Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.10

Michael C. J. Putnam, The Humanness of Heroes: Studies in the Conclusion of Virgil’s Aeneid. The Amsterdam Vergil lectures, 1.   Amsterdam:  Amsterdam University Press, 2011.  Pp. 183.  ISBN 9789089643476.  $25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by P.J. Davis, University of Adelaide (

Michael Putnam is pre-eminent in the field of Virgilian scholarship. After recent studies of Virgil’s reception (including excellent editions of Maffeo Vegio [2004] and Sannazaro [2009]), in this book he returns to the Aeneid itself, with particular focus on Books 10 and 12. The Humanness of Heroes takes the form of an Introduction, Epilogue and six chapters, each chapter being based on a lecture delivered in 2009 at Amsterdam and Leiden.

Putnam is a leading member of the so-called ‘Harvard school’ of Virgilian criticism, a ‘school’ inclined towards pessimistic and anti-Augustan readings of the poem. His first major discussion of the issues, The Poetry of the Aeneid: Four Studies in Imaginative Unity and Design, first published by Harvard University Press in 1965, included as its final chapter a study of Book 12. Since then Putnam has developed his views on the Aeneid in a series of important books and articles. Readers of this most recent book will be interested to know what is new in his discussion of the section of the poem which is arguably most important for an assessment of the claims of the ‘Harvard school’. In what follows I try to emphasise what is new in Putnam’s treatment of the Aeneid’s final books.

Putnam makes two key methodological statements in his Introduction. First, his method is that of close reading. Putnam, needless to say, is a masterly reader. Second, Putnam aims ‘to appreciate the ethics of the hero’s behavior by the standards that the poem itself sets, not by non-Virgilian criteria, whether ancient or modern’ (p. 17). I can only endorse this position. The Aeneid is unusual among ancient epics in establishing an explicit moral framework (particularly in Books 1 and 6) by which the actions of its characters are to be judged. While external criteria may be pertinent, they are of necessity secondary.

Chapters 1 and 2 concern Aeneas’s rampage in Book 10. Chapter 1 focuses on Virgil’s use of Achilles as a model for Aeneas, particularly when he captures eight Italian youths for sacrifice and kills Magus. Putnam places these events in context by examining Anchises’s ethic of restraint enunciated at 6.853 (parcere subiectis et debellare superbos) and Virgil’s presentation of Turnus as an embodiment of superbia (10.514). At this point the argument takes a surprising Catullan turn, for he argues persuasively that Virgil alludes to Catullus’s treatment of Achilles in poem 64. Then, as we expect, he invokes Homer, particularly Achilles’s capture and killing of twelve Trojan youths for sacrifice to Patroclus’ ghost. Here too there are new things to say, for Putnam stresses the differences between the Greek and Latin versions, paying particular attention to the fact that Aeneas chooses eight young men to sacrifice and not twelve as in Homer. In considering the killing of Magus, Putnam invokes the ethical standard set by Anchises in Book 3 and by the Sibyl in Book 6, each of whom accepts the plea of the suppliant (Achaemenides, Aeneas), arguing that Aeneas, in behaving like Virgil’s Pyrrhus and Homer’s Achilles, fails to act in accordance with the Aeneid’s own moral principles. This analysis is extended in Chapter 2 to the rest of Aeneas’s battlefield victims, with particular emphasis on Tarquitus, Lucagus and Liger, and Lausus and Mezentius.

In Chapters 3 and 4 Putnam shifts the focus from Aeneas’s victims to Aeneas himself, to Aeneas as destroyer of cities. Chapter 3 begins by focusing on the ecphrasis in Book 1, emphasising the role of Achilles in Troy’s fall, and then shifts to Book 4, emphasising the role of Aeneas, not just as destroyer of Dido, but as destroyer of Carthage. Most striking here is Putnam’s argument that Aeneas functions as the new Achilles in the first third of the poem as well as in the battle books. Chapter 4 examines Aeneas as destroyer of the city of Latinus in Book 12, the first occasion when Aeneas is directly responsible for a city’s destruction. Here the focus is on imagery, first a sequence involving bees and, second, a sequence involving deer. Putnam links the bee simile used of the firing of the city in Book 12 (12.587-92) not only with the omen in Book 7 (7.59-70), but with similes used of the Carthaginians building their city (1.430-36) and of souls in the underworld (6.707-9). Whereas the similes in Books 1 and 6 connect bees with creativity and the possibility of rebirth, the simile in Book 12 presents Aeneas as destroyer of the hive. We see the same movement in the sequence of deer similes with Aeneas as unwitting killer of the deer in Book 4 (4.69-73) to Aeneas as fully responsible hunter in Book 12 (12.749-57).

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on Turnus and the poem’s final scene. Chapter 5 begins with the lion simile which opens Book 12. As we expect, Putnam emphasises the verbal connections with furor impius and Dido, noting not only the implications for Virgil’s characterisation of Turnus but also Aeneas (Book 4’s unwitting shepherd has become the hunting dog). Also expected, given that Iliad 22 is the primary model for Aeneid 12, is reference to the Homeric Hector. More surprising is the way in which Lucretius’ description of fear (DRN 3.152-8) is invoked to elucidate the dream simile at 12.908-14. Chapter 6 discusses the Aeneid’s last thirty lines. It is here that the poem’s ethical frame is most important, for, as Putnam notes, ‘time and again throughout its course the epic offers evidence against the moral appropriateness of the hero’s last deed’ (p. 104). To reinforce that ‘time and again’ Putnam cites the evidence in some detail (pp. 104-8). This detailed citation of evidence is important, given that Gian Biagio Conte in Chapter 5 of The Poetry of Pathos: Studies in Virgilian Epic (Oxford, 2007) has argued for Aeneas’s clementia, despite the fact that there is not one instance of Aeneas actually sparing a suppliant. (See my BMCR review, 2007.12.31). Putnam also emphasises the absence of Rome from the poem’s end, the absence of glory, the absence of an Iliadic reconciliation, the absence of the pity that Achilles displays towards Priam in the Iliad’s final book.

Putnam traverses controversial ground in this book, for how we read the Aeneid’s end is crucial to our understanding of the poem’s politics. For readers familiar with Putnam’s earlier work his actual conclusion is not surprising. This book’s contribution lies in its concentration on the poem’s most important event and in the fresh evidence that Putnam draws upon to make his case.

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