Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.11.22

John Van Sickle: Notes on Christopher Smith on Denis Feeney.   Response to 2007.09.17

Response by John Van Sickle, Brooklyn College (

When F(eeney) shows that -- absent our settled temporal grid -- synchronism flourished around the ancient Mediterranean, the process invites study as an analogical and metaphoric-archetypal species of the cultural genus classified by Fauconnier and Turner as cognitive blending.1 For Greek minds seeking intelligible relatedness -- congruence -- between new extremes, Sicily emerges as the vantage point, a cognitive pou sto: "Before the Romans, it was the Syracusans who were the people in the middle" (p. 52).

F.'s aperçu prompts queries about the displaced Syracusan Th(eocritus) and how his blended geography and times -- reduced epic -- will engage a displaced north Italian V(irgil) relaunching epic amidst turmoil at Rome. Yet F. ignores V.'s new god and oracle to herdsmen (ecl. 1.6, 42-45), blended with a Roman household calendar of monthly sacrifice (bis senos: ecl. 1.42-43) and traditionalized as annual (quotannis, cf. pp. 83, 148), regularizing effects reinforced by evoking manifestations of divine power in Roman memory --praesentis divos (ecl. 1.41: worth F.'s notice).2

F. emphasizes how conquests by Pompey and Caesar extended Rome's power to encompass the whole world (pp. 61-63): new cognitive horizons reflected by V., with exile measured in terms of Parthian and German (ecl. 1.61-82) and extremes of Scythia, Africa, Oaxes, Britain (north, south, Pompey's east and Caesar's west).

F. looks only at one eclogue and glosses over its audacious further blending of temporal terms (ecl. 4.4-18): culminating age (ultima iam ... aetas); fresh start for generations' row (ab integro, saeclorum, ordo); returns (redit, redeunt regna); new heroic input (iam nova progenies); iron race yielding to golden (ferrea ... gens aurea) by agency of boy-future protagonist of renewed human-divine intercourse (ecl. 4.15-16, 63; cf. p. 83 and ecl. 1); projected changes blended with Roman chronology and affairs via Pollio's consulship and leadership (ecl. 4.11-14).3

Noting that V. uses C(atullus) 64, F. features C.'s "collapsing of certainties of time at a pivotal moment of transition" (p. 132). C. did radically rewrite tradition (impose an original blend) when he made Argo first to plow the sea and occasion love at first sight between Peleus and Thetis. This dual novelty F. rightly underscores, as have others. Yet stressing that C.'s new blend yields contradictory chronologies -- "smashing at once as many boundaries as he can" (p. 124) -- F. neglects C.'s positive contribution, viz. blending Argo, Troy, and descent to the Iron Age into one causal chain (reprising Apollonius, Homer, and Hesiod in an epic-tragic synthesis).

V. makes this new synthesis --Argo causal for Achilles, bracketing his Heroic Age while inverting its role -- from prelude for iron in C. to prelude for final full return of gold. When F. then writes that V. "depends intimately" on C. (p. 132, my italics), he makes generic similarity occlude specific difference. He ignores V.'s most pointed reprise from C. and its polemical thrust: Talia saecla suis dixerunt currite fusis (ecl. 4.46). V. turns the refrain from C.'s Parcae that foretold Achilles' violent heroism into a corrective: 'Centuries such as these (sc. that will grow beyond violent heroics not such as those in C. that led from violent heroics down to the Iron Age)'.

F. does bring the horizons stretched by Pompey and Caesar to bear on Catullus 11, noting the irony that Pompey's epithet, emulating Alexander, here becomes Caesar's -- "great."4 Less palmary, he writes of the poet's "going to the end of his world with the end of his love, where the vulnerable flower of his love will go under to the civilizing plow of Lesbia." The broken flower may evoke heroic death as well as common georgic metaphors of sexual penetration: yet Catullus transfers the usually male violence of the plow to Lesbia, making himself the violated female: so metaphoric plow styled "civilizing" from who's point of view?

Epic traces in C.'s close prompt review of his preceding thrust at Lesbia: 'Let her live and let her thrive with her lechers, |whom she keeps arming all at once three hundred -- | none truly loving, but of all often | iliacs breaking':5 ilia rumpens, a blend that assimilates the Sapphic girl to heroic Iliadic violence: preface to the closing metaphor of her plowlike (sc., georgic) force breaking his (sc., bucolic) bloom.6

Some scholarly shade may find F.'s treatment of the notorious links between the fourth eclogue and the sixteenth epode arbitrary, cavalier. He declares H(orace) the corrector, yet all such arguments look reversible, so that one wants some vantage point from which to judge, e.g., ideological inconsistency in the course of H.'s career vs. V.'s more focused and internally coherent thought, topping H.'s hopeless repetition with ideas of linear progression and growth. The broad utility of F.'s book does not suffice to make this point, forever waiting its pou sto.


1.   Gilles Fauconnier, Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
2.   With respect to the Aeneid F. writes of "radical contamination of the categories of history and myth ... a new age of demigods and miracles" (p. 83).
3.   "Roman years did not have numbers, they had names" ... p. 16.
4.   Regularly in Core Curriculum 1.1 Classical Cultures (first course in the Core Curriculum of Brooklyn College) I open by assigning this Catullus and Sappho's hoi men hippeon to provoke awareness of similarity and difference, including geography and values with a first hint of the imaginative and cultural benchmark role of Troy.
5.   My translation follows the received text, quos simul complexa tenet trecentos, instead of which F prints the garbled quos complex simul tenet trecentos. To render complexa, 'having folded in, put arms around', I offer as a kind of college-try translation - 'arming': for the root <plec-/plic-> in a military metaphor, I thought of explicatis ordinibus 'ranks folded out', brought to my attention by F (p. 28). Legendary 300 Spartan dead at Thermopylae inspired Roman analogy and synchromism with 300 Fabii lost at Cremera (F, p. 20): does Catullus blend Lesbia's lechers with fabled bean-men and laconic demise at hot gates?
6.   The Latin ilia ('loins') inspired Propertius to the notorious blend of erotic elegy with epic: longas condimus iliadas ('we set down lengthy iliads, sc. loiniads': Eleg. 2.1.14), where length is an epithet proper to Homer's Iliad and to puffed elegies -- durative erotics -- and condere serves for setting down a city, text, or sword.

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