Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.08

Aaron M. Seider, Memory in Vergil’s Aeneid: Creating the Past.   Cambridge; London:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. x, 229.  ISBN 9781107031807.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew P. Loar, Stanford University (


Memory studies are on the rise in all academic disciplines. The last decade alone has seen a sharp uptick in scholarship on memory from the hard sciences to the social sciences to the humanities. Classical scholarship has mirrored this trend, and thanks to Karl Galinsky’s project, “Memoria Romana”—the recipient of a Max-Planck Prize for International Cooperation in 2009—a number of new publications addressing memory in Roman culture have emerged in the last few years, with more to come.1 Aaron Seider’s study of memory in the Aeneid is one of these publications.

Seider argues that “memory in the Aeneid acts as a social and narrative mechanism for integrating a traumatic past with an uncertain future” (4). For Aeneas and the Trojans, that “traumatic past” is the desolation of Troy. The “uncertain future” entails two questions: can the Trojans overcome their past, and (how) will future generations remember them? From the outset, Seider positions himself against recent scholarship on the Aeneid that has privileged the “therapeutic effects of forgetting.”2 Though remembering may be painful for Aeneas, Seider insists, it is necessary. This is not to say that Aeneas’ memories are always intended to be faithful reproductions of past events, nor that Aeneas always exerts control over his memories. On the contrary, Seider is acutely aware of the maxim that memory is constructed, not reproduced. The bulk of the volume accordingly explores the tensions between remembering and forgetting, between being remembered and being forgotten, tracking the ways that the Aeneid’s characters, Aeneas chief among them, (attempt to) manipulate memory in their efforts to move on from the trauma of Troy.

With his introduction (1-27), Seider articulates the volume’s main goals, summarizes the vocabulary of memory in the Aeneid, elaborates the role of memory in Roman culture, and enumerates his varied methodologies, which draw on philology, critical work on memory, and narratology. In delineating the scope of his project, Seider restricts himself to the question of how the epic’s “characters and narrator think about and engage in recollection and commemoration” (6). To understand how the language of memory in the Aeneid characterizes “mnemonic processes,” Seider outlines a core and secondary vocabulary of memory, concluding from these lists that memory in the Aeneid is a “process that makes present something that is absent” (9).3 Seider argues that this then permits him to consider passages that describe any mnemonic process—such as when characters recall their personal past—even in the absence of core or secondary vocabulary words.

Of his three methodological approaches, Seider’s engagement with social scientific work on memory yields the most fruitful results. Three concepts in particular help structure his analysis: individual memory, social memory, and oikotype (21-3). Individual memory pertains only to the individual. Social memory is a memory that, though originating from an individual, bears on the social group. And an oikotype is the “standardized version of the past” that the group endorses. For Aeneas, his struggle with memory centers on fashioning an oikotype for the Trojans, one that satisfies both their immediate need to navigate traumatic memories of Troy and their long-term wish for future generations to remember them in their desired way.

In his first chapter, “Turning toward Rome” (28-65), Seider analyzes a number of passages to make his case for the importance of remembering, not forgetting, to Aeneas’ task of transitioning from past traumas to an unknown future. The chapter’s principal argument is encapsulated in the opening vignette, which recounts the dual prophecies that the Trojans will not found their new city until they have consumed their tables. Although Aeneas, according to his own narrative, received the prophecy from the harpy Celaeno in book 3, he reattributes the prophecy in book 7 to Anchises. Seider argues, therefore, that Aeneas’ reinterpretation of the prophecy—recasting a “dire threat” as a “benevolent promise”—both amounts to the creation of an oikotype and reinforces Aeneas’ leadership role in shaping the meaning of the Trojans’ past. This also exemplifies a trend in Aeneas’ engagements with memory: Aeneas consistently rewrites the past to create memories productive for moving forward. Aeneas thus abrogates the question of forgetting by simply remembering a version of the past that suits his present needs.

The second chapter, “The challenge of Troy” (66-95), shifts gradually from the backward-looking process of recollection to the more future-oriented act of commemoration.4 After examining the narrator’s opening account of Juno’s “unforgetting anger,” which foregrounds the interrelated themes of memory and trauma, the chapter illuminates how similar themes underpin Aeneas’ first two speeches in the epic. These two speeches crystallize Aeneas’ greatest fear— that he and the Trojans may be consigned to oblivion—and explain why Aeneas focuses his energies on creating a new “remembering community that will honor the Trojans’ memories of Troy” (67). The chapter’s final two sections chronicle Aeneas’ encounters with two possible commemorations of Troy: the paintings in the Temple of Juno at Carthage, and the city of Buthrotum. Seider argues that the former instance highlights the potential for misinterpreting commemorations, as Aeneas views the temple’s paintings not as celebratory depictions of the Trojans’ defeat but as a “compassionate commemoration” of Troy. The latter instance reveals a static, concrete, and ultimately ersatz commemoration of Troy, one that propels Aeneas to seek out a more “innovative” way of commemorating the city.

Chapter 3, “A personal affair: Memories of Dido” (96-123), explores the role of memory in Aeneas’ relationship with Dido, highlighting Aeneas’ successes and failures in controlling how others, Dido especially, engage with memory. Seider observes how, in relating the travails of his past to Dido, Aeneas often betrays the emotional agony attached to his recollections. But the chapter’s main purpose is to call into question Aeneas’ monopoly over memory, pointing to Aeneas and Dido’s conflicting commemorations of their relationship as evidence of Aeneas’ faltering mnemonic control.

With his fourth chapter, “The narrator’s song” (124-158),5 Seider refocalizes his analysis around the narrator’s engagement with memory, largely setting Aeneas aside. As Seider explains, the narrator’s use of memory mirrors Aeneas’, at least insofar as the narrator is invested in advancing a standardized version of the past—an oikotype—for his Augustan readers. Seider argues that one way the narrator fashions his oikotype is by asserting the superiority of his mnemonic powers over the Muses’. Nonetheless, by examining a sequence of apostrophes to the dead, Seider draws out the contradictions between the narrator and other characters’ attempts to commemorate the deceased. These contradictory commemorations pose a challenge for the Aeneid’s audience: they must select from these choices an appropriate memorial. Chapter 4 thus continues the argument Seider forwarded in the previous chapter, confirming the impossibility of individuals establishing how they or others will be commemorated.

The fifth and final chapter, “Imperatives of memory: Foundation and fury in Aeneid 12” (159-195), illuminates the convergence of the volume’s major themes in the Aeneid’s last book, analyzing four separate scenes that speak to the imperatives of memory in the epic. First, when Aeneas addresses Ascanius (12.432-40), he enjoins his son to incorporate the past into the future, thereby ensuring that memories of Troy never fade. Second, as the narrator reflects on his commemoration of Aeneas’ story (12.500-4), he belies the pain that accompanies his commemoration. Third, Juno’s agreement with Jupiter that the Romans will forget Troy (12.819-28) suggests that victory against the Latins comes to the Trojans “at the expense of their mnemonic defeat” (178). The core ideas embodied by these three scenes create the backdrop for Aeneas’ decisive confrontation with Turnus. Seider seeks to chart a middle course between totalizing interpretations of memory’s role in the final lines as either entirely good or bad; instead, Seider argues that, in the poem’s final scene, the past intrudes unavoidably into the present, contradicting Aeneas’ belief that he can always rewrite the past to satisfy the needs of the present.

A brief conclusion (196-204) lucidly summarizes the book’s central arguments. In fact, I might suggest that readers begin with Seider’s concluding summary (esp. 199-201) to see clearly the bonds connecting the individual chapters and understand the architecture of Seider’s argument.

I have two primary reservations about Seider’s approach. First, I often felt that he overstretched the heuristics of memory. Despite enumerating both a core and a secondary vocabulary of memory in his introduction, Seider never distinguishes between these two lists during the course of his analyses, nor does he distinguish between passages with these core vocabulary words and those without, treating identically all passages that describe a mnemonic process. In effect, Seider places all mnemonic acts on the same level, attaching the full semiotic weight of memory to each passage he considers. Not all memories are created equal, but Seider’s approach made it difficult to identify the truly marked engagements with memory in the Aeneid.

Second, Seider underutilizes modern critical work on memory and trauma. Rather than using such critical work to develop a theoretical framework, Seider engages with the scholarship on an ad hoc basis, rarely developing the concepts further in subsequent paragraphs. More often than not, I found the insertion of ideas like “postmemory” or “flashbulb memory” to be disruptive and distracting from Seider’s argument. Additionally, while Seider does cite the psychologist Frederic Bartlett’s seminal work on memory, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (Cambridge, 1932), he could have benefitted also from the work of modern cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, such as Daniel Schacter and Elizabeth Loftus.6

To these two methodological concerns, I would append one additional criticism about the volume’s stated contributions. In his introduction, Seider articulates two goals for his project: to “enrich our interpretation of memory’s function” in the Aeneid and to “increase our appreciation of the Aeneid’s engagement with larger dialogues about the role of the past in Augustan Rome” (4). Seider largely accomplishes the first goal, but his work toward the second felt perfunctory and unnecessary. For all the care that Seider lavishes on explicating the Aeneid’s use of memory, his interpretation of how this literary leitmotif contributes or responds to contemporary dialogues about memory in Augustan Rome is strikingly flat and predictable, rehashing familiar arguments about the Temple of Mars Ultor and Augustus’ related efforts to manipulate memories of the recent past.

Excepting a few omissions (noted above), the book is well-researched, and scholars and students seeking a primer on critical work in memory studies would be well-advised to consult Seider’s bibliography, especially the expansive footnotes in the introduction.7

The book is largely free of errors. An index locorum, an index verborum, and a general index are included at the end.

On a final note, I would like to express my sincere hope that the author add his bibliography as well as passages containing the core and secondary vocabularies of memory to the relevant resource pages of the “Memoria Romana” website. The website has the potential to be a valuable digital resource for future studies of memory in Roman culture, and it would be a shame for it to suffer from neglect: [fortasse] haec olim meminisse iuvabit.


1.   For a full list of current and forthcoming publications, see the project’s website:
2.   In the introduction, Seider repeatedly singles out David Quint’s 1989 study, “Repetition and Ideology in the Aeneid,” MD 24: 9-54.
3.   Core vocabulary of memory: immemor, meminisse, memor, memorabilis, monimentum, oblivisci, oblivium, recordari, and reminisci. Secondary vocabulary of memory: abolere, memorare, monere, and repetere.
4.   To Seider’s bibliography, we can also add Philip Hardie’s recent chapter, “Trojan Palimpsests: The Archaeology of Roman History in Aeneid 2,” in Joseph Farrell and Damien Nelis (eds.), Augustan Poetry and the Roman Republic (Oxford University Press, 2013): 107-23.
5.   Part of this chapter appeared as a journal article in 2012, “Competing Commemorations: Apostrophes of the Dead in the Aeneid,” AJP 133.2: 241-69.
6.   On Schacter, see especially Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past (Basic Books, 1997) and The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Mariner Books, 2002). Loftus’ scholarly output is equally prolific, with numerous studies addressing the formation of false memories.
7.   For a recent (non-academic) discussion of current research on memory and trauma, see Michael Specter, “Partial Recall,” The New Yorker 19 May 2014: 38-48.

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