Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.07.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.07.26

Pramit Chaudhuri, The War with God: Theomachy in Roman Imperial Poetry.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xvi, 386.  ISBN 9780199993383.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Helen Lovatt, University of Nottingham (


Recent receptions of epic gods have inclined towards theomachy: Clash of the Titans (2010), for instance, becomes a battle against the Olympians; similarly, Dan Simmons' Ilium restages the Iliad with Greeks and Trojans against the gods; to say nothing of Percy Jackson and God of War.

Pramit Chaudhuri's excellent book really puts theomachy on the map. It is very much worth reading even if you are not particularly interested in Roman imperial poetry. He has plenty to say about Greek poetry, religion and Roman history, too. It is also delightful to see a book in which Statius forms both starting point and climax. This book approaches ancient literature as a context for Statius' Capaneus, and reveals thought-provoking implications about all of it. Lurking underneath is another book about the reception of the theme of theomachy, only revealed in glimpses through epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter.1 I do hope that it will be written. A complaint often made about reviews is that the reviewer criticises the book for not being the one she would have written on the subject: I have the reverse problem, that for the most part I would have been very happy to have written this book, and agree with much of it. It is probably fair to say, ironically enough, given its subject matter, that this is not an inconoclastic book. I address some small differences of approach and interpretation in my discussion of individual chapters below.

There is some confusion about what constitutes theomachy. Chaudhuri takes a fairly broad approach: scorners of the gods, disbelievers and those who oppose the gods in other ways can all be represented as fighting the gods, not just those who literally fight the gods, like Achilles and Diomedes in the Iliad. For the most part, he does not tackle the related use of the word to describe gods fighting amongst themselves.

Since the book features Roman imperial poetry, Lucretius and Virgil, as with Greek epic and tragedy, form part of the background. This is perhaps a tendentious siting of the Aeneid which surely is imperial poetry in intent and reception, if not in chronology. But the link to imperial power is not just a way of narrowing down the topic: Chaudhuri shows that theomachy is fundamentally concerned with the politics of power and with imperial theology. The fact that emperors become gods, and that gods can be represented as emperors, is crucial to the wider political reading of theomachy.

The short introduction begins from Capaneus, explains the aims and sets out the terminology of theomachy. Chapter 1 tackles theomachy in Greek epic and tragedy, beginning with the Iliad. Chaudhuri compares the divinely sanctioned clashes of Diomedes with Ares and Aphrodite with the conflicts between Patroclus and Apollo, Achilles and Scamander. The attempts of Patroclus and Achilles to go beyond mortal limits is also an attempt to resist fate and the plan of the poem. The particular example of Achilles shows how theomachy is the moment when a mortal comes closest to the divine in ambition and destructiveness, whilst also underlining the unbridgeable gulf between the divine and the mortal. Further sections explore the link between challenging the gods and challenging one's (literary) father, and between theomachy, heroism and walls as monuments.

The second half of chapter 1 takes on Greek tragedy. There will be movement between the two genres of epic and tragedy throughout the book, and Chaudhuri effectively traces the clashes and continuities between the two genres. This section focuses on Aeschylus' Septem, Sophocles' Ajax and Euripides' Bacchae. This gives valuable context to the Greek word theomachein and the extended range of its uses to signify futile struggle. Theomachy becomes both political and intellectual under the auspices of Greek tragedy, and this tendency is inherited by Roman poetry.

Lucretius is clearly very important for theomachy, offering a moral, philosophical and theological discourse which challenges traditional narratives of impiety. Chaudhuri uses this philosophical material sensitively in the rest of the volume. His argument about Virgil is less satisfying: the idea that allusions to an Epicurean mode of thinking in Virgil must be 'parody' or entirely invalidated by non-Epicurean elements elsewhere in the poem seems reductive. It is quite possible, in fact almost a feature of the poem, that it provokes contradictory responses and seems incompatible with itself. Further gods can be read in many different ways simultaneously, so that they can be psychological allegories, natural phenomena, stories in the minds of men, epic characters and concrete religious entities. The idea that Mezentius is a theomach who never quite gets a chance to fight his battle is more suggestive, perhaps of Aeneas as a substitute divine force. More time and discussion was needed to fully bring out the complexity of the Aeneid. It would be interesting, for instance, to think about Juturna and even Juno, as a sort of theomach.

Chapter 3 on Ovid is much more persuasive: it is clear that Ovid is self-consciously engaging with ideas about religion, belief, philosophy and power, and the exploration of Lycaon, Semele, Pentheus, the Pierides, Arachne, Niobe, Achelous and Hercules, and apotheosis covers many important episodes and issues. There is fertile cross-over from the thriving scholarship on cognition and religion, and ideas of empiricism, perception and testing prove a useful new slant on Ovid's complexity. The sections on Pentheus and Arachne have both already proved very useful to me in my teaching. The fact that theomachy is often presented as a morality tale nevertheless allows a critique of the moral authority presented by the gods. Apotheosis destabilises the stark division between mortal and immortal, and the case of Hercules and Achelous provides a very useful frame for thinking about later apotheoses of Caesar and Augustus, not to mention the implied apotheosis of the poet himself.

These sections lead effectively into what feels like rather a diversion to Seneca's Hercules Furens, a chapter that could stand on its own very effectively. The chapter begins with a discussion of Juno's speech in the prologue, continues by addressing the issue of apotheosis and tyranny, and the connection between madness and sublimity, and finishes with the final act in which Hercules contemplates suicide after killing his family. The chapter concludes with a move to Senecan philosophy by looking at representations of sapientia and the wise man in Seneca's letters as background to the HF.

What of Lucan who refuses to narrate the gods? Chapter 5 shows how, despite the impossibility of a conventionally theomachic scene, various characters take on both the trappings of a god and the attitudes of a theomach, in a process of simultaneous disenchantment and remystification. Caesar, for instance, deliberately violates the grove at Massilia, and yet is like a god himself at the battle of Pharsalia. In some ways this paradox is less surprising than it might be, since Achilles and Hercules both establish the fact that the desire to fight the gods can go hand in hand with aspirations towards deification. This chapter captures well the intensification that is at the heart of the poetics of imperial poetry. Perhaps more could have been done with Lucan's refusal to narrate the gods: is that in itself a theomachic act? Lucan as narrator antagonises the gods, creates gods, refuses the power of the gods: it would be nice to see the ultimate theomachy of Lucan taking place on the level of poetry itself.

Chapter 6 is rather different from the other chapters in providing a more general overview of theomachy in relation to Flavian epic. (It is a shame that Valerius Flaccus doesn't really receive sustained attention, though the resulting argument might not have been so neat.) The chapter looks at two episodes that build on important Homeric episodes: the fight with the river and the verbal contest between prophet and despiser of the gods. Scipio's battle with Trebia and Hippomedon's battle with Ismenos both intensify Achilles' battle with Scamander, making their heroes even more courageous and successful, but at the same time make bigger the abyss between mortals and immortals. The agones draw on the disputes between Hector and Polydamas, and Idas and Idmon in Apollonius, to characterise Flaminius in Silius and Capaneus in Statius.

Chaudhuri does not commit himself to a chronological order for the Flavian poets, but enacts a flexible model of mutual interaction, which allows for comparison without declared intent. This has some slightly odd effects, such as the choice to put Silius first, so that Hannibal reads as a version of Capaneus before the event. But Capaneus has always been at the heart of this book; it might have made more sense to put the whole Statius chapter first of all and then present the rest of the research as a response to the episode rather than a build-up.

Chapter 7 engages with Hannibal in Silius' Punica. The sections tackle sublimity and the crossing of the alps, treading new ground and going beyond Hercules, showing connections with Lucan's Caesar, in a way that suggests Caesar can be seen as Dido's avenger; Hannibal's failed theomachy at the walls of Rome when Juno persuades him to withdraw, demonstrating the complexity and subtlety of Silius' engagement with the Greek and Roman traditions; finally Hannibal's refusal to let go of his own fame at the battle of Zama.

Finally in chapter 8 it is the turn of Capaneus to climb the walls of Thebes, in deliberate antagonistic defiance of the gods in battle, so that Jupiter actually strikes him down with a thunderbolt. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that even though this takes place during a battle, it is not in fact a literal fight, but still a metaphorical one, a challenge, in contrast to the literal battles of Diomedes and Achilles. The difference from Mezentius, of course, is that Capaneus is not killed by an intermediary, but rather by Jupiter directly.

Chaudhuri's contribution is to take Capaneus' theology seriously: we can read him as an atheist who is proved wrong, but his views fit in well with the discourse of Roman philosophy as we can see in the agon with Amphiaraus in book 3. It is hard to take his theological contribution seriously because from the proem we have been reminded what will happen. The outcome is always the point of the episode – but this is almost entirely a function of genre. One effect of this episode is to underline the fictional nature of epic. This perhaps fits with the contrast in tones between Statius' representation of the action on the mortal plane (where Capaneus is so sublime as to almost leave the page, let alone the ground) and on the immortal plane where the gods seem obsequious, laughable and Ovidian. Finally Chaudhuri explores the fact that the gods do seem to leave the poem, having little involvement in the final book.

The final chapter explores effectively and concisely the political significance of theomachy in Roman imperial poetry. This chapter makes an excellent introduction to politics and Latin poetry. The chapter begins by looking at the use of Capaneus by Ovid in his exile poetry, along with Thrasea Paetus in Tacitus. Caligula provides a case study of an emperor who antagonised the gods, showcasing the transgressiveness of tyranny, and finishes by looking at the Silvae, Domitian and dynastic continuity. The epilogue hints at what a reception study might look like, with reference to Milton, Marlowe, Tasso and Philip Pullman.

In sum, I have very much enjoyed reading and engaging with this book, and wish I had read it before writing some of my own recent work. In general Chaudhuri is fairly light touch with referencing, but well-targeted in his reading. The primary material takes priority, and this is how it should be. The book takes the theology of Roman poetry seriously, as well as successfully putting it in the context of Roman history and culture.


1.   Epigraphs from: (Introduction) Milton, Shelley, Philip Pullman; (Chapter 1) Genesis, Aesop, Aristophanes; (Chapter 2) Queen, Shakespeare, CIL; (Chapter 3) John, Epicurus, Luigi Pulci; (Chapter 4) Flaubert, Seneca, Plato; (Chapter 5) Margaret Cavendish, Aeschylus, A.S.Byatt; (Chapter 6) Statius; (Chapter 7) Fosco Maraini, Mary Shelley, Tacitus, Vergil; (Chapter 8) Dante; Giovanni Papini; Primo Levi; (Chapter 9) Constitution of Thailand, Antonin Artaud, Ovid, Martial; (Epilogue) Philodemus, Lucian, Christopher Marlowe, Boiardo, Bathsua Makin.

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