Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.14


John Penwill, "Two Essays on Virgil: Intertextual Issues in Aeneid 6 and Georgics 4", Studies in Western Traditions Occasional Papers, No. 2. Bendigo: La Trobe University Press, 1995. Pp. 60. ISBN 0-909977-20-8 (pb).


Reviewed by Patricia A. Johnston, Brandeis University, johnston@binah.cc.brandeis.edu.

This little publication contains two short but well thought-out essays by John Penwill on frequently considered issues in Vergilian scholarship. In the first essay, "Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: Intertextual Keys to Aeneid 6," he compares Vergil's underworld in Aeneid VI (724 ff) to Plato's Myth of Er (Rep., 614c ff) and to Cicero's 'Dream of Scipio' (DRP 234ff, 248-51). He argues that just as the passages in Plato and Cicero comprise "mythic conclusions to large-scale works of political philosophy", so too "the prophecy of Anchises <including> his account of cosmology at 6.724 ff ... functions as a mythic underpinning of the ideology implied in the first half of the poem." (p. 13) Thus, since this episode concludes the first half of the poem, for Penwill the three passages share a parallel structure.

Penwill draws a number of worthwhile distinctions which lead him to conclude that Plato's souls are capable of choosing their future lives, based on their prior experience in an earlier incarnation, whereas Vergil's souls have no such ability -- they follow "habit without philosophy" (p. 15). Penwill argues -- and this is not a universally accepted interpretation -- that Aeneas accordingly has no choice but to become the 'alius Achilles' prophesied by the Sibyl in Aen. 6.89.

Again, discussing the gate of false dreams, Penwill argues that efforts to qualify the interpretation of "falsa insomnia" as anything other than "false dreams" is misguided, and concludes that this is Vergil's "attack on the traditional Roman aristocratic value system, the 'mos maiorum'." (26-27)

In the second of the two essays, "The Fable of the Bees: Images of the City in Georgics 4," Penwill argues that Vergil again "sets up a manifest intertextual allusion to Cicero's 'Dream of Scipio'" in his bee 'fable', as he did in Aeneid 6. Penwill's purpose in so doing is to attempt to find "a specifically Roman reference" (p. 29) for the bee community. Much of this discussion has been touched upon to greater and lesser degrees by those of us who have worked with this fascinating poem. Suffice it to say that, indeed, Cicero's notions of an ideal republic are consistent with much of Vergil's bee-community, but so are the ideas found in much earlier writers, from Hesiod (among the Greeks) onward.

While this paper does not necessarily break new ground, it brings together a number of interesting perspectives, which will certainly provoke thoughtful discussion and will be of interest to anyone concerned with these problems.