Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.20


A.J. Boyle (ed.), Roman Epic. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Pp. xii + 336. ISBN 0-415-04230-5.


Reviewed by Julia Haig Gaisser, Bryn Mawr College.

Not long ago I assigned an undergraduate Vergil class Bernard Knox's old article "The Serpent and the Flame" (AJP 1950). They were not impressed: it was obvious, they said. Couldn't everyone see those ideas at work in Aeneid 2? Well, no, they couldn't -- once upon a time; and it took the work of Knox himself and of Michael Putnam on the Aeneid (1966), Cedric Whitman on the Iliad (1958), Peter Elder on Lucretius, and a host of others writing on other poets to make what seems so obvious in the 1990s even a legitimate subject for scholarly discussion in the 1960s. Today many younger scholars are unaware of the great sea change that overtook our discipline thirty years ago, and even among those who ought to know better few remember what a revolution was required to open the way for the study of Greek and Roman poetry not merely as grist for textual criticism, history, and biography, but as literature that could (and should) be interpreted with the tools and methods of contemporary criticism.

Boyle obviously remembers, and it is one of the more attractive features of Roman Epic that it opens with a tribute to two fundamental works from this period, the volumes of Critical Essays on Roman Literature edited by the late J. P. Sullivan: Elegy and Lyric (1962) and Satire (1963). Both volumes, but particularly Elegy and Lyric, exercised a profound influence on the teaching and criticism of Latin poetry, especially in the United States. Although much in the two collections now appears dated or questionable, some of the essays became classics, their argument as obvious and as inevitable as that in "The Serpent and the Flame." To take only the most distinguished example, A. W. Allen's "Sunt qui Propertium malint" has probably influenced the way we read Roman elegy more than any other single piece of writing in the last generation.

Boyle's Roman Epic (dedicated, appropriately enough, to John Sullivan) was conceived as a companion and counterpart to Sullivan's volumes, although, as Boyle points out (p. xi), it appears in a changed world of classical scholarship. The battle to treat Latin poetry as literature has been won; but the tools and methods of contemporary criticism have changed. We have now "a plurality of questions, approaches, methods and perspectives" (p. xi).

Boyle's volume surveys Latin epic from Livius Andronicus to Petrarch and Vida in thirteen "specially commissioned essays" (p. xi):

Roman Epic hangs together better than most collections of its kind, for most of the essays obligingly stress the two themes that Boyle has laid out for them at the outset: that Roman epic is political or "politico-historical" (p. 3), and that the epic poets create meaning by constantly re-reading and re-writing their predecessors. There is nothing revolutionary in either of these ideas, but to see them played out over and over again for over seventeen centuries of poetry is impressive and very often instructive -- sometimes even exciting.

Most of the excitement is to be found in the second part of the volume. One reason for this is obvious: the later epics are just now beginning to emerge from a long period of neglect and disdain, and they provide an open and relatively uncharted field for criticism. But that is not all: some of the earlier essays (notably those of Konstan, Boyle, Ahl, and Sullivan) are not only going over familiar ground, but going over it in a familiar way, arguing that not only is Roman epic "politico-historical" but that the achievement of Catullus (64), Vergil, and their successors is to question and subvert the dominant ideology of their society. This idea is not new, and this is not the first time it has been expressed by its proponents in this volume. To be sure, it is an idea to be reckoned with (only a very naive reader takes all panegyric at face value), but there is also no getting around the fact that the defense and assertion of old critical positions is less interesting than the adumbration of new ones. Now for some specifics.

The essays of Sander Goldberg (on Livius Andronicus and Naevius) and William Dominik (on Ennius) provide an excellent introduction to early Roman epic. Goldberg's (drawn from his forthcoming book, Ruined Choirs of Roman Epic Verse) is particularly valuable for its stylistic analysis of the Saturnian in both poets. By comparing Livius' lines with their Homeric counterparts he demonstrates inter alia Livius' concern with "decorum": the poet apparently has scruples that won't let him equate a mortal with the gods (frag. 10) or allow him to have a mortal character address a god with "colloquial" diction (frag. 7); Nausicaa's conveyance (frag. 15) is not a wagon (plaustrum) but a "carpentum, a lady's two wheeled cart" (p. 28). (One wonders how much of this decorum is purely "Roman" and how much is owed to Livius' reading of the Homeric scholia.) Dominik gives us an Ennius intensely self-conscious of himself as a poet and of his position as the reincarnation (quite literally) of Homer. His close reading of Ann. 1, fr. 47 (the taking of the auspices by Romulus and Remus), though wordy, not only neatly complements Goldberg's stylistic analysis of the Saturnian poets but also is suggestive even for students of other genres. Thus, after Dominik's discussion of Ennian word play (pp. 54-5), no reader of the "Roman" elegies of Tibullus (2.5) and Propertius (4.6) can argue that the elegists owed all their patriotic etymologizing to an unmediated encounter with Callimachus.

Konstan argues that Cat. 64 combines the aesthetic and the moral:

In its allusiveness and complexity, the poem seems to call attention to its status as a refined work of art. At the same time, it insists on an ethical reading, inviting judgment of Theseus' betrayal of Ariadne and the sacrifice of Polyxena, which coexist with the glamorous nuptials of Peleus and Thetis.... [The marriage] is coloured by allusions to another affair in the wake of the Argo, that of Jason and Medea, and the callous indifference it represents to the suffering of foreigners and women.... The epilogue ... puts the reader in the position of moralist and judge. (pp. 75-6)
And again (p. 76): Catullus' double focus "helped to open up the elite conventions of Hellenistic verse to an engagement with immediate social issues. The fruits of Catullus' experiment were to be realized by Virgil." Konstan is both restating the argument of his 1977 book, Catullus' Indictment of Rome: The Meaning of Catullus 64 (indeed, the phrase "immediate social issues" quoted above is almost incomprehensible without it), and defending it against the elegant and devastating criticism of Richard Jenkyns in Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus and Juvenal (1982). Although he devotes too much space to this old question, Konstan also floats some new ideas. He insists (rather strangely, I thought) on formal parallels between Cat. 64 and the Hesiodic Shield of Herakles (the point of such parallels remains unexplained); and in the strongest part of the essay he presents a case, which unfortunately is not fully developed, for the epyllion as a play of shifting perspectives and generic codes.

Boyle's essay restates the argument of the section on the Aeneid in his 1988 book, The Chaonia n Dove: Studies in the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid of Virgil. The language is trendy ("encodes", "entexts", "recuperable", etc.), but the rest is familiar territory, as Boyle reasserts and refines the well-worn "pessimistic," anti-imperial, and "subversive" reading of the Aeneid using many of the arguments he and others have made before (Aeneas as Achilles, the end of the poem, the gate of false dreams, Aeneas as ignarus rerum at the end of Book 8, etc.). Fair enough: there is a dark side of the Aeneid, and it doesn't hurt to be reminded of it.

More troubling is the fact that the passages Boyle cites don't always bear out the claims he makes for them -- perhaps because the supporting argument from his book has been omitted. Thus, on p. 84:

Rome's history and imago [the idealizing self-image of imperium and arma] are revealed to him [Aeneas] in the ideological core of the epic -- a fact to which attention is drawn at crucial moments in Books 10 (especially 521 ff., 821 ff.) and 12 (especially 175 ff., 311 ff., 829 ff., 930 ff.). The failure of this imago to be realized in the narrative makes of the narrative a refutation of the imperial imago itself.
That is, Aeneas' subsequent behavior and the general course of events do not always live up to the revelations in Books 6 and 8. In two of Boyle's six passages (10.521 ff. and 12.930 ff.) Aeneas kills suppliants, so violating, or so it has often been argued, Anchises' command of parcere subiectis in 6.853. The relation of the other passages to the "ideological core" is less clear. At 10.821ff. Aeneas pities the dead Lausus and the patriae ... pietatis imago comes into his mind. Aeneas as a son (for he is called Anchisiades at 822) thinks of a son's love for his father (his own love for Anchises and Lausus' for Mezentius) -- and perhaps also of a father's love for his son. The imago is not narrowly imperial if it is imperial at all; in any case, it is not violated in the narrative. At 12.175ff. Aeneas promises to abide by the outcome of his single combat with Turnus and outlines his conduct if he should win; his oath is not violated in the narrative. At 12.311ff. Aeneas is wounded as he tries to restore the broken truce; at 12.829ff. Jupiter makes peace with Juno and promises that the Trojans will be subsumed into the Latin race. Neither passage "refutes the imperial imago".

And again, on Aeneas' promise to Lausus of fame as compensation for death in Book 10, Boyle argues that Aeneas has forgotten:

"the inability of fame to compensate for the loss and the tears of history. ... In Book 6 the epic's hero had seen the worthlessness of the aeternum nomen, the 'undying name' (A. 6.235).
But the line in Book 6 refers to the tomb of Misenus, and there is no sense that it was worthless -- or, indeed, that Aeneas had any idea that it would have an aeternum nomen: the lofty mountain where Misenus was buried "is now (nunc) called Misenus after him and keeps his name everlasting through the ages (6. 234-5)."

I found Boyle's essay most suggestive in its brief discussion of the pictorial quality of the poem (Virgil uses "tableaux and vignettes as the building blocks of his epic" 88) and its structural complexity:

[Virgil has created] in his verbal artefact the kinds of detailed correspondences, contrasts and relationships associated contemporarily with the visual arts, especially architecture and monumental sculpture. (p. 90)
Given his interest in Virgil's pictures, however, I missed any reference to Paul Zanker's essential study, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus.

Anderson promises that his essay on Ovid's Metamorphoses will deal with two questions:

1) What does this poem on the subject of changed forms discover that is new, significant, entertaining, and capable of challenging Virgil's Aeneid?
2) How far does Ovid the elegiac poet change, as he composes this poem, and how far does he change the epic form in which he has chosen to work?" (pp. 109-10)
The rest of the essay is not so crisp or tightly structured as this opening might suggest; and the second question is answered only indirectly: "it is more damaging than helpful to approach Ovid's poem with the expectation of finding an epic (p. 112)"; rather, it is a poem embracing several different genres. Anderson's theme is general and unexceptionable: Ovid is interested above all in humanity and human nature ("we are responsible for the changes that develop in us, spreading from mens to body and external form" p. 124). His essay takes a more independent ideological line than many of the others in the volume: we hear nothing from him of an Aeneid that subverts patriotic imperial themes or of a Metamorphoses that travesties the Aeneid. In the Theban stories of Met. 3-4, for example, he shows Ovid using Virgilian allusions not to mock the Aeneid but "to cast Pentheus as a major blasphemer-tyrant and as a chauvinistic young fool (p. 116)," although in other sections "Ovid himself seems to turn away from epic values and themes and to validate an alternative human, non-heroic viewpoint (117)."

Ahl revives the argument of his book, Lucan: An Introduction, and brings us back to subversive epic:

[The Pharsalia] is a political act as well as a political poem (p. 125).... What is new [i.e. in comparison to Homer and Virgil] is Lucan's overt disapproval of the dismemberment of his world, his invective against those he feels responsible for it, his hope that his readers will not simply acquiesce. His aim is to provoke, not just to report, action (p. 126).
He ranges provocatively if not always convincingly through violations of liberty ancient and modern to track "Lucan's obsession with libertas (p. 140)"; and he is extremely interesting in his brief comparison of Virgil's obvious complexity with Lucan's ostentatious directness and clarity (pp. 128-31). Further exploration of this last would have been welcome.

Sullivan's essay on counter-genres in opposition to epic is too general to be very useful, for it seems that everyone who did not write epic had a political or moral reason for not doing so, and each receives a paragraph or two. Readers interested in Sullivan's ideas about elegy as a counter-genre will find them set out more clearly in his Propertius: A Critical Introduction (1976) than in this essay. I liked his discussion of the rejection of epic by imperial satirists and was sorry he did not expand on it, especially since the next several essays in the volume deal with imperial epic:

... Persius, Martial and Juvenal all present roughly similar criticisms of epic. Epic themes are unreal, not by contrast with the idealized and passionate life of the lover, but by contrast with the everyday life of poverty, patronage and power -- and the virtuous or contented life in which alone lie spiritual defence and protection. (p. 152)
Henderson's essay presents Statius' Thebaid as a strong reading of the Aeneid and makes the most interesting (and persuasive) case in the volume for epic as subversive. It is also the first essay to make use of anything like contemporary critical method. The bad news is that much of it verges on the incomprehensible. Henderson mediates his discourse, ut ita dicam, through elaborate verbal pyrotechnics and a sort of stream of consciousness that are fascinating and provocative in themselves, but may make the reader long for a little simple expository prose. It may be that the medium is the message, after all, but there are still many fine and arresting moments in this essay. This is one of the clearer ones:
In this epic it is the post-Phaeacian 'Nausicaa'-figure Hypsipyle who will take the chance of hospitality-niceties to operate, know and bespeak narrative, taking over the post-war scarred Warrior's privilege and charisma. This promotion of the Woman's Voice to tell the underside of virtus displaces the site of epic from within; it is as if Virgil's Andromache were to step out of her narrated inclusion within Aeneas' perspective and take over the telling of Aeneid 2 and 3 for a Troades-style narrative. (p. 183)
Malamud and McGuire give a brilliant account of the intertextual nature of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica:
Valerius' Argonauts sail through seas choked with precedents, crowded with doppelgängers. Their unmapped unknown is for the author a well-charted world of familiar texts; for the reader the Argonautica is an endless voyage into the familiar made strange. (p. 215)
This is an essay to savor -- and not just by the small world of Valerius-fanciers; for it illuminates not only the Argonautica but also its (many) models. The centerpiece is a stunning interpretation of Valerius' Hylas episode, which begins with a short account of the Hylas myth from Apollonius to Propertius, and includes the best interpretation of Prop. 1.20 I have seen. Politics takes a back seat in this very literary essay, but the authors use the evidence of contemporary monuments to make a nice case for Hercules and Hylas as a reflection (emphatically not a subversive one) of Domitian and his eunuch Earinus.

With Wilson on Silius Italicus and Connor on Claudian we are back in more traditional territory. Wilson argues in detail for Silius' mythologizing of history, which is "wrenched not just in language but in event into the epic mode." He has a fine account of the historical Silius and his world (pp. 233-5). Connor's thesis is not entirely clear, but he gives a nice running account, emphasizing the ways in which Claudian expands and magnifies episodes treated summarily in other accounts (e.g. Pluto's journey from the underworld). He duly notes Claudian's emphasis on individual scenes and refers to Michael Robert's The Jeweled Style (1989), but still seems more depressed than delighted by what he finds in his poet:

Claudian's poem soon begins to resemble several school exercises placed together end on end: a list ticked off as each item was completed: concilium: yes; dream: yes; and so on. (p. 247)
And again:
Claudian gives every sign of being at the mercy of every poetic practice from every genre that preceded him. (p. 251)
I would like to have heard more about the close resemblance between two of Claudian's scenes and representations in art (Proserpina's pose in Pluto's chariot on the facade of the tomb at Vergina, p. 251, and Ceres with her mirror in the roughly contemporary mosaic at Piazza Armerina, p. 255).

Ward's essay on mediaeval epic is as exciting as Malamud and McGuire's on Valerius Flaccus. Here, however, the achievement is not the brilliant use of literary theory, but rather the subtle integration of historical and literary evidence. Ward devotes most of the essay to the Waltharius and its relation to the marital legislation and attitudes of the Carolingian church, arguing that the poet has reshaped earlier versions of the story to present a

form of this legendary material that would suitably underline a view of the relationship between aristocratic men and women that the upper clergy wished to impart -- for quite practical reasons -- to their lay contemporaries. (p. 262)
This utilitarian purpose is achieved by emphasizing the betrothal of Waltharius and Hiltgunde and by allusions to Aeneid 4, which the poet uses to point up the differences rather than the similarities between the happy destiny of his faithful couple and the fate of Dido and Aeneas. The argument is more subtle than this bald summary implies, and Ward is particularly good on the nuances of the central scene between the lovers.

Hardie closes the volume with a fine essay on Petrarch's Africa and the Christiad of Vida, giving an excellent account of the engagement of both with their classical models. Neo-Latin literature hasn't received much in the way of first-class detailed literary criticism -- mostly, I suspect, because classicists disdain it as inauthentic (not "real" Latin, somehow) and most students of modern languages can't read it. Hardie's essay is a welcome corrective and makes one hope for better things.

Where will this Roman Epic be thirty years from now? Will it be as oft-cited and as heavily thumbed as Sullivan's Satire and Elegy and Lyric? Probably not, if only because there is far more good criticism of Latin poetry around than there was in 1962. I suspect it will have its greatest effect on the study of post-Augustan literature, which has been canon fodder all too long. In the meantime it's well worth having -- both for the sweep of epic presented in it and for the several really distinguished essays it contains.