Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.02

Mark Petrini, The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997. Pp. viii + 136. ISBN-0-472-10460-8.

Reviewed by Christopher Nappa, Department of Classics, University of Tennessee,

Among the most striking passages in Vergil's Aeneid are those which deal with the great promise, and often the tragic deaths, of young men. The descriptions of Marcellus' brief life, the death of Lausus, and the defeat and slaughter of Nisus and Euryalus are scenes of great pathos and beauty; the death of Pallas is linked intimately with the poem's chilling final movement and through it to the themes of the epic as a whole. While Vergilian scholarship has always acknowledged the power of this topos, too little attention has been paid to its significance for Vergil's poetic program: Mark Petrini's The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil is a step toward redressing the balance. Moreover, Petrini looks at the young men (pueri, though as P. points out, only Iulus is actually a child) through the lens of Catullan allusion in Vergil's works and thus makes progress toward remedying another odd deficit in Vergilian criticism: the importance of Catullan poetry not only to isolated passages in Vergil's poems, but to Vergil's view of the world -- in particular, the treacherous, disappointing world of Catullan adulthood which P. believes is often coterminous with the world of the epic hero as represented in the Aeneid.

Three short chapters introduce the major concerns of the work: coming of age (which P. calls initiation), Catullus' view of youth and the perilous transition from the safety of childhood to the treachery of the adult world, and the overall pessimism of Vergilian poetry. None of these topics gets quite the treatment it deserves, though P. returns to each throughout the book. In particular, P.'s discussion of Catullus is lamentably brief. He is particularly good on the longer poems, and seems to see, as most scholars have not, that the theme of coming of age is one of the central concerns of these poems; weddings and marriage are a motif which elaborates the perils and social consequences of the transition. The brevity of the chapter, however, confines its usefulness primarily to that of an introduction to P.'s work on Vergil; with somewhat greater elaboration, it could have been a valuable work on Catullus himself. It should be added, in fact, that this is a book on Vergil, primarily on the Aeneid, and that Catullus and his influence play a much smaller role in the work than the title suggests.

Each of the next three chapters focuses on a particular puer. This is the heart of the book, a study of the Aeneid and its themes through an examination of the attempted initiations of young men into the adult world of the epic hero. In P.'s view, this is also the world of night and of treachery epitomized in the description of the fall of Troy in book 2. This is a useful observation, though one misses fuller treatment of book 2 itself. P. tacitly assumes, for instance, that the description of Troy's final tragic night has Vergil's own authority behind it; in fact, Vergil describes the action only through Aeneas' narrative. There is a potential dissonance here between the poet's vision of the fall of Troy and that of one of his characters; greater exploration of this narrative dissonance would have strengthened P.'s argument.

Chapter 3 focuses on Nisus and Euryalus and their failed quest for heroic glory and heroic adulthood. P.'s reading here is sensitive and thoughtful. He shows, for example, that the childhood of Euryalus is not literal, but rather thematic. Euryalus has been in battle before, but he has yet to prove himself, and so belongs to the safer world of the pueri. Here we see also the typical pattern of the heroic initiation: the puer, the absent father, the older mentor (here Nisus), and the heroic exploits which take place usually at night and away from home. The chief flaw here is that P. fails to come to grips with just what kind of relationship Nisus and Euryalus have. On pp. 24-25 P. tells us that they correspond to the Athenian erastes and eromenos; he makes it clear, however, and mostly through p. 25 n. 11, that he does not regard the two as lovers in a sexual sense. One could argue this point, which would hardly matter in any case except that P. seems to take special pains to deny the homoerotic implications of his interpretation. This curious strategy yields some confusion and in fact puts P. in the unenviable position of trying to explain that while Vergil has constructed the Nisus and Euryalus episode from allusions to Aeneas and Dido, Aeneas and Creusa, Coroebus and Cassandra, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Catullus and Lesbia, not one of these relationships, marital or erotic, lends any coloration to the nature of Nisus' bond with Euryalus. It might be said, in fact, that P.'s analysis becomes muddled at the very point he takes up the question of the youths' relationship. One gets the impression that while P. believes that there is a homoerotic side to the narrative, he feels compelled to purge it from the text.1 The confusion that results from P.'s attempt to sidestep the issue distracts, sadly, from the otherwise stimulating description of the night raid as heroic initiation.2

The next chapter, the longest in the book, discusses Pallas. P. has good things to say here both about Pallas himself and about Amata. Perhaps the most provocative suggestion in this discussion is that the oddly exaggerated rage shown by both Amata (over Aeneas as son-in-law) and Aeneas (over the death of Pallas) has more to do with Republican and Augustan social ideology than scholarship has traditionally recognized. This idea could have been developed at greater length, and is a promising approach to a great deal in the second half of the poem. Unfortunately P. uses it largely out of the same sexual skittishness he showed in discussing Nisus and Euryalus. He disagrees with those who see erotic connotations to Amata's behavior, and never acknowledges Putnam's important view that there is an erotic bond between Aeneas and Pallas.3 One need not see Amata as a second Phaedra lusting after Turnus to notice erotic nuances in Vergil's description of her, nor do we need to read Aeneas and Pallas as a full-blown homosexual romance in order to appreciate the erotic coloration of the relationship between the two. Erotic language may have many purposes, and ignoring its presence will obscure all of them. Furthermore, by attempting so vigorously to deny the erotic tone of these passages, P. is forced to discuss the Roman principle of amicitia, a term never used in the Aeneid, at too great a length for the contribution he is able to draw from it. He also fails to acknowledge an obvious possibility which would have strengthened his overall argument: if young men represent the promise of the future, not only individually but culturally as well, then the death of Pallas, so full of that promise, is worthy of great grief for no other reason than that the world to come will now be a bleaker place. Killing Turnus not only fulfills Aeneas' rage; it also insures that the one who has destroyed a people's hope for the future will not himself be part of that future.

Aeneas' son Iulus is the subject of chapter 5; this is the best chapter in the book largely because P. traces not only the role of Iulus in the poem but the implications of that role for the ultimate success or failure of Aeneas' mission. The neglected Iulus is a hard character to assess, and here P.'s model of heroic initiation works particularly well: we see Iulus as child, as temporarily fatherless, and as warrior. Iulus holds out the promise that the darkness of Troy's final night, a darkness P. associates with treachery in the Trojan past, will not be carried with him into the future. Yet as P. points out, Iulus too participates in the heroic world which for Vergil exists in that deceptive night. Not only does he have his own aristeia, but he also leads the boys in the lusus Troiae. It is he who sponsors the fatal night mission of Nisus and Euryalus, and when Aeneas addresses him for the first and last time in the poem, he is adjured to be true to Aeneas and Hector, that is, to carry on the legacy of Troy as embodied in Aeneas and Hector. P. aptly adduces Vergil's Andromache, locked in the past and living amid fantasies and surrogates, to show us what has happened to the gens Hectorea. The promise of Iulus is precisely that he may not be true to the Trojan legacy after all, yet we see him locked safely away in a camp called Troia. My only quibble here is that since P.'s view of the poem is very dark, he sees perhaps a bit too much of the sinister in Iulus. One might argue that the ambiguous presentation of Iulus augurs for an uncertain, not necessarily a bleak future.

The book's final chapter departs from the Aeneid and takes up the fourth Eclogue. P.'s version of this poem is darker than some will accept, but his comments are useful. The puer and his miraculous life represent not a messiah but the cultural progress of the world itself. Childhood is a golden age, particularly in adult fantasy, and the bleak iron age is adulthood with its deceptions and disappointments. That the poem begins and ends on an optimistic note signals that the saeclorum ... ordo of line 5 is a cycle, and thus Vergil's golden age of childhood, like his labor-ridden age of iron, is universal. The pattern of cultural growth and decay is the pattern of human life.

This provocative and useful study suffers from three general problems. The first, also one of the book's strengths, is its brevity. One constantly longs for fuller discussion of, inter alia, Catullan poetry generally, the role of Amata, the role of young women in the poem, and the death of Turnus. The second is a problem endemic to the study of allusion: P. examines the use Vergil makes of Catullan poetry, particularly Catullus' concepts of childhood and adulthood, but in doing so he requires that the reader accept a view of Catullan poetry never examined or argued in detail. P. describes a Catullus whose poems center around betrayal and deception; Catullan adulthood consists of the Lesbia cycle. In fact, P.'s Catullus is as dark as his Vergil. None of P.'s assumptions about Catullus is objectionable in itself, but none is universal or beyond question either. Both texts in an intertextual analysis require scrutiny; the model cannot simply be taken as a given. The third general weakness lies in the fact that P. often argues from what he believes to be the nature of the Aeneid. It would have been helpful to have had a fuller exposition of his views than what the brief introductory chapter gives; as it is, P.'s comments on individual passages and themes too often seem disconnected from the Aeneid as a whole.

None of these weaknesses should obscure the valuable contributions the book provides. P. offers illuminating insights on many passages and characters in the poem; while he is often too spare in his comments, he invariably gives the reader a great deal to think about. Nor does P. fall into the trap of reading Vergilian pessimism too naively: Vergil's world view is dark, in fact, tragically bleak, but this does not necessarily translate into subversive political suspicion of the princeps and his goals. Augustus, like all of us, is implicated in the same cyclic movement from the safety of childhood to the treacherous and disappointing night of adulthood. The failures of his program are the failures of the world; the darkness of Augustan Rome is intrinsic to history itself. Finally, by thoughtfully discussing coming of age in the Aeneid and fourth Eclogue, and by linking it to Catullus' similar conceptions of youth and adulthood, P. has brought attention to an important, indeed a crucial, part of Vergil's art.  


1. How else, after all, can one account for the remarks on pp. 24-25? "What source Vergil directly or indirectly follows (whether specifically Plato or a general tradition) is less important than his modifications. For Pausanias the E)RASTH/S / E)RO/MENOS relationship is sexual; the relationship between Nisus and Euryalus seems explicitly 'Platonic': Euryalus forma insignis viridique iuventa, / Nisus amore pio pueri [Euryalus was known for his beauty and budding manhood; Nisus for his pious love of the boy] (A. 5.295-96). Vergil's modification is perhaps decorous imprecision (they really are lovers, but Vergil is tactfully vague)." It is not my aim to argue for or against a homoerotic reading of Nisus and Euryalus, though I should perhaps note that I see a stronger case for than against. A few confusing or troubling items in P's analysis: He puts the word "Platonic" in quotation marks, apparently to suggest that Nisus and Euryalus follow the spirit of the Greek model and not the well-attested and less chaste version which seems to have been the norm. The trouble with this as a typographical device is that "Platonic" already means in English what P. needs it to mean, and the use of quotation marks would appear to mark it as ironic. Thus readers are likely to think P. supports rather than rejects the position of Lee and others (cited at p. 25 n. 11). Nor does amore pio in line 296 imply asexuality any more than pius Aeneas means "Aeneas the virgin." Also, P. uses terms such as "lover" and "love suicide" (p. 37) of Nisus and Euryalus and their models -- such terms hardly suggest that they are explicitly not lovers. Finally, even if one can make the phrase pulchram mortem (p. 38) mean nothing more than "noble death," one can hardly believe that Vergil's Euryalus quo pulchrior alter / non fuit Aeneadum Troiana neque induit arma (9.180-81) should be translated "Euryalus, than whom none of the Aeneidae were more noble, nor had any more noble ever put on Trojan arms." This tendentious translation obscures the point that Euryalus, whatever his spiritual qualities, is also the most beautiful of the Trojans.

2. In at least one instance besides those mentioned in note 1 above, P. adduces a mistranslation as evidence for his argument: on p. 32, P. claims that Vergil modifies traditional stories to emphasize children. He attempts to prove this assertion by citing Panthus, priest of Apollo, whose son is an adult at Iliad 15. 521-22. P. quotes A. 2. 320-21 to show that Vergil makes Panthus' son a child instead of an adult. In fact, Vergil does not mention Panthus' son at all. The lines quoted by P. refer to Panthus' grandson: sacra manu victosque deos parvumque nepotem / ipse trahit. While P. might have legitimately used this passage to support his interpretation, he will have lost many readers by making such an elementary mistake in translating.

3. See M. Putnam, "Possessiveness, Sexuality, and Heroism in the Aeneid," Vergilius 31 (1985) 1-21, reprinted more recently in M. Putnam, Vergil's Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence (Chapel Hill 1995) 27-49.