Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.35

Wendell Clausen, Virgil's Aeneid: Decorum, Allusion, and Ideology. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 162.   Munich and Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2002.  Pp. 255.  ISBN 3-598-77711-6.  EUR 94.00.  

Reviewed by Barbara Weiden Boyd, Bowdoin College (
Word count: 3350 words

This book (hereafter, VA2) is a rewritten and partially supplemented transformation of Clausen's 1987 Virgil's Aeneid and the Tradition of Hellenistic Poetry (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press; hereafter, VA1). The earlier book was in effect the published version of Clausen's Sather Classical Lectures delivered in 1982. It would be incorrect to call VA2 simply a revision of VA1; although much of the earlier book's central core remains, the result is in fact somewhat different and has a wider focus. And because Clausen (hereafter, C) has not only supplemented (with three new chapters and one brief appendix) but also significantly trimmed (removing the original first chapter, as well as six of the earlier appendices) the original work, VA2 deserves consideration as a finished product in its own right. The changed title is indicative of many of the major changes in VA2: whereas the earlier book revolved around the definition of Virgil as a Hellenistic poet (a definition strongly asserted in the first place by the original first chapter, now gone), the new book has been freed from the need to defend what was in any case an uncontroversial thesis, the deeply Alexandrian character of the Aeneid. Instead, as the triad "Decorum, Allusion, and Ideology" in the new title suggests, VA2 has no one obvious guiding principle or central theme. Rather, this new book might best be described as a collection of eight closely associated chapters on complementary aspects of the poetics of Virgil's Aeneid. As in VA1, the arrangement of the chapters in this book is determined by the sequencing of scenes and books in the Aeneid.

VA2, then, has been more than twenty years in the making; and the evidence of its author's repeated consideration of particular points and issues and frequent fine-tuning is everywhere. On the formal level, some of these changes appear to be attributable to C's desire to address a slightly different audience from the one to whom VA1 was directed. In the Preface to VA1, C describes the Sather audience he was asked to address as a "literate general audience"; in the preface to VA2, C designates "two different readers, the educated general reader and the professional scholar." I think that several aspects of the presentation of VA2, in particular the replacement of lengthy and detailed endnotes with more succinct footnotes (a change often accomplished through the incorporation of what was once end-noted material into the body of the text) does make a real difference in the reading experience; but none of the other changes seems to me to make VA2 any more or less accessible, or more or less scholarly, than was VA1.

More striking -- and decidedly more curious -- are the indications on virtually every page of C's attention to the finest points of diction and expression; he has frequently rewritten entire sentences without substantially changing their meanings, except insofar as a fine shade of difference is to be found in the dictional variation itself. Take, for example, the opening of Chapter 4, Dido and Aeneas, in VA2 (p.75): "The story of Troy and his wanderings told, Aeneas at last falls silent, 'conticuit tandem factoque hic fine quievit' (3.718). But the queen has long since been smitten with love; her heart's blood feeds the wound, a secret fire consumes her (4.1-2). ..." Compare the opening of the same Chapter 4 (p.40) in VA1: "The tale of Troy and his wanderings told, Aeneas at length falls silent, 'conticuit tandem factoque hic fine quievit' (3.718). So ends the Book, and so, we may infer, the banquet ended. But the queen cannot be quiet, cannot sleep, 'nec placidam membris dat cura quietem' (4.4). Love-smitten, she feeds the wound with her heart's blood; an unseen fire consumes her ... (4.1-2)." Note the changes from 'tale' to 'story,' from 'at length' to 'at last,' and the simplified syntax of the description of Dido's condition. Again, later in the same chapter, consider VA2 (p.101): "First, the frantic heroine rushes into the chamber and falls on her marriage bed. Since she is out of sight, her behavior must be reported, though Dido, like Ajax, dies 'onstage'. ..." And now, the earlier version, in VA1 (p.53): "First, the heroine, emotionally overwrought, rushes into her chamber and falls upon the marriage bed. Since she is out of sight, her behavior must be reported to the audience, although Dido, like Ajax, dies 'onstage.'" Here, 'emotionally overwrought' has given way to 'frantic,' the elegant 'upon' to 'on.' In fact, this seems to be the point frequently, i.e., to introduce a subtle but consistent lowering of the dictional register in descriptive passages.

This change is accompanied, furthermore, by the replacement of almost all of C's earlier direct addresses to his reader and inclusive uses of the pronoun 'we' to denote his audience with references to 'the reader' in the third person. So, in the VA2 version of Chapter 7, Arcadia Reviewed, we read (pp.158-59): "Reminiscence of Ennius, of his archaic language, imparts an appropriate dignity. Aeneas and the Trojans are new arrivals, present to imagination, yet belonging (the reader is reminded) to a remote and legendary past." In the corresponding chapter, i.e., Chapter 5, of VA1, C had written (p.66): "Such reminiscences of Ennius, of his archaic language, impart an appropriate gravity to the scene; the Trojans are new arrivals, present to imagination as we read, yet belonging (we are reminded) to a remote and idealized past."

I describe at length what seems to me a curious part of the transformation undergone by VA1 in the process of becoming VA2 for several reasons. First, C does not appear to have made such changes in order to increase the succinctness of his expression; VA1, after all, was hardly an anti-Callimachean 'big book.' Rather, he seems to have wanted to make the book more straightforward, and, I presume, more accessible to non-specialist readers. While this is certainly not an objectionable goal, I remain unconvinced that any real difference has emerged from the process. (On a purely personal level, furthermore, I rather miss the more elegant diction of VA1 and the intimate intensity of those first-person plurals.) Secondly -- and this brings me to the content as well as to the style of the book -- it is indicative of, indeed it enacts, C's abiding concern with levels of diction and the fine distinctions to be made between a given word and its near-synonym. As textual critic and commentator, C has built a distinguished career on a foundation of careful attention to words; a consummate philologist, he is always attentive to these prima elementa of creative expression, and to their history and evolution. Readers looking for a 'big-picture' interpretive essay on the Aeneid will not find it here; but for those fascinated by the meticulousness of Virgilian craftsmanship as evidenced in the details of poetic diction and style, there is much to be appreciated in this book.1

Chapter 1, Decorum and Narrative, is entirely new. Following in Axelson's footsteps,2 C begins with a discussion of the importance of word-choice (a particularly nice observation is to be found on p.6 on the difference between Catullus' two descriptions of 'bread,' the unpoetic panis and the metonymy Ceres). His primary concern, however, is with what he calls "the decorum of narrative" -- that is, how Virgil's descriptions of some of the most basic human behaviors found in the Aeneid, like building fires, hunting with bow and arrow, dressing, eating, and so forth, are governed by his sense of heroic decorum. Particularly noteworthy are the movements of fidus Achates, "available whenever Aeneas -- or Virgil -- needs him" (15) to facilitate the narrative, and often to take on a task inappropriate for Aeneas himself. C describes the observation of Servius Danielis (conveniently identified for the non-specialist reader at p.6 n.14, as is Claudius Donatus at p.15 n.30) that, at Aeneid 6.5-12, Aeneas removes himself from his men as they explore their landfall and attend to their tasks (14) because it would be undignified for him to engage in their activities; yet at 6.13, we learn from the plural subeunt that he is not alone after all, and at 6.34, that Achates is with him when he meets the Sibyl. Achates is similarly fortuitous in his proximity in Book 1 when Aeneas goes off -- by himself it seems at first -- on the Libyan shore. When he sees the seven deer which he will eventually kill to feed his men, he snatches the bow and arrow which fidus Achates is conveniently holding for him (1.187-88) -- conveniently, and yet a source of puzzlement to commentators since antiquity, who had last noticed Achates back on the shore, tending to the fire (1.174-79). C shows that in fact the appearance of Achates here is evidence neither of textual corruption nor of a nodding Virgil, but is to be explained as an instance of narrative decorum. Aeneas carries no weapons both because he is distracted and preoccupied, and because he cannot carry these weapons, generically speaking -- "these are not the weapons of a great Homeric warrior and are never used by Achilles, Agamemnon, Diomedes, Menelaus, Nestor, Hector, or Aeneas" (p.17). Achates thus serves -- and this is Virgil's great innovation -- again and again to perform the deeds that Aeneas cannot; he is part of the essential 'glue' holding the narrative together. Virgil's exquisite sense of decorum also explains why the actual hauling of the seven animal carcasses is left to the imagination: "There is a decorum of silence" (p.19). Throughout this chapter, as elsewhere in VA2, Virgil's engagement with both Homer and Apollonius is an integral part of C's arguments. It is therefore much to be regretted that C did not have available Damien Nelis' valuable and comprehensive new book on the Apollonian intertext of the Aeneid.3

Chapter 2, Two Similes and a Wedding, combines most of what was in the earlier chapter of the same name, now thoroughly revised and reorganized, with some new observations. With the two similes at 1.496-504 (Dido as Artemis) and at 4.141-50 (Aeneas as Apollo) as his focus, C illustrates the relationships between and among various Homeric, Apollonian, and Virgilian similes and related visual imagery. New material includes a fuller development of Aeneas' self-presentation to Dido (p.29), the relationship between the temple-ecphrasis in Book 1 and the surrounding narrative (pp.32-33), and the depiction of Ascanius in Book 4 (pp.44-45). C also promotes into the main text what was previously footnoted material about the relationship between and among the versions of the Aeneas-story transmitted by Virgil, Triphiodorus, and Quintus of Smyrna (esp. pp.33-34; C believes that the three had a common source but that Triphiodorus and Quintus are independent of Virgil). The knitting together of new and old material in this chapter is not seamless -- it is sometimes hard to remember what the main point of the chapter is (a comparison of C's style might be made with C's main subjects, similes and ecphrases, which repeatedly 'interrupt' the narratives into which they are inserted). The material on Triphiodorus in particular is positively distracting, especially since the more general readers imagined by C are likely never to have heard of him; and C never provides any context for this comparison other than the dense information packed into a footnote (n.37) on p.60. This discussion would have been more appropriately relegated to one of the Appendices.

Chapter 3, Introducing the Wooden Horse, rehearses VA1's Chapter 3 (entitled simply The Trojan Horse), again with much reorganization and discussion, not always well-integrated into the older material. New material includes notice of an Alcaean intertext for the designation of Helen at Aen. 1.650 as 'Argive' (Alc. 283.3-4 L.-P.: see p.51), a fuller discussion than previously of the traditional (but not Virgilian) relationship between Laocoon and Apollo (pp.64-65), the narrative function of Laocoon's new identity as priest of Neptune (pp.69-70), and the relationship between Iopas' song at the end of Book 1 and several Homeric intertexts, including Demodocus' song in Odyssey 8 and Odysseus' subsequent narrative (esp. pp.53-59). Triphiodorus and Quintus are again more distracting than helpful to the discussion.

Chapter 4, Dido and Aeneas, is with the exception of a few concluding pages almost entirely the same as the corresponding chapter in VA1, though again some material has been rearranged. This chapter includes discussions of metaphors and similes in Book 4 (pp.75-96), and of Virgil's tragic intertexts for Dido's suicide, especially Deianira in Sophocles' Trachiniae and the title characters in Sophocles' Ajax and Euripides' Alcestis (pp.101-7). In the new conclusion, C neatly demonstrates that the reference to the cutting of a lock of Dido's hair by Proserpina at Aen. 4.698-99 is an allusion to the speech of Thanatos at Alcestis 74-76, as the god announces his intention to cut a lock of hair from Alcestis' head and so to release her from life.

Chapter 5, Indecorous Wounds, is new, and focuses entirely on the description of the mutilated Deiphobus as seen by Aeneas in the underworld; it thus continues the enquiry into decorum begun in Chapter 1. C makes an interesting point here about the curious tension between the pathos of Aeneas' meeting with Deiphobus, the only character in the Aeneid addressed by Aeneas as friend (p.116), and on the other hand the usefulness of his character in representing, "in all its horror, the fall of Troy" (p.117). In a loosely connected conclusion, C makes a nice lexical point about the meaning of stomachus at Aen. 9.699 (the fatal wounding of Antiphates by Turnus), designating not its cognate in English but its cognate in Greek. At Il. 17.47, Homer uses the word once to designate the human throat; Virgil acknowledges his Homeric model by using the hapax stomachus in the same sense as Homer. The readability of this chapter is marred by a poorly motivated excursus on the reference to Deiphobus made by Dictys of Crete in his Ephemeris Belli Troiani.

Chapter 6, Augustan Ideology in the Underworld, is C's third new chapter and provides a rationale for the use of the word 'ideology' in the book's title; but C's use of the term is simply meant to indicate those passages in which we find what other scholars might prefer to call explicit historical or contextual references to Augustus and/or Augustan themes. C focuses on the long passage (6.760-846) in which Anchises describes and identifies for Aeneas the parade of Roman heroes in the underworld. C finds in the structure of this passage the placement of special emphasis by Virgil on the characters of Romulus, Augustus, and Camillus, and he then moves on to a valuable discussion of the prominence of Camillus in Augustan literature (pp.135-39). The "unprecedented description of [Camillus] as 'bringing back the standards', 'referentem signa Camillum' (825)," is presumably a reference to the Gaulish standards lost at the Battle of the Allia (p.138); these standards prefigure, according to C, the Parthian standards recovered by Augustus in 20 BC. Interest in Camillus leads C to an excursus on Horace Odes 1.12, in which Camillus is included as an exemplum virtutis. Horace's reference to Camillus in line 42 is complemented by reference to the young Marcellus at lines 45-46, like the opening of the Ode nodding to a Pindaric model (Nem. 8.40-41). This chapter ends with a discussion of the importance of the Marcelli in Augustan ideology.

Chapter 7, Arcadia Reviewed, is a revision of the original Chapter 5 of the same name. The twofold focus of this chapter, on Evander's Italy and the shield of Aeneas, is maintained from VA1, but much new material has been incorporated throughout. Noteworthy additions include discussions of Evander's 'skin of a Libyan bear' ('pelle Libystidis ursae,' Aen. 8.368; see pp.167-68) and the modeling of Evander and Pallas on Apollonius' Mariandyni Lycus and Dascylus (pp.169-70). VA1's discussion of Achilles' shield as depicted in Iliad 18 has been drastically abbreviated, while a corresponding discussion of the shield of Aeneas has been extended in VA2.

Chapter 8, The Death of Turnus, concludes VA2 as had the chapter of the same name concluded VA1. Little has been changed here, and that is all to the good, as C is at his best discussing the stylistics of pathos. Because this chapter represents the closest thing we get in this book to an interpretation of the Aeneid as a whole, it is interesting to observe here a number of subtle but significant changes in diction from VA1. In the earlier book, C opened this chapter with a discussion of the depiction of the personified Nile on the shield, 'contra autem magno maerentem corpore Nilum/ pandentemque sinus et tota veste vocantem/ caeruleum in gremium latebrosaque flumina victos' (8.711-13). C characterized this as a "moment of profound compassion," in which "the great river personified and grieving ... welcomes the vanquished..." "Yet," as C continued, "Virgil would not have had the battle end otherwise" (VA1, p.83). The corresponding passage in VA2 is virtually the same, but C has cut out the last sentence just cited (see VA2, p.185). In a subsequent discussion of the atrocities of Aeneas in VA1 (p.91), C compared Aeneas to Achilles, "in Homeric fashion, taunting his dead foe" (cf. the encounter of Achilles with Lycaon, Il. 21.97-135); he then characterized Achilles as the "berserk Homeric warrior," recognizable in Aeneas. In VA2 (p.196), the word "berserk" has been dropped from this characterization. A delicate but telling shift in emphasis continues to the last paragraph of the last chapter: in VA1, C described the last scene as allowing "the reader to catch a glimpse of the hero's essential humanity and so be disposed to condone an overwhelming passionate impulse" (VA1, p.100). In VA2 (p.209), this has become "a glimpse of Aeneas' essential humanity," which "prepare[s] the reader to accept a sudden impassioned act." The difference between 'condoning' and 'accepting' is slight indeed, but it is just enough of a difference to suggest that C is not yet satisfied with the ending -- of the Aeneid, and of his reading of the Aeneid -- and so is compelled to revisit it.

Of the seven Appendices in VA2, six are slightly revised versions of the corresponding Appendices in VA1; most changes are the result of updated bibliography, but only in Appendix 6 are the results substantial: the etymological connection between Mulciber and mollis/mollior must be right (pp.219-20). Appendix 7, on Jason's Cloak, is entirely new and bears only the most tangential relationship to anything in the rest of the book. The book concludes with a new Bibliography, a new General Index, and a new Index of Passages Cited. The general index is rather random, including as it does entries for passing references to, e.g., the Campo Vaccino (p.167) and Gibbon (p.13 n.29) but not to more substantial items like, e.g., violentia (characterizing Turnus, pp.193-95) or obnitor (first used by Virgil in Latin poetry, p.88). The bibliography, entirely absent from VA1, contains quite a few recent items (though C's silence regarding certain newer works is at least sometimes, I suspect, itself informative). Some unfortunate misprints mar the text, of which I mention here only those in Latin: on p.4, read placidissima at Aen. 3.78; on p.27 n.4, read terra at Mart. 5.74.2; on p.111, read diem at Aen. 4.697; on p.118, read cantuque at Aen. 7.754. On p.48, the word argentum has been dropped from the translation of Aen. 1.593.

C is a model reader of Virgil, whose sensitivity to the poet's tone finds its fullest expression in his crystallizations of the meaning of a given word or image; C is at his best in the details. An unreconstructed new-critical philologist, C approaches Virgil's poetry as something much more powerful than simply a testing-ground for new theoretical fashions. As is to be expected with a book whose roots are 25 years old or more, VA2 is not on the 'cutting edge' or in any theoretical vanguard; but it is filled with rich observations regarding Virgil's poetic practice. And for these observations we can be grateful to C, who has inspired his students and theirs in turn with his profound knowledge of the Virgilian poems.4


1.   Also gone are the epigraphs that opened each chapter in VA1, and which were surprisingly useful in establishing a tone for what would follow.
2.   B. Axelson, Unpoetische Wörter: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der lateinischen Dichtersprache (Lund, 1945).
3.   D. Nelis, Vergil's Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (Leeds, 2001).
4.   Regarding the so-called 'Harvard school,' however, see C's important disclaimer, published as an Appendix in N. Horsfall, A Companion to the Study of Virgil (Leiden-New York-Cologne, 1995), 313-14.

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