herod's paranoid infanticide of Hebrew boys to subvert the messianic prediction. The legend took on more detail in the account provided in MARCO POLO'S The Travels of Marco Polo (1298), which identifies the magi as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

Skipping Jesus's coming of age, Matthew's narrative depicts the Messiah as an evangelist. At the height of the Sermon on the Mount, he comforts a fringe people of the Roman Empire: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake” (Matthew 5:11). The imagery of the commoner honors Christians from two perspectives—as “the salt of the earth” and as “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14). The metaphor of illumination is common to such ancient writings as the Sumerian GODDESS LORE in the EPITHALAMIUM “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi” (ca. 2800 B.C.), the HERO stories in the Sanskrit BHAGAVAD GITA (Song of God, ca. 200 B.C.), and the AVESTA (ca. A.D. 530), the holy writ of Zoroastrianism.

Like the Chinese philosophers Laozi (Lao- tze) and Confucius (see ANALECTS), the Frankish emperor CHARLEMAGNE, and the Mohawk prophet Deganawida, founder of the Iroquois Confederacy (see WHITE ROOTS OF PEACE, THE), Jesus became a force for good in troubled times. He advocated peace and forbearance at a time when Roman legionaries trampled the civil and property rights of eastern Mediterranean citizens. In terms of world VISIONARY LITERATURE, a model invocation known as the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) describes anticipation of a celestial kingdom for the faithful. With a benevolent touch, Jesus chides his followers for dividing their loyalties between worldly and spiritual rewards: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).

Matthew depicts Jesus as a man of action and of heart. The VIOLENCE of Herod's decapitation of John the Baptist precedes a view of the gracious suffering servant after Jesus turns two fish and five loaves into enough food for a crowd of 4,000. Matthew provides evidence of Jesus' counsel, healing, resurrecting the dead, and working of wonders as prefaces to a more humane version of Mosaic law, a legalistic treatise lacking compassion and forgiveness. In place of the proscriptions on behavior found in the Ten Commandments laid out in EXODUS, Jesus uses a personal approach to the gospel of love: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 19:19). The subsequent clash with the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judaea, foretokens beatings, scourging, mockery, and Jesus' execution in the Roman style, the inevitable demise of a troublemaking seer claiming to be divine. To heighten the pathos of a lingering torment, Matthew quotes a last outcry: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), a dramatic humanization of the Messiah.

A Populist View

The most beloved Christian biography, the gospel of Luke, a Gentile physician from Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey), fleshes out Matthew's account with stories of Jesus' birth and boyhood, written primarily in refined Greek. Less judgmental of women and the poor than previous Hebrew scriptures, the biography sets the prototype of Mariology (study of the Virgin Mary) by depicting Jesus' modest mother as a vessel of godhood. Luke characterizes the magnificat, or Song of Mary, as a reply to her exaltation by God: “For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden… . He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree” (Luke 1:48, 52). From her miraculous pregnancy comes the Prince of Peace. For the occasion of Jesus' birth, Luke composed an epiphanic welcome to shepherds sung by a host of angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14)—a source for art, film, theater, literature, and music, from the Middle Ages to the present.

Luke's populist text honors the peasantry by picturing Jesus' recruitment of disciples from Galilean fishermen and his healing of lepers, the untouchables of ancient European and Mediterranean societies. Similarly compassionate are the classic parables found only in Luke's gospel, those of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, both models of forgiveness and redemption. The latter teaching text concludes with a family celebration of unity when the wanderer returns: “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).

A statement of the power of the individual conscience served LEO TOLSTOY as the title of a pacifist treatise, The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), taken from Jesus' words recorded in Luke 17:21. As a token of hope, the biography concludes Jesus' background with death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. Blended with the writings of Mark and Matthew into the synoptic, or combined, gospels, Luke's biography of Jesus formed the basis of enduring Hollywood epics, including The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Passion of the Christ (2004), and The Nativity Story (2006).

The Life of Buddha

Messianic biography spread reverence for the Buddha much as it did for David and Jesus. Around A.D. 100, the Brahmin poet, playwright, and philosopher Ashvaghosa (ca. 80-ca. 150) of Saketa in northern India summarized in Sanskrit the acts of the Buddha in the epic Buddhacarita (The Life of the Buddha). As an expert in Buddhist teachings, Ashvaghosa served the Kushanite emperor Kanishka as an adviser on affairs in northern India, Kashmir, and present-day Afghanistan. His biography of Gautama Buddha balances admiration for the master without exaggerating his miracles. To dignify the subject, Ashvaghosa rid his collection of outlandish tales that had marred the sacred history with magic and showmanship. A classic scriptural poem, the completed 28-chapter narrative is on a par with the sanctity of the Christian New Testament. The text flourished in Dharmaraksa's Chinese translation in 420 and in Tibetan versions produced in the late 600s.

The life events that distinguish the Buddha begin with purification of Queen Maya's womb by a white elephant and the miraculous conception of a prince, Siddhartha Gautama. The narrative depicts a birthing “for the welfare of the world, without pain and without illness” (Ashvaghosa 1969, 10). At his arrival in Lumbini, Nepal, the brightness of the child's physiognomy compares with Matthew's revelation of a rare star marking Jesus' birth. (Accounts of illumination have produced centuries of lustrous drawings and statuary.) The gods themselves pay homage to the royal child with blessings on his wisdom; the heavens release a shower of lotus and waterlillies scented with sandalwood, an olfactory motif that permeates the entire biography. Ashvaghosa records a prophecy of the prince's aid to a suffering world, a vision similar to the predictions of the Old Testament seer Isaiah about Jesus' peace mission and to European legends of King Arthur's civilizing powers. The anticipation of Buddha's gentleness, moral laws, deliverance of earth from sorrow, and release of all people from yearning and delusions takes palpable form in the Buddha's travels on a “noble path” (18).

Ashvaghosa carries his narrative to the acme of the lord's earthly accomplishment. A lengthy study of the Buddha's asceticism, meditation, temptation, and search for truth results in the bodhi (enlightenment) and the anticipation of thousands of incarnations that refine his capacity for compassion. In the last book, Ashvaghosa pictures the Buddha surrounded by beggars and hermits and lodging in forests, caves, mountains, and on the banks of the Ganges River. Integral to his ministry is his comfort to “the blind, the humpbacked, the lame, the insane, the maimed as well as the destitute,” the sufferers of India's lowest caste (200-201).

Biographic Integrity

The composition of authentic life histories forces the biographer to make decisions about difficult truths, such as the Roman historian SUETONIUS'S survey of the first century of the Roman Empire in De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars, ca. A.D. 121), the imperial adviser Einhard's scrupulous objectivity about CHARLEMAGNE'S empire building in Vita Caroli Magni (The Life of Charlemagne, ca. 830), and Bishop Asser's attempt to honor the feats of a living legend in Life of King Alfred (893) without sounding like a sycophant. Later models struggle with historical conflict, as in Alexandre Dumas's Napoleon (1855), with its survey of megalomania; Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, Liliuokalani (1898), depicting the American usurpation of a Polynesian king's realm; Elizabeth Berryhill's summation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's wartime resistance spying and attempted assassination in The Cup of Trembling (1962); and MARYSE CONDE'S reprise of American colonial female persecution in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986).

On more tenuous grounds, the intellectual author and literary theorist YI KWANGSU attempted to appease Japanese invaders in his native Korea by collaborating with the enemy. After the occupation of Korea in 1910, Yi continued his steady output of historical fiction and nonfiction, often concealing his defense of home through nationalistic allegory. In 1929, he depicted the life of a 15th-century boy-king during the Joseon dynasty in Tanjong Aesa (The Tragic History of King Tanjong 1929), a tale of a prince who died in 1455 at age 14 at the hands of King Sejo. Three years later, Yi maintained his covert patriotism by honoring a naval commander, the title figure in the semihistorical biography Yi Sun-sin (1932), who defeated the Sui invasion of Korea in 1592. By exalting past Korean heroes, Yi realized his intent to rebuild national spirit and image through literature.



Ashvaghosa. The Buddha-Karita of Asvaghosha in

Buddhist Mahayana Texts. Translated by E. B.

Cowell. New York: Dover, 1969.

Holy Bible. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1986.

Lee, Ann Sung-Hi. Yi Kwang-su and Modern Korean

Literature. New York: Columbia University East Asia Program, 2005.