Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.10

Joseph Farrell, Damien Nelis (ed.), Augustan Poetry and the Roman Republic.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xi, 393.  ISBN 9780199587223.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by James J. O’Hara, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (


This fine collection “has its distant origin in a conference held at the Fondation Hardt, in Vandoeuvres, Geneva on 22-4 March 2007” (p. v). It is inspired by Alain Gowing’s 2005 Empire and Memory. The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture, 1 and Gowing provides a thoughtful Afterword that complements the ambitious Introduction by Nelis and Farrell. That Introduction and Afterword offer more synthesis than most of the contributions, in which each scholar generally sticks to his or her patch, and there is little interaction between the contributors. But many of the contributions are excellent, though some are not really on the topic of the volume.

Nelis and Farrell write in the wake of debates about the value of literary sources for historians, and the fruitful cross-fertilization of new interpretive methods among historians and poetry scholars. The volume is meant to ask not merely whether but “how and to what end” Augustan poets “may be seen as presenting their past as a specifically Republican history” (p. 2). They discuss periodization, myth, whether history is “the proper subject for serious poetry” (p. 10), and both “beginnings” and the apparent “end of history in the ascendancy of Augustus” (p. 16). They end by commenting on the allegorical “device of commenting on recent events by citing the more distant past,” so that “Augustan habits of remembering the past … are generally characterized by indirection” (p. 17).2

Maria Luisa Delvigo, in “Per transitum tangit historiam: intersecting developments of Roman identity in Virgil,” offers a good discussion of how Servius (why is his name not in the title?) says that Vergil “touches on” or alludes to historia, which in Servius is a term “that includes the sense of ‘myth’, ‘legend’, and that of ‘history’, and more particularly, ‘Roman history.’” Like many of the contributions, Delvigo surveys the material in a way that should encourage future work.

Jurgen Paul Schwindt, in “The Philology of History. How and what Augustan Literature Remembers: Horace, Odes 2.7, Vergil, Ecl. 1, and Propertius, 1.19, 1.22 and 2.13B,” is the most ambitious paper in terms of seeking broad answers to large questions, though I am not sure I understand all of his abstract theorizing. He does offer excellent brief analysis of Horace’s ode on abandoning his shield at Philippi, the complex attitudes towards current events of the first Eclogue, and especially the epigrams at the end of Propertius’s first book.

Joseph Farrell discusses “Camillus in Ovid's Fasti” with special attention to the treatment of monuments (why is that word not in his title?). Since Ovid “invites the reader to compare Tiberius with both Camillus and Augustus” (p. 64), Farrell examines both what is said and what is left unsaid about these three. For him, “Ovid’s confrontation of Camillus with Augustus or Tiberius is … an instantiation of the basic idea that animates the Forum Augustum, in which Augustus intended the statues of summi viri … to serve as standards of excellence against which he and his successors could be measured” (p. 87).

In “Roman gentes in Ovid's Fasti: the Fabii and the Claudii,” Jacqueline Fabre-Serris’ discussion of the Fabii argues that “Ovid, faced with a text [Aeneid 8] that aimed to establish a canonical version of the myth of Trojan emigration with the aim of legitimating the recent political role of the gens Iulia, wished to remind his readers that the history of the Roman past was made up of diverse traditions that involved other gentes who had sacrificed themselves for the state” (p. 99). This is not the only paper that sees a text as having one stable meaning rather than as ambiguous or open to multiple interpretations: many Vergilians see the Aeneid as already presenting diverse traditions about the Roman past. For Fabre-Serris, the emperor’s daughter “Julia’s image lay behind that of Claudia Quinta” (p. 104), since the latter is presented as “a woman who, during the Punic Wars, refused to submit to the rules of traditional morality and was not punished for it, as was the case later on for [Julia]” (p. 106).

For Philip Hardie, in “Trojan Palimpsests: the Archaeology of Roman History in Aeneid 2,” “every sack, or threatened sack, of Rome is a sack of Troy, and every rebirth of Rome is a rebirth of Troy.” He asks “how much later Roman history is already inscribed in the Troy presented to Dido by Aeneas in Aeneid 2?” and argues that “the manner in which the physical fabric and topography of Troy is presented to us by Aeneas is one that encourages the reader …to be alert for historical associations and traces of past events” (p. 107). Hardie’s familiar method is to combine a number of details that everyone has noticed with several that no one has, along with close reading of style and numerous intertexts. His discussion (pp. 120-23) of the felled ash tree at 2.626-31 is excellent, including his citation of Horace Odes 4.4.53-60, where Hannibal likens the Roman ability to bounce back from near-destruction to that of a tree felled but not destroyed. Oddly, there is no cross-reference to Labate’s discussion of this theme in Odes 4.4 (pp. 213-16).

Three central chapters, on “Virgil's Bacchus and the Roman Republic,” “Caesar, Lucan, and the Massilian Marathonomachia,” and on Vergil's Andromache in Baudelaire's Le Cygne, seem to me to have very little to do with Augustan poets’ memory of the Republic, though each is a fine treatment of its topic. But I do not buy the suggestion in the first that there is a connection between venit in Aeneid 1.2 and “the first verb … which the disguised Dionysus utters in the Bacchae ἥκω (I have come)” (p. 129).

The last six papers are powerful, interesting and complex. In “Horace's Epistle 2.1, Cicero, Varro, and the Ancient Debate about the Origins and the Development of Latin Poetry,” Mario Citroni offers an excellent study of the place of earlier and later Republican literature in that Epistle and related texts, with a wee bit of attention to the difference between Republican and Augustan literature.

“Constructing the Roman myth: The history of the republic in Horace's lyric poetry,” by Mario Labate is perhaps the most Gowing-like chapter. Horace’s attitude towards the Republic has not been neglected, but Labate offers an excellent and subtle (if avowedly limited) discussion, with special attention to the idea that Rome’s unique strength, as Hannibal says in Odes 4.4, lies in its supply of talented individuals ready to help it rebound from any setback. Labate’s discussion of the topic of abandoning the site of Rome nicely contrasts the despair of Epode 16 and the resolution of Odes 3.5.

Alain Deremetz’ “Numa in Augustan Poetry” studies Roman concepts of national identity as seen in the treatment in several texts of both Numa and, more briefly, Romulus (why is his name not in the title?). For Numa one focus is the two etymologies for Numa’s name, the familiar one from Greek words for “law” and “custom,” but also one from Greek and Roman words for “grove.” His treatment of Romulus is necessarily short, and takes at face value both Ovid’s exculpation of Romulus in the Fasti of the charge of fratricide, and the Vergilian Jupiter’s telling Venus in Aeneid 1 that Remus and his brother will rule jointly.3

Three rich and intelligent papers on Vergil follow. Damien Nelis’ “Past, present and future in Vergil's Georgics,” offers a subtle and intelligent study of how “the actual process of the composition of the poem is thematized throughout,” and how the way that “the reader is inevitably caught up in the process of periodizing Roman history” has consequences for “the political viewpoint of the text” (p. 245). Nelis argues for “a linear reading of the poem from start to finish” (p. 250), and that the poem offers both the “uncertainties” (p. 248) of “pre-Actium despair” as well as “post-Actium hope” (262). I do not buy, however, his suggestion that Georgics 1.27 auctorem frugum tempestatumque potentem, offers a meaningful “anagram” of Augustum.

In “Catullus 64 and the prophetic voice in Virgil's fourth Eclogue,” Gail Trimble offers smart close readings of Eclogue 4 and its relationship to Catullus’ poem, but perhaps overstates the certainty of her central suggestion that the voice that speaks in Eclogue 4 “suggestively echoes the voices both of Catullus’ Fates and the Catullan narrator [of 64] as crucial sources of authority for its vision of the future” (p. 264). Her claim may not convince those who find that in Catullus neither the main speaker nor the Fates constitute a reliable narrator, the main narrator for his idealizing of the heroic age, the Fates for their claim that Peleus and Thetis will have a marriage lacking in discord.4 Further, her certainty that Vergil’s allusions to Catullus 64 reverse the earlier poem’s pessimism seems an arbitrary choice—and a type of reading rejected by the next chapter.

In “Virgil's Caesar: Intertextuality and Ideology,” Monica Gale deals with passages in the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid that treat Julius Caesar in the light of earlier intertexts. She rejects the assumption that “Vergil alludes to his predecessors in such a way as to reverse their ideological stance,” because “attempts to close down interpretation in this way fail to allow for the fundamental instability of intertextuality in general” (p. 279—with no mention that the preceding chapter has done just this). She shows that in Eclogue 5’s apparent reference to Caesar’s divinity “the intertextual appeal to Lucretius’ … conception of the ‘godlike man’ destabilizes the poem’s political subtext,” and makes similar arguments about allusions to Phaethon and to Catullus 64 at the end of Georgics 1, and allusions in Aeneid 6 both to Lucretius and to Catullus’ scorn for the socer generque Pompey and Caesar. Her conclusion is that each time “the positive surface of the text remains, to my mind, primary; but the Lucretian and Catullan intertexts tend to disturb that surface, and to create troubling cross-currents” (p. 295).

In “The Domus of Fama and Republican Space in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” Bill Gladhill argues that Fama’s house in Metamorphoses 12 “is the cosmological equivalent to the Forum Romanum” (p. 305) and that fama is thus associated with “the chaos of the Republican forum” (313), and “Republican free speech” (p. 315). This adds special point to the reference at Metamorphoses 15.852-60 to Augustus’ inability to control libera fama, which Gladhill suggests is now controlled not by the forum but by the poet.

Alain M. Gowing’s “Afterword” pulls together themes from all of the papers—but usually themes touched on by only two or three papers. He discusses intertextuality and memory, allusions both to history and to texts, the notion of history as “quite malleable” (p. 325), “memory of place” as discussed by Hardie and Goldhill (p. 326), exemplarity in Farrell and Fabre-Serris, reception in the three central chapters, the selectiveness of memory and the “tendency to overlay or conflate history with myth” (p. 330), and how “Augustan poetry engages with the past… in some sense to declare its disconnection to it, to proclaim itself as something new or at least different” (p. 330). He calls for a “full-scale study in its own right” of “memory in the Augustan period,” for which the present volume on poetry, along with other recent “truly first rate books about the late Republic and the Augustan period,” has laid valuable groundwork.


1.   See BMCR 2006.02.34.
2.   I am disappointed to see an endorsement of the speculative and in my view misguided argument that Propertius’ first book must pre-date Actium by P. Heslin, “Virgil’s Georgics and the Dating of Propertius’ First Book,” JRS 100 (2010) 54–68.
3.   Contrast the suspicious reading of Ovid by S.E. Hinds, “arma in Ovid's Fasti Part 2: Genre, Romulean Rome and Augustan Ideology,” Arethusa 25 (1992) 81-153, and on Vergil my Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil’s Aeneid (Princeton 1990) 151-55.
4.   See both the book reviewed and others cited in the review at BMCR 2013.01.31.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010