Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.30

Richard F. Thomas, Reading Virgil and His Texts: Studies in Intertextuality.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 1999.  Pp. 351.  ISBN 0-472-10897-2.  $52.50.  

Reviewed by David Meban, University of Toronto (
Word count: 2241 words

A first inspection of Richard Thomas's Reading Virgil and His Texts: Studies in Intertextuality provokes in the reader a response entirely consistent with the subject-matter: the growing feeling that somewhere, at some time, you have seen this before. This suspicion is well-founded, given the fact that the book is comprised of a selection of Thomas's previously published work on intertextuality of the past approximately 20 years. The volume includes a total of 22 articles and notes arranged into 12 chapters. The first chapter, entitled "Preparing the Way: Catullan Intertextuality", contains four pieces on Catullus, while the last chapter, "Intertextuality Observed", consists of eight smaller notes on more specific instances of Virgilian intertextual practice. Each of the remaining 10 chapters is devoted exclusively to one of Thomas' more expansive analyses. The book is immediately open to the usual criticisms directed toward such collections of republished material. The studies, for example, are readily available in prominent journals. The attempt, moreover, to mould the previously individual pieces into a coherent whole, especially since they are not reworked, is at times awkward. The first chapter, for instance, engages Virgilian practice very briefly (e.g., 2 pages out of 55, 29-30). Furthermore, the volume provides a less than proportionate consideration of the Virgilian corpus. It will come as no surprise to readers familiar with Thomas' work that the Georgics are the main focus of his attention. These are criticisms, however, of form rather than content. Thomas has been one of the most prominent voices in studies of Virgilian intertextuality in recent years, and the work contained within this volume represents some of the most influential, and inevitably debated, scholarship in this particular field.

If it is possible to suggest a common thread running through much of Thomas's work, it is, no doubt, his emphasis on the importance of giving full consideration to the poet's extensive engagement with Alexandrian, and particularly Callimachean, poetry. On an admittedly superficial level (209), this serves as the basis of the discussion in chapter seven (Callimachus Back in Rome). Here Thomas surveys links between Callimachus and Virgil, but does so by moving away from an analysis based on programmatics or choices of form or genre to one with a greater accentuation on stylistic features (214). Thus Thomas proceeds to trace distinctively Callimachean influence in such features as structure (e.g., the openings of the third books of the Aetia and Georgics), embedded learning, metapoetic play with time, intertextuality (particularly across genre bounds), and, at greater length, ambiguity and ideology. Chapter six (The Old Man Revisited: Memory, Reference and Genre in Virgil Georgics 4.116-48), in turn, provides a fuller exposition of Virgilian intertextual practice, particularly with regard to the poet's extensive conflation and subsumption of his Alexandrian predecessors. Here Thomas posits a Philitean model for the Corycian gardener in the fourth book of the Georgics. But with the Corycian the poet does not simply look to Philitas, however, but also reworks and integrates the Lycidas of Theocritus' seventh Idyll and the Tityrus of the first Eclogue, a process, Thomas argues, that is metapoetically signposted in Virgil's text. This use and manipulation of the works of previous poets for Virgil's own literary purposes receives further elucidation in chapter three (From Recusatio to Commitment: The Evolution of the Virgilian Program). As Thomas notes, Virgil's declaration of his intention to sing of kings and wars in the delayed invocation of book seven of the Aeneid appears to stand as a reversal of the Callimachean program announced in the recusatio of the sixth Eclogue. But the lines preceding the invocation in book seven, Thomas argues, also contain some of the most distinctive hallmarks of Alexandrian and Callimachean poetry: the aetion of Aeneas' nurse Caieta, for instance, and the conflation and correction of numerous sources in the lines on Circe. Recognition of these features and the tension thereby created with what follows consequently clarifies the poet's evolving engagement with the Callimachean program: "the letter of that program may have been rejected, but Virgil is at pains to demonstrate that his mode of composition adheres to its spirit" (110). These three chapters, when considered as a whole, reveal the characteristic strengths of Thomas' work: namely, his comprehensive attention to Virgil's use of his Alexandrian predecessors and, moreover, his characterization of these relationships not as simple lip service, but rather as a complex and purposeful negotiation.

In chapter four (Virgil's Georgics and the Art of Reference) Thomas establishes a typology of reference based on the poet's practice in the Georgics. Numerous types, all with ample documentation and discussion, are adduced: casual reference, single reference, self-reference, correction, apparent reference, and multiple reference or conflation. At the beginning of the chapter Thomas explains the reasons for his choice of the term reference, rather than allusion, arguing that the former furnishes a more accurate representation of the intertextual process. "Virgil is not so much 'playing' with his models but constantly intends that his reader be 'sent back' to them, consulting them through memory or physically, and that he then return and apply his observation to the Virgilian text; the work allusion has implications far too frivolous to suit this process" (115, n.8). Consequently, those intertexts which do not suggest participation in such a process are more precisely "accidental confluences" (116). In his recent study Stephen Hinds has criticized this distinction as too rigid and has bestowed upon Thomas the title "philological fundamentalist" for his efforts to privilege authorial control.1 Emphasizing the "implicatedness of all literary language in intertextual negotiations" (18), Hinds contends that we should not be so quick to discount the interpretative possibilities presented by "accidental confluences" or "background noise." Hinds' discussion is an important refinement of this crucial issue. As readers we must remain sensitive to the interpretative ramifications of features such as topoi or common phrases or metaphors. Yet Thomas is perhaps not the best target for such criticism since his comments in this regard often belie his practice. It is rare indeed for Thomas to take refuge in the realm of accidental confluence. Moreover, in the end, readers in many ways will find these views complementary rather than exclusive, particularly seeing that both represent a shift away from the older studies of intertextuality which consisted primarily in the citation of parallels, to one which embraces its full potential to generate meaning.

But there is often another and related type of fundamentalism, if this is perhaps not too strong a word, existing in Thomas' work, one which embeds itself not so much in the question of what constitutes a reference, but rather in the question as to which text is being alluded to. It was noted above that Thomas' elucidation of Virgil's use of his Alexandrian predecessors is one of his strengths. In this regard his work has been invaluable for its displacement of earlier formulations of Virgilian intertextuality which neglected such sources. But in his efforts to overturn previously accepted dominant models Thomas too often replaces them with another.2 In his discussion of Virgil's use of Pindar in chapter ten (Virgil's Pindar?), for instance, the picture presented is of a Pindar almost always mediated through Callimachus.

This tendency is even more conspicuous in his classic analysis of the proem to the third Georgic in chapter two (Callimachus, the Victoria Berenices, and Roman Poetry). Here Thomas argues for the importance of the Victoria Berenices, assigned by Parsons to the beginning of the third book of the Aetia, for our understanding of Virgil's proem. Thomas presents here a very persuasive case and demonstrates conclusively that the Victoria Berenices was a key model for Virgil on these programmatic lines. Yet Thomas' claim that the proem has "its primary reference in Callimachean poetry" (81) is too restrictive. Such a view of Callimachus as the dominant model often results in rather extended arguments in favour of Callimachean intertexts for certain features, particularly the temple metaphor, for which Pindar remains a more convincing, or at least parallel, source.3 Yet Thomas is by no means alone in this regard, for much the same tendency to see a primary or overriding model characterizes the interpretations of those who have since restated the case in favour of Pindar.4 But the proem to the third Georgic seems rather to be a prime example of a passage that demonstrates the often inherent shortcomings of looking for dominant models or coherent syntheses. Here Virgil takes full advantage of the wide range of resources available, switching from one to the next as suits his needs, with no single one necessarily taking precedence or pushing others into the background. Indeed, there are other models here which depart from poetic sources altogether. Virgil's claim to be primus in lines ten and twelve, for instance, is no doubt to be traced not only to poetic antecedents but also to the widespread and comparable use of the term in Roman social discourse. Such usage is evident, for example, on the columna rostrata of C. Duilius,5 and in the prose texts of Livy and others.6 Roman cultural practice of the forties and thirties likewise furnishes another likely motivation for Virgil's temple metaphor. The poet's use of the metaphor as a means to demonstrate the extent to which his future poem will separate him from his poetic contemporaries no doubt stems from the similar tendency of Roman aristocrats during this period to distinguish themselves from their rivals through the building of temples and other structures.7 The proem can thus be viewed as a matrix of different intertexts which intersect or compete with one another, often resisting efforts at synthesis or suggestions of mediation. These comments should in no way suggest that Thomas plays down Virgil's use of the manifold variety of sources at his disposal. Yet his focus on primary references, so often rooted in Callimachean poetics, or his view of Virgil as "subsuming or appropriating entire literary traditions," (140) often results in a rather totalizing, and thus limiting, interpretation of Virgilian intertextuality.

In some ways this tendency is surprising since Thomas, particularly in his more recent contributions, excels in his work on the variety and range of intertexts in Virgilian poetry and in so doing frequently travels along paths ignored by others working in the field. Recent studies of intertextuality in Roman poetry have done much to invigorate our understanding of the mechanics of the intertextual process. Yet too often they have done so at the expense of the other side of the equation. Thus they give little consideration to what constitutes a text and regularly restrict their focus to the role of poetic intertexts.8 Thomas' avoidance of this critical pitfall is what makes his work in chapter eight (Vestigia Ruris: Urbane Rusticity in Virgil's Georgics), for instance, so innovative. Here Thomas expands the traditional boundaries of intertextual networks and thereby illustrates how the rhythms and patterns present in the Georgics often have their roots in rustic songs and prayers. As the title of the chapter implies, urbanitas and Alexandrianism still exert an influence, particularly in the ways in which Virgil reworks and stylizes this rustic material, but here these different models seem to interact with a greater reciprocity. Thomas's analysis of prose intertexts in chapter five (Prose into Poetry: Tradition and Meaning in Virgil's Georgics) likewise addresses another integral, yet overlooked, component of intertextuality in Roman poetry. Here Thomas elucidates Virgil's adaptation of prose models such as Varro, Cato and Theophrastus through processes of suppression, promotion, falsification and expansion. No doubt a similar approach could be usefully applied to the Aeneid, a poem whose prose intertexts are still consistently neglected. Chapter nine (Genre through Intertextuality: Theocritus to Virgil and Propertius) warrants mention presently for it also expands the relatively narrow boundaries of current studies of intertextuality in Roman poetry. Here too Thomas addresses the question of the range of intertexts, but more from the vantage point of genre than source. In his treatment of Theocritus' "hymnic" twenty-second Idyll, for instance, he argues for a level of generic indeterminacy or multiplicity as a consequence of the presence of intertexts from the poet's own more "bucolic" Idylls. The Cyclops episode in book three of the Aeneid can be seen in much the same light through its incorporation of features from the second and third Eclogues and, through these, Theocritus' sixth Idyll. Thomas' conclusions here do not extend much beyond the notion of indeterminacy, but his discussion does illustrate the need for studies in intertextuality not to abandon the role of the reader.

In a sense, Thomas's work could be said to be paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, he has done more than anyone else in recent years to uncover the vast range of the models and mechanics of Virgilian intertextual practice. Yet even so, this breadth is often in turn constricted by an at times rather narrow interpretative framework which places too great an emphasis on authorial control, dominant models, and the categorization or synthesis of a process that frequently resists such efforts. This said, the fact that Thomas has been at the forefront of work which has displaced earlier, somewhat one-dimensional conceptions of Virgilian intertextuality, and at the same time continues to point the way to new and heretofore neglected avenues of investigation for future studies, is a great testament to the quality and influence of the work contained within this volume. The book is of fundamental importance not only for those interested in Virgilian intertextuality, but for all those who have an interest in Virgil in general.


1.   Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge 1998) 17-25.
2.   See, however, Thomas' discussion of the notion of dominant models on pages 229-232.
3.   It must be noted that in chapter ten (270, n.11) Thomas does take the occasion to clarify his position as not excluding Pindar. Such cross-references create problems for the reviewer (and reader). Yet Thomas' remarks on Balot's article (see below) in his preface to the volume (9, n.13) still seem to argue for Callimachus as the positive exemplum.
4.   See most recently Ryan Krieger Balot, "Pindar, Virgil, and the Proem to Georgic 3," Phoenix 52 (1998) 83-94.
5.   Enque eodem mac[istratud bene | r]em navebos marid consol primos c[eset copiasque | c]lasesque navales primos ornavet pa[ravetque] | cumque eis navebos claseis Poenicas omn[is item ma|x]umas copias Cartaciniensis praesente[d Hanibaled] | dictatored ol[or]om in altod marid pucn[ad vicet] ... (Atilius Degrassi, ed., Inscriptiones Latinae Liberae Rei Publicae, Vol. 1 (Göttingen 1957) 319)
6.   Compare, for instance, Livy's description of Scipio Africanus: Primus certe hic imperator nomine victae ab se gentis est nobilitatus (30.45.7). Not surprisingly, the term is regularly applied to Julius Caesar: Germanos, qui trans Rhenum incolunt, primus Romanorum ponte fabricato adgressus maximis adfecit cladibus (Divus Iulius 25.2); igitur primus omnium Romanorum divus Iulius cum exercitu Britanniam ingressus (Agricola 13.2). I have little doubt of the intertextual nature of the relationship between the use of primus in Roman social discourse and Latin poetry.
7.   See Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, trans. by Alan Shapiro (Ann Arbor 1988) 65-71.
8.   On this see Don Fowler, "On the Shoulders of Giants: Intertextuality and Classical Studies," MD 39 (1997) 13-34.

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