Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.08.37

Tilman Schmit-Neuerburg, Vergils Aeneis und die antike Homerexegese, Untersuchungen zum Einfluss ethischer und kritischer Homerrezeption auf imitatio und aemulatio Vergils. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte.   Berlin and New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 1999.  Pp. x + 381.  ISBN 3-11-016558-9.  DM 248.  

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University in St. Louis (
Word count: 2390 words

The notion that we might be able to throw light on Virgil's imitatio and aemulatio of Homer by consulting the ancient interpreters of Homer goes back at least to Richard Heinze (1915, 164, n. 1; Schlunk 1974, viii) and to a scattering of suggestions, largely in footnotes, in G. N. Knauer's monumental Der Aeneis und Homer (1964), where Homeric echoes in the Aeneid were globally catalogued in the most exhaustive manner to date.

The issue is both obvious in its importance and forbidding in its complexity. Virgil's epic is constituted of adapted earlier material, notably Homeric material, to a degree that is difficult to exaggerate. For the poem's ideal audience, this intertextuality was much of the fun of the elegant literary game. Open the Aeneid at random and begin to read, and an educated, bilingual Greek (or Roman) will begin to recite the Homeric passage (or passages) underlying Virgil's Latin (cf. Macrob. Sat. 5.3). Virgil's epic, deprived of this Greek voice-over, is diminished, provincial, incomplete.

Fortunately, if we cannot bring the bilingual, bicultural education of an Augustan aristocrat to our reading of Virgil, we have Knauer's tables as a substitute, and so we can line up Vorbild and Nachgestaltung, listen simultaneously to the ageless, visionary bard and to his all-too-historic, belated mimic, and concentrate on finding the art of Virgil in the interstices. But there is a problem. This voice-over that we are supplying, whether from our memory banks or from Knauer's tables, is only our Homer speaking, and the Greek voice that we need to hear, in order to grasp Virgil's contribution, is the one that spoke both in Virgil's ear and in that of his ideal reader. That voice can hardly have carried the same cultural baggage, the same meanings, as the Homer we hear. And so Knauer's project--which we all know to be essential to any methodologically defensible assessment of Virgil's art--runs onto the shoals of a hermeneutic dilemma. How can we pipe Virgil's own Homer (or the Augustan world's Homer) in one ear as we read, so that we might grasp Virgil's accomplishment? For better or worse, the tools at our disposal are ancient school commentary, along with more advanced scholarship, as preserved in the scholia to Homer and in the surviving interpretive texts. All of this material is notoriously difficult to work with, mixing together the self-evident with the manifestly false, the apparently tendentious with the normative--though the latter is elusive, and we must bear in mind that it is likely to seem to us yet stranger than the tendentious. We cannot escape the fact, however, that Virgilian intertextuality is culturally remote and far from innocent--it is mediated by the ceaseless (if now fragmentary) murmurings of those intellectuals (grammatodidaskaloi, grammatici, rhetores, and philosophers) who taught Virgil and Virgil's readers the meaning of Homer.

S.-N.'s exploration of that mediated intertextuality has most of its considerable strengths in the details and in the elucidation of specific instances where (as the author argues) we can find documentation for ancient interpretive claims that throw light on Homerizing passages in the Aeneid. He divides his discussion into two major and two minor sections, classified according to categories of mediating commentary. Most of the study falls under the rubrics Ethische Exegese (II; 19-225) and Kritische Exegese (IV; 242-335), with shorter chapters on Gleichnisse und Metaphorik (III; 226-41) and Worterklärung und Realienkommentierung (V; 336-52).

Introductions tend to be weak points in dissertations; S.-N.'s brief opening chapter (1-18) outlines the history of the issue at hand and adequately tells us what he will contribute. The sketch ("in gebotener Kürze") of "die rekonstruierbaren Grundzüge des antiken Homerbildes" (4), however, is doomed to disappoint by its very nature. We find ourselves at some distance both from primary sources and from the modern discussion of those sources. S.-N. echoes the traditional but dubious notion that we should look for Stoics and/or Pergamenes whenever allegory dominates commentary, and in a misleading gesture toward later developments suggests that Homeric allegory lives on into late antiquity in Porphyry's Homerika Zetemata, a work that in fact seems to have contained little that we would assign to the category of allegory (6). These are small criticisms of a useful study, but the very fact that S.-N. (perhaps carelessly) suggests that such a thing as the ancient Homerbild might have existed, much less be reconstructable, is distracting and misleading. He clearly realizes that the process of Homer interpretation was an ongoing, dynamic, and intermittently competitive one. We might be able to talk of Virgil's Homer, and less securely of an Augustan Homer, but hardly of an "ancient notion of Homer" with continuity over time. It clearly troubles S.-N. that much of the interpretive material brought to bear cannot be proven to have been in circulation early enough for Virgil and his readers to know it (e.g. 16), but he is in fact careful to avoid blatant anachronism or implausibility. Still, a more clearly formulated definition of the relevant interpretive material and its context in the larger field of ancient commentary on Homer would have been welcome.

The first major section (Ch. II) addresses at length one of the most difficult areas where the impact of Homer commentary on Virgil's practice has been noted: ethical typology. The scholia often explain a passage of Homer by a reductive claim that the poet in a given detail, action, or narrative is showing the "bravery," "stupidity," etc. of a character or group. These claims frequently strike us as belaboring the obvious, and in such cases there is scarcely any point in invoking the commentators in order to explain a Virgilian adaptation where the same idea (now perhaps more explicit) is present. What is needed, then, is to find problematic instances, critical judgments that do not seem self-evident to us, but do seem to resonate with Virgil's own conception of a character. There is little doubt that these "Grundtypen menschlichen Verhaltens" (23) illustrated in Homeric passages reflect widespread pedagogic practice, manifestly relevant to the notions of the characters in the Iliad and Odyssey brought by Virgil to his adaptations and by readers to the Aeneid. Particularly interesting are instances where, rather than simply incorporating these received notions of the ethical force of a given portrait or theme, Virgil can be seen to be reacting against them and deliberately marking his distance from them (23). This is a subcategory of what S.-N. calls Kontrastimitation, and instances abound.

This long chapter consists of a number of sections: a reading of the Nisus and Euryalus episode against the backdrop of the Doloneia and its commentators (23-65), a subchapter on ἀταξία ́ θόρυβος in the commentators and furor in the Aeneid (66-82), substantial synthetic treatments of Aeneas (82-161) and Turnus (161-210), and "Amata und Andromache: Die tragische Ende der Aeneis" (210-220). S.-N.'s procedure in general is to identify structural and passage-specific antecedents in Homer for passages (and more broadly, characterizations) in the Aeneid, examine the scholia and other ancient commentators on the model passages, and then assess what those ancient comments can tell us about Virgil's adaptation of the passages. Often Silver Latin epic is evoked for its retrospective "contaminating" adaptations (Knauer's term for passages that weave together more than one model) that may throw light on Virgilian practice. The thesis, broadly speaking, in this section, is that Virgil's complex adaptation manipulates and echoes the Homeric material in a pre-digested form, whose general outline we can sometimes grasp from surviving commentary. On one level, this means simply that Homeric Odysseus, the principal, pervasive prototype for Aeneas, is endowed by scholia and other commentary with certain characteristics that constitute the essential conditions of Virgil's adaptation. The Homeric typology made explicit by the commentators provides Virgil with a series of foils for his own creations, and they may (and do) slip from role to role: for instance, Dido corresponds to the "Penelope ideal" as long as she remains true to the dead Sychaeus, but slips into the role of the Iliadic Helen as soon as she abandons his memory (131). Do we need the commentators as mediators here to understand Virgil's practice? No, but they make explicit ethical judgments that Homer only implies (if that) and such judgments are likely to be made explicit, once again, in the Aeneid. As a result, S.-N.'s exploration of this relationship does throw light on Virgil. In specific instances, a more penetrating analysis emerges. S.-N. is able to show that a tendency to give an erotic interpretation of Achilles' μῆνις is widespread in poetry and reflected in the scholia--i.e. Achilles rages because he loved the confiscated Briseis. Comparison to the Homeric text and to modern readings (where the honor / γέρας of the "best warrior" are central and a lovesick Achilles is perhaps even ludicrous) suggest verifiable differences, at the very least between normative Augustan and twentieth-century readings. This in turn illuminates the Turnus of the Aeneid, who replays an Achilles whose amor and rapta coniunx (well, fiancé) are major constituents of his ira and insania belli (200-201). Moralizing, stereotyping Iliad commentary can also clearly be seen to contribute to a schematic polarization of Trojans (with their ἀταξία and θόρυβος) and orderly, focused Greeks and S.-N. can show that this polarization is relevant to the furor theme of the Aeneid (66-82), even as it relates (perhaps most chillingly of all) to gender (74, on Schol. b on Il.20.7).

As this discussion of Ch. II suggests, S.-N.'s study is episodic, addressing a number of rather disparate instances where Homer commentary seems to "bridge" (240) the differences between Homeric epic and Aeneid. This tendency characterizes the remaining sections as well. Ch. III examines three similes (or groups of similes) in support of the thesis that hellenistic commentary influenced Virgil's imitation of Homeric imagery in general (234), and in particular his enriching of the psychological content of that imagery and his use of similes for characterization--tendencies "in hardly accidental harmony" with the comments of the Homeric interpreters (240-41).

Ch. IV concentrates on the esthetic-critical principles found in the scholia (notably πιθανότης, and τὸ πρέπον [decorum]) and the impact of these on Virgil's Kontrastimitation. In particular, where a Homeric model scene is found wanting or objectionable by the commentators (e.g. the Διὸς ἀπάτη), Virgil's adaptation may clearly indicate that he knew and took into consideration such criticism (246). Athena deflects a spear from Achilles with a puff of breath so that it turns around like a boomerang and lands at Hector's feet (Il. 20.438-41): "ridiculous" says the Augustan grammaticus Herakleon (ST 20.439), echoed down the tradition by Eustathius who called it "unworthy of Athena." In Virgil's reworking, Juno deflects Pandarus's spear from Turnus (Aen. 9.745-46): excepere aurae, vulnus Saturnia Iuno / detorsit veniens.... Virgil has removed the offending details, and presumably deflected Herakleon's mockery, but has left (as others had noticed) a pregnant ambiguity of agency: aurae accomplish the diversion, then Juno (Hera / ἀήρ of the Homeric commentators) is credited with the same action (261 with n. 703). One could hardly ask for a more convincing example of explicitly mediated Kontrastimitation. Aristarchus hated (and athetized) the gnashing of teeth and flashing of eyes in Achilles' arming scene in Iliad 19. The arming of Turnus in Aeneid 12 has flashing eyes but no gnashing: the phrase dentibus infrendens is deflected to three other loci in the Aeneid where (S.-N. is able to argue) it is more "appropriate" in ways that both the Alexandrians and Virgil's audience would understand (328-34).

Chapter V is a grabbag of specific προβλήματα and ἀπορίαι, in the main from the scholia, on which Virgil seems to play variations. Did he know these as issues addressed by Homeric scholars? Almost certainly so, and S.-N.'s elaboration of details of the activity and esthetic of the poeta doctus is rewarding, and his thesis that both Virgil and his public enjoyed this intertextual play--scholarly mediation and all--is convincing (352-53).

All dissertations entail anxieties, but S.-N.'s (perhaps because it is here published virtually as submitted [geringfügig verändert (vii)]) wears its anxieties rather conspicuously. The first (15, 27, and passim) is focused on Robin Schlunk's Cincinnati dissertation The Homeric Scholia and the Aeneid (1974). It is true that Schlunk's relatively slim contribution opened up the field, and that S.-N. must repeatedly revisit mediated intertextual moments that Schlunk first called attention to (though with deference to Heinze [1914] and Knauer [1964]). But it is equally true that S.-N. paints a far richer picture of the subject than his predecessor (and in about four times the bulk), exploring Schlunk's examples in greater depth and pointing to many others.

S.-N.'s other anxiety is both very close to home for the author and simultaneously a matter that anyone writing on Virgil today has reason to quake at. S.-N.'s Doktorvater, Otto Zwierlein, is engaged in a massive assessment of the transmission of the Aeneid (as well as the corpus of Ovid). His initial volume (Prolegomena [1999] pp. 685) appeared roughly simultaneously with S.-N.'s dissertation, and as the subsequent volume in the same de Gruyter series (of which Z. is an editor). Z. proposes that "our" Aeneid is not Virgil's, but that of an editor/imitator/reviser, who probably worked between forty and fifty years after Virgil's death. Z. would identify this editor with Iulius Montanus, a friend of Ovid and of Tiberius, but invites us (ix) simply to substitute the generic designation 'Bearbeiter' for Montanus' name, should we find this leap of faith too daunting. For all of us, the problem is that Z.(once he has pared away Iulius Montanus' accretions) will apparently leave us with a very different-looking Aeneid, slimmed down by at least 15% (13). For Z.'s student S.-N., on the other hand, the more immediate problem is that the Bearbeiter's work is characterized (among other things) by Homerizing ornamentation (including new, interjected similes) and by Alexandrian scholarship, sometimes in the form of interpolated commentary (14). Has S.-N. (in the footsteps of Schlunk) been elucidating the work and the taste of the wrong poeta doctus? Is this all Iulius Montanus, and not Virgil at all? S.-N. bravely opens the question in a brief Anhang (355-59) where, with a few carefully chosen examples, he makes a case that we can in fact distinguish between the Bearbeiter and Virgil in their respective modes of adaptation of received Hellenistic commentary into their now interwoven Nachgestaltung.

Clearly, this story will have another chapter.


Works Cited

Heinze, Richard, 1915. Virgils epische Technik. 3rd ed. Leipzig: Teubner. Knauer, Georg Nikolaus, 1964. Die Aeneis und Homer. Studien zur poetischen Technik Vergils mit Listen der Homerzitate in der Aeneis. Hypomnemata, Heft 7. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Schlunk, Robin, 1974. The Homeric Scholia and the Iliad. Ann Arbor: U. Michigan Press. Zwierlein, Otto, 1999 Die Ovid- und Vergil-Revision in tiberischer Zeit. Band I: Prolegomena. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, no. 57. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

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