Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.06

Julia T. Dyson, King of the Wood: The Sacrificial Victor in Virgil's Aeneid.   Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 0-8061-3341-4.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Leah Kronenberg, Harvard University (
Word count: 1810 words

The analysis of sacrificial themes in the Aeneid has gained prominence in recent interpretations of Virgil,1 and D.'s book is a valuable addition to this trend. Her most original contribution is her contention that Virgil intersperses his epic with allusions to the cult of Diana Nemorensis and that this cult in fact provides "a structuring principle of the Aeneid" (18): just as the perpetuation of the cult depends upon an endless cycle of violence whereby the current priest (the "King of the Wood") is challenged and killed by his successor, so the action of the Aeneid is propelled forward by reciprocal sacrificial deaths.

For the most part, D.'s careful marshalling of evidence convinces that this cult not only lurks behind several key passages in the Aeneid, including the infamous Golden Bough, but also that it is more subtly embedded into the texture of the epic through allusions to Diana, tree violation, and reciprocal violence. It is less clear, however, how many important problems of interpretation the recognition of these allusions solves. D.'s hypothesis about the centrality of this cult for the Aeneid does make sense of several perceived inconsistencies in Virgil's text and usefully connects and highlights important themes in the poem. D. wants it to do more than that, however: she suggests that the sacrificial logic of the cult provides the definitive explanation for why Aeneas must kill Turnus at the end of the poem. In placing so great an emphasis on the religious and metaphysical implications of this cult for the plot of Aeneid, D. risks flattening the complexity of the poem by ignoring the more properly human factors driving the poem to its telos.

D. structures her book into two parts so that her less radical thesis about the thematic centrality of reciprocal sacrificial violence in the Aeneid will be reinforced by, rather than dependent on, her hypothesis that the cult of Diana Nemorensis is the primary allusive vehicle through which Virgil explores this phenomenon.

Part 1 (Chapters 1-6) is entitled "Sacrificial Victory", which D. defines as "the grim logic whereby Aeneas' sacrifice of others implicitly will result in his own sacrificial death after the poem's end" (14). Thus, despite the broad label, Part 1's main purpose is to show that the sacrifice of Turnus at the end of the Aeneid is demanded by the ritual logic of the poem and that this sacrifice in turn demands the death of Aeneas.

To that end, D. demonstrates that pius Aeneas consistently makes ritual mistakes (Chapter 1, "The Piacula of Aeneas") and that many of the sacrificial victims in the Aeneid die unwillingly (Chapter 3, "The Unburied Dead"); thus the literal and metaphorical sacrifices in the Aeneid are ritually marred and require atonement in the form of further sacrifices. In addition, D. highlights frequent allusions in Virgil's text to the legend surrounding Aeneas' death by the Numicus River (Chapter 2, "Tiber and Numicus") and connects these allusions to the broader theme of role-reversal between victor and victim, sacrificer and sacrificed (Chapter 4, "Victor and Victim"; Chapter 5, "Aeneas and Turnus"). D. concludes from these observations that both Turnus' and Aeneas' deaths are demanded by the gods, who seem to take pleasure in endless violence (Chapter 6, "Juno's Honores"); she also suggests that sacrifice in the Aeneid is not redemptive because it never ends violence but instead promotes cycles of killing.

Part 2 (Chapters 7-12), entitled the "Ghastly Priest", seeks to prove that the cult of Diana Nemorensis is a crucial "intertext" of the Aeneid that serves to underscore the sacrificial logic of the poem as detailed in Part 1. In particular, D. sets the stage for reading the final combat between Aeneas and Turnus as a reenactment of the "ritual duel between the Rex Nemorensis and his Challenger" (211) (Chapter 12, "The King of the Wood"). Thus, as in Part 1, D.'s ultimate aim is to explain why Aeneas has no choice but to kill Turnus at the end of the Aeneid.

In addition to fitting Aeneas and Turnus into this primary cultic paradigm, D. highlights several other ways in which Virgil alludes to the cult, whether through references to Diana and the various legends surrounding the cult's birth (Chapter 8, "The Three Faces of Diana"), or through the frequent depiction of literal or metaphorical tree-violation (Chapter 9, "Dying kings"; Chapter 10, "The Tropaeum"; Chapter 11, "Ida and Alba"), a symbolic complex relevant to the cult because "an attack on the sacred tree necessarily preceded an attack on the Rex himself" (168). D. emphasizes the moral ambiguity attached to these different aspects of the cult and connects this ambiguity to the shifting fates and complex moral world of Virgil's characters. Yet, D.'s overall conclusion is that Virgil is not concerned with evaluating the moral quality of Aeneas' killing of Turnus or with connecting any of Aeneas' actions either positively or negatively to an evaluation of Augustus. Instead, she argues that the key to understanding why Aeneas kills Turnus lies in this pattern of cyclic sacrificial death that structures the Aeneid, and the blame for these cycles of violence lies primarily with the gods: "my interpretation emphasizes that both men -- all men, perhaps -- are victims of the inscrutable and inexorable anger of the gods" (25).

D. is no doubt correct to emphasize the importance of sacrifice and reciprocal violence in the Aeneid, and her use of the cult of Diana Nemorensis nicely brings out these themes and explains the pervasive presence of Diana and tree violation in the text. My main hesitation, however, in accepting her overall thesis that this ritual process drives the plot of the Aeneid is the degree to which such a view requires an interpretation of Virgil in which the divine and ritual element is absolutely determinative of human conduct. So, D. concludes: "Turnus does not die because he killed Pallas: he dies because he hung Pallas' armor upon his own body like a tree" (231); "What then is implied in Aeneas' final sacrifice of Turnus? The answer has less to do with morality than with Roman religious practice. For the Romans, the two were quite separate" (234).

The important question, though, is whether they are so separate in Virgil's text. One could argue that the concept of pietas epitomizes a merging of morality and religion, and certainly Virgil focuses no small amount of attention on Aeneas' relation to this complicated moral/religious concept. It seems difficult to accept, then, that Virgil would so painstakingly detail the emotional state of Aeneas at the end of his work if he had no interest in examining the human motivations and moral conflicts driving pius Aeneas to kill Turnus. Aeneas may have had no choice but to kill Turnus, but to suggest that the compulsion derives solely from ritual and not from his own emotional and moral world too decisively answers the question voiced by Nisus in Book 9: "dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt, / Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido?" (184-85). In addition, since D.'s thesis would be undermined were the real existence of angry gods demanding sacrifice questioned, she does not explore the possibility that Virgil uses sacrificial symbolism not to express religious truths but to question them, or at least to explore how human beings use religion to justify behavior. The Laocoon/Sinon episode in Book 2 at the very least exposes the potential for ritual to be a human fiction created to serve human needs, and Aeneas very clearly does use religion to justify his behavior throughout the epic and, most famously, to justify his killing of Turnus.

Of course, D. does not leave morality completely out of her interpretation of the Aeneid, and in fact, she interprets trees and tree violation as highly charged moral symbols: "By assimilating his characters alternately to trees and to violators of trees, Virgil illustrates the moral complexity of men's relationships with one another and with the natural world. By presenting these reversals in a context of religious necessity, he shows both human responsibility and human helplessness in the face of religio, the caprice and cruelty of the gods" (234). However, in her eagerness to remain out of the optimist/pessimist, pro-Augustan/anti-Augustan debate and to avoid judging Aeneas' actions, D. makes it difficult to distinguish meaningfully between Virgil's characters. They all become equally culpable and equally innocent, all are priests and murderers.

While this is certainly a valid interpretation of Virgil and fits in with D.'s emphasis on divine responsibility for cycles of violence, it does not explain how to feel about the fact that Aeneas does take the moral high ground at the end of the poem when he sacrifices Turnus for Pallas. It is Aeneas who decides that Turnus' death is a sacrifice and who tries to end his moral confusion with a definitive stroke. D. suggests that sacrifice does not "work" in the Aeneid (130) because it does not end violence and placate the gods, but this is not the only way for sacrifice to work. Aeneas puts it to a different and successful use: to create a moral order out of chaos, however deceptive Virgil exposes that order to be. Thus, D.'s thesis leaves out the possibility that Virgil's obsession with sacrificial symbolism has less to do with the gods than with the people who use it.

Despite these hesitations about accepting the full religious force that D. attributes to the cult of Diana Nemorensis, and sacrificial victory in general, in the Aeneid, her study is an illuminating one, which nicely brings out the intricacy of Virgil's allusive technique and demonstrates that knowledge of Virgil's religious heritage is as important as knowledge of his literary predecessors for fully grasping his "intertextual" approach. D.'s writing style is lively and lucid, and the book is well produced with only sporadic mistakes or typos.2 Her argument is clearly presented, though the second part includes sections that at times seem extraneous to the main argument since D. is so extremely thorough about tracing every conceivable allusion to the cult. While I am not fully convinced that bringing together all of these elements of the Arician cult "endows them with meaning beyond their individual significance," (24) or that every reference to trees or Diana must be a reference to this cult, D.'s study does thoughtfully examine their complex symbolism throughout the text. A particularly useful result of her book is the recognition of the central importance and subtly pervasive presence of Diana in the Aeneid ("It could be said that Diana's presence in the Aeneid quietly rivals that of obstreperous Juno," 230). Long before Jupiter threatens to collapse the dualistic universe by fraternizing with the Dirae, Diana, the "savior of both hunter and hunted" (167), treads the line between heaven and hell and takes up residence in the domain of moral complexity, well symbolized by the shady grove at Nemi.


1.   E.g., C. Bandera, "Sacrificial Levels in Virgil's Aeneid," Arethusa 14 (1981) 217-39; P. Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; V. Panoussi, Epic Transfigured: Tragic Allusiveness in Vergil's Aeneid, Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1998; R. M. Smith, "Deception and Sacrifice in Aeneid 2.1-249," AJP 120 (1999): 503-23.
2.   p.7: "hic cursus fuit" is 1.534, not 1.535; p. 30: "sacra Dioneae matri" should read "sacra Dionaeae matri'; p. 31: Servius' heading should read "LUSTRAMURQUE IOVI," not "LUSTRAMUR IOVI"; p.36: "eloquor an sileam?" should read "eloquar an sileam?"; p.66: "Geo. 3.24" should read "Geo. 3.14"; p.67 n. 38: "demersum fluminis" should read "demersus fluminis"; p.77: "fidemque" should read "fidumque"; p. 87: there is a repetition of "safely" in the sentence "Aeneas complains..."; p.88: the period after "Sigean promontory" is in superscript; p.105: it should be Priam and not Anchises who "complains about this atrocity..."; p.114: "cur liberavit Turnum" should be "cur liberaverit Turnum"; p.115 n. 7: there should be a "genitor" after "tuo" in the quote from Aen.8.72; p.122: Aeneas' words to Ascanius are missing quote marks; p. 137: the end of Servius' quote should read "alii dicunt ideo..." instead of "alii dicunt inde..."; p.144: typo in "Hip-polyus"; p. 170 n. 6: should read "Lucan's comparisons..." instead of "Lucan's comparison..."; p.177: whole word not italicized, "infesta"; p.178: "loathesome" should read "loathsome"; p.178: "cyparissae" should read "cyparissi"; p.189: words of Mezentius should have quote marks; p.206 n. 31 and p.222: should note departures from Mynor's text ("matris" instead of "Martis"; "certamine" instead of "certamina").

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