Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.12.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.12.21

Nora Goldschmidt, Shaggy Crowns: Ennius' Annales and Virgil's Aeneid.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. x, 258.  ISBN 9780199681297.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by David Meban, Campion College; University of Regina (


Goldschmidt envisions an intense literary competition between Virgil and Ennius. She examines this struggle from a perspective that weaves together memory studies and intertextuality and produces very solid discussions of key elements of both poems—e.g. landscape, the Second Punic War, and exempla—that will reward readers of any methodological stripe. Goldschmidt offers an excellent analysis of the relationship between the Annales and the Aeneid as texts, but her interpretation mostly hinges on the relationship (or, perhaps better, the Bloomian death match) between the poets. This is a good book, but I found the emphasis on Virgil’s attempt to erase or precede his forerunner at times wrings a familiar result from an innovative approach.

The framework Goldschmidt outlines in her introduction and in chapters one and two is appealing. Epic was a key repository of memory in Rome and, as she argues, in the first century prior to the writing of the Aeneid, the Annales were recognized as an important bearer of Rome’s history, tradition, and culture. Partly as a result of their role as an educational text and source of exempla, the Annales in many ways embodied the Roman past. Consequently, when Virgil began composition of his epic on the foundations of Rome, he had to engage with the work of Ennius not only as a literary text, but also as a source of memory. And it is on these grounds that a struggle takes place. As Goldschmidt sees it, Virgil competes with Ennius not simply in terms of offering something new, but in gaining control of the past. This drive to create something that is both urbane and seemingly archaic not only accords with the Roman, and especially Augustan, drive to preserve the past, but is also, as she illustrates well in chapter two, a fundamental component of poetic self-fashioning in Latin literature. Analyses of Livius, Naevius, and Ennius reveal that they likewise staged a struggle to see who might appear more archaic and thus more authoritative.

In chapter three Goldschmidt begins her first extended analysis of this struggle over the control of cultural memory by looking at how Virgil contends with Ennius through depictions of some of the important sites and landscapes in Roman history. Goldschmidt rightly notes that Ennius displays a keen interest in the ability of physical landscapes to evoke memory through his portrayal of the Aventine in the augury episode, or the Tiber in the dream of Ilia. What is interesting about the Virgilian version of the same sites, however, is the poet’s attempt to stress the chronological priority of his account. In book seven of the Aeneid, for instance, Virgil introduces the Tiber and signals his engagement with Ennius through a number of allusions. Crucial for Goldschmidt’s interpretation is Virgil’s choice to present the Tiber, a key Roman lieu de mémoire, at the very moment of the arrival of the Trojans in Italy and thus chronologically long before the events in Ennius. Virgil thus manages to claim not only poetic priority, but also mnemonic authority. Goldschmidt’s analysis of Evander’s description of the monuments contained within his settlement on the Palatine operates in a similar way. Here, too, she notes the close Ennian intertexts in the episode, and how some of the sites Virgil includes—such as the Lupercal and the Gates of War—also feature prominently in the Annales during events that , in historical terms, will reappear ‘later’ in Ennius’ epic.

In chapter four Goldschmidt focuses on conflict and through discussion of Ennius, Naevius, and Virgil, emphasizes the role of the Punic Wars in Roman collective memory. The underlying approach here mirrors that of the previous chapter. Goldschmidt observes that especially in his depiction of Sicily in books three and five Virgil demonstrates a deep intertextual relationship with the treatment of the Punic Wars in the works of his epic predecessors. Virgil’s account of the ship race in the Bay of Drepanum, for instance, allows the poet to vie with Homer, but it also enables him to engage with and explore sites and moments that will ‘later’ become the sites of important naval battles in the narratives of the First Punic War provided by Naevius and Ennius. Thus again the poet uses intertextuality to establish poetic priority and exert control over important times and places in Roman memory. Goldschmidt provides extended discussion of the evocation of memories of the Second Punic War in the second half of the Aeneid. Through readings of Virgil’s depiction of the fighting around the Trojan camp beside the Tiber, for example, Goldschmidt reveals how the poet recalls Ennian episodes such as the Gallic sack of Rome and Hannibal’s march on Rome in 211 BC. Again, by creating these “pre-echoes” of Ennius, Virgil positions himself ahead of Ennius.

The final chapter examines Virgil’s use of exempla to refigure his relationship with his literary predecessors. Goldschmidt begins with a discussion of the “iterative function” of examples—their need to be retold and thus their embodiment of constantly changing meanings and perspectives—and how this allows Virgil to exploit their ability to change collective memory and the literary past. To highlight this function she discusses the encounter between Aeneas and his father in Book Six and demonstrates how many of the individuals Anchises points to not only participate in a sort of exemplary discourse, but also more importantly often upend or skew their Ennian predecessors. Virgil, for instance, portrays Tullius Hostilius as an exemplification of fortitude, whereas Ennius foregrounds his cruelty. Similarly, in the Annales Ancus appears as bonus Ancus, while in the Aeneid he is more an example of superbia. These are not mistakes on Virgil’s part but rather, as Goldschmidt argues, intentional efforts to misread the literary past and in the process create space for something new in Roman collective memory. Goldschmidt’s discussion of how Virgil’s portrayal of Turnus recalls and complicates Ennian examples such as Horatius Cocles and the Decii Mures is very similar. By exploiting the iterative dimension of these examples to create different perspectives on traditional material, Virgil manages to carve out a space for himself in Roman cultural memory and thus pass on to future generations models of behavior in much the same way as Augustus boasts to have done in the Res Gestae.

There is a lot to like in this book. Its combination of intertextuality with memory studies —and particularly via key elements of mnemonic discourse such as place, conflict, and patterns of behavior—produces rewarding readings of numerous episodes and frequently manages to reshape the approach to traditional questions. Goldschmidt is absolutely correct that interpretations of poetic succession in Roman literature are overly reliant on the idea of novelty. Her approach from the perspective of cultural memory reinforces to the reader that in Rome the idea of rejecting the past to prioritize newness, especially in genres that dealt with history, does not adhere to Roman belief. This reformulation addresses a significant shortcoming in current models and this methodological reminder, if you will, is one of the key contributions of her book. Goldschmidt’s discussions similarly raise issues that are not given due attention in contemporary studies. Some of her best success in this regard is in chapter four on the Punic Wars. She is right that these conflicts, especially the Second Punic War, are undeservedly neglected in studies of the Aeneid, and her persuasive discussion here supports her view and indeed points the way for future work. She also asks and answers good questions throughout the book. In the first chapter, for instance, she poses the question of how the work of an outsider such as Ennius could become an essential component of Roman collective memory. The discussion here is too brief—it is a bit outside her immediate goal—but it is an important question that would be well served from the perspective of memory studies.

A singular focus, however, often seems to underpin Goldschmidt’s approach when trying to comprehend Virgil’s project in the Aeneid. As noted above, Goldschmidt is very good at demonstrating how poets could use the memory of the past to underscore the newness of their contribution and thus achieve the goal not only of poetic novelty but also preservation of the past. But throughout the book, although perhaps to a lesser degree in the last chapter which focuses on how Virgil works to distort memory, Goldschmidt’s discussions of Virgil’s intertextual agenda foreground one overriding goal: to establish primacy and erase Ennius’ place in Roman collective memory. The language used in this regard is often quite strong. In the postscript Virgil is described as having used “devious moves” to outposition Ennius, or as having performed “the perfect parricide”, or even a “kind of Freudian axe-murder” (p. 194). Granted, Goldschmidt is here quoting other critics, but these characterizations are accurate reflections of her conclusions throughout the book. The main problem I have with such a formulation is that it suggests a too powerful and unidirectional control of cultural memory that seems to me to be at odds with how memory often functions. I do not believe, in other words, that Virgil is able to exert such total control over his predecessors, and indeed that the deep engagement with Ennius which Goldschmidt’s analysis uncovers reveals as much. This reliance on primacy to do such heavy lifting, moreover, at times leads to a neglect of some of the other ramifications of her arguments. Her discussion of how Horatius Cocles and other heroes of the Republic serve as exemplary forerunners of Turnus, for example, focuses on how they invert or distort Ennian models, but never addresses the implications of these for our reading of the second half of the Aeneid, or what it perhaps says about the reading habits of Virgil’s contemporary audience.

More generally, my main problem here is that Goldschmidt so often harnesses her discussion to focus on the relationship between poets. Her employment of memory studies to bring out the cultural dimensions of memory in Roman poetry is innovative, but the emphasis on the struggle between poets—heavily reliant on Bloom—seems at times overly traditional and not terribly distant from the conclusions of scholars of Latin literature whom she critiques. More consideration of what role contemporary Roman culture had on what is prioritized by Virgil and selected for remembrance, for example, would have been welcome. This is touched on at times, but in my opinion it is fundamental.

Intertextuality has been and always will be a key component in the study of Latin literature. After some invigorating input from scholars in the last 20 years, the topic had in more recent times started to feel a little stale again. But Goldschmidt’s book arrests this trend and points to some refreshing and worthwhile avenues for future studies. Goldschmidt has demonstrated that the combination of intertextuality with collective memory has a lot to offer not only for understanding the relationship between Ennius and Virgil, but between poets and texts in general. There is of course much work to be done and refinements to be made, but this is a very good beginning.

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