Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.09.62 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.09.62

Helen Lovatt, The Epic Gaze: Vision, Gender and Narrative in Ancient Epic.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. x, 414.  ISBN 9781107016118.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Neil W. Bernstein, Ohio University (


Lovatt’s major study has created a new starting point for questions relating to vision throughout the Greco-Roman epic corpus: who sees, who is seen, and how they see. The Epic Gaze is distinguished by the comprehensiveness of its discussion from Homer to Nonnus (though Claudian is unfortunately omitted). At one time, the question of “who sees” in epic might have been addressed mainly in narratological terms, e.g. by examining the presentation of the story through a series of focalizers.1 Psychoanalytic approaches have been the more recent choice. Studies of epic vision have tended to be devoted to a single work and/or to a single controlling theory.2 This study addresses a wide variety of topics relating to vision, and its theoretical approach draws strength from its avowed eclecticism.

Lovatt uses contemporary theories of the gaze, visuality, and film theory to open up questions in the ancient texts, rather than attempt to make them conform to a critical orthodoxy. Lovatt correctly treats dehistoricized or universalizing theories (such as some of the more reductive psychoanalytic approaches) as less productive than ones which pay close attention to the particularities of gender and subject position. The penultimate chapter on the assaultive gaze gains most of its critical purchase from the ancient haptic theories of vision. The reader of epic is often placed at the center of the study, as Lovatt inquires whether a particular episode of viewing by characters models an aspect of the reader’s experience. Could elite males, the majority audience of epic, identify with the reactions of characters who occupy a different subject position, either one above theirs like the gods’, or below theirs like a female captive’s? Did the narrative pleasure of watching an epic hero die reflect any aspect of a female viewer’s experience of the Roman gladiatorial games?

Chapters 2 through 4 offer a sustained response to Feeney’s The Gods in Epic (Oxford 1991) through their discussions of interaction between gods and human beings. The gods have individuated reactions to the scenes unfolding on earth: the Iliadic Zeus sees the fulfillment of his boulê, whereas the Virgilian Juno views Aeneas’ progress to Italy with increasing rage. The gods are not distanced authorities but engaged mediators of the epic story. Their choices to view, intervene, or turn away are tightly related to narrative causation. Human beings’ ability to perceive the gods’ activities indexes their subject position; yet privileged gaze is no guarantee of equitable treatment, as evidenced by a series of deceptive epiphanies, such as those of Athene in Iliad 1 and 5, Venus in Aeneid 1, and Virtus in Thebaid 10.

When human beings think they see the gods at work, divine mediation again creates absorbing problems in storytelling and philosophy. Lovatt offers an exemplary reading of a difficult scene, Venus’ revelation of the gods’ destruction of Troy to Aeneas in Aeneid 2. Aeneas’ mother must interpret for her son much of what he appears to see, or risk making the attacking Neptune, Juno, and the rest appear “banal or ridiculous” (92). Meanwhile, the passage’s evocations of Lucretius (for whom the gods are distant and serene) introduce a series of philosophical ironies that the later epic tradition is only too happy to seize upon. Chapter 4 on the privileged gaze of the prophet completes the book’s opening movement on the gods. Female prophets tend to be mad, in contrast to political operators like Homer’s Calchas or Virgil’s Helenus—until the Flavian poets introduce the mad Mopsus (Valerius) and Melampus (Statius), each of whom complicates earlier epic’s gendered lines of division (138).

Chapter 5 on ecphrasis begins with Ariadne’s despair in Catullus 64, but continues to develop the theme of interaction with the gods. Characters who can read the text of a divine creation (such as the shields of Achilles or Aeneas) enjoy similar privileges to those who perceive the gods’ epiphanies, while the narrator who describes a divine creation resembles the prophet who elucidates the gods’ activities. Chapters 6 and 7 focus most directly on gendered gazes and bodies. Episodes of dreaming, teichoscopy, and lamentation are characteristic venues for a distinctively female gaze. Distance from the battlefield, however, does not imply lack of narrative control: as Lovatt observes “in the Ovidian narrative [of Scylla], and in Valerian teichoscopy, the battle exists only for the benefit of its female viewer, who is the point of the story" (241). Epic celebrates the heroic male body through comparisons to stars, horses, and works of art. Vernant’s reading of the “beautiful death” is here extended throughout the epic corpus. Death can be eroticized in the description of the fallen young man as a flower; spectacularized, in the anachronistic comparisons in Roman epic between dueling and gladiatorial combat; or fetishized in the focus on the corpse in fragments. Attention to subject position indicates the complexity of epic’s gladiatorial imagery. The poets call attention to the conceptual distance between the socially dead gladiator and the high-status epic duelist, as well as between the Roman audience watching for pleasure and the poems’ internal audiences watching as epic champions determine their fate.

Chapter 8 on the assaultive gaze engages ancient haptic theories of vision most fully, from folk concepts of the evil eye to “scholarly” efforts to explain vision as beams emitted from the eye. Fear of hostile or intrusive gazes may still contribute to the modern obsession with privacy. The motif of the hero’s fiery eyes that terrify or assault his observers, however, is one of the most foreign aspects of epic for us, if only because our folk theories of vision have changed so radically. Ovid's Invidia episode epitomizes the Metamorphoses’ sidewise glance at the tradition, while Medea's destruction of Talos at the end of Apollonius' epic is a characteristic subversion of Homeric values in its transfer of power from Jason to his barbarian female protector. The final chapter on the monumental gaze begins with Ovid’s Perseus turning his enemies into statues with the aid of Medusa’s head, an example of the Metamorphoses’ typical driving of epic tropes toward absurdity. Medusa’s ongoing power even in her objectified state characterizes both the ambiguous status of women in epic and the genre’s uneasy embrace of its monumentalizing function. The poets contrast their works’ ability to preserve memory with the real world’s monuments, from the Iliadic Hector’s offer of a sêma to his victim to Lucan’s pitiful grave of Magnus.

As noted above, scope is one of the major strengths of this study. Silius’ Punica receives as full a discussion as the other Flavian epics, and the late ancient poets Nonnus and Quintus of Smyrna are given attentive consideration. Lovatt’s introductions will hopefully reawaken interest in these understudied texts, ones that show both the genre’s continuities and the ability of each successor to manipulate it. (Given the flood of recent books on the Flavian poets, it may be hard to remember that they were once considered equally irrelevant to discussions of “epic”.) Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae should have been included in this comprehensive study. The relative absence of human characters in this short narrative of divine rape and passage between the worlds above and below means the gods’ gazes and interactions can be studied from a different perspective from the rest of the tradition.

The organization of the chapters is sometimes unpredictable: for example, Silius’ shield of Hannibal is discussed in four separate subsections of the ecphrasis chapter (ch. 5), making an overall reading of this passage difficult to obtain. It is very rare that readings employ a heuristic that Lovatt describes as “potentially banal” (273); but it does occur in the question of whether the gaze of Virgil’s Aeneas (211) or Silius’ Hannibal (257) are “female”. Conjugal love, terror at omens, and moments of passivity are shared by the victorious heroes of epic as well as the defeated ones; the gods too can be thwarted and disempowered (224). Subsequent sections proceed to observe that there may not be "any real difference between the feminine and the problematical masculine" (265); and that some of epic’s speakers crudely apply “feminine” “to the powerless and submissive half of a hierarchical relationship” (297) (including defeated warriors), even as others deconstruct such an opposition.

It is not a criticism to observe that that the brevity of particular discussions often leaves the reader wanting more. Lovatt’s remarks comparing the doomed hero/victim of epic and the “final girl” of the slasher film who turns on the slasher (299) are tantalizingly brief; this suggestion would profit from further investigation.3 The discussion of Statius’ involvement in the philosophical tradition of viewing and being viewed by the gods through the figure of Capaneus is also rapid (108-111); see now Chaudhuri’s full-scale reading.4 These minor criticisms aside, The Epic Gaze is strongly recommended for anyone interested in Greco-Roman epic, ancient narrative, or ancient theories of vision. ​


1.   See Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Oxford 1980 [1972]), 186. Narratological approaches to ancient epic include Don P. Fowler, “Narrate and Describe: The Problem of Ekphrasis,” JRS 81 (1991), 25-35; Irene J. F. de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers. The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad (Amsterdam 1987).
2.   Examples include J. D. Reed, Virgil's gaze: nation and poetry in the Aeneid (Princeton 2007); R. Alden Smith, The Primacy of Vision in Virgil's Aeneid (Austin 2005); Patricia B. Salzman-Mitchell, A Web of Fantasies: Gaze, Image, and Gender in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Columbus 2005); Matthew G. L. Leigh, Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement (Oxford 1997).
3.   For a recent study of viewing violence in epic and film, see Kyle Gervais, “Viewing violence in Statius’ Thebaid and the films of Quentin Tarantino,” in Helen Lovatt and Caroline Vout (eds.), Epic Visions: Visuality in Greek and Latin Epic and its Reception (Cambridge 2013), pp. 139-167.
4.   Pramit Chaudhuri, The War With God: Theomachy in Roman Imperial Poetry (Oxford 2014), 256-297. ​

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