Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.17

Riggs Alden Smith, The Primacy of Vision in Virgil's Aeneid.   Austin, TX:  University of Texas Press, 2005.  Pp. xviii, 254.  ISBN 0-292-70657-X.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen Harrison, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (

Alden Smith (S.) is well known to Anglophone Virgilian scholars for his earlier Poetic Allusion and Poetic Embrace in Ovid and Virgil (1997) and for his energetic leadership in the U.S. Vergilian Society. In this book he addresses the issue of how Virgil uses 'vision and visual perspectives to suggest the thoughts and motives of his characters ' (2). His topic picks up on recent emphasis on the function of visual imagery in Augustan culture in the work of Zanker and Galinsky and current interest in the visual aspects of Virgil's narrative in the Aeneid through such features as ekphrasis and in the presentation of the gaze in Roman literature. The book follows a large cultural hypothesis that the Augustan period in general showed a shift from republican oral culture to imperial visual culture, and that the Aeneid is at one with Augustan monumental iconography in stressing the persuasive power of seeing rather than speaking: this has some plausibility, though as with all generalisations of such scale exceptions can be found. S. also deploys as a key idea Merleau-Ponty's concept of the 'voyant-visible', 'the one who sees and is seen', and rightly argues that the key characters of the Aeneid are stressed as both subjects and objects of perception. As with S.'s use of Martin Buber in his previous book, this can be seen as the theoretical icing for a more conventional critical cake, which contains many valuable points about vision and visuality in the Aeneid.

The introductory chapter (1-23) lays out this framework in some detail and presents the central idea that the poem's position changes from the initial co-operation of words and vision in Aeneas' initial appearance, climaxing in the defeat of Turnus' oral plea for mercy by Aeneas' decision to kill him after seeing the sword-belt of Pallas: 'At the opening of the Aeneid, vision complements and fulfils the words of the speaker ... by the poem's midpoint, vision has moved to a position distinctly opposed to oratory; during the poem's final scene, vision chiefly motivates the action of Aeneas within the narrative in such a way as to suggest that rhetoric has lost its effect'. This general case, perhaps over-schematic but certainly persuasive in its account of the end of the poem, is backed up by four main chapters.

In the first (24-59), S. looks at the role of the gods, arguing that the gods generally communicate visually and that their visual interventions are a key motor in the plot of the poem. Gods can appear in deceptive guise, as revealed deities, or in the form of future divinities such as Augustus. Divine deceptions such as Venus' appearance to Aeneas as a huntress in Carthage in Book 1 are well examined (one might add that Aeneas is here being 'warmed up' for erotic interest in the huntress Dido, albeit by his own mother); the divine relevations of Tiber/Aeneas at the beginning of Book 8 and Iris/Turnus at the beginning of Book 9 are well taken together as book-initiating triggers of action. The treatment of Augustus as 'a god in the midst' (51-9) makes good points about the appearances of the princeps in the poem; in particular, S. acutely points out that just as Aeneas sees the fatal and symbolic image of the Danaids on Pallas' sword-belt worn by Turnus, so Turnus sees the image of the triumphant Augustus on the shield of Aeneas during the final duel: 'Augustus ... is visible and present in the Aeneid and is a symbol of victory in the poem's final scene' (58).

The second major chapter (60-96) looks at 'vision past and future', arguing that 'visions from the past deepen a character's understanding of the present and can even anticipate that character's vision of the future' (60). The visions of Hector in Book 2 and the Penates in Book 3 are neatly paired as occasions where 'vision surpasses words' (61): in both cases Aeneas is vouchsafed the truth through a vision (though in the first of course he famously fails to take it in). The interpretation of Aeneas' vision of the dead Creusa at the end of Book 2 as presenting 'the image of the mother he never had' (82) is splendid, especially since (as S. points out) the failed embrace of husband and wife picks up that of Odysseus and Anticleia in the Odyssean underworld. In the Virgilian underworld S. plausibly argues that 'vision has allowed Aeneas to contemplate both past and future' (82), but his assertion that in the Show of Heroes images surpass words is questionable (these figures surely mean nothing without Anchises' commentary). S. picks up on Anchises' famous rejection of oratory as inferior to ruling and argues it is a devaluation of Roman rhetoric, but surely Greek not Roman rhetoric is meant here: for Virgil as even for Cicero the Greeks were admittedly superior in speaking, and for Romans as for Homeric heroes actions speak louder than words. S. might also have said more here about the Roman tradition of inspiring historical and ethical exempla in both visual and literary/rhetorical form, central for Augustus himself and the key idea of his Forum Augustum (cf. Suet. Div.Aug. 31.5). The account of the site of Rome presents its clear interplay and blending of past, present and future vision, and has some good details (e.g. on the prophetic significance of Janus and the Porta Carmentalis, 91), but could have been more developed. The Shield of Aeneas is no doubt omitted in this chapter as S. gave an account of it in his 1997 book (171-88).

The third major chapter (97-127) presents the tensions between Aeneas' two visions in Carthage, the prophetic image of future Rome through the appearances of Mercury and Anchises (the latter not narrated) and the very present erotic gaze of Dido. The erotic visual engagement between Aeneas and Dido is nicely compared with that between Turnus and Lavinia in Book 12, and there is some excellent detailed analysis of Dido's wandering and impassioned gaze; the suggestion that Aeneas' gaze at Dido/Diana at 1.498ff presents him as a sort of Actaeon is also a fine idea. Their final encounter in the Underworld is also well analysed, though the point might be made that 6.469 solo fixos oculos is a specifically ironic echo of Dido's welcoming vultum demissa at 1.561 with hostile rejection replacing modest greeting, given that S. rightly argues that 'Aeneas' first and last encounters with the queen give special attention to her vision' (121). Pöschl not Hornsby should be credited with the (splendid) idea that Dido's last shadowy appearance as Diana-moon tragically echoes her bright first appearance as Diana-huntress (117 n.71), and S.'s assertion that 'vision in the amatory scenes of the Aeneid frames both the first and second halves of the poem' is perhaps overstated, given that Lavinia's appearance at the beginning of Book 7 is wholly unerotic and that the Dido/Aeneas encounter takes place in the middle, not at the end, of Book 6.

The final major chapter (128-175) argues with some plausibility that vision and its capacity to stimulate immediate action consistently wins out over rhetoric in the battle scenes of the poem's second half. S. rightly shows that these books witness a 'series of diplomatic failures' in negotiations and battlefield pleas (135; one could here add the duel-truce of Book 12, orally negotiated but broken by a strong visual sign). The Latin council of Book 11 could be an exception, since there Drances' rhetorical taunts do succeed in making Turnus fight, and not all will be convinced that Drances 'relies on sight in making his argument' (139). S. rightly reads the narrative of Hercules and Cacus as a prolepsis of the final duel, but his emphasis here on the thematisation of light and dark seems only tangentially connected with his main argument (that Hercules like Aeneas is a man of decisive action stimulated by vision). It is certainly interesting that this symbolic duel contains no summarised or reported speech and only action, though this might be attributed to its anecdotal embedding as Evander's reminiscence. As noted earlier, S. argues plausibly for the primacy of vision in Aeneas' decision to slay Turnus (174): 'Turnus' attempt ultimately fails because the power of images triumphs over the power of persuasion'.

The brief conclusion (176-82) returns to Merleau-Ponty and argues further for Aeneas' importance as 'voyant-visible', as perceived as well as perceiver. Here a link might have been made with the ambivalent role of the emperor on public show as perceiver and perceived, true already for Julius Caesar and stressed by e.g. Shadi Bartsch in Actors in the Audience: this two-way status is shared by Aeneas and future principes. Sometimes the argument is a little overstretched here, e.g. 'visibility thus provides Aeneas a platform among his men and garners the attention of the gods, of Dido, of the Sibyl and even of the Underworld's shades' (182): this is close to truism and could be said of many other characters, though it is true to say that conspicuousness is one of Aeneas' central characteristics as the poem's protagonist.

In sum, this book makes an important contribution to the analysis of the Aeneid. Its rewarding application of the themes of vision, gaze and the 'power of images' produces a view of the poem which is compellingly in tune with much other contemporary scholarship on Roman culture, and while some of its larger generalisations can be open to question, many of its key arguments are convincing, and its frequent textual analyses (only a few of which have received comment here) are often enterprising and creative. It deserves the close attention and lively interest of all scholars of the Aeneid.

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